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Feasting On Rib-eyes Juan Gonzalez and Mark McGwire are trying to stick a fork in Hall of Famer Hack Wilson's venerable record of 190 RBIs

June 15, 1998
June 15, 1998

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June 15, 1998

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Feasting On Rib-eyes Juan Gonzalez and Mark McGwire are trying to stick a fork in Hall of Famer Hack Wilson's venerable record of 190 RBIs

Runs batted in are to the triple crown categories what Shemp was
to the Three Stooges or Zeppo to the Marx Brothers. Overlooked?
Put it this way: The RBI title was once sponsored by a fast-food
joint, briefly and with hardly any notice. Remember the
game-winning RBI? That 1980s invention that was supposed to jazz
up RBIs? Don't think so. That, too, soon bit the dust.

This is an article from the June 15, 1998 issue

Unlike batting average and home runs, the other triple crown
departments, which annually provoke breathless reports of
"chases" and "races" among league leaders, runs batted in
typically generate battles that produce about as much attention
as the lawn bowling nationals. The record book is chock-full of
home run nuggets--everything from most in a month to most in
first two major league games--but you can't find decent RBI
information with a miner's helmet and a canary. No one even
knows for sure what the record is for most RBIs at the All-Star
break.

The best guess is the 103 racked up in 1937 by Hank Greenberg,
who, in a typical display of respect for runs batted in
achievement, was left off the American League All-Star team by
his own Detroit Tigers manager and teammate, Mickey Cochrane.
"The RBI is as underrated a statistic as batting average is an
overrated statistic," says San Francisco Giants second baseman
Jeff Kent, who knocked in 121 runs last year with almost no one
noticing. "You win games with run production, not batting
average."

Finally, this year, attention must be paid. Juan Gonzalez of the
Texas Rangers and Mark McGwire of the St. Louis Cardinals are
driving in so many runners that people at last are waking up to
the importance and rich history of the run batted in, including
the two sluggers themselves. Until this season Gonzalez had
never heard of the single-season-record holder, Hall of Famer
Hack Wilson. McGwire, who's reminded of the home run record 61
times a day, only recently learned that Wilson set the RBI mark
in 1930 with 190, a record that has stood 31 years longer than
Roger Maris's homer standard. "What were they doing? Playing
Nerf ball? Or Wiffle ball?" McGwire says. "A hundred and ninety.
That's out there. You'd have to retire after that. There's no
way you could come back after that."

Actually, Wilson, whose career was over due to alcoholism by
1934, when he was just 34, set the record in a season when the
National League average was .303 and the ball was juiced because
league officials wanted to satisfy run-hungry fans. The core had
added resiliency, and the seams were sewn flat, reducing the
drag needed for sharp breaking pitches. (Imagine trying to snap
off a hook with a cue ball.) In the past 60 years no one has
come within 30 RBIs of Wilson's record. Since '50 only two
players have reached 150: Tommy Davis of the Los Angeles Dodgers
in '62 (153) and Andres Galarraga of the Colorado Rockies in '96
(150).

Suddenly, in the slam-bang world of expansion baseball, Gonzalez
and McGwire are as powerful as the Hubble telescope, bringing
something far out of sight into focus. With both hitters' teams
having played 60 games entering Sunday's action (only 37% of the
schedule), Gonzalez had knocked in 76 runs and McGwire 70--to
which both added one on Sunday. According to an archaeological
dig by the Rangers, of the seven occasions in which a batter
finished with 170 RBIs or more (all between 1921 and '38), only
two included a better 60-game start than Gonzalez's: Jimmie
Foxx's 78 RBIs (en route to 175) for the '38 Boston Red Sox and
Chuck Klein's 77 (of an eventual 170) for the '30 Philadelphia
Phillies. Both of those teams played fewer regular-season games
than Texas will--Klein's Phillies, 156; Foxx's Sox, only 150.
"Nothing's impossible," Gonzalez says of breaking Wilson's
record. "It's very difficult, but I think it's possible."

