TRIPLE THREATS TWO-TIME TRIPLE CROWN WINNER TED WILLIAMS NEARLY WON IT FIVE TIMES IN SIX SEASONS. AFTER A 28-YEAR DROUGHT, WILL SOMEONE FINALLY WIN IT AGAIN?

June 30, 1996

As a prototypically dedicated hitter of the '90s, Mo Vaughn of
the Boston Red Sox has a home with a batting cage, a pitching
machine that can simulate any pitch delivered from any release
point, and a workout room stocked with so many weights he could
sell annual memberships. He also has a powerful 240-pound body
he uses to swing a 36-ounce bat, one of the heaviest in
baseball; a menacing stance in which he hangs so far over the
plate that he wears a protective guard on his right arm; two
hitting coaches; a higher batting average so far this season
(.362 at week's end) than Carl Yastrzemski, the major leagues'
last Triple Crown winner, ever finished with; projected totals
of 53 home runs and 155 RBIs--and not much more than a prayer of
winning the Triple Crown.

"Won't happen," Chicago White Sox first baseman Frank Thomas
says sternly, shaking his head for emphasis, "for anybody."

"Almost impossible," Seattle Mariners manager Lou Piniella says.
"I think the Triple Crown as we once knew it is a thing of the
past."

Like flannel uniforms, thick-handled bats and the 25-cent
scorecard, the Triple Crown--one player capturing the league
titles in batting, home runs and RBIs in the same season--has
become a museum relic under glass, all the more wondrous with
every passing year and positively untouchable. From 1901, when
Nap Lajoie won the first Triple Crown, through 1967, when
Yastrzemski won it, there were never more than 10 years between
Triple Crown winners. However, nobody has won it in the last 28
years.

But as we near the midpoint of this season, three players have
put up such huge numbers that a rare run at the Triple Crown
seems possible. At week's end Vaughn and Thomas in the American
League and the Houston Astros' Jeff Bagwell in the National
League ranked among their league's top 10 hitters in the Triple
Crown categories. Ellis Burks of the Colorado Rockies, who had
hit .524 with six home runs and nine RBIs in his last five games
through Sunday, has elbowed his way into this group. But Burks,
given his history of injuries and the fact that he has never hit
more than 21 home runs in a season, is an unlikely candidate to
remain in the chase. Vaughn, Thomas and Bagwell are 28 years old
and were born within a seven-month span beginning in December
1967, which means no one has won the Triple Crown in their
lifetimes.

How hard is it to be triple-crowned? It has been accomplished
only 14 times this century, by a dozen players (chart, page 29),
not including such legends as Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, Willie
Mays and Hank Aaron. And since Yaz won his crown, no player has
led his league in batting average and home runs (forgetting, for
the moment, RBIs) in the same season. In 1972, Dick Allen of the
Chicago White Sox made the best Triple Crown run during this
drought, falling short by 10 points in batting average (chart,
page 32).

"There are too many guys now who are great at specializing in
different parts of the game," Thomas says. "Guys who can hit for
a high average and guys who can hit home runs. There are just
too many good hitters. I'm sick of hearing all the excuses [for
the recent offensive explosion]: small parks, juiced ball,
watered-down pitching, small strike zone. Give the hitters
credit. People have got to realize that this is a golden age of
hitting. It started about three or four years ago. The
pitching's no different now. Guys like Mo, myself, Albert
[Belle] and [Ken] Griffey came along. That's what happened."

Baseball is so loaded with hitters that Thomas has never won a
title in any Triple Crown category, even though he has batted as
high as .353 in a season, hit as many as 41 home runs and driven
in 128 runs. Eddie Collins, Yogi Berra, Robin Yount and Eddie
Murray never finished first in any of the Triple Crown
categories in a full season, either. It is a competition in
which the bar keeps getting raised, especially in the batting
race. All six batting champions in the past three years hit
better than .350. That hadn't happened since 1932-34, during
another golden era of hitting.

"I don't see anyone winning a Triple Crown," says Frank
Robinson, whose .316 average in 1966 is the lowest among Triple
Crown winners. "It's very difficult with all the players who can
hit for average, like a Wade Boggs or Tony Gwynn, who can hit
.370, and the other guys with all the home runs. I felt I got a
break when I won because Tony Oliva, who won the batting title
the previous two years, had an off year [.307]."

