A Day to Remember

Once, July 4 meant doubleheaders. On America’s birthday, Major League ballparks would host thousands of fans paying once to sit down and watch their favorite players and teams play nine, rest, and then trot out for a second ballgame. Although that particular tradition belongs to another era and lives only in the memories of an older generation, the Fourth of July still commands a unique and vibrant niche in the game. It serves as a resting place along baseball’s seasonal journey – an offer to sit down for a moment, take stock of what we’ve seen, ponder what may come, project accomplishments (are there any sweeter words to the baseball optimist than “he’s on a pace for…), look forward to the Midsummer Classic, and prepare ourselves for the revving up of pennant races. And although July 4 no longer issues an opportunity to “play two”, it can still serve as the stage for some of the finest, most absurd, and most spine-tingling moments in the game’s history.

To a certain baseball population, July 4 will always connect to memories of a lanky left-hander battling extreme heat and an historic rivalry to toss a no-hitter in the Bronx. On July 4, 1983 Dave Righetti struck out Wade Boggs in the first and ninth innings (Boggs struck out only 36 times that entire season), bookending a most extraordinary performance on a day when the temperature reached 94 degrees.

To others, July 4 might induce vague memories of another left-handed pitcher not performing quite as well as Righetti. On July 4, 1956 in the first game of a doubleheader between the hometown White Sox and the visiting Kansas City Athletics, Tommy Lasorda made his penultimate appearance on the mound in the Majors, throwing five-and-two-thirds innings in relief of Jack McMahan (who had been lifted after allowing three runs in only one third of an inning).

In 1985, Dwight Gooden rose and grabbed a spot as the unquestioned ringleader in a festival that came to town every fifth day. When Dwight Gooden pitched, we watched. We watched with the anticipation of witnessing something heroic and unprecedented. We watched with the incredulity of youngsters at a magic show. We watched and we clapped and we stood, amazed by the virtuosity of a 20-year-old who had established himself as the best pitcher in the world. And even when he didn’t have his stuff, Dwight Gooden still stood securely at baseball’s epicenter. On July 4, 1985, Doctor K started for the Mets and through 49 pitches, two-and-a-third innings, and buckets of rain, allowed two hits, four walks, and a run to the Atlanta Braves. After a 41-minute rain delay, the game resumed without Gooden, who turned into a spectator for the remainder of a 19-inning affair that witnessed both teams score two runs in the 13th inning, Keith Hernandez hitting for the cycle, a home run in the eighteenth inning by pitcher Rick Camp (who had entered the game with a career batting average of .060) to tie the game at 11, and a conclusion in the 19th in which the Mets scored five in the top half (off of Camp) and then just barely held on to win 16-13. At 4:01 am on July 5, the planned fireworks show began.

Finally, to virtually anyone who has had the opportunity to grow up with and around the game, the Fourth of July directs a somber, yet celebratory finger in the direction of July 4, 1939. On that particular Independence Day, in between a doubleheader with the Washington Senators, in front of thousands of fans in Yankee Stadium, Lou Gehrig issued his farewell to baseball. Overwhelmed by the attention, uncomfortable with the words extolling his character and illustrious playing career, with only two years left to live, Lou Gehrig stepped up to a microphone at home plate and proclaimed, “[T]oday, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the Earth.” These words came at the beginning of the speech that is broadly acknowledged as baseball’s Gettysburg Address and hold the essence of a man who crafted a exceptional career through a singular style and grace. The poignancy of the moment and the humility of the man shall always reverberate, for such sharp exposure to unrelenting strength is rare, and the image of Gehrig’s undeniable fortitude stands even brighter with the knowledge of how a disease ravaged his body and turned a man who once looked like a Greek statue come to life into shell of unresponding and atrophied muscles. But Gehrig’s speech offered another conclusion, for when he uttered his final words into the microphone at home plate on July 4, 1939 an era – one that had witnessed three of the greatest first basemen in the history of the game share the same league and spotlight – came to an end.

From 1933 (Hank Greenberg’s first full season) through 1938 (Gehrig’s last full season), three first basemen dominated the offensive landscape in the American League. Over those six seasons, Jimmie Foxx, Lou Gehrig, and Hank Greenberg finished 1-2-3 in their league in home runs, RBI, and OPS. On the career OPS list, they rank third (Gehrig at 1.0798), sixth (Foxx with a mark of 1.0376), and seventh (Greenberg at 1.0169). From 1933 through 1940, one of them started for the American League in the All-Star game at first base. The competition was so fierce at the position that in the first All-Star game in 1933, Jimmie Foxx – despite winning the Triple Crown and MVP that season – didn’t even play: he was reduced to a nine-inning spectator as Gehrig manned first base for the duration. The following year, Foxx did get to play in the game…at third base. Once again, Gehrig had first all to himself. But Foxx had it better than Greenberg. In 1935 – a year in which he amassed the seventh-highest RBI total in American League history, won the AL MVP and helped lead the Tigers to its first-ever World Series title – Greenberg didn’t even make the All-Star team. It seems almost unfathomable, until we remember Foxx and Gehrig. Hank Greenberg, Jimmie Foxx, and Lou Gehrig are three of the greatest players ever at their position. They are three of the greatest players to ever walk on the field at any position. Their stat lines in the Macmillan baseball encyclopedia are littered with bold highlights, indicating league-leading totals. Their power numbers – produced during an earlier live-ball era – remain astonishing even today. Before Roger Maris, Foxx and Greenberg each challenged Babe Ruth’s magical record of 60 home runs: Foxx hit 58 in 1932 and Greenberg matched that total in 1938. Gehrig holds the highest single-season RBI total in American League history, with 184 in 1931. In 1937, Greenberg fell one short of matching Gehrig and produced the second-highest total in league history. Foxx hit more than 30 home runs in 12 straight seasons: the second-longest streak in baseball history. Gehrig and Foxx drove in more than 100 runs in 13 straight seasons – the longest streaks in baseball history. Each won two league MVP’s (Foxx won three). Gehrig (.921 RBI/game) and Greenberg (.915 RBI/game) have the second and third-highest RBI to game ratios in history. These three men hit for power, hit for average, and drove in runs at prodigious rates. And for a six-year period between 1933-1938, they were all doing it in the American League: it remains one of the greatest concentrations of talent for a specific time and place in baseball history.

