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Friday, April 26
Classic Neyer: Willie Mays' homers

By Rob Neyer

The column below was originally posted on April 25, 2001.

You've heard of grade inflation? Well, it seems that homer inflation is all the rage with my colleagues these days. Just a couple of weeks ago, one ill-informed baseball writer suggested that if Willie Stargell hadn't spent roughly half his career in Forbes Field, he would have hit 600 home runs rather than 475. The actual figure is much closer to 500.

And Monday in the New York Times, on the op-ed page of all places, an editorialist wrote an ode to Willie Mays, and he included the following:

[Author Roger] Kahn believes that if the Giants had stayed in New York, Mays would have eclipsed Babe Ruth's home-run records, eventually hitting more than 60 in one season and more than the Babe's career 714.

"I wrote that if Willie had stayed in the Polo Grounds, he would have hit 800 home runs," said Kahn.

But the Giants moved to San Francisco after the 1957 season and Mays, as Kahn put it, "ended up in the worst ballpark in the major leagues."

Despite the frigid temperatures and the notoriously mean winds that plagued Candlestick Park, Mays continued to flourish. His career statistics are incredible, and would have been even greater if his home park for most of his career had been reasonably normal.

Thirty years ago, Roger Kahn was a great writer, and even today he's a pretty good one. But numbers have never been one of his strong suits.

First of all, it's fairly easy to estimate how many home runs Willie Mays would have hit if he'd spent his career in a "reasonably normal" home park (assuming, of course, that he didn't). We simply double his road home runs, and add a few -- say, two percent? -- to account for the natural home-field advantage.

Well, Willie Mays hit 325 road home runs in his career. If we double 325, and multiply that product by two percent, we arrive at 663 ... which is exactly three home runs more than Mays actually hit.


It's actually kind of interesting. People have these nostalgic memories of Willie Mays playing in the Polo Grounds, probably because his most famous moment -- "The Catch" in Game 1 of the 1954 World Series -- came there. But Mays spent a relatively small percentage of his career in the Polo Grounds. He came up in late May of 1951. He spent most of 1952 and all of 1953 in the U.S. Army. The Giants moved to San Francisco in 1958. But they didn't move into Candlestick Park in 1958, because it wasn't yet built. The San Francisco Giants spent their first two years in Seals Stadium, which was a pretty good pitcher's park. In his two years there, Mays hit 32 home runs at home, and 31 on the road.

Mays' home-run splits, then, look like this through 1959:

Home HR   Road HR 
  126       124 

So it looks like Willie's first two home ballparks were eminently fair, at least in terms of his power numbers.

The Giants moved to Candlestick in 1960, and Mays moved right along with them. So how'd he do? Here are Willie's home/road homer splits from 1960 through 1971 (he was traded to the Mets early in the '72 season):

Home HR   Road HR 
  202       194 

Yes, in a dozen seasons Mays actually homered more often at Candlestick than he did in road games.

Was Mays an oddity? Did he somehow figure out a way to take advantage of Candlestick? Well, during all of Mays' years there, he teamed with the amazing Willie McCovey. Here are McCovey's home/road splits from 1960 through '71:

Home HR   Road HR 
  183       175 

Hmmmm. We've checked two prodigious power hitters, and both did quite well in Candlestick. And the rest of the Giants? Here are the totals for Mays' and McCovey's teammates over those 12 seasons:

Home HR   Road HR 
  583       572 

Amazing. Mays hit four percent more homers at Candlestick than he did in road games. McCovey hit five percent more homers at Candlestick. Their teammates hit two percent more homers at Candlestick.

In his latest autobiography, Orlando Cepeda said, "On September 17, 1964, I turned twenty-seven years old. I had hit .300 or better six of my seven major league seasons. I already had 222 home runs, an average of more than 30 per year. There probably would have been more had it not been for the wind and chill of Candlestick Park. Bob Stevens, who covered the Giants for many years, pointed this fact out during batting practice recently. Mays, McCovey, and I, all of us, could have added about sixty more career home runs playing in another ballpark."

This is interesting for a couple of reasons. One, it's a bit strange of Cepeda to compare himself to Mays and McCovey. Because while the latter two spent a dozen seasons together at Candlestick, Cepeda was only there for about five seasons. And in those five seasons? Eighty-five home runs at home, 86 home runs on the road. Just like Mays and McCovey.

To tell you the truth, I didn't know exactly what I'd find when I started up with all these computations. I knew that Mays had actually done pretty well in Candlestick, but I had no idea that Candlestick was, at worst, essentially neutral for power hitters. And this got me to me to wondering, how did this start? Why did this notion, so obviously false, become Common Wisdom among sportswriters of a certain vintage?

Willie Mays was blessed with, not one, but two outstanding biographers, in Arnold Hano and Charles Einstein. In "Willie Mays" (Grosset & Dunlap, 1966), Hano wrote, "The source of Mays' trouble [in 1960] is evident. He hit .299 in San Francisco and a rousing .338 on the road. He had 12 home runs at home away ... The wind, she blew - from left and out to right - and Mays had to shift his feet to hit every ball down the right-field line. On the road, he had to rearrange himself again. Wally Moon said that balls hit to left field acted as if they were on rubber bands. They just stopped in mid-air and bounced back to the infield. Don Blasingame said the wind made popfly hitters out of strong right-handed batters."