Last season Dante Bichette of the Rockies led the National
League in home runs and RBIs and hit .340--and still fell short
of the Triple Crown because of Gwynn's .368 average. That's not
as bad as what happened to Ruth, who had the top four batting
averages of a home run and RBI champion who failed to win the
Triple Crown: .393, .378, .376 and .372. Still, Bichette's
numbers would have won a Triple Crown in seven of the last 14
seasons and 20 times overall, including 1992, when Gary
Sheffield of the San Diego Padres won the batting title (.330)
and missed the other jewels by two home runs (35, Fred McGriff
of the Padres) and nine RBIs (109, Darren Daulton of the
Philadelphia Phillies). Bichette's stats convinced him that the
feat is attainable.

"It's going to have to be a great year like last year, and
everything will have to click," he says. "I'll have to get some
long hitting streaks and some home run streaks, and I'll need
some guys ahead of me to get on base so I can drive in runs. But
it's possible. I wouldn't say it's impossible."

After all, Lou Gehrig won the American League Triple Crown in
1934--if not the MVP, in which he finished a puzzling fifth--at
the height of a hitters' era. All Gehrig had to do was hit .363
with 49 home runs and 165 RBIs, the sort of numbers that may be
needed to win the Triple Crown today.

Says Piniella, "The way baseball is now, to win a Triple Crown
you're talking about hitting .350, hitting at least 40 home runs
and driving in at least 125 runs. That's a tough chore."

Only five active players have numbers like those on their
resumes: Bagwell, Belle, Bichette, Thomas and the San Francisco
Giants' Barry Bonds. In the strike-shortened 1994 season, Belle
hit .357 with 36 home runs and 101 RBIs, missing the batting
title by two points, the home run crown by four and the RBI
title by 11. At week's end Belle shared the home run lead with
Brady Anderson (25) of the Baltimore Orioles and had 69 RBIs,
trailing Thomas by six. But Belle, who was hitting .316, was
well out of the race for the batting title (the Baltimore
Orioles' Roberto Alomar was hitting .373), largely because of a
June slump (.238) that coincided with the notoriety of his
bulldozing of Milwaukee Brewers second baseman Fernando Vina.

"He's been messed up with everybody getting on him," Thomas says
of Belle, who served a two-game suspension for unnecessary
roughness last Friday. If that's the case, how would Belle fare
with the national media scrutinizing him during a Triple Crown
chase in September? He remains the rabbit in the home run race,
however, having slammed 63 of them in his last 162 games through
Sunday.

"It would be tough for Mo or me to win the home run title,"
Thomas says, "because we play in places [where the wind
conditions make it] tough to hit home runs early and late in the
season. Not Albert. Plus I'm the kind of hitter who'll do
anything to drive in a run. I'll break my bat and give myself up
rather than try for a home run. RBIs mean the most to me."

The best chances for a Triple Crown this season fall to Vaughn
and Bagwell, players who were drafted the same year (1989) by
the same team (Boston), spent the same Florida Instructional
League season in the same Sunshine State Holiday Inn and
developed similar plate-hugging, I-dare-you-to-pitch-inside open
stances. They also share a similar philosophy about being
pitched outside: Connect with the ball deep in the hitting
zone--not in front of the plate--and drive it the other way.

At week's end Bagwell (.330, 21 home runs, 72 RBIs), trailed the
Los Angeles Dodgers' Mike Piazza in the batting race by 27
points and the Chicago Cubs' Sammy Sosa in the home run race by
four while leading the league in RBIs. "I'm not the kind of
power hitter who is going to lead the league in home runs," says
Bagwell, who, after just two minor league seasons, was shipped
by the Red Sox to Houston in 1990 for reliever Larry Andersen.
"And I'm not likely to lead the league in average. The only
category I could probably lead the league in is RBIs. And that's
the one that's important to me. If I'm driving in runs, I know
I'm doing my job."

At week's end Vaughn trailed Alomar by 11 points in batting,
Belle and Anderson by one home run and Thomas by five RBIs. But
Vaughn is a career .285 hitter who whiffed 150 times last year,
hardly the pedigree of a batting champion. "I wouldn't think of
him as a .360 hitter, because he strikes out a lot," Bagwell
says. "I know he can hit .300, but when you talk about leading
the league in hitting, it's probably going to take .360 or
something like that, and I don't know if he can do that."

