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This Week in Baseball History: July 20-26

Legendary milestones and an infamous call headline this week's events.

It’s hard to believe, but this sentence finally holds true: this week, there will be baseball. The July 23 game between the New York Yankees and Washington Nationals will mark 267 days since the Nationals beat the Houston Astros in Game 7. To give an idea of how much time has passed, the entire 2019 season—spring training, regular season and postseason—occurred in just 251 days. To say it in simpler words, it’s been way too long.

To help get excited for this upcoming season, let’s take a look back on some of the most significant moments that happened this week in baseball history.

 

July 20, 1976 — Hank Aaron’s Last Home Run

 

Hank Aaron’s career represents the gold standard of consistency for a hitter. From age 20 to 39, Aaron averaged a .311/.378/.569 line with 36 home runs, 107 RBIs, 103 runs and 63 walks to 63 strikeouts over of 148 games. Despite him never hitting 50 home runs in a year, this longevity allowed Aaron to begin his age-40 season in 1974 with 713 home runs—one shy of Babe Ruth for the most ever.

In his first at-bat on Opening Day, Aaron hit #714, a blast to left-center off Reds-ace Jack Billingham. Four days later, Aaron hit #715 off Al Downing. Aaron would slowly add to this total over the next three seasons, although as a hitter he was a shell of his former self.

This chapter of Hammerin’ Hank’s story would find itself at an abrupt end on July 20, 1976 in the Milwaukee County Stadium. A middling crowd of 10,134 fans watched history unfold during a meaningless game between two last-place teams, the Milwaukee Brewers and California Angels. In the seventh inning, Aaron would face Angels’ reliever Dick Drago. As Drago dropped a dud on the outside part of the plate, Hank took a hack, hooking homer #755 just around the left-field foul pole into a section filled with barely ten fans.

Since the season had plenty of games left, no one in attendance fully understood the importance of this home run. Aaron would play another 23 games before retiring, failing to hit a single home run while posting a paltry line of .172/.333/.219.

A Brewers’ groundskeeper Dick Arndt ended up catching the baseball and he wanted to personally hand it over to Aaron. After this request was denied and Arndt decided to keep the ball instead, he was fired. He would later sell this ball for over $600,000 in 1999, and Aaron’s home run record would remain unbroken for 31 years until Barry Bonds’ bomb of Mike Bacsik in 2007.

 

July 21, 2006The First Ever Presidents Race

 

The beginning years of the Nationals did not inspire much hope. They started out in the decaying RFK Stadium with a barren farm system and a mediocre roster. The result? The Nationals did not have a winning season until 2012, with their lowest point being back-to-back 100+ loss seasons in ‘08 and ‘09.

And before they could draft Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg with back-to-back #1 overall picks—before Ryan Zimmerman’s legacy would truly blossom as “Mr. National”—before the team would transition into the brand new Nationals Park—they needed hope.

The Nationals found this hope on July 21, 2006 during the middle of the fourth inning when, in their first home game back from the All-Star Break, the inaugural Presidents Race was held. In these cartoonish goliaths whose towering heads bobbled all over as they gunned towards the finish line, Nationals fans saw a bit of themselves.

The team’s struggle to finish above last place in the NL East from ’05 to ’10 mimicked that of the 26th president of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt, whose inability to beat George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln in a foot race led to 525 straight losses.

However, in 2012, as the calendar turned over to October, both Roosevelt and the Nationals found that their fortunes had finally turned as well. On Oct. 1, the Nationals clinched their first ever division title. And a mere two days later, on Oct. 3, with the help of a pseudo Phillie Phanatic, Roosevelt crossed the finish line and finally became a winner.

 

July 22, 1923Walter Johnson Becomes First Pitcher to Reach 3,000 Strikeouts

 

With his sidearm delivery and pinpoint mechanics, Walter Johnson’s career had both longevity and sheer dominance. While the sport has evolved so much that it is hard to compare players from the dead-ball era to the live-ball era, Johnson’s success compared to his contemporaries gives him a strong argument for being the best pitcher ever. Over his 21-year-career, Johnson faced 23,405 batters (third-most ever) and posted the 11th best WHIP and 7th best ERA+ (min. 1,000 IP). He was also one of the best pitchers of his era when it came to racking up strikeouts.

