The Most Dominant Home Run Season Ever
Old friend Bill Felber is the author of many baseball books–most recently Under Pallor, Under Shadow: The 1920 American League Pennant Race That Rattled and Rebuilt Baseball (University of Nebraska Press, 2011). He penned this for SABR’s Nineteenth Century Research Committee’s quarterly newsletter, issued last week. I reprint it here with his gracious permission. It seems to me that this little study is a perfect illustration of how sabermetric methods applied to feats of long ago may yield a superior understanding. When advanced fans think of power hitters before Babe Ruth they tend to recall Roger Connor or Dan Brouthers or Sam Thompson. When it comes to single-season home-run exploits, the name that springs to the lips is that of Ned Williamson, whose tainted total of 27 came in 1884 because of a new accounting of balls hit over short fences in left and right; these had been ground-rule doubles the year before. Yet when Ruth hit his 26th home run for the Boston Red Sox in 1919 the press called it a new home-run record, topping Buck Freeman’s 25 in 1899. Fortunately, Ruth went on to hit 29, rendering the point moot.
What player enjoyed the most dominant home run season in baseball history?
Measured by a widely accepted mathematical tool for measuring exceptionality, it wasn’t Barry Bonds, Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron or any of the other famed all-time home run leaders. Rather, the champion is an obscure turn-of-the-century figure who hit only 82 home runs in his entire 11-year career.
Buck Freeman wasn’t known as a power hitter, yet in 1899, his first full season as an outfielder with the Washington Senators, Freeman smashed 25 home runs, a total that would not be eclipsed in the majors for two decades.
Freeman’s home run accomplishment is statistically remarkable. It measures 4.25 standard deviations above the norm for the top two dozen home run hitters that season. Since the National League began play in 1876, that is the largest standard deviation performance by any player when measured against the most prolific home run hitters in the same season. And it isn’t close. The gap between Freeman and the second greatest standard deviation in history is as great as the gap between No. 2 and No. 12 on the historical list.
Standard deviation is a measure of exceptionality. In 1899, Freeman was nothing if not exceptional. His 25 home runs were more than twice as many as any other National League player; Bobby Wallace, who was second, hit 12 home runs for St. Louis. Freeman’s total did not set a single-season record because Chicago’s Ned Williamson had hit 27 in 1884. But Williamson’s total was a freakish result of an unusual one-season ground rule that counted balls hit over the fence at Lake Front Grounds—less than 200 feet distant down the lines—as home runs. Before 1884, they had been counted as ground rule doubles. In fact Williamson’s teammates Fred Pfeffer, Abner Dalrymple and Cap Anson all also surpassed 20 home runs that season. That leaves Williamson’s total of 27 a relatively modest 2.00 standard deviations above the norm for 1884 power hitters, less than half as exceptional as Freeman’s 1899 showing.
Measured by standard deviation, Babe Ruth’s best season was 1920 when he hit 54 homers. But even that total only separated him by 3.72 standard deviations from the league’s 17 top home run hitters. Although Bonds hit 73 home runs in 2001, he stood only 3.17 standard deviations above the average for the NL’s top 29 home run hitters that season.
Freeman was a 28-year-old journeyman when the Senators, destined for an 11th place finish in 1898 and extinction at the end of 1899, signed him to a big league contract. To that point, his major league experience consisted of a handful of games with Washington’s American Association team as a teenager in 1891. He spent his prime playing years with Troy, Wilkes-Barre, Haverhill, Toronto, Detroit and Albany in various minor leagues. But when Freeman slugged 20 home runs for the Toronto Canucks in 1897, and followed by hitting 20 more in 1898, the Senators took a chance on the 27-year-old.
Freeman hit only three homers over the final month of the 1898 season, but he did bat .364 in 29 games, good enough to ensure an invitation to spring camp. His first four-bagger of 1899 came April 24 off Boston’s Fred Klobendanz, but it was small consolation to the Senators, who lost 10-1 in a game halted after eight innings so the Beaneaters could catch a train out of town. The defeat, Washington’s fifth in succession, dropped their record to 1-8, good at the time for last place.
Home runs were no big deal in those days, so even when Freeman followed with a second blast off New York’s Tom Colcolough in a 9-8 victory the next day, it went unnoticed outside the agate type. Freeman had three home runs by the end of April, 13 by the end of July, and his Sept. 20 home run off Louisville’s Rube Waddell made him the first player since Sam Thompson, a decade earlier, to amass 20 in one season.
Even at that point, 20 games remained to be played and Freeman was still finding his groove. He homered two days later off Louisville’s Walt Woods, and hit his 22nd—his fifth in eight days—a day after that against Brickyard Kennedy in Brooklyn. [See page 5 for more on Kennedy]. Kennedy was a particular Freeman favorite, providing three of his gopher balls, the first in April and the third in October.
The media hardly knew what to make of Freeman’s power surge, writing little about it at the time. That’s probably an indicator of how lightly the home run was viewed as a strategic force at the time compared to the more scientific approach. It was not until the following February that the Sporting News acknowledged Freeman’s accomplishment with a feature article. When it finally did, the slugger offered a very manly explanation for his surge, which he said amounted to giving in to overpowering urges.
“Often time I have it blocked out to go for a base on balls,” Freeman told writer H.G. Merrill, sounding almost apologetic about his breach of etiquette. “Yet when in position, I suddenly see a fashion of ball coming that I think … in a flash … that I can kill. I follow that inclination and go after it.”
When the Senators were contracted out of existence in 1900, Freeman caught on with the Boston Nationals as an outfielder, then moved on in 1901 to the new Boston Americans, settling in as their first baseman and cleanup hitter. He enjoyed several good seasons in Boston, but never again approached his remarkable 1899 power surge, topping out at 13 home runs in 1903. While that was enough to lead the league, it remained only 2.27 standard deviations ahead of the average of power hitters that season. But then from a statistical standpoint, nobody has ever come close to dominating the home run stats like Freeman did in 1899.
* Measured by standard deviation above the average for the most prolific home run hitters each sea-son. The number of home run hitters used in the calculation was equal to twice the number of teams; thus, in a 12-team league approximately the top two dozen constituted the sample.