The Oddity of the Single-Game Home Run Record

BALTIMORE, MD - MAY 8: Josh Hamilton #10 of the Texas Rangers hits a two-run home run in the third inning during a baseball game against the Baltimore Orioles at Oriole Park at Camden Yards on May 8, 2012 in Baltimore, Maryland. Hamilton hit four home runs during the game to become the 16th player in MLB history to make the accomplishment. (Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images)

The single-game home run record is one of the strangest, coolest records in all of sports. When Josh Hamilton knocked his fourth longball against the Orioles, he tied the single-game record for homers, a notable, relevant record that deserves the as much distinction as the single-season and all-time home run records. And yet at the same time, Hamilton shares that record with 15 other players. 15! So while it's cool that he's the record-holder, he isn't exactly standing alone. It's like when I was named TIME magazine's Person of the Year in 2006; it would've been cooler had the award not also been given to everyone on the planet.

The list of people to hit four dingers in a game is a bizarre hodgepodge of Hall of Famers, solid sluggers and complete nobodies. Yes, Hamilton joins the company of Lou Gehrig, Willie Mays, Mike Schmidt and Ed Delahanty, as well as the recently-retired Shawn Green and Carlos Delgado. But also on that list are players like Mark Whiten, who hit just 94 home runs in his career, and Pat Seerey, who had a lifetime .224 average, 86 home runs and who led the American League in strikeouts four times. Bobby Lowe, who in 1894 became the first hitter to accomplish the Grand Sombrero (a term I just made up), hit only 71 home runs in his career.

Still, it's an unbelievably rare and awesome thing to see; consider that there have been 21 perfect games. It's also one of the most unbreakable single-game records out there, since the likeliness of a player even getting a chance for a fifth homer -- let alone being able to do it -- is infinitesimal. The hitter has to hope that the guys behind him are also getting on base and scoring a lot of runs, but even then, there's no earthly reason for a pitcher to throw a strike to a guy with four home runs. Hence, there's a 16-way tie for the record.

I don't think I'm overstating things when I say that this performance could go a long way to establish Hamilton as a Hall of Famer. His career has been offset by drugs and injuries to such an extent that he'll probably retire with an unimpressive home run total, comparatively speaking. And let's not forget: numbers mean everything when it comes to the Hall of Fame. But Hamilton has a chance to notch every other home run record in existence. He's already got the single-game homer mark and the record for slams in the Home Run Derby, and it's practically a foregone conclusion that he'll win the home run batting title this year (barring injury). Now the question is if he can surpass Barry Bonds' dirty 73 home runs or Roger Maris' clean 61 homers. He's on pace to do both, but the compelling aspect with Hamilton is that you can never expect him to do anything for very long before something gets in his way. He's the best slugger in the game, he's 31 years old and he's never hit more than 32 home runs in a season. There's a paradox there that can't be overlooked.

Sidetrack: The Amazing, Semi-Impressive Minor League Record

  • This is apropos of nothing, but it is kind of funny how people are rooting for Hamilton to hit 62 home runs, so a clean slugger can wrestle the de facto home run record away from Barry Bonds. Only in sports is a guy who got banned for drug and alcohol use considered clean, and I point this out as a person who loves what Hamilton is doing. His story is incredible. But there is a bit of irony with his redemption, or at least in the way he's being treated. In reality, I think most parents would much rather their son turn to steroids than drugs and alcohol, but in baseball it's the complete opposite. As long as the drugs he took didn't help him hit homers, no one seems to care. And maybe that's how it should be.
  • If you've ever wondered what the single-game record is for home runs in a minor league game is, the answer may surprise you. No, the record is not five home runs or even six, as I'm sure most people would guess -- you know, just a little bit more than the major league mark. No, believe it or not, the minor league record for homers in a game is eight. Yes, on June 15, 1902, Jay Justin "Nig" Clarke of the Corsicana Oil Citys went 8-8 in a Texas League game, with all eight of his hits counting as dingers.

    Clarke, who earned his unfortunate nickname in a time of prejudice because his skin was considered dark, was actually Canadian. A catcher, he would go on to play in 506 games over the course of a nine-year Major League career, and in that career, he produced just six home runs. That fact is one of many that makes it rather unbelievable that he had such a superhuman performance. For what it's worth, Clarke maintained that his record was legit despite speculation that the scorekeeper had inflated the numbers -- particularly the time of game, which was listed as going only two hours and ten minutes.

    Even if Clarke did go 8-8 with 8 home runs, it's hard to give the record much credence. The game was played in Ennis, Texas, in a stadium with dimensions so friendly that it likely had everything to do with the total. It also helped that the Oil Citys (why they were spelled that way, I don't know) were playing the lousy Texarkana Casketmakers, who despite their kick-ass name produced a pitcher who lasted all nine innings and gave up 51 runs, 53 hits and 21 home runs. To put that in perspective, in 2011, Clayton Kershaw pitched 233.1 innings and produced 59 runs and 15 home runs. I'll let you decide which pitcher was better.

    The right field wall seems to have been the primary offender in Clarke's eight-home run, 16-RBI day. Clarke, who batted left-handed in that game, estimated that the wall was 210 feet away from home plate, and that may have been generous. Teammate Walter Morris, who played shortstop for Corsicana, told The Sporting News in 1940, "The right field fence at Ennis wasn’t more than 40 feet back of first base. Nig just pulled eight short flies around and over that wall. I’m not taking anything away from old Nig’s batting prowess, but that’s the way he hit eight homers that day. Didn’t have to send the ball more than 140 feet at the most."

    We should also consider that the average distance of a major league fly ball is a little over 300 feet. So even at its most valid, even if the wall was the accepted 210 feet away, the homers still amount to little more than pop flies off a horrible pitcher who gave up 51 runs. On a purely statistical basis, Clarke's game is easily the greatest batting performance of all time. But with all the uncertainty involved with a minor league game in 1902, in a stadium that may as well have been a silo, it's hard to take it all that seriously. But hey, a record's a record. And here's another weird tidbit: Clarke died on June 15, 1949 -- 47 years to the day that he hit eight home runs.
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