Saturday, April 12, 2008

The 19th Century Home Run King

The following essay was written by Mike Attiyeh and appears at Baseball Guru. Attiyeh is the author of Who Was Traded For Lefty Grove? and Ichiro, Satchel, and the Babe.


Before there was Hank Aaron and Babe Ruth, there was Roger Connor. Although not as acclaimed as Aaron or Ruth, Connor left an indelible mark on the game in the 19th century, in part the way Ruth left a huge print on the early part of the 20th century to be recognized for all time.

A gentle man with impressive measurements of six feet, three inches in height and 220 pounds in weight, Connor sparked the magic of the long ball to a party of baseball aficionados not accustomed to seeing it. As a matter of fact, some didn't admire the home run then, seeing it as a waste of strategy in much the manner that Ty Cobb would see it during his day.

Before Ruth took advantage of the lively ball era to begin his assault on the home run record books, Connor began accumulating home runs with great consistency and like no one else in the 19th century. Connor was the king of the home run during the 1800s, and remained so for more than two decades after he exited the major leagues.

Despite hitting just 22 homers through his first seven seasons, the left-handed Connor hit a career-high 17 in 1887 before following that total with figures of 14 in 1888, 13 in 1889 and 14 in 1890. The latter figure came during his lone year in the Players League, and ironically marked the only time he ever led the league in that department. He hit at least 11 home runs in a season seven times.

Like Aaron, Connor didn't reach spectacular single-season figures, but his production was consistent. Few realize that despite hitting an all-time record of 755 home runs, Aaron never did reach 50 homers. In fact, "Hammerin Hank" led the league in homers "just" four times and never hit beyond 47 roundtrippers in a season. Connor was more like Aaron than he was like Ruth.

Connor's 138 career home runs were not surpassed until Ruth plowed by it in 1921. Connors' power became a serious topic of conversation and awareness after he became the first player to belt a pitch out of the original Polo Grounds (located on 110th street and Fifth Avenue) on September 11, 1886. The prodigious blast came against fellow Hall of Famer "Old Hoss" Radbourn, and it was belted well over the right-field fence and onto 112th Street.

Radbourn "gaped at Connor in wonderment as the ball sped upward with the speed of a carrier pigeon and disappeared over the right field fence", wrote Bernard J. Crowley in Baseball's First Stars, a work of Society for American Baseball Research.

According to The Sporting News, "several members of the New York Stock Exchange, occupying box seats, were so smitten by the Herculean clout that they took a collection for the slugger...When the contributions were totaled, the fans were able to present a $500 gold watch to their hero."

Less than two years later, on May 9, 1888, Connor became the sixth player in history to hit three home runs in a game, doing so in an 18-4 rout at Indianapolis. It was for feats like this and players like Connor that Jim Mutrie, who managed New York of the National League from 1885-1891, began calling his team the "Giants."

Ironically, Connor's biggest claim to fame during that time was his total of 233 triples, a record at the time and a figure since surpassed by just four players - Sam Crawford, Cobb, Honus Wagner and Jake Beckley. Connor twice led the league in three-baggers, with 18 in 1882 and 20 in 1886, but had higher non-leading figures of 22 triples in 1887 and a career-high 25 in 1894. The big slugger totaled 15 triples during a season nine times.

A clutch hitter, Connor also had four campaigns of at least 103 RBI, including a league-leading figure of 130 in 1889, as well as eight seasons of at least 100 runs scored, including 133 in 1890. Connor, who retired with 2,467 hits and a .317 lifetime batting average over an 18-year career, led the National League with a .371 batting average in 1885. His career on-base percentage of .397, a figure aided by over 1,000 bases on balls, and lifetime slugging average of .486 were numbers to behold as well.

Connor was a monstrous first baseman for that era, yet with impressive speed and mobility for a big man. He stole 244 bases since they began counting them in 1886, his seventh major league season. And although it wasn't until the major league level that he began learning how to play first base, Connor retired with a more than respectable .970 fielding percentage.

He batted third behind catcher Buck Ewing and then-shortstop John Montgomery Ward, giving the Giants a Hall of Fame trio atop the batting order.

Throughout most of his career, Connor played for second-division teams. But in 1888 and 1889, he led the Giants to their first two pennants. In 1888, Connor batted .291 and finished second in homers (14), fifth in RBI (71), first in walks (73) and third in slugging percentage (.480). The following year, Connor hit .317 and led the National League in RBI (130) and slugging (.528), finished second in triples (17) and walks (93), and ended fourth in homers (13). In leading his Giants to a second straight "World Series" victory over the Brooklyn Bridgegrooms - the winner of the American Association - Connor drove in 12 runs, hit .343 and stole eight bases.