His teammates are far more bullish. Says Rangers catcher Ivan
Rodriguez, "Let me tell you, if he gets to a hundred by the
All-Star break, he's going to do it." Adds Texas outfielder
Roberto Kelly, "Juan hasn't even gotten hot yet. That's what's
scary."

RBItem: Oscar Gamble, when he was a New York Yankee during the
early 1980s, connected with the best ribbie-related quote ever
when asked about hitting with runners in scoring position: "When
I step into the batter's box, I am in scoring position."

Among today's players, Gonzalez and McGwire are most worthy of
Oscar's nomination for self-RBIing. Through Sunday McGwire had
accounted for 55 of his runs batted in with his major
league-leading 28 home runs, while Gonzalez had accumulated 41
RBIs on his 19 dingers. Gonzalez is more of a freewheeling gap
hitter--through Sunday he had driven in more runners from first
base (19) than second (13)--and he benefits from batting behind
three hitters who run well: Tom Goodwin and Mark McLemore,
ranked seventh and second, respectively, in the American League
in on-base percentage, and Rusty Greer. Then again, does it
matter? Gonzalez is such an RBI machine, he could drive in Miss
Daisy. "If the ball goes in the gap, all the runners score,"
Texas manager Johnny Oates says. "And Juan hits the ball so hard
that when he does hit it in the gap, the outfielders can't cut
it off. They run an L pattern. They turn back toward the wall."

McGwire has had no such support from a constantly rejiggered top
of the order in St. Louis. Through Sunday, he'd had only 47 at
bats with runners in scoring position; Gonzalez had had 82.
Although no one has ever driven in 100 runs with fewer hits than
RBIs, McGwire needed only 58 hits to reach 70.

RBItem: The worst RBI man in history (part-time category) was a
130-pound outfielder named Gene Good. He had 119 lifetime at
bats, all in 1906 with the Boston Braves. Career RBIs: zero.
Alias: Not So Good.

The run batted in has been an underappreciated statistic ever
since 1880, when the Chicago Tribune first printed RBI totals
for the Cubs. Readers complained that the newfangled stat, which
the Tribune had invented, discriminated against table-setters at
the top of the lineup. The Tribune apologized and stopped
publishing it. In 1891 one of the founding fathers of baseball,
Henry Chadwick, asked his fellow members of the National League
Rules Committee to recognize RBIs in official records and box
scores. The committee rejected his proposal. Not until 29 years
later, in 1920, did the run batted in gain official status in
the majors. It took another 10 years, and Wilson's record run,
for the RBI to gain widespread acceptance in box scores.

Since then players have come to refer to RBIs as ribbies,
rib-eyes, steaks or cookies--not nearly the sort of linguistic
depth devoted to home runs. "Wilson watches" have yet to sprout
from the nation's agate pages. "Yes, RBIs are somewhat
overlooked," McGwire says, "but you talk to any hitter who gets
the big bucks to drive them in, and he'll tell you the biggest
thing is getting runners in. I'll take a bloop single to drive
in a run, but that doesn't excite people."

RBItem: The worst RBI man in history (full-time category) was
San Diego Padres shortstop Enzo Hernandez. In 549 at bats in
1971 he drove in 12 runs, the fewest by anyone who batted 500
times in a season. The next year one of his teammates, Nate
Colbert, exceeded Enzo's 1971 output in one day with a
major-league-record 13 RBIs in a doubleheader. Hernandez lasted
eight seasons in the big leagues, averaging 14 RBIs per.

McGwire took a three-game hiatus from his record chasing last
week because of lower-back spasms, which have bothered him off
and on throughout his big league career. Gonzalez has also been
prone to injury, this year having been the first in eight full
seasons in which he played in each of Texas's first 61 games. He
credits his improved health to daily 90-minute stretching and
flexibility sessions under the guidance of his traveling
personal trainer, Angel Precinal. However, the tenuousness of
any serious run at 190 RBIs was underscored last Saturday when
one of Gonzalez's key supporting players, McLemore, left a game
against San Diego with a strained hamstring and was later placed
on the 15-day disabled list.

