Jose Abreu and amazing home run starts

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So to play off something that our own Aaron Gleeman wrote earlier here, there have been seven players in baseball history who have hit 15 home runs in their first 50 major league games. Chicago’s Jose Abreu will likely become the eighth — he has 14 home runs already in just 40 games.

The seven players so far are:

1. Wally Berger, 18
2. Wally Joyner, 17
3. Albert Pujols, 16
(tie) Mark McGwire, 16
(tie) Zeke Bonura, 16
6. Kevin Maas, 15
7. Ryan Braun, 15

It is fun to note that there are two guys named Wally on the top of the list … there have been five guys named Wally who have played in an All-Star Game; Berger and Joyner are two of them. The other three are Wally Moon, Wally Moses and Wally Westlake — all three  fantastic names. Wally Post cerainly should have been an All-Star in 1955 or 1956 but he was not. Wally Backman was a pretty good player. Wally Pipp was jobbed by history; he was a very good player who twice led the league in homers and once in triples but is remembered only as the guy Lou Gehrig replaced.

Anyway, of those seven who got off to such amazing home run starts, one is an all-time great (Albert Pujols), one was, for better or worse, the most prolific home run hitter in the game’s history (Mark McGwire) and one is a superstar who led the league in home runs in 2012 and now gets booed a lot (Ryan Braun).

The other four are  interesting.

Wally Berger was a very good player who has probably been overlooked by history. Here’s a great little piece of trivia that you can use wherever you might use great little piece of baseball trivia: Wally Berger is the only starter from the 1934 All-Star game who is NOT in the Hall of Fame. Here’s a list of those All-Stars with their Wins Above Replacement (WAR) and their Wins Above Average (WAA). I have a post coming up that talks about the difference.

Babe Ruth (163 WAR, 125.8 WAA)
Lou Gehrig (112.4 WAR, 78.5 WAA)
Jimmie Foxx (96.4 WAR, 62.9 WAA)
Charlie Gehringer (80.6 WAR, 45.4 WAA)
Frankie Frisch (70.4 WAR, 39.1 WAA)
Carl Hubbell (67.8 WAR, 38.7 WAA)
Joe Cronin (66.4 WAR, 35.9 WAA)
Al Simmons (68.7 WAR, 34.8 WAA)
Bill Terry (54.2 WAR, 31.8 WAA)
Bill Dickey (55.8 WAR, 31.6 WAA)
Gabby Hartnett (53.4 WAR, 29.6 WAA)
Joe Medwick (55.5 WAR, 28.1 WAA)
**Wally Berger (42.1 WAR, 23.5 WAA)**
Travis Jackson (44.0 WAR, 22.7 WAA)
Kiki Cuyler (46.7 WAR, 21.2 WAA)
Lefty Gomez (43.1 WAR, 19.7 WAA)
Heine Manush (45.8 WAR, 15.5 WAA)
Pie Traynor (36.2 WAR, 10.2 WAA)

Point is, if you were going to leave one starter from that game out of the Hall of Fame, it probably should not have been Berger. Bill James talked about three similar contemporary center fielders: Berger, Hack Wilson and Earl Averill. He thinks Berger was the best player. The other two, though, are in the Hall of Fame.

Berger is not in the Hall of Fame because his career ended abruptly. Up to age 30, he was a career .305 hitter with a .533 slugging percentage, he had led the league in home runs and he set a rookie home run record (38) that lasted for more than a half century until it was finally broken by another guy on this list, Mark McGwire. But Berger hurt his shoulder and was traded to the Giants in 1937, it was not a good fit, he only got three at-bats in the World Series and was shipped to Cincinnati less than a year later. He never played a full season after that, and he retired at 34 and joined the Navy.

Wally Joyner was a legitimate phenomenon — in 1986 he was called Wally World after the theme park in National Lampoon’s Vacation. Nobody had expected that kind of power from him. He seemed more a doubles kind of guy. He had hit 12 home runs as a 22-year old in Waterbury, and he 12 home runs as a 23-year-old in Edmonton. He hit his first home run off of Mark Langston … that was in his second career game. A week later, he hit one off Milt Wilcox. He had six home runs through his first 23 games, which was mildly surprising.

But then he got hot. He hit homers on back-to-back days at Milwaukee. Afteout a week later, he homered against Milwaukee again and the next day he had his first two-homer game, hitting both off of Boston’s Al Nipper. He homered again the next day and, after a homerless day, had ANOTHER two-homer game, this time in Detroit.

Man everybody was excited about Wally Joyner. Everybody talked about what a nice guy he was, what a magical story he was. Of course, he was not really a home run hitter, and so the home run thing could not last. It did not. Joyner hit 19 home runs in his first 61 games. He hit three in the 93 games that followed.

The next year, Wally World did hit what would be a career high 34 home runs … but that next year was 1987, when baseballs flew like lightning bugs, and once things settled down Joyner settled into the kind of player everyone kind of thought he would be — a pretty good average, double-digit homers kind of guy. He played all through the Selig Power Hour Decade but only once managed even 20 homers in a season in the 1990s and he never hit 25.

Zeke Bonura played for the Chicago White Sox in the 1930s — he was a very likeable character like Wally Joyner. His actual name was Henry, but they called him Zeke because a sportswriter once commented about him, “What a physique” and “physique” was just shortened to “Zeke.” He was 6-foot, about 210 pounds and was a a football player at Loyola in New Orleans. He hit two home runs in his second game and had back-to-back two-homer games in May. In all, he hit 27 homers as a rookie which was a White Sox record for about a half century, until Ron Kittle broke it.