Vaughn is famously aggressive, and not only with the double
order of cheeseburgers and fries he scarfed down before a game
last week. But with Jose Canseco, who had blasted 23 home runs
through Sunday, hitting behind him, Vaughn has tempered that
ferocity and become more selective at the plate. He has also
fattened his average by hitting the ball more often to
leftfield. His first order of business when stepping into the
batter's box is to find a point to focus on in leftfield, like a
sailor finding the North Star. He has a guidepost to orient
himself in every ballpark. For instance, at Jacobs Field in
Cleveland last week, it was an Ohio Lottery sign on the wall.
"It gets my body in the right position and keeps me from
spinning off the ball, from trying to pull it," he says.

Vaughn pulls his batting helmet visor low and tucks his chin
behind his right shoulder, so that all the pitcher sees of his
face is his eyes, as if Vaughn were a commander peering out from
a tank. He pumps the bat wickedly, as though it's hot to the
touch. He is dangerous even before he swings the bat. "You can't
help but notice him," New York Yankees pitcher Kenny Rogers
says. "He fills up the whole box."

Says Vaughn, "Nothing's more exciting than knowing you've got
four at bats every day. There's nothing better in life than
that. I don't have kids, I don't have hobbies. This is what I
do--I hit. I feel like hitting is a war, and you better be a
warrior and you've got to be crazy."

He obsesses so much about hitting that he wants to add
life-sized video images of major league pitchers to his batting
cage. In addition to working with Red Sox hitting coach Jim
Rice, he also confers regularly by telephone with Rice's
predecessor, Mike Easler, who besides working with Vaughn is the
baseball coach at National Christian University in San Antonio.
They have such a rapport that when Vaughn broke a knuckle on his
right hand this year, Easler fitted himself with a cast on the
same finger so that he could better understand the sensation
Vaughn felt while hitting.

"If it's [within reach], I'll be going for it," Vaughn says of
the Triple Crown. Unlike Thomas and Bagwell, he does not have a
contending team to support him. The only player to win a Triple
Crown playing on a losing club was Chuck Klein of the 1933
Phillies. "It's been very tough for our team," Vaughn says of
the Red Sox, who through Sunday were 30-43 and 14 games out of
first. "I don't like to talk about individual things, but you
look for whatever you can to drive yourself on a daily basis.
I'll look at the box scores, and if I see Frank got an RBI, I'll
go, Damn, I got to get me two today.

"The hard part is the home runs. Late in the year the wind blows
straight in at Fenway Park. I hit balls that are outs in front
of the bullpen at Fenway, 380 feet away. They're bombs
everywhere else."

Nonetheless, Fenway is the Buckingham Palace of Triple Crowns.
Three of the past five winners played there: Yastrzemski and Ted
Williams, who did it twice. Williams chased the Triple Crown
with such regularity that it ought to be renamed the Ted
Williams Award. In six seasons from 1941 through '49 (he served
in the military from '43 to '45), Williams nearly won the Triple
Crown five times. He missed it by five RBIs in 1941, won it in
'42, finished second in all three categories in '46, won it in
'47 and just missed winning it when he finished second in the
batting race (.3427 to George Kell's .3429) in '49. Needing a
hit in his last at bat to win the Triple Crown, with the Red Sox
trailing the Yankees 5-0 and nobody on base in the ninth of a
game that decided the pennant that season, Williams walked
against Vic Raschi.

Four years later Al Rosen of the Indians also chased the Triple
Crown to his last at bat of the season. He knew from a clubhouse
radio report that Mickey Vernon of the Washington Senators, who
had two hits in four at bats that day, finished the season at
.337. Rosen, at .336 with a 3-for-4 day, needed one more hit to
win the Triple Crown. He batted against Al Aber of the Detroit
Tigers, a former teammate whom Cleveland had traded earlier in
the season.

"He was trying to throw strikes, but he was wild," Rosen says.
"He couldn't get the ball over, but I was fouling off pitches. A
walk didn't do me any good. Then I topped the ball down the
third base line. I ran as hard as I could, took one of those
long strides for the bag and came up a foot short, so then I
took a smaller step and the umpire called me out. My manager, Al
Lopez, and my teammates were all out of the dugout arguing. I
quelled it, though. I knew I was out. It wasn't meant to be."

When the story is repeated to Vaughn in the visitors' clubhouse
in Cleveland, he grimaces and shouts, "Damn! So close!" A few
minutes later an attendant presents him with some of his rookie
trading cards to sign. A younger, thinner, clean-shaven Vaughn
is looking back at him. "I hate signing these," he says. "That's
when I couldn't hit. Couldn't hit a damn thing. Tried to pull
everything. Had no clue."