Although Greenberg, Gehrig and Foxx stand at the apex, they were not the first representation of a trio of first basemen dominating their game in the same era. The ABC first basemen – Cap Anson, Dan Brouthers, and Roger Connor – staked their own claim on the game during its infancy. Anson made his debut in 1871 for the Rockford Forest Citys in the National Association and when America was celebrating its 100th birthday in 1876, Anson was playing for the Chicago White Stockings during the National League’s debut season. Anson was the first player in baseball history to amass 3000 hits, and when he retired after the 1897 season, he left as the career leader in games, runs, hits, total bases, doub
les, and RBI. Brouthers – at six feet, two inches and over 200 pounds – was a giant among men in the game’s early years. He led the NL in slugging percentage in six straight seasons from 1881-1886, led the league in OPS on eight occasions, won five batting titles, and finished his 19-year career with a .342 batting average – still the ninth-highest all-time. Roger Connor became the all-time leading home run hitter in 1895 – it was a post he would own until 1921, when a pitcher turned outfielder named Babe Ruth continued his gargantuan quest to claim all of baseball’s home run records for himself. Connor, who also retired as the game’s all-time leader in triples, played first for the National League team in New York during the 1880’s when they were known as the Gothams. Connor’s stature and power stood out on the team that became known as the Giants when in 1885, manager Jim Mutrie looked at his assembled talent on the field and exclaimed, “My big fellows, my Giants.” Like Foxx, Greenberg, and Gehrig after them, the ABC first baseman were immense figures- both in stature and accomplishment. By the sheer force of their numbers, through the broadness of their bodies, these men dominated the game and the baseball consciousness in ways that still echo today.

Today, we are being treated to amazing concentrations of talent at other positions. In the NL East in 2007, a quintet of shortstops introduced themselves as the newest definition of a natural progression that began in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. Jimmy Rollins won the NL MVP, banged-out the most extra base hits for a shortstop in NL history, and became just the fourth player ever to collect 20 doubles, 20 triples, 20 home runs, and 20 stolen bases in a season. And just maybe, it was not the best offensive season in the division. Hanley Ramirez powered the ball all over the playing field on his way to the second-most extra-base hits by a shortstop in NL history, batted .332, slugged .562, stole 51 bases, collected 212 hits, and scored 125 runs. Ramirez did all of this at the age of 23 in his second full season in the Majors, causing us to struggle to suppress our giddiness over what we may witness in the future. Jose Reyes stole 78 bases in 2007, the highest total by an NL’er in 15 years and the best effort by a shortstop since Maury Wills completed the 1965 season with 94 thefts. Edgar Renteria finished the season batting .332, which tied him with Ramirez for the fourth-highest average in the league. And when Renteria missed a considerable amount of time with various injuries, a rookie named Yunel Escobar stepped smoothly into Renteria’s role and then hit .326. All of this took place during the course of a single season in one division, a decade after the holy trinity of shortstops built upon the ground laid by Cal Ripken, Jr., Alan Trammell, and Robin Yount. In the late 1990’s, Nomar Garciaparra, Alex Rodriguez, and Derek Jeter jumped atop the baseball landscape with a vibrant ability to play the game. Nomar won a couple of batting titles, flirted with .400, and instigated talk of the next Red Sox icon to play at Fenway. Rodriguez won a batting title at the age of 21, went 40-40 at the age of 23, and emerged as perhaps the most feared right-handed hitter in the game. Jeter – the man who would be named the Yankees captain in 2003 – collected hit after hit and ring after ring, and affected a humility, class, and grace on the field which fell directly in line with the man who was instrumental in developing the signature style and impression of the New York Yankees, Lou Gehrig.

Ballgames are just as much a part of the Fourth of July as parades to celebrate the birth of our country, barbeques in the elongating shadows of late afternoon, and fireworks to conclude the day’s celebrations. Any time Major League ballgames are played, we have the opportunity to reflect on what has led us to a point. The pace of the game allows for the conversations to build and wander and the numbers entice us into conversations about the here, there, and now. The game not only instigates these musings, it benefits from them. For when we remember, we instill life, and when life is renewed, we are reintroduced to themes and ideas that have perhaps lain dormant for decades. And although July 4 doubleheaders have been relegated to the dusty shelves of memory, they too have a place, for the images of those days and sensibilities will take us on a journey from 1876 to the present, and will perhaps allow us to recall Dave Righetti, learn about Dan Brouthers, and celebrate the lives and times of Jimmie Foxx, Hank Greenberg, and Lou Gehrig.

Thanks to baseball-reference.com for information that helped with this piece.

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