Baseball BeatAugust 03, 2003
The Greatest and Most Obscure Home Run Hitters of All Time
By Rich Lederer

Every baseball fan knows Hank Aaron is the all-time home run leader with 755. These same fans also know that Babe Ruth is in second place with 714 HR, and they are acutely aware that Barry Bonds may pass them both before he retires. But just who is the greatest home run hitter ever?

There have even been arguments made on behalf of Ted Williams being the most prodigious home run slugger, given the fact that The Splendid Splinter lost at least five seasons during his prime to military service. Williams hit 36 HR in 1942, missed three full seasons to World War I, then came back and hit 38 in 1946. Accordingly, it would probably be fair to credit Williams with an average of 37 HR for each of those lost three years. The Thumper hit 30 HR in 1951, missed almost the entire next two years, then returned and hit 29 in 1954. As a result, it would once again be fair to credit Williams with another 46 HR (30 x 2 = 60 minus the 14 he hit during those partial seasons lost to the Korean War).

Based on the above math, we could easily add 157 more roundtrippers to Teddy Ballgame's career totals--giving him 678. One could also assume that Williams may have continued to play another year or two had he reached that level in order to try and surpass Ruth's record. Given that Williams hit 29 HR in his final year in only 113 games and 310 at bats (with .316/.451/.645), it wouldn't be farfetched to think he could have ripped another 20-25 in 1961 (especially given the expansion that occurred and the plethora of HR hit in the league that year) and perhaps 15-20 in what could have been his final year in 1962. If so, Williams would have ended up with a career HR total just ahead of Ruth.

But what if it turned out that The Kid wasn't even the top home run slugger among those who share the same surname?

To answer the question as to who is the greatest HR hitter of all time (be it a Williams or a player by another name), let's examine the following rankings:


Top 20 HR Hitters of All Time (in Absolute Terms):

HOMERUNS                          HR     
1    Hank Aaron                  755   
2    Babe Ruth                   714   
3    Willie Mays                 660   
4    Barry Bonds                 613   
5    Frank Robinson              586   
6    Mark McGwire                583   
7    Harmon Killebrew            573   
8    Reggie Jackson              563   
9    Mike Schmidt                548   
10   Mickey Mantle               536   
11   Jimmie Foxx                 534   
T12  Willie McCovey              521   
T12  Ted Williams                521   
T14  Ernie Banks                 512   
T14  Eddie Mathews               512   
16   Mel Ott                     511   
17   Eddie Murray                504   
18   Sammy Sosa                  499   
19   Lou Gehrig                  493   
20   Rafael Palmeiro             490
This is the standard way most casual fans rank home run hitters. The list reads like a Hall of Fame roll call.

Top 20 HR Hitters of All Time (HR - League Average Based on Outs):

HOMERUNS                        DIFF   PLAYER   LEAGUE   
1    Babe Ruth                   622      714       92   
2    Hank Aaron                  457      755      298   
3    Mark McGwire                405      583      178   
4    Jimmie Foxx                 403      534      131   
5    Barry Bonds                 392      613      221   
6    Willie Mays                 390      660      270   
7    Lou Gehrig                  377      493      116   
8    Ted Williams                376      521      145   
9    Mel Ott                     374      511      137   
10   Mike Schmidt                367      548      181   
11   Harmon Killebrew            362      573      211   
12   Mickey Mantle               346      536      190   
13   Frank Robinson              337      586      249   
14   Willie McCovey              334      521      187   
15   Reggie Jackson              327      563      236   
16   Willie Stargell             305      475      170   
17   Sammy Sosa                  294      499      205   
T18  Eddie Mathews               285      512      227   
T18  Dave Kingman                285      442      157   
20   Ken Griffey Jr.             272      468      196
Another way of evaluating home run hitters is to compare them versus their league average. This ranking is based on the number of home runs hit minus the league average based on outs. The list of players doesn't change appreciably. Willie Stargell, Dave Kingman, and Ken Griffey Jr. displace Ernie Banks, Eddie Murray, and Rafael Palmeiro--three players who prospered from long and injury-free careers. All but Kingman are either in or likely to be in the HOF upon eligibility.

