Homers in first plate appearance

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August 22, 2010

There was a great trivia question in the comments of Baseball Primer the other day. The topic was Bob Feller’s recent treatment for anemia, and as things go in the awesome comments section, the topic ended up being players who hit home runs in their first at-bat. How did this happen? Did Bob Feller hit a homer in his first at-bat? No. At Primer, you have to follow the conversation closely.

1. Bob Feller is a Hall of Famer.

2. Bob Feller is 91 years old.

3. Someone points out Bob Feller is NOT the oldest Hall of Famer.

4. Jolly Old St. Neck Wound offers up one of the great unfair trivia questions of all time: Who is the oldest living Hall of Famer? The hint: He homered in his first at-bat.

5. Someone else asks which player who homered in his first at-bat hit the most big league homers?

6. And so on.

First, to answer the trivia questions. There are only two baseball Hall of Famers who homered in their first at-bat. One is Earl Averill, who died in 1983. The other is a great trivia question in his own right — it’s pitcher Hoyt Wilhelm who hit a home run in his first at-bat and never again homered. But Wilhelm passed away in 2002.

So what gives? The oldest baseball Hall of Famer still living is Bobby Doerr, who did not homer in his first at-bat. But you will notice the trivia question didn’t say anything about the oldest “baseball” Hall of Famer. It just said the oldest Hall of Famer.

And it just so happens that Ace Parker, Pro Football Hall of Famer, 98 years old this past May, also played baseball. And he homered in his first plate appearance for the Philadelphia Athletics in 1937. Parker played quarterback, tailback and defensive back for five years for the old Brooklyn Dodgers football team. He then went to war, came back to play for a team that (impossibly) was called the Boston Yanks (it was also known as the Brooklyn Tigers). He then played his final year with the New York Yankees football team.

It’s a great, great trivia question, if not entirely fair (which is at least part of what makes for a great, great trivia question).

And the all-time home leader among players who homered in their first at-bat? Well, this is where it gets pretty interesting, at least to me. We often hear about those players who hit home runs in their first at-bats — it feels like there’s something limitless about those players. When Jason Heyward homered in his first plate appearance this year against Carlos Zambrano, it just felt like the launching of a brilliant career.

And I hope it is … but how often do these home runs first time up foreshadow brilliant careers? How often to these players actually go on to hit lots and lots of home runs. As you have already seen, the only two Hall of Famers who hit home runs in their first at-bats — Averill and Wilhelm — were not famous for home runs. Averill did have three 30-homer seasons, but it was his all-around play, including a tremendous walk-to-strikeout (774 walks to 518 Ks) and superior defense, that made him a terrific player. And, of course, Wilhelm was a pitcher who could not hit at all.

Before I give you the answer for who has the most home runs among players who hit a home run in their first at-bat, I will give you the Top 10 players in baseball history who hit their first homer in the first plate appearance. I was going to do the Top 32 players but … there really aren’t 32 outstanding players who hit a homer in their first at-bat. Basically, once we got into the late 20s and early 30s we were going to have to choose between people like Ernie Koy, Junior Felix and Brad Fullmer. There’s not a lot of fun with that. So we will stick with 10.

1. Will Clark.

Clark did not just homer in his first at-bat … he homered in the first inning of Opening Day 1986 in the Astrodome off of Nolan Ryan. Hard to make a more impressive debut than that.

There are quite a few players in recent years who may or may not deserve to be Hall of Famers — opinions will differ — but who, I feel quite sure, deserved more consideration than they received. I’d say Lou Whitaker is usually the first guy I think of — he got just 15 votes in 2001 and then fell off the ballot though he has materially the same case as Hall of Fame contemporary Ryne Sandberg. Dan Quisenberry was only on the ballot for one year and fell off. Bobby Grich fell off after a year. Darrell Evans fell off after a year (just EIGHT votes for a third baseman with 400 home runs and a 119 OPS+). Ted Simmons, a catcher with 50.4 Wins Above Replacement fell off after a year. And so on. I’m not saying these players and others should be in the Hall of Fame — I’m not even saying I would vote for them (I would Whitaker for sure). But I probably should put together a list of 32 players who should at least have their Hall of Fame case reopened so we can talk about it.

