The Home Run Summer of ’54


There was a little story I kept bumping into from in my journey back to the summer of 1954. It was about a man named Neil Haney. It seems that one day back in ’53, while playing on a municipal golf course in Marysville, Michigan, he hit his tee shot on the par-3 seventh hole within a half-inch of the cup. After groaning about his near miss, he watched his partner hit a shot on precisely the same line. “That looks really good!” Haney yelled or something of the sort. The partner’s ball landed on the green, rolled toward the cup, hit Neal Haney’s ball and knocked it into the cup, giving him a hole-in-one — the first hole-in-one ever scored on that hole.

This was obviously quite fun but not earth shattering. Stuff like that happens somewhere every day, right? Thing is, the next day Neil Haney was playing the golf course with a different friend. As he told the story, the friend said something to the effect of, “Yeah, whatever, let’s see you make a real hole-in-one.”

At which point Neil Haney hit his shot, and it flew into the hole for his second straight hole in one.

Even that — quirky but not unthinkable. But the reason the story was told in 1954 is that about a year later, Neil Haney was playing the same course, the same hole, thinking about his fortune there — and he made his third hole-in-one. The golf superintendent said those were the only three holes in one ever made on that hole.

The Haney story is the not the one I am telling — it actually has nothing whatsoever to do with the story I am telling. But it does have something to do with that fascinating year of 1954. In so many different ways, America was a much smaller place then. There were 16 Major League Baseball teams in 1954, but one thing that is easy to forget is that they represented only 12 different cities. There were three teams in New York, two in Chicago, two in Philadelphia. Only in the previous two years had teams moved to Baltimore and Milwaukee.

So here was a big and rapidly expanding country, most of it with no major league baseball within hundreds and hundreds of miles. Baseball was still the biggest thing going, and so the exploits of the St. Louis Cardinals and Cleveland Indians and Philadelphia Athletics were big news EVERYWHERE. And so were countless, funny little Haney stories — they filled newspapers everyday. It didn’t matter where they happened. It didn’t matter who they were. The sports sections — and it’s astonishing how similar sports sections were in those days — filled with baseball stories, photographs, cartoons, box scores, a little boxing news, golf items (often a golf lesson), track, some college sports, some local stuff and, always, at least one or two Haney stories for people to chew on and talk about during the day.

It wasn’t just the big leagues. When the Spartanburg Peaches threatened to pull out of the Tri-State League rather than play a Knoxville team with a dark-skinned Cuban player named Aldo Salvent … that was news everywhere.

In the summer of 1954, sixty years ago, the biggest Neil Haney story of them all involved a hulking and modest filling station operator named Joe Bauman.

* * *

In that summer of Willie Mays and the Cleveland Indians, Rocky Marciano and a young amateur golfer named Arnold Palmer, they called him Boomin’ Bauman and Sluggin’ Joe Bauman, called him Big Joe and Huge Joe and, for fun, Little Joe, called him Jarring Joe and Joltin’ Joe and Jumbo Joe, the man mountain and the mammoth man and the southpaw swatter and the economy-sized first sacker. But the nickname that seemed to follow him most closely around the country was “Ponderous Joe Bauman.”

Ponderous Joe? That just doesn’t seem very complimentary.

Even before the summer of 1954, Joe Bauman was something of a legend in a wild baseball league in the Pecos River Valley of New Mexico and Texas called the Longhorn League — though papers rarely used the “League” part. It was just the Longhorn — who’s leading the Longhorn in hitting? Who’s playing in the Longhorn tonight — and the Longhorn was where the Sweetwater Spudders and Carlsbad Potashers and Artesia Numexers and Odessa Oilers played.

Scoring runs was the game in the Longhorn. Baseballs sailed in the hot and light air, and scores were often 22-18 or 16-11, and fans pulled out dollar bills and stuffed them through the chicken wire fencing toward the powerful men who hit the longest and most thrilling home runs.

This was how Joe Bauman made his living. He hit long home runs. In the morning he went to work at the Texaco Station he and teammate owned on Route 66. In the afternoon, hit home runs and collected his monthly wages and the money that poked through the fences. He saw it as a good but unromantic life.