Top 20 HR Hitters of All Time (HR - League Average Based on Plate Appearances):

HOMERUNS                        DIFF   PLAYER   LEAGUE   
1    Babe Ruth                   602      714      112   
2    Hank Aaron                  436      755      319   
3    Jimmie Foxx                 387      534      147   
4    Mark McGwire                385      583      198   
5    Willie Mays                 367      660      293   
6    Lou Gehrig                  359      493      134   
T7   Mel Ott                     355      511      156   
T7   Barry Bonds                 355      613      258   
9    Mike Schmidt                351      548      197   
10   Harmon Killebrew            345      573      228   
11   Ted Williams                339      521      182   
12   Willie McCovey              317      521      204   
13   Reggie Jackson              315      563      248   
T14  Frank Robinson              313      586      273   
T14  Mickey Mantle               313      536      223   
16   Willie Stargell             293      475      182   
T17  Sammy Sosa                  290      499      209   
T17  Dave Kingman                290      442      152   
T19  Ernie Banks                 265      512      247   
T19  Eddie Mathews               265      512      247
This ranking is based on the number of home runs hit minus the league average based on plate appearances. No new names appear for the first time as the list of players is virtually the same as those above, only in a slightly different order.

Top 20 HR Hitters of All Time (HR/League Average Based on Outs):

HOMERUNS                        RATE   PLAYER   LEAGUE   
1    Babe Ruth                   777      714       92   
2    Lou Gehrig                  426      493      116   
3    Jimmie Foxx                 407      534      131   
4    Cy Williams                 390      251       64   
5    Ken Williams                378      196       52   
6    Mel Ott                     372      511      137   
7    Rogers Hornsby              365      301       82   
8    Hank Greenberg              362      331       91   
9    Ted Williams                359      521      145   
10   Hack Wilson                 351      244       69   
11   Home Run Baker              351       96       27   
12   Tilly Walker                347      118       34   
13   Johnny Mize                 336      359      107   
14   Mark McGwire                328      583      178   
15   Harry Davis                 317       69       22   
16   Wally Berger                311      242       78   
17   Chuck Klein                 309      300       97   
18   Dolph Camilli               305      239       78   
19   Mike Schmidt                303      548      181   
20   Ralph Kiner                 302      369      122

Top 20 HR Hitters of All Time (HR/League Average Based on Plate Appearances):

HOMERUNS                        RATE   PLAYER   LEAGUE   
1    Babe Ruth                   635      714      112   
2    Cy Williams                 370      251       68   
3    Lou Gehrig                  369      493      134   
4    Jimmie Foxx                 363      534      147   
5    Ken Williams                361      196       54   
6    Tilly Walker                346      118       34   
7    Home Run Baker              339       96       28   
8    Hank Greenberg              329      331      101   
9    Mel Ott                     327      511      156   
10   Hack Wilson                 326      244       75   
11   Rogers Hornsby              313      301       96   
12   Harry Davis                 309       69       22   
13   Johnny Mize                 306      359      117   
14   Wally Berger                302      242       80   
15   Mark McGwire                294      583      198   
16   Chuck Klein                 291      300      103   
17   Dave Kingman                290      442      152   
18   Ted Williams                286      521      182   
19   Rudy York                   282      277       98   
20   Mike Schmidt                278      548      197
* All of the above rankings are based on a minimum of 5000 plate appearances.

The latter two rankings are based on the number of home runs hit divided by the league average based on outs and plate appearances. This methodology provides a much different perspective on the greatest home run hitters of all time.

Based on the above, Fred "Cy" Williams was arguably the second or fourth most prolific home run hitter of all time (behind only Ruth and possibly Lou Gehrig and Jimmie Foxx). Williams hit 251 career homers versus 64 for the league average player with the same number of outs or 68 based on the same number of plate appearances.