Will Clark might be as obvious a case as Whitaker because you could make a persuasive argument that from 1987-1989 or so, Clark was the best player in the National League, perhaps the best player in the baseball. Anyone who is even in the argument for best player in baseball over a stretch of time should at least be CONSIDERED for the Hall. Clark was a slick fielding first baseman who got on base, hit with power, scored runs and so on.*

*Though I love that in 1987, he attempted 22 stolen bases … and was caught 17 times. The rest of his career, he stole bases successfully about 70% of the time … but there must have been a bunch of busted hit-and-runs in ’87.

I don’t know that Clark is a Hall of Famer … he had so many injuries that shortened his career. You may or may not remember this, but his last year — when he was 36 — he hit .319/.418/.546. His 144 OPS+ is the tied for second best ever by a player in his last season (this would be full seasons, players who qualified for the batting title). The best season by a player in his last season? Black Sox outfielder Shoeless Joe Jackson. The man Will Clark is tied with? Black Sox Happy Felsch. In other words, no player in baseball history voluntarily retired after as good a season as Clark’s last year. Injuries definitely wrecked the Thrill, and maybe that means he’s not quite a Hall of Famer. But he was only on the ballot for one year … I think he deserves much more than that.

2. Earl Averill

He hit his home run off of Earl Whitehill at League Park in Cleveland. Whitehill was a bit of celebrity at the time because of his marriage to Violet Geissinger, who was — I don’t need to tell you this — a Sun Maid Raisin model. Because you know, you can’t sell raisins without models.

I can’t quite get it clear from research, but it appears that Violet WAS NOT the model for the old Sun Maid Raisin box. She was, instead, just one of the Raisin Girls.

Treasure Ho, indeed! Apparently that painting is of Lorraine Collette, who posed for the box in 1915. She would stay the image until 1970, when Delia von Mayer who worked for a packaging company that was involved with Sun Maid, posed for the new box. You can learn all about it here if you’re interested. We offer all sorts of fascinating information here, don’t we?

3. Hoyt Wilhelm

Wilhelm’s first at-bat came in the fourth inning in front of 4,611 people at the Polo Grounds. He homered off Dick Hoover, a solo shot, and it helped him earn his first big-league win. At the time, he was already 29 years old.

Wilhelm could not possibly have imagined then that he would get 493 plate appearances over the next 21 years, his last when he was two months shy of his 50th birthday. In that last at-bat, he struck out against Larry Dierker. And, of course, over those 21 years he would never hit another home run. Wilhelm was a famously terrible hitter even for a pitcher — he hit .088 in his career. After his first two seasons (when he hit his only home, his only triple, and two of his three lifetime doubles) he slugged .075 for the last 19 seasons.

4. Bert Campaneris

Another very good player who was knocked off the Hall of Fame ballot after one year. Campaneris had quite a few quirks in his career — starting with his first game. He homered off Jim Kaat in his first at-bat in 1966. Then he singled off Kaat. Then he reached on a fielder’s choice and stole a base. And then he hit a SECOND home run off of Jim Kaat. When you consider that 19 of the 104 players who hit one home run coming into this season did not hit a second, you would have to say three hits, two homers and a stolen base is a pretty good debut.

Campaneris was the first player to play all nine positions in one game. He led the league in hits once, in triples once, in steals six times and in sacrifice hits three times including 1977 when he had 40 sacrifice hits for Texas. Forty. That’s most for any player in a season over the last 80 years. Fascinating that the man who hit two homers in his first game is best known for sacrifice bunts.*

*This is actually not that fascinating … see No. 8.

Bill James remembers this odd but awesome game in 1966 — it was an August game against Chicago — when Campaneris went four-for-four, stole two bases and scored all four runs in a 4-2 win. But here’s what made it awesome: He scored all four runs without the help of an RBI.