"You won't see anyone drive in 190 runs," says Chicago White Sox
designated hitter Frank Thomas. "Pitchers will challenge you in
the first half, but later in the season they'll pitch around
you. A top RBI hitter can go a month without being pitched to.
It's easier to hit 62 homers than drive in 190 runs."

Gonzalez, however, almost refuses to allow pitchers to walk him.
Displaying the best plate coverage since Gilbert Brown, he had
only 13 bases on balls through Sunday--53 fewer than McGwire.
"He can take a pitch that's about to bounce on the ground and
drive it to the wall," says Padres pitcher Sterling Hitchcock,
who kept McGwire and Gonzalez RBI-less in consecutive starts
last week. Says Gonzalez, "I concentrate more with men on base.
See the ball and hit it hard. And if it jumps out of the yard,
great."

RBItem: Tony Gwynn of the Padres led the majors in hitting with
runners in scoring position in 1997 (.459) and over the last
five years (.387). After turning 37 last May, he became the
oldest player to drive in 100 runs for the first time, breaking
the record set by Paul Molitor, who turned 37 in August of '93,
the year he knocked in 111 runs for the Toronto Blue Jays.

You can add RBIs to the nature versus nurture debate. For Gwynn,
knocking in runs was learned behavior. "My secret goal was to
drive in a hundred," he says. "Over the years you gain
confidence from being in RBI situations. Last year I learned how
to be more aggressive, especially with the count in my favor. My
confidence just jumped. If it was 0 and 2, I knew I could just
drop a little grenade down the leftfield line."

Generally, though, the most prolific run producers seem to have
an RBI gene. Like alltime leader Hank Aaron, Tony Perez, Dave
Winfield and Joe Carter, Gonzalez has a knack for knocks with
runners on. At week's end he had 352 ribbies in 328 games going
back to the start of the 1996 season. "It comes naturally to
me," he says. And McGwire has a similar career rate of at bats
per RBI (4.56) to Gonzalez's (4.51).

RBItem: What Mario Mendoza did for batting average, Matty Alou
did for RBIs. In 1966, while with the Pittsburgh Pirates, Alou
led the National League with a .342 mark but drove in only 27
runs, the fewest ever by a batting champion. He squeezed out
only 427 RBIs from 1,777 career hits, which explains why his
name has become a synonym for the soft .300 hitter.

San Diego righthanders Kevin Brown and Donne Wall had the count
in their favor against Gonzalez in each of three consecutive at
bats last Friday, yet each time Gonzalez still drove in a run,
with a double and a sacrifice fly off Brown on 0-and-2 pitches
and a home run off Wall on an 0-and-1 delivery. "There's no
reason to throw him a strike," Padres hitting coach Merv
Rettenmund says. "You've got to try to get him out by getting
him to chase. If you make a mistake, you'll pay. And McGwire is
so strong, if he makes a mistake, he can still hit it out. He
missed two balls against us, and they went over the wall anyway.
McGwire's going to hit so many home runs, he could have 150 RBIs
just on homers. Sure, they could break the record. Why not?"

Wilson closed out his sublime season with 106 RBIs in his last
71 games. Gonzalez's least proficient month over his career, as
measured by at bats per RBI, is September. Who knows? He's at
least making us take notice, maybe even earning another nickname
for himself. Gonzalez is called Igor by his friends, after the
pro wrestler the Mighty Igor, just as Wilson, whose given name
was Lewis Robert, inherited his nickname from the wrestler
George Hackenschmidt.

"Mr. RBI," Rodriguez says, suggesting a more dignified
alternative. "How about that?"

Sorry. That title is taken.