Oh, maybe there were some dreams at the beginning. Joe’s father, Joe Sr., had wanted him to be a baseball player. That was the big dream in Oklahoma. Joe Bauman was born only a few miles away from Commerce, where another father raised his son Mickey to become a ballplayer. Joe Bauman grew up with Dale Mitchell, who would hit .312 and play in two World Series for Cleveland, and Cot Deal who would pitch briefly for Boston and St. Louis. Baseball was in the Oklahoma marrow and Joe Bauman at a young age grew to the 6-foot-4, 250-pound man he would become. He was strong and serious and, yes, perhaps a bit ponderous. But he prepared to become a professional first baseman by learning how to hit and throw left-handed from his father.

Joe signed a baseball contract at 19, and in 1941 went to play ball in Little Rock and then Newport, Arkansas. In Newport, he was teammates and roommates with future Hall of Famer George Kell. He was making his way when a couple of things happened. First, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and Bauman would spend much of the next four years working as a physical education instruction and baseball player for the Navy. It was there, according to this fine mini biography by Bob Rives, that he encountered All-Star Rip Radcliff who showed him some of the finer points of hitting.

Second, though, his ambitions shifted. My friend John Schulian wrote a couple of stories about Bauman, and his impression was of a man who was as happy pumping gas and changing tires as he was playing baseball. It was all a living; a way to make ends meet for him and his high-school sweetheart Dorothy, who he married during the war. He seemed to understand that his ability to crush a baseball was a marketable skill, not unlike brick laying or fixing cars.

After the war ended, in 1946, he did go to Boston Braves camp and when they sent him to Amarillo he hit .301 and smashed 48 homers in 136 games. He figured that would impress them. The next year, though, he was sent back to Amarillo. He began to understand this chasing of dreams was not the life for him. After hitting .350 with 38 more home runs in Amarillo, he spent one more year in his hunt for the big leagues. He went to Hartford in the Eastern League, a Class A team, and he was utterly miserable. He got only 277 at-bats; he hit .275 with 10 home runs, and was benched.

That inspired him to give up the Major League goal for good. The Braves tried to get him to come back for a pittance in 1949, and he would recall telling them, “I can make more money selling 27-inch shoelaces in Oklahoma City.” That was when he went back to Oklahoma to play semi-pro baseball and buy a gas station with a friend. Joe Bauman worked two jobs. He filled gas tanks by day. He hit some of America’s longest home runs for semi-pro teams by night. And word got around.

He would always say a doctor called him in 1952. Bauman would not even remember the guy’s name, but he said this doctor then showed up at his filling station and offered him a contract to play for a team called the Artesia Drillers in New Mexico Bauman had never heard of them or Artesia or, really, New Mexico. But the doctor offered steady money — $600 a month — and he said people in the stands would give him some more. Bauman agreed on the condition that for $250 he could buy back his contract. The good doctor agreed.

It’s fair to say that they never saw anything quite like Joe Bauman in New Mexico. Artesia was named as such because in 1903 an artesian well was discovered there. That simple. People took pride in the baseball team. And Joe Bauman was the biggest thing in Artesia. He was 30 years old when he showed up, and he had honed his uppercut home run stroke, and those 19 and 20 and 21-year-old pitchers in the Longhorn didn’t stand a chance. That first year, Bauman hit .375 with a league-record 50 homers in 139 games. The second year, Bauman hit .371 with an even better league-record 53 home runs in 132 games. He led the all of organized baseball in homers both years. He earned enough money from what players called “fence money” to buy a car.

After the 1953 season was over, Bauman decided to buy out his contract and move 40 miles due north to Roswell. In Roswell, there was the lingering buzz of an alien landing, a Texaco station available at a good price and a right-field wooden fence, painted white, just 324 feet from home plate.

* * *

Before the 1954 Roswell Rockets season began there was buzz that Ponderous Joe Bauman was, yes, in the best shape of his life. In those two years in Artesia, even with the big numbers, he was constantly hampered by some injury or other — a back injury, a leg injury, a foot injury and so on. He played through, but he never felt particularly good — which is why every year he considered quitting.

In early April though there was a story in the Big Spring, Texas paper about how Joe Bauman was down 15 pounds. He said he felt good, healthy in a way he could not remember feeling. People were already expecting a big season. Why not? He was the king of the Longhorn League, and that meant any home run number was possible. “The altitude and air have a lot to do with it,” Roswell catcher and co-manager Pat Stasey told a reporter. “Light, dry air makes the curveball break slower and the ball ride better.”

