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Fans bemoan the loss of Hack Wilson's home run record

September 03, 1998

Hack Wilson's home run record brokenBy KERRY LYNN FRALEY / Staff Writer




MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - A Philadelphia Athletics fan, Robert Elmer Jr. wasn't rooting for Baseball Hall of Famer Hack Wilson to hit a homer when, as a teenager, he watched the then-Chicago Cubs player batting his team in 1929.

But the Martinsburg resident said that lately he had been pulling for Wilson, who called Martinsburg his home for two decades, to retain the National League record for most home runs in a season.

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"For old-timers, I think it's kind of sad," said Elmer, who saw Wilson's 68-year-old record of 56 home runs in a season toppled Tuesday night by Mark McGwire.

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The St. Louis Cardinals slugger hit two homers against the Florida Marlins, bringing to 57 the number of home runs he hit so far this season.

McGwire went on to hit two more home runs Wednesday night against the Marlins, putting him only two home runs behind New York Yankees Roger Maris' 37-year-old Major League record of 61.

Between better equipment and worse pitching, today's Major League players have an unfair advantage over Wilson and other batting record-setters from the past, he said.

"They've done everything to become more exciting, and it's becoming more exciting, I guess," said former New York Yankees first baseman Raymond "Buddy" Barker, who has been watching to see if Wilson's and former teammate Maris' records would stay.

Changes in the game have made home runs more common than they were back in the days Wilson and Maris were playing, said Barker, a Martinsburg native.

"Only your superstars hit up into the 40s. Now there are numerous players hitting in the 40s," he said.

The number of expansion teams has spread top-notch pitching talent thin among the teams, Barker said.

When he was playing, there were only eight National League and eight American League teams, he said.

Now there are 14 American League teams and 16 teams in the National League.

Meanwhile, the pitching mound has been lowered, so pitchers can't get as much push on the ball as they used to, and the strike zone has been narrowed, Barker said.

Batters also have more opportunities to hit home runs now, with the teams playing more games in a season than they used to, he said.

Whether it's McGwire, Sammy Sosa of the Chicago Cubs or another heavy hitter, it looks like Maris' home run record also will be broken, said Barker, who said he would be sad to see his teammate displaced.

But, given the number of games left this season, he said he thinks Wilson's Major League record of 190 runs batted in during one season could stand.

"I hope one of his records stands," said Matt Howard, manager of the Adult League Martinsburg Blue Sox, who helped erect a billboard to pay tribute to the former Blue Sox player at P.O. Faulkner Field in Martinsburg.

Proud of Wilson's affiliation to Martinsburg and the Blue Sox, Howard said he was sad to see McGwire pass Wilson's 56 mark on Tuesday.

Howard said he doesn't think it takes anything away from Wilson, who played for the Blue Sox from 1921 until 1923, when he was sold for $2,500 to a Minor League affiliate of the Cubs.

Conversely, it highlights his accomplishments under much tougher conditions than players face today, Howard said.

"What Hack Wilson and people like Roger Maris did was incredible because there were no expansion teams," he said.

"Hack and all those guys always faced weighty pitching. That's why I respect them more than these guys today," said Howard, who said he gets e-mail messages from people around the world thanking him for keeping Wilson's memory alive.

Though he's reminded of Wilson's connection to Martinsburg every time his team plays a home game at Faulkner Field, Martinsburg High School baseball coach Dennis Etherington said he hadn't made the connection between McGwire's push toward Maris' record and Wilson.

ESPN made the link for him Tuesday night, said Etherington, who wasn't bothered to see the local hero lose his place in the record books.

"Records are made to be broken. It gives everybody something to strive for," he said.

Wilson played for the Cubs, the New York Giants, the Brooklyn Dodgers and the Philadelphia Athletics during his Major League career. Wilson set his home run record in 1930, playing as an outfielder at the time.

He died in Baltimore in 1948.

He is buried at Rosedale Cemetery in Martinsburg, where a plaque erected on his gravesite in 1988 commemorates his election into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

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