Imagine you have command of all time and space. And imagine you have been assigned to create the greatest Home Run Derby of all time… where do you hold it and who do you have in it?
I have ideas. Go below the jump to see them.
First, some ground rules:
- Only eight hitters allowed. No more, no less.
- They can be from any league, country or time period from 1871 until now.
- Selections are not simply based on number of home runs, but also entertainment value.
- Whether the player used steroids doesn’t matter here. This isn’t about justice or truth, it’s about dingers.
- Assume the format is the same as the Derby is now (head-to-heads, timed, etc.)
Now, with the rules set, it’s time to make the first decision of where this Home Run Derby would take place. Ideally, it would be in a timeless venue with instantly recognizable features and interesting landmarks for the hard-hit balls to fly over or land in. In other words, it’d have to be one of the following:
- Wrigley Field, basically anytime since it took on roughly its current form in the 1930s but let’s just say 2006 to pick a year (this would have been slightly before renovations that added some additional scoreboards and seat). The ivy! The history! The streets and rooftop seats! The giant center-field scoreboard that has never been hit by a batted ball.
- Fenway Park. The Green Monster, obviously, but also Pesky’s Pole. The question is what iteration? Fenway as we know it roughly came into form in the 1940s when they added bullpens to right-center as a way to help juice Ted Williams‘ numbers (hence their name of “Williamsville”), so ultimately it comes down to your preference of whether you want the seats on top of the monster or not.
- Tiger Stadium. In essence, the question would be whether anyone could hit it to deep center or plop a ball on top of the outfield roof in right like Reggie Jackson in 1971.
- Pre-remodel original Yankee Stadiium. Like Tiger Stadium, the big question is whether anyone would be able to hit one out of deep center (which pre-renovation had been shortened to 461 feet after being as far back as 490 feet in the 1920s), over the then-in-play Monument Park.
- The Polo Grounds. 483 feet to center but only 258 down the right-field line and 273 down the left-field line.
- Camden Yards. Because of the warehouse.
- Oracle/AT&T/PNC/Pac Bell Park. Because of McCovey Cove.
Ultimately, I believe the ideal place for this all-time Home Run Derby would be Wrigley, especially as it, unlike some of the other possibilities, has more even dimensions that wouldn’t advantage lefties or righties. Now, given that the majority of the guys picked here will be left-handed, it could be argued that a place like Camden Yards or Oracle Park would be a better pick since they’d it’d be provide good aesthetic pull-hitter opportunities (try to hit the warehouse, hit it into the cove, etc.), but hey it’s not like Wrigley doesn’t have a street and neighborhood over the right field fence as well.
So now, what sluggers would take part in this Home Run Derby of the ages? You could just say “well, just take the eight top HR leaders all-time: Bonds, Aaron, Ruth, A-Rod, Pujols, Mays, Griffey, and Thome.” That is a perfectly fine suggestion, but it’s both lazy and exclusionary. Some of the best home run hitters in history never stepped on an AL or NL field, whether due to racism, bad luck, the twists of history, or international reasoning. And even some of those who did play who would be awesome in an all-time Home Run Derby aren’t in that top eight, either.
So who would be in it?
- Babe Ruth. Shocking, I know. Although he’s now third all-time, the sheer gap between he and his contemporaries as well as the fact that he played in some stadiums that would not be considered hitter-friendly these days (yes, most of his home ballparks had short right-field porches, but they were often cavernous elsewhere in the stadium. Other stadiums of the era where he was playing road games weren’t exactly bandboxes either: the Tiger Stadium of the era lacked most of the outfield seating it would later have and was 371 down the right-field line, Comiskey’s closest walls during the era were 365 feet away, and Fenway for a brief time changed the orientation of the field in the late 20s, making the distance down the right-field line longer than usual). To be more specific, this is Ruth circa 1921, when he hit 59 HRs. You may be wondering why it isn’t the 1927 Ruth, who hit 60. The answer lies in the fact that the 1921 year was so out-of-the-ordinary for the time that it breaks the scale: It’s more than the next two best HR hitters of 1921 (two with 24) combined. It was more than the team total of nine of the 15 non-Yankees teams in the AL and NL that year. For a current ballplayer to be so far ahead of the competition in home runs in the modern age they’d have to be hitting around 100 home runs. Seriously.
- Josh Gibson. Contrary to popular belief, Gibson did not hit 900-odd home runs officially. The actual total after much research shows the righty hit only 165 in official competition. This may seem small, but you must remember that the Negro Leagues actually didn’t play that many official league games, instead primarily playing exhibitions, barnstorming tours, all-star games, and the like. However, even the 165 we do officially know about are impressive. They suggest that he hit a home run about once every 13 at-bats plus change. To give ideas of comparison, Ruth hit a home run once about every 11.7 at-bats, while Alex Rodriguez (the all-time MLB record holder for HR as a righty among people not named Henry Aaron) hit a HR once about every 15.2 at-bats. So, in other words, Josh Gibson’s frequency of hitting a home run is in elite company, even if the raw numbers are nowhere near. To pick a specific year for Gibson to represent, let’s go with 1937, when he hit 20 HRs and had an OPS of 1.474 (to give you an idea, the AL/NL record for OPS in a season is 1.422 by Bonds in 2004… and Gibson wasn’t intentionally walked nearly as much).