Bauman started hot. On April 22, Bauman crushed two homers against Carlsbad. Three days later he mashed two more against Odessa. On April 30, Roswell beat Odessa again in a game that featured TWENTY SEVEN WALKS. Joe Bauman hit his 10th home run. The season was only 11 games old.

There is so much fun stuff in the records about how Longhorn pitchers tried to stop Joe Bauman. The Big Springs manager was a man called Pepper Martin — he was not the famous Pepper Martin but a longtime minor league baseball player and bowling alley operator who took great pride in finding ways to shut down Joe Bauman. His favorite method was a variation of the shift Lou Boudreau used to slow down Ted Williams — Martin would put everyone on the right side of the field. Everyone. His third baseman was playing behind the second base bag; his left fielder was playing in straightaway center. On May 6, it worked — Bauman smashed balls into the teeth of the defense.

On May 7, Bauman hit two doubles and two home runs against the shift.

On May 17, Bauman hit two more homers and was up to 15 for the season. He hit two more on May 23; the second of those was something marvelous. The game was in Odessa, and the ballpark was adjacent to a rodeo grounds. Well, the rodeo was going on, and Bauman crushed a ball into the middle of that rodeo, probably close to 500 feet away from home plate.

There was an 22-year-old pitcher on the Roswell team, just out of the University of Colorado, named Tom Brookshier. Yeah. That Tom Brookshier. He lived his own extraordinary life — he grew up in Roswell, played football in college with Apollo 13 pilot Jack Swigert, once struck out a Kansas catcher named Dean Smith and played defensive back for the NFL Champion 1960 Philadelphia Eagles. He and Pat Summerall made up one of the first legendary NFL announcing teams.

But that one summer, he played ball for his hometown Roswell Rockets, and he roomed with Joe Bauman. One thing he remembered after all those years was the intensity of Bauman’s snoring. Another, though, was that home run he hit into the rodeo at Odessa. “They forgot all about the rodeo,” he told John Schulian. “And they took off their hats and whooped and hollered for Joe.” Now that’s a home run.

The weather would get hot in New Mexico and Texas and Joe Bauman always loved it when the weather got hot. He cracked seven homers in eight games in early June. He hit his 30th homer on June 22 and celebrated by hitting home runs each of the next three days. On Independence Day he hit his 36th homer, and for the first time people began talking about a staggering possibility — Bauman was actually on pace to challenge the all-time minor league home run record of 69 set by Joe Hauser in Minneapolis in 1933 and tied by Bob Crues down the road in Amarillo in 1948.

“Good God!” Bauman yelped the first time a reporter asked him about the record. He insisted that he wasn’t thinking about home runs and, in all honestly, didn’t really think he was hitting them any more often than usual. But the papers told a different story. He hit four home run in a series against Big Spring, another one against Sweetwater and then pounded the hell out of the ball at Carlsbad. He was up to 45 homers after only 80 games and the record could not be ignored.

“I’m not hitting for the fences any more than usual,” Bauman told a reporter. “In fact, I’m playing just about as I usually do. No changes in swing. No changes in stance. Just no change.”

He said that he has felt a little bit healthier and the ballpark has been a good one for home runs. “And,” he added, “I’ve been pretty lucky.” This was how Bauman talked throughout the home run chase. It seemed the two things Joe Bauman liked least was self-aggrandizement of any kind and left-handed pitching. Especially left-handed pitching.

“If he didn’t have to hit against anything but right-handers,” his teammate and a great minor leaguer character in his own right Stubby Greer said, “he’d hit 150 homers this year.”

“Sure, left-handers bother me,” Joe added. “But not any more than usual.”

Teams would go to crazy extremes to have lefties pitch against Bauman. They would move their regular pitcher to a different position, bring in a lefty to face Bauman, and then put the pitcher back in. When managers ran out of left-handed pitchers, they would bring in left-handed throwing left-handed first basemen or outfielders just for him. There was a story in that in Sweetwater, the manager shouted out to the crowd asking if anyone threw left-handed.