Now here he is, a chunk of muscle and desire, hitting .362 and
swinging the heaviest bat in baseball like a ball peen hammer.
Would you like to be the one to tell this guy he can't win the
Triple Crown? "I could contend," he says, "and it wouldn't be a
surprise to me. That's all I do is hit. It's all I think about
every day. This ain't no fluke here."

B/W PHOTO: COURTESY OF BRIAN INTERLAND In the 1940s, Williams was a regular among the American League's batting, home run and RBI leaders. [Ted Williams batting] COLOR PHOTO: CHUCK SOLOMON If Vaughn, a career .285 hitter, keeps his average up, he could be Boston's next crown prince. [Mo Vaughn batting] COLOR PHOTO: ART SHAY No player has even led his league in batting and home runs since Yaz won the last Triple Crown. [Carl Yastrzemski batting] COLOR PHOTO: TONY TRIOLO Robinson's .316 average in '66 was the lowest among the Triple Crown winners. [Frank Robinson batting] COLOR PHOTO: TOM DIPACE Bichette's '95 numbers--.340, 40 homers and 128 RBIs--would have won the crown in 20 other years. [Dante Bichette batting] B/W PHOTO: UPI/BETTMAN Few batting laurels escaped the Babe, but his average, remarkably, cost him the crown six times. [Babe Ruth batting]

CROWNING ACHIEVEMENT

Here are the 14 players who have won the Triple Crown since 1900.

Player BA HR RBIs

NAP LAJOIE, 1901 .422 13 125
TY COBB, 1909 .377 9 107
HEINIE ZIMMERMAN, 1912 .372 14 103
ROGERS HORNSBY, 1922 .401 42 152
ROGERS HORNSBY, 1925 .403 39 143
JIMMIE FOXX, 1933 .356 48 163
CHUCK KLEIN, 1933 .368 28 120
LOU GEHRIG, 1934 .363 49 165
JOE MEDWICK, 1937 .374 31 154
TED WILLIAMS, 1942 .356 36 137
TED WILLIAMS, 1947 .343 32 114
MICKEY MANTLE, 1956 .353 52 130
FRANK ROBINSON, 1966 .316 49 122
CARL YASTRZEMSKI, 1967 .326 44 121

THE ELUSIVE JEWEL

The batting title is the hardest jewel of the Triple Crown to
win. Players have won two thirds of the crown most often by
claiming the home run and RBI titles. Here's a breakdown of
those combinations.

Home run and RBI titles 71
Batting and RBI titles 15
Batting and home run titles 3

RECENT WANNABES

Since Carl Yastrzemski won the Triple Crown in 1967, 30 players
have won two thirds of the Triple Crown. All of them except Joe
Torre and Al Oliver won the home run and RBI championships. Of
the remaining 28, these players came closest to completing their
Triple Crowns.

HR and RBI Champ BA Leader

DICK ALLEN, 1972 .308 .318
GEORGE FOSTER, 1977 .320 .338
JIM RICE, 1978 .315 .333
MIKE SCHMIDT, 1981 .316 .341
DANTE BICHETTE, 1995 .340 .368
WILLIE MCCOVEY, 1969 .320 .348

TWO OUTTA THREE AIN'T BAD

Dante Bichette of the Colorado Rockies won the National League
home run and RBI championships last year but finished third in
batting, with a .340 average. Of the 71 times a player has won
the home run and RBI titles in the same year without winning the
Triple Crown, here are the 10 with the best batting averages and
the players who led their league in hitting.

HR and RBI Champ BA Leader Batting Champ

BABE RUTH, 1923 .393 .403 HARRY HEILMANN
BABE RUTH, 1921 .378 .394 HARRY HEILMANN
BABE RUTH, 1920 .376 .407 GEORGE SISLER
BABE RUTH, 1926 .372 .378 HEINIE MANUSH
JIMMIE FOXX, 1932 .364 .367 DALE ALEXANDER
HACK WILSON, 1930 .356 .401 BILL TERRY
FRANK BAKER, 1912 .347 .410 TY COBB
TED WILLIAMS, 1949 .3427 .3429 GEORGE KELL
GABBY CRAVATH, 1913 .341 .350 JAKE DAUBERT
HANK GREENBERG, 1940 .340 .352 JOE DiMAGGIO

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)