Williams won four home run titles and finished among the league's top three every year for 13 consecutive years from 1915-1927 (except 1917 when he placed 7th and 1925 when he ended up 13th in just 107 games). Williams graduated from Notre Dame in 1912 (where he starred in baseball, football, and track), signed with the Chicago Cubs, and was immediately placed on the big league roster. He led the league in homers in 1916 while he was with the Cubs but was traded to the Philadelphia Phillies after slumping in 1917. A lefthanded pull hitter, Cy's stroke was ideally suited for the short right field porch at the Baker Bowl (named after the Phils owner, William Baker). The power-hitting center fielder's career began to flourish owing to his new home ballpark and the introduction of the lively ball in 1920. The "Williams shift", which was popularized by Cleveland Indians manager Lou Boudreau against the Red Sox great in the 1940s, was first used by several National League teams to counter another Williams 20 years earlier.

Williams hit 41 homers in 1923, 19 more than the National League runner-up and good enough to tie Babe Ruth for the major league lead. He shared his fourth and last HR title with Hack Wilson, hitting 30 in 1927 at the age of 39. When Williams retired after the 1930 season, his total of 251 career home runs was the N.L. record for a lefthanded batter. Cy hit 12 inside-the-park homers and seven grand slams, and his 11 pinch-hit HR were a record until 1960. Despite his accomplishments, Williams never received even one vote for the Hall of Fame.

In each of his first 14 seasons, Williams played for a different manager, including Tinker, Evers, and Chance. Upon retirement, Williams became a prominent architect in Eagle River, Wisconsin. He died in 1974 at the age of 86.

Although Ken Williams and Cy Williams were not brothers, they were related in many other ways. For the most part, they had parallel careers and were two of the greatest home run hitters of their era. Ken Williams slugged 196 homers and ranks as the fifth best HR hitter of all time based on the number of four baggers hit divided by the league average for outs and plate appearances.

Williams was the first American Leaguer other than Ruth to top 30 home runs in a season. He accomplished that feat in 1922 when he led the league with 39 HR and 155 RBI. That very same year, Ken also became the first player in baseball history to hit 30 HR and steal 30 bases in the same season. If that weren't enough, Williams also led the A.L. in extra base hits (84) and total bases (367) and finished in the top five in slugging average (.627), OPS (1.040), runs (128), hits (194), walks (74), times on base (275), and stolen bases (37), topping off one of the most underappreciated seasons ever. In that magical year, Williams became the first player in A.L. history to hit three HR in one game and the first to hit two HR in the same inning. He also homered in six consecutive games, setting a major league record that stood for 34 years. His 30-30 season wasn't matched until 1956 by none other than Willie Mays. And for all that, Williams received nary an MVP vote even though his St. Louis Browns team had its best year in the club's history (finishing one game behind the mighty New York Yankees). As Rob Neyer explains so eloquently in his Big Book of Baseball Lineups, the eight MVP voters from around the league were instructed to list eight players on their ballots: one player from each team, ranked one through eight. That system left Williams on the outside looking in because his teammate George Sisler led the league with a .420 BA and 134 runs scored, garnering seven of the eight votes for Browns players. The eighth vote went to Urban Shocker, a righthanded starting pitcher with a 24-17 record, an ERA of 2.97, and a league-high 149 strikeouts. Like Cy Williams, Ken benefited by playing his home games in a favorable ballpark (Sportsman's Park), especially in 1922 when he batted .373 with 32 taters at home and only .290 with seven homers on the road. For his career, Williams hit 142 HR at home and 54 on the road.

Ken Williams is one of nine players to have more RBI in a season than games played two times. The six retired players (Ruth, Gehrig, Foxx, Al Simmons, Hank Greenberg, and Joe DiMaggio) are all baseball greats and Hall of Famers and the two active players are Juan Gonzalez and Manny Ramirez. From 1918-1931, Williams and Bob Meusel were the only players other than Ruth to lead the A.L. in home runs.

It is unfortunate that the memory of Ken Williams has faded into the distant past along with baggy flannel uniforms, doubleheaders, and the game of "pepper". As an indication of the lack of respect for his contributions, Ken Williams received only one vote for the HOF in 1956 and 1958. He died in 1959 in his hometown of Grants Pass, Oregon.

