When Babe Ruth set a major league record with 29 home runs in 1919, his total topped what was generally recognized as the previous mark: the 25 home runs hit by baseball’s first real power hitter: Buck Freeman of the Washington Senators. Freeman hit his 25 round-trippers, playing for the 11th-place team in the 1899 National League.
To set the record straight and convince any doubters of the legitimacy of Freeman’s home run total, keep in mind that the basic rules in 1899 – including the pitching distance of 60-feet-six-inches and the 17-inch width of the plate – were the same as they were in 1901, which arbitrarily is seen as the start of modern baseball.
The mark often cited as the previous high – 27 by Ned Williamson in 1884 – was set under vastly different rules and in a park with a left-field fence just 180 feet from home plate down the line and a right-field fence 196 feet away. Those are the shortest foul lines ever used in a major league ballpark. Williamson hit 25 of his 27 homers at home. Three of Williamson’s Chicago teammates also hit more than 20 home runs that season. Aside from the short porch in both directions, batters in 1884 still were able to request a high or low pitch, which would not be a called strike unless it passed through either the high or low strike zone.
The only other player to hit 20 home runs before Freeman was Hall of Famer Sam Thompson, a left-hand batter who hit exactly 20 in 1889 with the National League Philadelphia team. Thompson faced a right-field fence 310 feet from home plate down the line, with the distance to the fence increasing to 500 feet in center. Thompson homers at those distances were far more legitimate than those of Williamson and his Chicago teammates.
Home runs by John Frank Freeman – nobody is sure how he picked up the nickname Buck — often were noted in news accounts as prodigious blasts that would have left any ballpark then in use. The definitive book on old ballparks, Philip J. Lowry’s Green Cathedrals, unfortunately does not list the playing field dimensions of Freeman’s home park, Boundary Field. However, Baseball Reference lists the 1899 park factor for Boundary Field as 96 for hitters and 98 for pitchers. (Under 100 for both hitters and pitchers is a park that favors pitchers. In contrast, Ned Williamson’s home park is listed at 107 for hitters.) In any case, Freeman hit nine of his homers on the road. (Thompson hit six of his 20 on the road.)
Those who date modern baseball records from either 1900 or 1901, when the American League was established, often recognize Gavvy Cravath’s 24 home runs with Philadelphia in 1915 as the mark that Ruth broke in 1919. Cravath was a legitimate power hitter in the deadball era, leading the National League six times (albeit once with just eight), but he, too, had help from his home field. The Baker Bowl had park factors of 109 for batters and 106 for pitchers in 1915 – extremely favorable numbers for hitters. Of Cravath’s 24 HRs, 19 were hit at home. The previous season, all of Cravath’s homers were hit at the Baker Bowl. One of Cravath’s 24 homers in 1915 was inside-the-park, as was one of Freeman’s 25 in 1899.
If there had been a rookie-of-the-year award in 1899, Freeman would have been the runaway choice. Playing for a team that lost 98 games, he had 25 triples and 122 RBIs, both second in the league. He stole 21 bases, hit .318 and had an on-base percentage of .362.
The Washington franchise was eliminated when the N.L. contracted to eight teams in 1900. Freeman spent a year with Boston in the N.L. before signing with the new Boston team in the American League. He went on to lead the A.L. in home runs with 13 in 1903, thus becoming the first man to lead both leagues. He led the A.L. in RBIs in 1903 and 1904, in total bases in 1903 and triples (19) in 1904. He later became an umpire.
Regardless of how history looks at Cravath’s home runs, however, the fact remains that Freeman hit 25 and Gravath hit 24. The major league, single-season home-run record holder before Babe Ruth: Washington Senators outfielder Buck Freeman.