My friend Jim is a big fan of the double—it’s the working man’s extrabase hit—and the other day, in the stands at Safeco, he began to talk them up.
“Ever year,” he said, “someone seems to hit in the 50s and yet—“
“—and yet no one breaks Earl Webb’s record of 67,” I said. “I know.”
“Not even that. No one hits 60.”
“Really? Not Biggio or Nomar or someone like that?”
He shook his head. “Somebody’s always hitting in the 50s but I don’t think anyone’s hit 60 in decades.”
A few days later he e-mailed me the following:
no one has hit 60 since l936, when 2 did it, one in each league, Helton hit 59 back in 2000, the closest anyone has come.
I crunched the numbers and it’s more interesting than I realized. Only six players have hit 60 or more doubles in a season, and all of those instances occurred between 1926 and 1936. "60" is a pretty magic number. Tris Speaker, the career doubles leader, never reached it. (He hit 59 in 1923.) 50 or more, meanwhile, has been done 88 times, but 29 of those, or 33%, occurred in the 2000s.
Here are the 50+ seasons broken down by decade:
These numbers don’t surprise me too much, bulging, as they do, into double digits in the power years of the 1920s/30s, and 1990s/2000s, but I didn’t think the difference with other decades would be this stark. Hitting doubles requires power but not that much power. That’s its point. Too much power and the ball is gone. Too little and it’s a single, or caught. Speed, you’d think, would help, by turning singles into doubles, but the speedster years of the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s are virtually empty of 50+ seasons. Rickey Henderson never hit even 40 doubles in a season, let alone 50, while Lou Brock only went over 40 once, in the pitcher’s year of 1968, when he led the Majors with 46.
I began to pay attention to doubles in 1994 when the Twins’ Chuck Knoblauch was, as they say, “on pace” to break Earl Webb’s record. (I’ve heard that phrase a lot since then.) That year, of course, the season ended August 11th, with the players’ strike, and with Knoblauch stuck at 45. He’d never hit 50. A year later, in another strike-shortened season, three players did hit more than 50—Edgar Martinez (52), Albert Belle (52) and Mark Grace (51)—and it's been gangbusters ever since.
The era of the 50-homeurn season seems to be on the wane as players are tested, fined, and embarrassed, by steroid use. There have only been five 50-homerun seasons since 2003, which is less than there were in 2000 and 2001 alone, and none in the last two years.
The doubles, though, keep coming. Just not 60. Whatever peculiar set of circumstances allowed that to happen between 1926 and 1936 don't seem to exist anymore.
Biggo retired with 668 career doubles, behind only Speaker, Rose, Musial and Cobb. His single-season high was 56.
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