Top 10 HR Hitters of All Time (HR/League Average Based on Outs):

HOMERUNS                        RATE   PLAYER   LEAGUE   
1    Babe Ruth                   777      714       92   
2    Gavvy Cravath               527      119       23   
3    Lou Gehrig                  426      493      116   
4    Jimmie Foxx                 407      534      131   
5    Cy Williams                 390      251       64   
6    Ken Williams                378      196       52   
7    Mel Ott                     372      511      137   
8    Rogers Hornsby              365      301       82   
9    Hank Greenberg              362      331       91   
10   Ted Williams                359      521      145
11   Hack Wilson                 351      244       69   
12   Home Run Baker              351       96       27   
13   Tilly Walker                347      118       34   
14   Johnny Mize                 336      359      107   
15   Mark McGwire                328      583      178   
16   Socks Seybold               327       51       16   
17   Charlie Hickman             324       58       18   
18   Harry Davis                 317       69       22   
19   Wally Berger                311      242       78   
20   Chuck Klein                 309      300       97
* The above rankings are based on a minimum of 4000 plate appearances rather than 5000.

Source: sabermetric baseball encyclopedia

The last list also ranks players based on the number of home runs hit divided by the league average based on outs, with the minimum number of plate appearances reduced from 5,000 to 4,000. Based on these factors, Clifford "Gavvy" Cravath can lay claim to being the second greatest home run hitter (trailing only Ruth). Cravath, the leading home run hitter during the Dead Ball era, led the National League in HR six times (1913-1915, 1917-1919) in seven years. Gavvy ended his career with 119 homers vs. a league average of 23 and places second based on outs or plate appearances. Remarkably, he won his first HR title at the age of 32 in what was only his second full season. Cravath outhomered the entire St. Louis Browns team in 1913; the Pittsburgh Pirates and Cincinnati Reds in 1914; the Boston Braves, Brooklyn Robins, St. Louis, and Cincinnati in 1915; and Pittsburgh in 1917. Of the eight teams in the N.L., only Gavvy's Philadelphia Phillies team and the Chicago Cubs hit more HR than Cravath in 1915. A righthanded hitter, Gavvy became an opposite-field power hitter to take advantage of playing his home games in the Baker Bowl. When Gavvy led the league in home runs in 1914, he hit all 19 HR at home and none on the road.

Cravath captured The Quad honors in 1915, leading the league in on base percentage (.393), slugging average (.510), times on base (241), and total bases (266). He also led the league in OPS+ (171), thereby achieving The Quad+ status as well. Gavvy led the Phils to their first pennant in 1915 and would have been a natural choice for MVP honors except that the N.L. didn't select a player that year. In 1913, Cravath placed first in three of the legs (SLG, TOB, and TB) and second in the other (OBP), another year in which he led the league in OPS+ (172). Cravath also led N.L. outfielders in assists three times, including 34 in 1914--the sixth highest total by an OF ever.

Cravath hit what was then a modern-day record 24 homers in 1915 and retired as the all-time HR leader in 1920. Ruth broke Gavvy's yearly mark in 1919 and passed him on the career list when he set a single-season record with 59 homers in 1921. Bill James ranks Cravath as the third-greatest right fielder in baseball history from the ages 32-36 (behind Ruth and Aaron). Gavvy received only two votes for the HOF in 1937, 1938, and 1939. According to The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, Cravath was elected a local judge in Laguna Beach, California in 1927 and was re-elected every two years after that until his death in 1963. He was the last non-lawyer to serve as a judge in California.

The Envelope, Please...

Based on counting stats, Hank Aaron is currently the most prolific home run hitter of all time. The only question remaining is whether Barry Bonds will ultimately surpass Aaron's career total and become the greatest HR hitter in absolute terms. In relative terms, there is no doubt that Babe Ruth is still the HR champ. The Bambino ranks number one by every measure vs. the league average (be it differential or ratio, outs or plate appearances). The combination of ranking second in absolute terms (and only by a slim margin) and first on all relative measures (and significantly higher than anyone with a high absolute total) leaves very little argument as to who is truly the most prodigious home run hitter in mlb history. However, as this study proves, no discussion regarding the greatest HR hitters of all time would be complete without mentioning all three Williamses as well as Gavvy Cravath. The common thread among the two lesser-known Williamses and Cravath is the fact that they all benefited greatly from their home ballparks, but that shouldn't necessarily in and of itself dismiss these players from the discussions of great home run hitters.