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Hit record: '96 looming as best ever


I was dreaming last night. I dreamed it was the magical, mysterious, legendary and virtually unimaginable year of 1930, and baseballs were flying all over this great land of ours. I dreamed there was an unprecedented explosion of offensive might throughout the major leagues. I dreamed that in virtually every city, the Scoreboard Union was petitioning for a time-and-a-half overtime clause. I dreamed that on just about every team, someone was putting up monster numbers. I was living baseball history, and it was all very exciting.

What's this? It's not a dream? It's just 1996 major league baseball? It's Aug. 22, 1996, and we really do have more than 60 guys hitting .300, we really do have 11 guys with 100 RBIs and we really do have 64 guys with 20 or more homers? It's Aug. 22, 1996, and the American League median (i.e. half above, half below) batting average really is .287 and the National League's is .280? There are six weeks to go in the regular season and we've already had 381 instances in which a team has scored 10 or more runs in a game?

A true baseball aficionado knows there are landmark years in the game's history. The very mention of these years resonates in the attuned baseball ear.

1920: The game changed irrevocably with the introduction of the so-called lively ball.

1945: The game's artistic nadir, when the only ones left to play were 4Fs, pimple-poppers and World War I vets.

1968: The Great Modern Ice Age, when Carl Yastrzemski was the only .300 hitter in the American League (.301), Bob Gibson had a 1.12 ERA, the American League average was .230 and there were 335 shutouts.

And then there was 1930, when, as legend has it, all a pitcher could do was throw, duck and pray.

"The barrage began in the spring, reached a deafening crescendo during the heat of summer and subsided in the cool sanctity of autumn," write Richard Cohen and David Neft in "The Sports Encyclopedia: Baseball." "Never before had such an offensive been staged, and never again would the cannon fire of baseball bats strike so often and so effectively . . . For the batters, it was a vision of heaven on earth. And for the pitchers, it was the fright and embarrassment that open season had been declared on them."

"Baseballs left National League parks as though there were launching pads at home plate," submits Donald Honig in his historical treatise, "The National League." "A batting average of .330 or .340 was almost a sign of infirmity."

In his "Historical Baseball Abstract," Bill James discusses a 1930 season in which there were "flashy batting stats reaching all the way down to the basement, where the Philadelphia Phillies had two outfielders hitting over .380 and a team earned run average of 6.71."

This was the year Hack Wilson hit 56 home runs and drove in a still-standing record of 190 runs. It was the year Phillies outfielder Lefty O'Doul hit .383 and not only finished fourth in the league but second on his team. (Chuck Klein hit .386, to accompany his 250 hits, 445 total bases, 170 RBIs and 158 runs scored.) It was the year Bill Terry set a league record of 254 hits while becoming the last National Leaguer to exceed .400 (.401). It was the year nine teams hit over .300. (The Phillies hit .315 as a team, averaged more than six runs a game and finished last, 40 games out). It was the year -- the only year -- in which four men (Terry, Klein, Babe Herman and Freddie Lindstrom) had 230 or more hits. It was the year when both the National League batting average and the median batting average of anyone playing 40 or more games was the same -- .303.

"A hitter's Bacchanalia," observes Bill James.

As a partial explanation for all this, popular mythology holds that the 1930 baseball was deliberately juiced up. "Oh, they've always admitted they did something to the baseball that year," points out Seymour Siwoff of Elias Sports Bureau. Seymour is the Great Guardian of the game's statistical integrity and, like many baseball savants, he never dreamed he would live long enough to see a recurrence of 1930.

But 1996 is every bit as astounding in its offensive tyranny as 1930. Reading the averages is like being transported back through time. You feel like you should be sitting in front of an Atwater Kent.

As of last Friday night, the American League listed 38 men with averages of .300 or better (280 plate appearances), while the National League had 28. The median average of the AL was .287; the NL's was .280. Yet that's hardly the entire story.

"The big difference between 1930 and 1996," says Siwoff, "is the home runs. There is no doubt that we will break the record for total major league home runs, and there is also no doubt that the Oakland A's will break the Yankees' 1961 record of 240 homers."

Wilson's NL record assault aside, homers weren't the issue in 1930. Only 29 men among the 16 big league clubs even reached double figures that year. Now we have 139 and counting. The current home run barrage is numbing. Twenty-two men have already smashed at least 30, while 42 more have exceeded 20.

Bad pitching? Smaller parks? Shrinking strike zone? Bigger, stronger, more analytical, batters who pump iron, study videotape and pay attention to scholarly batting coaches? Steroids? I'd say it's four yeses and a who-knows? The truth is that no one knows the definitive reason(s) why. We just see what we see, every day and every night. Offense rules.

Facts are facts. In the hallowed season of 1930, the American League slugged .421 and the National League slugged a century-high .448. Entering last night's games, the National League was slugging .410. The American League? Try .450.

So peel yourself a grape, pour yourself a goblet of wine and then enjoy the show. It's A Hitter's Bacchanalia, Part II.

Pub Date: 8/22/96

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