– The first run, he singled, was bunted to second, stole third, and scored on an error by Chicago third baseman Don Buford.

– The second run, he tripled and scored on Tommy John’s wild pitch.

– The third run, he singled to left and somehow came all the way around on Tommy John’s error … I’m not even sure how this happened.

– The fourth run, he singled, stole second, went to third on a passed ball and scored on a passed ball. Back-to-back passed balls? That’s right: Hoyt Wilhelm was throwing knuckleballs on the mound. Hoyt Wilhelm who is No. 3 on the list. See, it all fits together.

5. Gary Gaetti*

And we finally have the answer to our trivia question (though you probably looked it up already). Gaetti had a late September call-up in 1981 and hit his home run off of Charlie Hough at old Arlington Stadium. It was the first of 360 home runs, by far the most for anyone who hit a homer his first time up. (Carlos Lee is the only other player on the list to have more than 300 home runs — as a couple of Brilliant Readers point out, he will probably pass Gaetti).

You probably think of Gaetti when he was playing in Minnesota — that’s how I think of him — but he actually had his biggest home run year for Kansas City in 1995. He hit 35 home runs in just 137 games … had it not been for the late start of the season, Gaetti (and not Steve Balboni) might have the Royals home run record, which is still only 36.

*The freakishly similar Tim Wallach (Gaetti hit .255, Wallach .257; Gaetti had four Gold Gloves, Wallach three; Gaetti hit 360 homers, Wallach 260 but led the league in doubles twice) is also listed in several places as having hit a home run in his first time up … but this does not seem to be true. Well, it’s TECHNICALLY true. According to Retrosheet, Wallach did homer in his first official at-bat in 1980. But he walked in his first plate appearance three innings earlier.

6. Bill White

He was 22 years old and playing for the Giants when he hit his home run off Ben Flowers. It was a nice coincidence that he was facing the Cardinals, the team where he would build his own reputation of dignity and consistency three years later (the Cardinals traded Don Choate and Sam Jones for White).

From 1959-1965, White hit .298, averaged 20 homers, 90 or so runs, 90 or so RBIs, made the All-Star team five times and won Gold Gloves every year but one.

7. Jermaine Dye

He came in as a defensive replacement for the Braves in 1996 and hit his home run off a Cincinnati pitcher named Marcus Moore.

I was lucky enough, by coincidence mostly, to be around Ozzie Guillen the last couple of weeks, so I got to hear him go off on a few classic rants, one about Michael Jackson, one about old hitting coaches, and one about how people in Chicago gripe a whole lot about losing Jim Thome but, hmm, isn’t it interesting, nobody ever seems to complain about losing Jermaine Dye. Ozzie shrugs. “I wonder why?” he asks.

Ozzie isn’t exactly subtle — he doesn’t really wonder why — but putting aside the race question … it does seem like Jermaine Dye has been an under-appreciated player in his time. He was the last Royals player to be voted as an All-Star starter in 2000 — and it’s hard to even imagine a Royals player getting voted into the All-Star game any time soon — and he was traded the very next year (for Neifi Perez, no less). He was a viable MVP candidate for Chicago in 2006 (.315/.385/.622) — this a few months after being the World Series MVP in 2005 — and yet he did not seem to pierce the Chicago galaxy of stars. He’s one of the really great people I’ve had the chance to know in the game, and yet people hardly ever seem to talk about him. He was decent offensively in 2009 after a fine offensive 2008 season and yet he didn’t find a job this year.

8. Jay Bell

Jay Bell’s first home run was something special … it was late 1986, another September call-up. What made it special was that it came off of Bert Blyleven.* You might put two and two together on this — Blyleven in 1986 set the record for most home runs allowed in a season. He gave up 50. The record, even through the steroid era, still stands.

And Bell’s home run (he was playing for Cleveland then) was No. 47, which gave Blyleven that record (he had been tied with Hall of Famer Robin Roberts, who gave up 46 in 1956). Later in the game, Joe Carter hit No. 48. Then Brett Butler hit No. 49. And finally, in the last game of the year, Chicago’s Daryl Boston would hit No. 50.

