There is no more hallowed record in major league sports than the single season home run record. Ever since the immortal Babe Ruth slugged a mind-boggling 60 dingers in 1927 while residing on Murderer's Row, any attempt to surpass the mark has been met with extreme controversy.
Hank Greenberg being intentionally walked due to his religious beliefs as he breached 50, Roger Maris' asterisk for schedule length and not being "Yankee" enough, Sosa/McGwire/Bonds and their pharmaceutical regimen, etc...
Enter Ned Williamson:
Ned Williamson played for the Cubs (then known as the White Stockings) from 1879 through 1889. As a member of Cap Anson's core, Ned manned third base with exceptional skill - leading the league (at his position) in both fielding percentage and double plays five times, and assists six times.
Going into the 1884 season, his glove was his main draw; with his batting average only twice surpassing .280 and his power minimal (3 homers was his best season total), no one would contest this notion.
Then Ned went all Brady Anderson on the league.
He belted an astounding 27 home runs that season in 112 games, 9x more than he had ever slugged and more than doubling Harry Stovey's previous mark of 14. He also became the first man in MLB history to hit 3 round trippers in 1 game. What caused this sudden explosion of power?
Surely today we would automatically assume steroids. But, seeing as though performance enhancing drugs were limited to alcohol, tobacco and maybe opium back then, this was obviously not the root.
We can also rule out a possible boost caused by magnificent mustaches; otherwise, we would have Carlos Villanueva batting cleanup right now.
Best mustache since Rollie Fingers?
The key piece of evidence in this case is one stat: 25 of his 27 homeruns were hit at home.
Lakefront Park, the Cubs home field from 1878 to 1884, was an unusually shaped field. Situated in what is now Millennium Park, the dimensions were severely limited by the Illinois Central Railroad tracks and Lake Michigan just beyond right field. Thus, right field was only 200 ft. from home plate.
200 ft? I know what you're thinking, even Tony Campana could park one over that short porch!
At this time, the home club determined the ground rules for their stadium. Previously, a ball hit over that fence was considered a ground rule double. But, going into 1884, Cap Anson decided that any ball hit over the fence should be a round-tripper.
Now it's all starting to make sense, isn't it? Ned Williamson was hitting Little League caliber homeruns.
Lakefront Park, courtesy of blog.heritagesportsart.com
He wasn't alone either, 3 other Cubs hit over 20 long balls and the team hit 142 all together. For reference, second place was Buffalo at 39! Surely this farce could not be allowed to continue.
Well, it didn't and it wasn't because the League stepped in either. Chicago reclaimed the land that Lakefront Park stood on and kicked the Cubs to the curb. Spending much of 1885 as a road-only team, they then moved into the West Side Grounds - where they would remain until Wrigley Field was made available.
What affect did the West Side Grounds have on Ned Williamson? He never hit more than 9 homers again. By 1890, he was out of Major League Baseball as a result of a nagging leg injury he suffered while touring the world on Albert Spalding's baseball exhibition in 1888.
So, what have we learned here? That no record is legitimate? That baseball is made up of a series of idiosyncratic rules? Maybe.
I'd say that it's important to remember that all marks set are products of their time and will rarely be universally comparable.
As for this beautiful piece of cardboard itself, it comes from the 2012 Upper Deck Goodwin Champions release. The lack of an MLB license is hardly a factor when it comes to players as ancient as Ned because no one personally remembers what these uniforms looked like. The portrait style is also a nice touch.
But, show of hands; back when Slammin' Sammy Sosa was trying to power his way past Maris and the Great Bambino, how many of you knew that he wouldn't be the first Cub to hold the homerun crown?