And those lefties threw junk to Joe Bauman. We’re talking JUNK. They threw curveballs and sliders and change-ups and knucklers and spitballs and mudballs and slopballs and anything else that moved slow and crooked and out of the strike zone. There was no throwing a fastball by Big Joe Bauman, not in 1954 when he would say baseballs looked enormous to his eyes. Pitchers didn’t just throw junk, they threw JUNK, balls, a foot outside, two feet outside, in the dirt, over his head. He walked 110 times in his first 110 games and could have walked at least twice as much except he thought it was his job to swing and entertain the crowd.

“I haven’t seen anything but junk,” he uncharacteristically complained in early August after four straight games without a homer. He had 53 by then and the record was still in play.

Then, it looked like he would fall short. Bauman hit his 54th homer on August 10th — that broke his twice-owned Longhorn homer record — and needed 16 homers in the last 27 games to break the record. That was hard enough, but his pace slowed. The garbage pitches, the persistent lefties, the oppressive pressure was all piling up on him. He was hearing a photographer or two snapping cameras on his swing. He was noticing the larger crowds and how they felt cheated when he didn’t hit one out. It was all weighing on him.

But what could he do? He was paid to hit homers. So he hit homers. On August 16, the same day many papers carried the story of Neil Haney making three holes-in-one, Bauman smashed his 56th homer against Odessa, a 390-foot smash over the center field wall. Three days later, on the day Leo Durocher told reporters that his pennant-leading Giants would be in sixth place without Willie Mays, Joe Bauman hit No. 57.

On August 22, in a doubleheader against San Angelo, Bauman hit three home runs to get to 60. “Slugging Joe Bauman equaled Babe Ruth’s ‘untouchable’ home-run record Sunday night,” the United Press wrote, “but it is doubtful if the feat will grab many headlines.”

Well, it did grab a few headlines. But by then the minor-league record seemed unlikely. Bauman still needed 10 home runs to break the record and Roswell only had 15 games left to play. And over the next three days, the record went from unlikely to all but impossible. And then the rains came in. The August 23 game was rained out. There was talk of rescheduling it as a doubleheader the next day, but then the August 24 game was rained out. And then the August 25 games rained out. It was announced none of them would be made up. The season was expiring.

Joe Bauman needed 10 home runs in 12 games. Even Bauman himself told friends: It’s over.

* * *

On August 26, groundskeepers started a bonfire to dry the field so the game could be played. Joe Bauman hit homer No. 61. The next day he homered again, No. 62. Well, if he could homer every game, he could get there … but on August 28 he was only good for three singles against Sweetwater. That was the day 24-year-old Arnold Palmer came from behind to beat Robert Sweeny Jr. on the last hole of the U.S. Amateur.

On August 29, Bauman homered again. So that was No. 63 — he needed seven home runs in the last eight games to break the record. Possible? The next night was Joe Bauman Night in Roswell. About 2,000 people showed up with gifts and money. Joe Bauman rewarded them with a 400-foot smash over the center field fence. That was No. 64.

Still, he needed six home runs in seven nights — those a pretty long odds. And then, in one night, Joe Bauman completely turned around those odds. On August 31, one night after Joe Bauman Night, he pulled off one of the greatest unknown feats in baseball history. With the record just barely in reach, with a huge Roswell crowd surrounding, with a Sweetwater pitching staff that was determined to stop him — Ponderous, Slugging, Big, Hulking, Jumbo Joe Bauman hit four home runs.

To say that people went insane is utterly understating it. They shoved more than $500 through the chicken wire fences — roughly what Joe Bauman made in a month. Bauman now had 68 home runs, one shy of the minor league record. He had six games to break the record. And now everyone was sure he was going to do it.

Everyone, that is, except Bauman himself. He was not used to being nervous when playing baseball. It was a job. Now, though, it was something else. Pat Stasey put Bauman in the leadoff spot so he could get the most at-bats. On September 1, in front of an insane crowd, Bauman hit a blast to right field that was as hard hit as anything he’d hit all season. It seemed like the record-tying shot. Instead, the ball hit the 10-foot wall about six inches from the top and fell back in. The anguish of the crowd was immense — but they still shoved more than $600 to him through the fence.

Can you see the movie?

The next night, almost 3,000 people came — it was the last home game of the season. Bauman desperately wanted to set the record for his hometown. When he smashed a 375-foot homer to tie the record, the papers reported that their cheers could be heard in downtown Roswell, two miles away. Nobody has how any idea how much fence money Bauman made that night, but it was certainly approaching $1,000. But he could only tie the record. He could not break it. And the team left town; the next night they were playing at Big Spring.