Any time you can mention Ron Kittle, you should.

Bonura hit 21 homers in his second year, had 138 RBIs in his third and was a very good hitter until age 30, not quite as successful but similar to Wally Berger. He was among the first major leaguers to enlist for World War II and never played in the big leagues after 1940 — his career was short but his .307/.380/.487 lifetime slash numbers are awfully good.

Finally there’s Kevin Maas — if you are a Yankees fan over a certain age, you probably feel a certain lump in your throat when you hear the name Kevin Maas. He came up in June of 1990 with almost no fanfare at all. He had been a 22nd round pick, better known for his academics (he was an engineering major at Berkeley) than his baseball. He’d hit a few home runs in a mostly uninteresting four years in the minors. He came up in the middle of the worst Yankees season since they were named the New York Yankees.

And he mashed home runs. He hit his first on the fourth of July … it was that kind of story. He banged two home runs 10 days later againt the White Sox. In Texas, he hit homers on three consecutive days and a few days later he hit three more homers in a series against Detroit. He reached 10 home runs faster than any player in baseball history.

Maas had a beautiful swing, classic, left-handed, like The Natural. If he had come up in any other year, for any other team, it would have been a cool story. But in New York, in the middle of an otherwise lost season, Maas became this phenomenon. Yankees fans — and there are so many Yankees fans all over America — pinned so many hopes on him. “I’m not going to try to be the next Babe Ruth,” Maas pleaded but the next Babe Ruth was exactly how many people saw him, how many people HAD to see him. After hitting 21 homers in 79 games as a rookie and finishing second to Sandy Alomar in the Rookie of the Year award, he hit just .220 in his one full season in the big leagues in 1991 and then faded away.

What does this suggest about Abreu. Who knows? None of the previous home run heros were 27-year-old players who had already established themselves as superstars in Cuba. Abreu has shown in his first 40 games to be a free swinger who will strike out a lot and has massive power. McGwire might be the best comp on the board. I’m predicting 40 homers, approaching 45, if he stays healthy. But I predicted Kevin Maas would be a star too.

Biden praises Braves’ ‘unstoppable, joyful run’ to 2021 win

Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports
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WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden said the Atlanta Braves will be “forever known as the upset kings of October” for their improbable 2021 World Series win, as he welcomed the team to the White House for a victory celebration.

Biden called the Braves’ drive an “unstoppable, joyful run.” The team got its White House visit in with just over a week left before the 2022 regular season wraps up and the Major League Baseball playoffs begin again. The Braves trail the New York Mets by 1.5 games in the National League East but have clinched a wildcard spot for the MLB playoffs that begin Oct. 7. Chief Executive Officer Terry McGuirk said he hoped they’d be back to the White House again soon.

In August 2021, the Braves were a mess, playing barely at .500. But then they started winning. And they kept it up, taking the World Series in six games over the Houston Astros.

Biden called their performance of “history’s greatest turnarounds.”

“This team has literally been part of American history for over 150 years,” said Biden. “But none of it came easy … people counting you out. Heck, I know something about being counted out.”

Players lined up on risers behind Biden, grinning and waving to the crowd, but the player most discussed was one who hasn’t been on the team in nearly 50 years and who died last year: Hall of Famer Hank Aaron.

Hammerin’ Hank was the home run king for 33 years, dethroning Babe Ruth with a shot to left field on April 8, 1974. He was one of the most famous players for Atlanta and in baseball history, a clear-eyed chronicler of the hardships thrown his way – from the poverty and segregation of his Alabama youth to the racist threats he faced during his pursuit of one of America’s most hallowed records. He died in January at 86.

“This is team is defined by the courage of Hank Aaron,” Biden said.

McGuirk said Aaron, who held front office positions with the team and was one of Major League Baseball’s few Black executives, was watching over them.

“He’d have been there every step of the way with us if he was here,” McGuirk added.

The president often honors major league and some college sports champions with a White House ceremony, typically a nonpartisan affair in which the commander in chief pays tribute to the champs’ prowess, poses for photos and comes away with a team jersey.

Those visits were highly charged in the previous administration. Many athletes took issue with President Donald Trump’s policies and rhetoric on policing, immigration and more. Trump, for his part, didn’t take kindly to criticism from athletes or their on-field expressions of political opinions.

Under Biden, the tradition appears to be back. He’s hosted the NBA champion Milwaukee Bucks and Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers at the White House. On Monday he joked about first lady Jill Biden’s Philadelphia allegiances.

“Like every Philly fan, she’s convinced she knows more about everything in sports than anybody else,” he said. He added that he couldn’t be too nice to the Atlanta team because it had just beaten the Phillies the previous night in extra innings.

Press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre was later questioned about the team’s name, particularly as other professional sports teams have moved away from names – like the Cleveland Indians, now the Guardians, and the Washington Redskins, now the Commanders – following years of complaints from Native American groups over the images and symbols.

She said it was important for the country to have the conversation. “And Native American and Indigenous voices – they should be at the center of this conversation,” she said.

Biden supported MLB’s decision to pull the 2021 All-Star Game from Atlanta to protest Georgia’s sweeping new voting law, which critics contend is too restrictive.