Heyward Home Run Hysteria

Having recently made a throw-away comment somewhat to the effect that Jason Heyward was being looked upon as the second coming of Hank Aaron, I wasn't entirely shocked to find that the Hammer himself at first blush seems to feel the same way. That was the impression taken from a local headline that trumpeted that Aaron saw Heyward as being able to help, "what ails baseball."

What ails baseball? Outside of the Yankees' continued unrestrained-in-any-meaningful-fashion efforts to buy every good player and every World Series, Commissioner Bud Selig, the DH, the Pirates, and games running too long, baseball doesn't seem to be that bad off. And Heyward certainly can't do anything about those problems. Turns out Aaron was actually referring to the dearth of African-Americans in professional baseball, which is a matter of concern, although it's hard to see how a 20 year-old kid who has played three games in the majors, and who has less than 20 at bats above Double A, is going to accomplish any more along those lines than say Ryan Howard, who already has an MVP Award, a ROY Award, a two-homer game in the World Series, two home runs this year, and more than 220 home runs overall.

What apparently spurred Aaron's comment was Heyward hitting a home run in his first major league at bat, a fairly rare feat that supposedly placed the kid's feet firmly on the road to Cooperstown, and otherwise further ramped up the Heyward Hysteria, despite the fact that it basically doesn't mean a thing. That's right, hitting a home run in your first AB in the majors really means very, very little, at least according to what history tells us. What history tells us, or rather, what the ever-helpful Baseball-Almanac website tells us, is that Heyward is the 104th player in 115 years (Joe Harrington in 1895 was the first) to homer in his first at bat in the majors. It happens just about once a year on average, and the collection of players who have done so have, to put it bluntly, been a largely motley crew. To phrase it another way, exactly one hitter who eventually made the Hall of Fame, and two players total, have hit home runs in their first at bat. One of these two is the answer to a well-known trivia question… who hit a home run in his first at bat, and then didn't hit another in the rest of his 21-year career? The answer, as you surely know, is Hall of Fame knuckleball pitcher Hoyt Wilhelm.

Before revealing the name of the one legit Hall of Famer hitter to hit one out his first time up, let us note that Wilhelm's feat is hardly unique in that no fewer than 19 players in major league history have hit a home run in their first at bat, and then NEVER hit another one. Take a bow, Luke Stuart (who happens to be the first American Leaguer to do it, in 1921 for the Browns… no, I never heard of him either), Hack Miller, Bill Roman, Andre David, the incomparable Cuno Barragan, Mitch Layden and Dave Matranga (among others…and they weren't all pitchers.) What were they? Most likely guys that some pitcher, not knowing anything about them, probably threw a fast ball down the middle. Furthermore, exactly 50 of these home run heroes (not counting Heyward), some of whom are admittedly still playing, have not reached double figures in career home runs. This includes several from the 21st Century, notably Esteban Yan (one of the great names, if not great players), Luis Montanez (in 2008 with Baltimore), Alex Cabrera, Keith McDonald (more on him later), Gene Stechschulte, Charlton Jimerson (sounds like an English butler), Mark Saccomanno, and three guys from the 2009 season; Jordan Schafer (Braves), Gerardo Parra, and John Hester (both with Arizona). Schafer is an especially interesting case, since he was last year's Jason Heyward… a young (22) rookie outfielder that the Braves' PR machine insisted was a "can't miss," particularly after that home run. Well, he did. He eventually struck out 63 times in 167 at bats, and compiled an OPS right at the Ordonez Line (.600) before disappearing back into the minors with two major league home runs, probably never to be heard from again.

Should you care to add up the career totals of all the players who have hit home runs in their first at bats you find that, prior to Heyward, these 103 individuals smote a grand total of 4741 dingers, or an average of just about 46 per player. That won't get you into the Hall of Fame. It didn't get Earl Averill into the Hall of Fame, though that feared hitter of the 1930s Indians did make the Hall on the strength of a lot of line drives, and not quite so much on his 238 career home runs.

So who holds the record for most career home runs by a player that hit one in his first at bat? A good player, one much favored by the fans of Minnesota and the upper Midwest , but not someone who going into the Hall of Fame. It's the G Man, Gary Gaetti, who hit 360 home runs for his career. In all, in addition to Averill and Gaetti, just five other players started their careers with a home run, and then hit another 200 to go with that first blow. The top seven in this odd brotherhood are:

Gary Gaetti – 360

Carlos Lee – 307 (and counting)

Jermaine Dye – 298 (and maybe still counting)

Will Clark – 284

Tim Wallach – 260

Earl Averill – 238

Bill White – 202

(Jay Bell is next, with 195 career homeruns.) Good players all, but, outside of Averill, not great. You can consider these top seven as "good hitters" for their careers, along with say, Wally Moon (142), Bob Nieman (125) and maybe Gates Brown (84). And that's about it for "good hitters" who began their careers with a home run. Ten out of 103. That's less than 10 percent. Not a really impressive group. And, it's not as though some of these guys weren't first thought to be on their way to Cooperstown . Will Clark was so good at Mississippi State that he was known as "The Natural," well before Ken Griffey, Jr. Speaking of juniors, Junior Felix (55) was supposed to be hot stuff. So was Bell (the eighth pick overall in the draft.)  So were Elijah Dukes (31) and Kaz Matsui (32). But none of them are going to New York 's Southern Tier anytime soon, unless they're signed by the Single-A team in Oneonta.

That about says everything of significance about players who hit home runs in their first at bats. Since this is essentially a trivial subject in terms of importance, it seems only right to mention a few points of trivia about this crew. For instance, the aforementioned Bob Nieman, (with the Browns in September 1951) along with the Cardinals' Keith McDonald (in July of 2000), are the only two players to hit home runs in their first two major league at bats. Nieman did have a decent career, playing 12 years with a 132 OPS+. McDonald went three-for-nine in his major league "career," although all three of his hits were home runs, most likely giving him the record for most hits in a career where all hits were home runs.

Since such a fuss was made of Heyward doing it on Opening Day, let's not forget Opening Day 1938, which fell on April 19 in that era. The Dodgers were playing the Phillies, and both the Bums' Ernie Koy and the Phils' Heinie Mueller hit home runs in their first major league ABs, in the same game. Koy and Mueller would combine for 53 major league home runs in their careers.

Among the other interesting names who pulled off this feat was John Kennedy, who happened to do so for Washington in 1962. No one knows if the President called to congratulate him.

In addition to Arizona in 2009, two other teams had two different players homer in their first at bat in the same season. That would have been the 1997 Expos (Dustin Hermanson and Brad Fullmer) and the 2000 Cardinals, who had Chris Richard go deep in his first at bat just 13 days after McDonald's first blow.

You can have a lot of fun fooling around with this list under the "Feats" button on the Baseball-Almanac.com website. Just remember though, fun is all it's good for… if you want to make a claim for Jason Heyward because he was Baseball America's number one prospect, fine… but don't do it because he hit a home run in his first at bat.

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