Team officials tried to get Big Spring’s Pepper Martin to switch the game and have it played in Roswell. They apparently offered him a “four figure” payment to move the game. Martin refused. He said his fans had been loyal and deserved the chance to see the record broken. In truth, it seems he was trying to keep baseball in Big Spring, which was the smallest city in the Longhorn League. He didn’t think it would do his efforts much good if he moved the biggest game of the year.

As it turns out, though, Martin’s team had no intention of letting Bauman break the record. They threw him garbage pitch after garbage pitch — slow, left-handed, out of the strike zone, never once challenging him — and Bauman flailed helplessly. There were now numerous photographers snapping their cameras and distracting him. The rough and tumble Texas fans — Brookshier described those fans as wearing “pants and big arms” — were plenty happy to see Bauman fail. And he was actually nervous. He would say he felt like there was a piano on his shoulder.

He went 0-for-5 the first game against Big Spring — an almost unthinkable day for Bauman in that remarkable year. The next day he managed only a single in three official trips — the closest thing to a home run he hit was a preposterously high fly ball to shallow right field. Bauman would grumble years later that Big Spring wouldn’t pitch to him. He had to go swinging at the junk.

He had one day left — a doubleheader at his old ballpark in Artesia. He readily admitted to teammates: He didn’t know if he had a homer in him. The national press was now swarming around him, and the intensity was too intense, and he didn’t even know if anyone would throw him a pitch near the strike zone.

Then, before the game, he would always remember, that the Artesia manager Jimmy Adair — who played a few games with the Cubs back in the day — told him that he’d heard about the way they had pitched him in Big Spring. “Joe,” he promised, “we’re not going to walk you.”

Well, that was all he needed to hear. The Artesia pitcher that day was a 22-year-old kid named Jose Gallardo — barely 5-foot-9, skinny as a rail. Best anyone can tell, that was the only year Gallardo played professional baseball — he was the nephew of a longtime minor-leaguer, Frank Gallardo, and it seems likely he was recruited by Frank to fill a spot. It was his fifth — and last — professional start.

Joe Bauman was the first batter of the game. Gallardo — as promised — did not walk him. Instead he threw the best fastball he had. It drove down the middle of the plate. It was the sort of pitch Joe Bauman would see in his happiest dreams.

Nobody measured exactly how far that ball went. Some papers called it a 365-foot blast others a shot of more than 400 feet. Either way, it went far enough. That was home run No. 70, the all-time minor league record. Joe ran happily around the bases, he said that he felt light as could be. The piano was lifted from his shoulders. In the second game of the doubleheader, with all the pressure gone, Joe Bauman hit two more home runs — one of them off of Jose Gallardo’s uncle Frank. That gave him 72 for the season.

The story of Joe Bauman breaking the all-time home run record appeared in every paper in the country. And for a few minutes Bauman was famous. People wanted to know this man, this hulking giant, this ponderous slugger in the Pecos Valley. But Joe Bauman did not want any part of that, and anyway, America didn’t have a long attention span. He told reporters that, no, he had no interest in going anywhere else. And he never did. He and Dorothy stayed in Roswell. He played ball again the next year, but was in some pain so he just hit .336 with 46 homers. He wanted to quit then but they talked him into coming back; he played 52 games in 1956 and hit 17 homers. Then it was over. He was 34 and ready to live his real life. In time, he moved from running the Texaco station to working for a Budweiser beer distributorship.

Every now and again, someone would call — a journalist, a baseball historian, a curious fan — and Bauman reluctantly but with kindness would relive the season. At some point, they displayed his 72nd home run ball in a Roswell museum and when Bauman was asked if he’d seen it, he said “Naw,” and gave a look that supposed, ‘Why would I do that?” When Barry Bonds hit his 73rd home run — which in some form or other broke Bauman’s all-levels record — Bauman admitted he watched the last one go. Emotions? Nah. “It didn’t bother me or anything,” he said. “I just thought, ‘there goes my record.’” He died four years later, after a bout with pneumonia. He was 83 years old.

In the summer of ’54, Joe Bauman hit .400 with 72 homers, 224 RBIs, 188 runs scored and 150 walks. He would always say it was not really a big deal. They paid him to hit home runs. So, you know, he hit home runs.