Bauman's record 72-homer year anything but minor achievement

September 13, 1998|By JOHN STEADMAN

No player anywhere in professional baseball, including the majors and minors, ever had a season to compare. And this comes with all personal and professional respect to those notable kings of the swing -- Mark McGwire, Roger Maris and Babe Ruth. Maybe he shouldn't be mentioned in the same paragraph with those of such distinction but, indeed, he was an extraordinary achiever -- even if it transpired at a more obscure level of play.

Joe Bauman is the all-time leader in home runs. Playing for the Roswell (N.M.) Rockets of the Class C Longhorn League in 1954, he exploded 72 balls into the rarefied air of the Pecos Valley. What a performance. The 32-year-old left-handed pull hitter accumulated the total in 139 games. He also did other things: driving in 224 runs, batting .400, recording 456 total bases in 498 at-bats and an off-the-scale .916 slugging percentage.

The next year, the San Francisco Seals of the Pacific Coast League wanted him in training camp. But Bauman wasn't interested. He owned and operated two service stations and a tire distributorship in Roswell. Major-league organizations weren't interested in Bauman because he was considered much too old to be a prospect. But there had been a time in 1949 when he was given what he considered unacceptable treatment by the Boston Braves, the team that owned his contract.

He had spent 1948 with the Braves' farm at Hartford of the then-Class A Eastern League, sharing first base with Ray Sanders, an injured player hoping to rehabilitate a spiral break in his arm for a return to the majors. Bauman's salary was $600 a month, the going rate for a rookie at that classification.

"But the next year," he said from his home in Roswell, "they cut me to $400 a month. The Braves' minor-league director was the (( man who married the heiress to the Florsheim shoe fortune. I can't think of his name right now [later research confirmed him to be the late Harry Jenkins, director of minor-league operations] but it was take it or leave it.

"I told him I could make more than that selling black shoestrings on any street corner in Oklahoma City. He didn't like my comment. But in those days you had to talk up for yourself. I stayed away from organized baseball three full years, but played with a semipro club in Elk City, Okla., out in the oil fields, and had a lot of success. Our team made out real well in that tournament they used to play in Wichita for the top semipro clubs in the country."

Bauman, 6 feet 5, 235 pounds, had saved what he says "was a little bit of money" and bought a Texaco service station. A man walked in one day and said he wanted to know if he wanted to play for a franchise in Artesia, N.M., but first he had to buy his contract from the Braves. After two years in Artesia, where he pounded 50 and 53 home runs, he expressed a desire to move 40 miles north to Roswell, a city he always enjoyed visiting. The Roswell club was independent, meaning it didn't have a working agreement.

It paid Bauman $600 a month, or $4,000 for the season, but he said if he was advanced $1,000 he'd play for $400 a month. In Roswell, he bought two service stations, had a U.S. Royal tire franchise for three counties and has lived there ever since.

He gave the bat with which he hit home run No. 72 to the Louisville Slugger Co., for display purposes. He used a Vern Stephens model, an S2, weighing 34 ounces and measuring 36 inches.

Bauman, who talks with a soft Southwestern accent, was asked if he thought he could have played in the majors had he been given an opportunity as a younger man. "I don't know," was his honest answer. No idle boasting. Asked for a self-critique, he went on to say, "I think I was a fair runner and adequate fielder. I liked the low ball, so they pitched me up."

Coming out of high school, he signed with Little Rock of the Southern Association and was optioned to Newport of the Northeast Arkansas League and played for $100 a month. The third baseman, playing for $40 less a month, was a young George Kell, destined for the Hall of Fame, who says about Bauman: "He was a tall guy who hit the ball hard. A real nice fellow. What I remember is he had a good swing and pulled almost everything. He was not a good runner but, gee, that was so long ago. Our manager was Merle Settlemire, an old pitcher. I want to give Joe a call one of these days and talk over old times."

Bauman, of course, remembers Kell, remarking what high character he brought with him and mentioning that "a couple times I ate chicken dinner with his folks at their place in Swifton, Ark." They roomed in the same house in Newport for a short while. A widow had a southern mansion, and Bauman says they each rented a room for $2 a week.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.