RBItem: In 31 lifetime at bats in '94 and '95 with the Tigers
and the Minnesota Twins, Riccardo Benay Ingram drove in three
runs. If he had any sort of appreciation for embroidery, it's
possible he retired with more RBIs in his wardrobe than on his
career batting record. Fittingly, the only man with those
initials in the history of baseball now serves as the hitting
coach for the Fort Wayne Wizards, the Twins' Class A Midwest
League affiliate. What better way for a young professional to
learn about driving in runs than from Mr. RBI himself.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY DARREN CARROLL HOMEWARD BOUND A most familiar sight in Texas this year: A Texas base runner, waiting for Gonzalez to drive him home. [Juan Gonzalez batting]B/W PHOTO: ACME HE WAS NO HACK The most nightmarish vision any pitcher could see in 1930? Wilson striding to the plate with teammates on base. [Hack Wilson]B/W PHOTO: LEE BALTERMAN RBIMEISTER With 153 ribbies in 1962, Davis (whose next-best total was 89) is one of two men since 1950 to have at least 150. [Tommy Davis]COLOR PHOTO: TOM DIPACE WHATEVER IT TAKES Though justly noted for his prodigious homers, McGwire is also willing to go to right to drive in runs. [Mark McGwire]

JUAN FOR THE AGES

With 77 RBIs in 61 games, the Rangers' Juan Gonzalez was
averaging 1.26 RBIs per game at week's end. Should he continue
at that pace, he would have the highest per-game average in this
century. Here's his competition.

PLAYER, TEAM YEAR G RBIS RBI/G

Hack Wilson, Cubs 1930 155 190 1.23
Al Simmons, Athletics 1930 138 165 1.20
Hank Greenberg, Tigers 1937 154 183 1.19
Lou Gehrig, Yankees 1931 155 184 1.19
Jimmie Foxx, Red Sox 1938 149 175 1.17
Babe Ruth, Yankees 1929 135 154 1.14
Lou Gehrig, Yankees 1930 154 174 1.13
Lou Gehrig, Yankees 1927 155 175 1.13
Babe Ruth, Yankees 1921 152 171 1.13
Babe Ruth, Yankees 1931 145 163 1.12

The Alltime Ribbie Men

Gonzalez and Mark McGwire, with 77 and 71 RBIs, respectively, at
week's end, are trying to join the company of the most bountiful
run producers in history. If they're successful, they'll be the
first players in more than 60 years to make the list. Here are
the top 10 single-season totals.

PLAYER, TEAM YEAR RBIS

Hack Wilson, Cubs 1930 190
Lou Gehrig, Yankees 1931 184
Hank Greenberg, Tigers 1937 183
Lou Gehrig, Yankees 1927 175
Jimmie Foxx, Red Sox 1938 175
Lou Gehrig, Yankees 1930 174
Babe Ruth, Yankees 1921 171
Chuck Klein, Phillies 1930 170
Hank Greenberg, Tigers 1935 170
Jimmie Foxx, Athletics 1932 169

SOURCE: ELIAS SPORTS BUREAU

Perhaps the fairest way to measure RBI producers is to evaluate
which ones come through the highest percentage of the time with
runners in scoring position. Here are the 10 percentage leaders
of the 1990s.

PERCENTAGE OF RUNNERS IN
PLAYER, PRIMARY TEAM SCORING POSITION KNOCKED IN

Tony Gwynn, Padres 37.9
Frank Thomas, White Sox 36.1
Barry Bonds, Giants 35.7
Mike Piazza, Dodgers 35.3
Mark Grace, Cubs 34.7
Chipper Jones, Braves 34.1
Kirby Puckett, Twins 33.9
Will Clark, Rangers 33.7
B.J. Surhoff, Brewers 33.6
Mo Vaughn, Red Sox 33.6

CLUTCH HITTERS

Here are the 10 hitters who have had the most game-tying or
go-ahead RBIs in the seventh inning or later in the 1990s.

PLAYER, PRIMARY TEAM TOTAL TIE GO-AHEAD

Dante Bichette, Rockies 72 28 44
Frank Thomas, White Sox 65 29 36
Barry Bonds, Giants 65 31 34
Ron Gant, Braves 59 18 41
Albert Belle, Indians 57 27 30
Fred McGriff, Braves 57 23 34
Rafael Palmeiro, Orioles 57 19 38
Tino Martinez, Mariners 56 25 31
Mark Grace, Cubs 55 24 31
Paul O'Neill, Yankees 55 27 28

SOURCE: ELIAS SPORTS BUREAU