In Charles Einstein's as-told-to book ("Willie Mays: My Life In and Out of Baseball," 1966), he and Mays wrote,

Candlestick was bigger [than Seals Stadium]. Hell, Candlestick was too big. First day I ever came to bat there, in hitting practice the day before the '60 season opened, it was windy and raw, and whoever was pitching threw me a fat slider and I swung and looked and I was holding just the thin handle of the bat in my hand. The ball had sawed my bat in two!

They made changes the following year, bringing the fences in and putting up a green backdrop behind center field so the hitters could see the ball better, which was important because the Giants play more day games than any other team except the Cubs, who have no lights in their park.

Now we're getting somewhere. I consulted Philip Lowry's book, "Green Cathedrals," which is the single best source for data on ballparks. In 1960, Candlestick's dimensions were:

 LF  LCF   CF  RCF   RF 
330  397  420  397  335 

A tough ballpark for power hitters, no question. Nearly 400 feet to the power alleys in left- and right-center fields, which meant a lot of long, long fly-ball outs.

 LF  LCF   CF  RCF   RF 
330  365  410  375  335 

Still 330 and 335 down the lines, but 10 feet closer to straightaway center field, 22 feet closer in right-center, and 32 feet closer in left-center. Today, there is only one National League ballpark with such a cozy left-field fence: Enron Field, a.k.a. Home Run Field.

Is there any reason to think that Mays didn't benefit from the new hitting background, and the new dimensions? Is there any reason to think that Willie McCovey and Orlando Cepeda didn't benefit from the new dimensions. Pull the fences in 20 or 30 feet, and what power hitter wouldn't benefit?

At home in 1960, the Giants hit 46 homers ... fewest in the National League. On the road in 1960, the Giants hit 84 home runs ... most in the National League.

On the road in 1961, the Giants hit 86 home runs, virtually the same as they'd done in 1960. But at home in 1961, the Giants hit 97 home runs, virtually twice as many as they'd hit the year before.

The evidence for Candlestick as a tough home-run park consists of exactly one season. The evidence for Candlestick as a decent home-run park consists of many, many seasons. Yet somehow, it's the image of Candlestick as a tough home-run park that's endured. Why?

I can think of a few reasons.

1. Old ballplayers don't die, they just get better and better
Old ballplayers naturally tend to exaggerate their accomplishments, and overestimate the barriers they faced. Jose Canseco really thinks that Oakland's ballpark cost him 15 or 20 home runs per season when he played there, and Orlando Cepeda really thinks that Candlestick cost him 10 homers per season. They tell their stories enough times, and people believe them. I don't have Mays' last autobiography, published in 1988, but I wouldn't at all be surprised to find that Mays now thinks that Candlestick cost him a shot at Ruth's record.

2. The power of first impressions
Not long ago, I read about a psychological study on the power of first impressions. It seems that we tend to form strong impressions within a few seconds of meeting somebody, and those impressions often endure despite mounting evidence to the contrary. The same thing, I think, happened with Candlestick. It was a tough park for power hitters in 1960. And we humans have such impressionable, rigid minds that many of those who were there in 1960 just couldn't adjust to the "new" Candlestick, the Candlestick with dimensions tailor-made for a right-handed slugger like Willie Mays.

"These players today just don't measure up."
The 1960s have been romanticized by the journalists who grew up then, and many of them loved Willie Mays (and secondarily, Cepeda and McCovey). It offends them to see so many modern players hitting oodles of home runs. And so like a team of lawyers presenting a case, these journalists marshal every bit of evidence to support their old heroes, even if the "evidence" isn't really evidence at all. I do think that Roger Kahn really believes that Mays would have broken Ruth's record if he hadn't been in Candlestick. But he's wrong, and shouldn't be allowed to spout such nonsense without getting called on it.

In the New York Times editorial mentioned at the top of this column, writer Bob Herbert leads off with, "He was probably the best baseball player ever," so we should know what to expect after that, right? Herbert closes with, "The Say Hey Kid is nearly 70. Those who saw him play still speak of him with awe. I think that he was the greatest ever, and I worry that before long the grandeur that he brought to the game will be all but completely forgotten."

Bob Herbert is 55 years old, and he's afraid that one of the heroes of his youth -- and perhaps by extension, Herbert himself -- will be forgotten. Perfectly natural. Writers are human, too. But that doesn't mean we have to believe everything that we're told about Bob Herbert's heroes.

Willie Mays just might have been the greatest ever. I still favor Babe Ruth, but you can certainly make a case for Mays. To suggest that Mays would have hit 800 home runs, though, if only he'd played in a "fair" ballpark, serves only to damage the credibility of Mays' case, because the informed baseball fan in the 21st century is going to know better.

Interestingly enough, the same sorts of silly things are now said about Barry Bonds ... but in reverse. Bonds' detractors love to say that Pac Bell Park is a hitter's park perfectly suited to Bonds, but in fact that's not true at all. Pac Bell is a pitcher's park, tough even on left-handed hitters, and Bonds' success there is simply further testament to his greatness.

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