From Johnson’s debut in 1907 to his retirement in 1927, he led the league in strikeouts 12 times. In fact, the five highest single-season strikeout totals during this period were:

  • Walter Johnson 1910 – 313
  • Walter Johnson 1912 – 303
  • Ed Walsh 1908 – 269
  • Dazzy Vance 1924 – 262
  • Christy Mathewson 1908 – 259

The next pitcher to throw 300+ strikeouts in a season would be Bob Feller with 348 Ks in 1946.

However, Johnson’s more impressive feat would be him becoming the first player ever to reach the 3,000-strikeout plateau on July 22, 1923 after punching out Stan Coveleski during a complete game performance against the Cleveland Indians. Johnson would continue adding to his total until he retired with 3,509 Ks. He would remain the only member of the 3,000 strikeout club until Bob Gibson joined him in 1974. Johnson would continue to hold the record for most strikeouts ever until Steve Carlton passed him in 1983.

Today, there are 18 pitchers with 3,000 strikeouts. Despite Johnson’s career ending over 90 years ago, he still has the 9th most strikeouts ever.

 

July 23, 2009Mark Buehrle’s Perfect Game

 

While Mark Buehrle’s career has not resulted in a plaque in Cooperstown, he has cemented himself as a Chicago sports legend. His ability to consistently pitch 200 innings with a mid-to-high 3 ERA with Gold Glove defense helped him become a cornerstone of the White Sox rotation for over a decade.

The highs that Buehrle helped achieve represent some of the best moments in White Sox history: a World Series win in 2005, a no-hitter in 2007, and a legendary perfect game on July 23, 2009.

Buehrle, who was in the midst of his fourth All-Star season in ’09, found himself facing off against a Tampa Bay Rays’ lineup that was one of the best in the league (5 out of the 9 starters were also All-Stars). However, Buehrle tore through the lineup, putting on a master class in generating weak contact.

In less than two hours, eight innings flew by—as was typical in a Buehrle outing. To start the 9th inning, Buehrle faced off against Gabe Kapler. With a 2-2 count, Buehrle delivered a change-up that caught a bit too much of the plate, and Kapler turned it into the Rays’ best hit ball of the night. What followed is one of the most iconic plays in MLB history.

Buehrle would finish off the Rays with a strikeout, then a groundout, capping off the 16th perfect game in history.

 

July 24, 1983 The Pine Tar Game

 

There are numerous accolades attributed to Hall of Famer George Brett that would each be a career-defining accomplishment for every other player: an MVP, 3,000+ hits, 13 All-Star selections, three Silver Sluggers, a Gold Glove, multiple Batting Titles, and a World Series win.

However, arguably the most memorable moment of his career occurred on July 24, 1983, in the infamous Pine Tar game between the New York Yankees and Kansas City Royals. Both teams were just a couple games back from first place in their respective divisions, and this hotly contested game saw multiple lead changes going into the ninth inning, where the Royals found themselves losing 3-4 with two outs and a runner on first. Brett came up to the plate to face a fellow Hall of Famer in their prime: Rich “Goose” Gossage.

After fouling off the first pitch, Brett belted the next one in the short porch in right field, putting the Royals in the lead. Before Brett could cross the plate, Yankees manager Billy Martin marched out of the dugout, demanding that the umpires inspect the bat for an excessive amount of pine tar. The umpires conferred together and measured the bat against home plate, noting that the use of pine tar appeared to be a rule violation as it covered more than 18 inches of the bat.

In response, the home plate umpire Tim McClelland gestured towards the Royals dugout, negating the home run, ruling Brett out, and ending the game with a Yankees win. Brett, with a fury that was never seen before and has not been seen since, bounded out of the dugout in a direct line to McClelland. The rest of the umpire crew and a couple of Royals had to forcibly restrain Brett for over a minute until he could calm down.

The Royals protested this decision, which American League president Lee MacPhail upheld. MacPhail restored Brett’s home run and ordered the game to be resumed on Aug. 18 with the Royals holding a 5-4 lead (they would ultimately win). Brett was not allowed to participate as he had been retroactively ejected for his outburst.

 

Feature Graphic Designed by James Peterson (Follow @jhp_design714 on Instagram & Twitter)

Alex Kleinman

Journalist who loves the Yankees and the Bears. One gives me strength, the other leads me to existential dread. When I'm not obsessing over baseball, you can find me at a concert, hiking in a National Park or chasing my dog, Frankie, who has probably stolen one of my socks.

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