Connor was durable as well, playing in 1,083 of a possible 1,100 games from 1880-1889.

But it wasn't always easy for Connor, who was almost denied an opportunity to show off his baseball skills. Born among eight children to Irish immigrants in Waterbury, Connecticut, Connor basically played the game he loved in secret during his youth.

"At eight years old", Crowley wrote, "Roger began to sneak off his family chores to play baseball. His parents, who believed in only hard work, were appalled."

His parents didn't believe baseball was a respectable trade, and would not allow Connor to engage in the sport. It was typical of how many parents felt about baseball in that day and age. Baseball was not as respected as it is today; in fact it was looked down upon and said to have been for kids who couldn't succeed at anything else. It was deemed a last resort.

When Connor was 14, he left home for New York city to play baseball. When he returned to Waterbury, Connor ascertained his father had passed away. To help support the family, Connor took a job in a local factory, although he didn't quite put his baseball dreams on hold, instead honing his skills in neighborhood games. Almost seven years later, his mother (who had opposed baseball from the start) gave Connor permission to play with the New Bedford team in Massachusetts.

After participating in just 11 games for New Bedford in 1878, Connor found himself in Holyoke the following year, when he belted pitchers at a .335 clip to earn praise and a promotion to Troy City of the National League for the 1880 season.

Connor didn't waste any time showing off his bat, hitting .332 as a rookie. While being fitted for a major league uniform at a local shirt factory, the quiet Connor took a liking to the blond, named Angeline, who measured him. A year later, he returned to ask her for marriage, a proposal she accepted.

Connor, who was brought up as a third baseman, switched to first base in 1881 following a dislocated shoulder that affected his throwing. With less defensive responsibilities to worry about, Connor adjusted quicker yet to major league pitching.

The rest is, literally, history, such as the kind he set on September 9, 1881 against Worcester. As Troy trailed 7-4 with two out and the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth, Connor stepped to the plate against 25-game winner John Lee Richmond (author of major league history's first perfect game a year earlier). Undaunted, Connor belted the first grand slam in the annals of the major leagues, and actually accomplished something more rare than anyone realized. More than a century later, home run researcher David Vincent discovered that Connor's game-ending grand slam to overcome a three-run deficit that day has been matched just 20 times. That heroic performance by Connor is today called an "ultimate grand slam", defined as a walk-off grand slam hit by a player whose team trailed by three runs prior to that last pitch.

During his lone year in the Players League (he had to jump leagues since he was part of a newly formed players union), Connor achieved a cycle on July 21 for New York. During the 1894 season, the Giants traded Connor to the St. Louis Browns, for whom he went on perhaps the hottest prolonged stretch of his career, a tear that included 79 RBI and a .582 slugging average over 99 games, during which he also had an eight-hit doubleheader.

Connor saved his very best, however, for when the Giants opposed him. On June 1, 1895 against his old teammates, the Browns' unquestioned star enjoyed his grandest game by going 6-for-6 with a triple, two doubles and three singles, helping St. Louis rout New York by a score of 23-2. Two days later, Connor belted his 112th career home run, passing Harry Stovey to become the all-time home run leader, although no one knew it at the time. As an apparent favor to the veteran Connor, the Browns called up his light-hitting younger brother, Joe, in September. (A sub-par catcher, Joe played in 92 career games for five teams and four major league seasons that spanned 10 years.)

The following year, "Dear Old Roger", as he was affectionately called, batted .284 and led the lowly Browns with 21 doubles, 11 home runs, 72 RBI, a .356 on-base percentage and a .433 slugging average. Attempting to inspire the struggling Browns, owner Chris Von der Ahe chose Connor to take over managerial duties. But Connor's dugout skills weren't nearly as impressive as his on-field skills, directing the 11th-place Browns (in a 12-team league) to just eight wins in 46 games in his only major league managerial stint.

Connor left the majors after playing 22 games in 1897, and returned home to purchase the Waterbury club of the Connecticut League. Besides being the owner, Roger also worked as the field manager and the team's first baseman. On the field, he wasn't just taking up space, rather hitting .319 in 1898 and leading the circuit with a .392 mark the following year at the age of 42. Meanwhile, his wife worked in the box office and his adopted daughter, Cecilia, collected tickets.

Eight years into the couple's retirement, Angeline passed away in 1928. On January 4, 1931, Connor died of throat cancer, the same ailment that later ended Ruth's life.

Connor passed away never knowing he was, for a period of 26 years, the major league's career home run king. And it wasn't until 1976, two years after Aaron broke Ruth's career mark and shed light on the home run's history, that Connor was posthumously elected into the Hall of Fame by the Veterans Committee.

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