- Speaking of which: Barry Bonds, 2001. As I said, steroids don’t matter here, only dingers. And the 2001 series of Barry Bonds is a wonder of modern hitting, modern medicine, and modern dingerdom.
- Sadaharu Oh. By sheer numerical number, Oh is the all-time leader in professional home runs among ballplayers in games that “count” (i.e. not exhibitions or barnstorming) with 868. Now, how many the lefty would have gotten in the big leagues is a matter of debate, both because of differences in skill level between the USA and Japan (which was greater back during Oh’s day than it is now), size of stadiums, etc. However, the fact remains that if you hit 868 HRs you must be doing something right. What’s more, some people have done the math to get an idea of how Oh would have done in the American MLB. The least impressive comparison I’ve seen (which does not appear to be online anywhere anymore) had him hitting 504 HRs, the same as Mel Ott (who, interestingly enough, is one of the few American hitters I can think of who used the Japanese-style leg-lift while hitting). Another projection estimated him as hitting about 548 HRs, the same as Mike Schmidt. Regardless, the fact is that no matter what country he was in Oh would have been an elite hitter more than worthy of a place in this Home Run Derby. The specific Oh in the derby is that of 1964, where he hit 55 HRs, which stood as the single-season record in Japan until 2013.
- Hank Aaron. It is sometimes said that the Hammer was more of a “just get the ball over the fence”-type hitter, not one who had gigantic blasts as others had that would bring interest during the HR derby. That may well have been true- the fact is it is hard to tell since he played in an era before everything was filmed and he didn’t have as much anecdotal evidence as exists for players like Ruth. However, it is known that only three people are known to have hit a HR to dead-center in the Polo Grounds…. and one of them was Aaron. In addition, Aaron had the best record in the 1960 Home Run Derby TV series. So, yeah, he could boom it. The particular Aaron in this HR Derby is him circa 1971. By then 37, Aaron had had to change his game to be more power-centric due to a decrease in speed, and he went on to hit a career-high 47 HRs despite only being in 139 games (as opposed to, say, 1962, when he hit 45 in 156 games).
- Ken Griffey Jr. One of the great “what-ifs” of baseball history is the question of how good Griffey would have been if he wasn’t struck with injuries. What isn’t up for debate is how good Griffey was in Home Run Derbies. He took part in eight of them and won three. The All-Star Game, it is said, was made for Willie Mays. But the Home Run Derby was made for Ken Griffey Jr. This would be Griffey circa 1994, when he was on pace to challenge Maris when the strike cut it short.
- Mickey Mantle. Like Ruth, the length of his home runs will forever be a part of baseball legend. Like Griffey, he may have been even greater if only he had been able to stay healthier. This is 1956 Mantle, young and before the worst of his injuries.
- And finally, the last pick is the lone active player: Vladimir Guerrero Jr. While he didn’t win the Home Run Derby in 2019 (even though he’s the one everyone will remember) and he’s sitting out this year to get some rest, there is no doubt in my mind that if he wanted to he could become a fixture of the contest much like Griffey, David Ortiz, or Yoenis Cespedes had been. His swing is that of pure power and aggression, much like his father’s, but it also possesses a patience and smoothness. If I’m putting on a HR Derby and looking to have a great show, Vlad needs to be there.
Honorable mentions: Willie Mays, Alex Rodriguez, Joe Bauman (who hit 72 HRs in a minor league season), Hector Espino (the all-time HR leader in Mexico), Yoenis Cespedes, David Ortiz, Mark McGwire, Ted Williams, Katsuya Nomura (behind only Oh in Japanese HRs), Mule Suttles, Ichiro Suzuki (said to have been a legend during batting practice), Turkey Stearnes, Tony Conigliaro, Jimmie Foxx, Sammy Sosa, Mike Hessman (most HRs in affiliated minors history), Bo Jackson (Buck O’Neil said that he possessed power that he’d only seen in Ruth and Gibson), Josh Hamilton, Reggie Jackson, Seung Yuop Lee (646 career HRs between Korea and Japan), and Harmon Killebrew.
So, here are the brackets (seeding by, uhm…. gut instinct. It’s roughly in the order I revealed them only with Oh moving to 6 and Aaron and Griffey moving down):
Babe Ruth (1) vs. Vlad Guerrero Jr. (8)
Hank Aaron (4) vs. Ken Griffey Jr. (5)
Josh Gibson (2) vs. Mickey Mantle (7)
Barry Bonds (3) vs. Sadaharu Oh (6)
So who do you got winning that? We’ll never know, of course, but boy would it be neat to see.