Jay Bell is often brought up to me because in one of those columns that people NEVER seem to forget, I wrote on Opening Day in 1997 that Kansas City would fall in love with Jay Bell. The Royals had picked up Bell and Jeff King from Pittsburgh, and Bell just seemed to me the perfect, business-like kind of guy that Kansas City would appreciate. It didn’t turn out that way. Bell actually had a strong offensive year — almost certainly the best offensive season a Kansas City shortstop has had. He hit .291/.368/.461, hit 21 homers, scored 89 runs, drove in 92. No other everyday Royals shortstop to this day has posted an OPS+ of better than 101. Bell had a 115 OPS+.

But no … there wasn’t much love for Bell. It seemed much of the time that he was just going through the motions. He would not run out a ground ball one day, he would give a Roger Dorn effort on a looping fly ball the next, he just seemed utterly miserable in Kansas City. Maybe he wasn’t miserable … but he sure seemed that way (and with that Royals team, you couldn’t really blame him) When the year ended, he signed a big money deal to go to Arizona and probably did not give Kansas City a second thought after that.

Incidentally, I mentioned above that Campaneris’ 40 sacrifice hits in 1977 are the most in the last 80 years. Well, Jay Bell had 39 sacrifice bunts in 1990 for Pittsburgh, second most over that time period. And he too homered in his first plate appearance. I just think that’s kind of interesting — there are no all-time great home run hitters who hit homers in their first plate appearances, but there are two all-time great sacrifice bunters.

*I asterisked Blyleven to tell this little story … I was in Minnesota this past week and a group of us sportswriters were coming off the elevator. And waiting there was Bert Blyleven who, of course, could not let the moment go by without a wisecrack “Wow,” he said as he saw us all walk off the elevator. “Looks like a good place for a grenade.”9. Wally Moon

Ha ha. That Bert’s a jokester. Only as I was walking away, I was thinking: That elevator, with me on it along with some Minnesota writers, might be the difference between 74 and 75% this year. You might want to watch where you throw those grenades, Bert.

Is there a more 1950s name than Wally Moon? I don’t think it’s possible. Moon hit his home run off Paul Minner in the first inning of his first game in 1954 at old Busch Stadium.

Moon was a very good player — an outstanding defender, a good and aggressive base runner (he led the league in triples in 1959), a tough out (he walked more than he struck out in his career and led the league in on-base percentage in 1961).

He also got his masters degree in administrative education while still in the minor leagues.

10. Adam Wainwright

There are others who probably deserve to be higher on the list considering their entire careers — Terry Steinbach, Carlos Lee, John Montefusco to name just three — but I’ll go with Wainwright here because he’s SO good and he shows every sign of being this good for years to come.

I have written often here about how so many people overrate pitcher victories, which have become a badly outdated statistic that every year (as starters throw fewer and fewer innings) shows less and less about a pitcher’s true value. That said, I do think Adam Wainwright would have the right to feel a bit cheated by the new era. He led the league in victories last year and finished third in the Cy Young voting. And this year, he is again leading the league in victories (and ERA) and the general feeling among the stats community seems to be that Roy Halladay is having an even better year (well, you know, Halladay’s xFIP is better, and according to Fangraphs Halladay’s 6.4 WAR is markedly better than Wainwright’s 5.0).

From my experience. Wainwright is a terrific guy and quite advanced in his understanding of the game. But, let’s face it, if he leads the league in victories again and loses the Cy Young again, well, you couldn’t blame the guy if he went all Jack Morris on us.

The Wainwright home run, incidentally, came in his 17th appearance — he came in to relieve Tyler Johnson, and he homered off Noah Lowry in San Francisco. He has hit five home runs in his career now — that’s already tied for eighth among active players. The most home runs for an active pitcher? You should know: Carlos Zambrano, and it’s not even close. He has 20. Livan Hernandez is second with nine.


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