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The evolution of the White Sox single-season home run record

Carl Reynolds: The White Sox's first 20-homer man. (Library of Congress)
Carl Reynolds: The White Sox's first 20-homer man. (Library of Congress)

While writing about Zeke Bonura last week, I had to do a little bit of research on early White Sox sluggers, since he was among the select few who could regularly reach the faraway fences of Comiskey Park.

That required stringing together some milestones in order to give him some context. Which then led me to piece together the rest of the home-run record's timeline out of curiosity.

As you'll see, the White Sox were skeptical of the baseballing craze known as the "four-bagged hit." They stopped writing it off as a fad after a few decades.

1901: 5, Sam Mertes

Let's start at the beginning. Mertes changed leagues without changing towns, jumping from the Chicago Orphans (now known as the Cubs) to the White Stockings of the newly formed American League. He led the inaugural edition of the team we root for with five homers. That's fitting, since he was given the nickname of "Sandow," a popular circus strongman at the time. "Popular circus strongman" is an awesome phrase that doesn't come up enough.

Anyway, his Bullpen page has a little more on him:

Prior to the 1901 season, he jumped across town to the Chicago White Sox of the new American League, and he started in the circuit's first game on April 24th. On May 9th of that year, he broke up a no-hitter by Cleveland Blues pitcher Earl Moore in the 10th inning. The next year, he played every position for the Sox, including pitcher (he was 1-0 and only allowed 1 earned run in 8 innings on the mound).

1903: 6, Danny Green

Green, like Mertes, starred for both Chicago teams, and he's got to have an interesting story. He had an OPS+ above 110 every year, but his major-league career was over after 1905 at 28. Total White Sox says he retired, but his Bullpen page says he went to the minors. While playing for Minneapolis, he was drilled in the head, and he never recovered. He died at age 39 in "an institution."

At any rate, Green hit more homers in 1903 than some later White Sox teams, including 1908 (three!) and 1909 (four!).

1913: 8, Ping Bodie

Before a certain "spaghetti-eating plutocrat" made his mark, another gregarious Italian had already staked a claim to the White Sox's record books. Bodie's real name was Francesco Stephano Pezzolo, and he was one of the first Italian-American ballplayers, although he picked a different last name to play down his ethnicity. If you recognize Bodie's name, it might be because I mentioned him in an aside back in September, noting he might have been the role model for Ring Lardner's Jack Keefe.

1920: 14, Happy Felsch

The 1920 White Sox ushered in the Live Ball Era with their most explosive team yet. Their 37 homers were good for fourth in the American League, with not one, but two players cracking double digits (Shoeless Joe Jackson had 12). Let's not mention that Babe Ruth hit 54 by himself that year.

Alas, 1920 was the last season for both Felsch and Jackson for reasons undetermined. Did they enlist for World War I two years late? Did they pursue opportunities in the avocado business? We may never know. For now, their joint retirements remain mysteries lost in the sands of time.

1930: 22, Carl Reynolds

Despite the home run boom around baseball, it took 10 years for Felsch's record to fall. Partially because the White Sox lost, by my count, at least eight players from their 1919 team within two years, which is an abnormally high rate of turnover for the era.

Reynolds finally got the job done during a career year. In 1930, he hit .359/.388/.584 with 25 doubles and 18 triples, too. He also became the first White Sox player to record a three-homer game, achieving the feat on July 2 at Yankee Stadium. Reynolds couldn't muster a repeat performance, though -- Total White Sox says he suffered leg injuries the following year, and personality differences forced a trade to Washington.

As was the case in 1920, two White Sox surpassed the previous home run record in the same year, as Smead Jolley hit 16.

1934: 27, Zeke Bonura

As was detailed in his Hall of Fame Library Player File piece. His replacement, Joe Kuhel, would tie the mark in 1940.

1950: 29, Gus Zernial

Entering the 1950 season, the 30-homer barrier had been broken 82 times by American League hitters. None of them were White Sox. Zernial was supposed to be the guy to get them there -- he hit 40 homers for the Hollywood Stars in 1948, and Total White Sox says Frank Lane raised a five-foot-high chicken-wire fence along the warning track in Comiskey Park to shorten the fences by 20 feet. However, Zernial ended up breaking his collarbone in 1949, so really, the makeshift fence only benefited opposing hitters. It was taken down shortly after it was erected.

Zernial never hit 30 home runs for the Sox, but he did at least set a new mark. He needed a furious flurry to break Bonura's record -- he hit five homers over the last series of the year, including three homers in the final game.

He did go on to hit 33 homers next year ... with the Philadelphia Athletics. However, it's hard to complain. For one, 21 of those 33 homers were hit at Shibe Park, which had far friendlier dimensions for hitters than Comiskey Park. Also, he was the chief piece in the three-team, seven-player trade that brought Minnie Minoso to the White Sox. That ended up being worth it, right?

Eddie Robinson tied the record the following year, but the White Sox wouldn't get 30 homers until...

1970: 33, Bill Melton

... Beltin' Bill Melton hit a go-ahead solo shot off Kansas City's Aurelio Monteagudo in the front end of a doubleheader on Sept. 21, 1970. Melton had the 177th 30-homer season in American League history, and the first for the White Sox.

He hit 33 again the following year thanks to a Zernial-like finish. Chuck Tanner moved him to the leadoff spot for the last two games in order to give him a shot at the home run title, and Melton made the move pay off. He went deep three times over those two days, giving him sole possession of the crown. That was also a first for a White Sox hitter.

1972: 37, Dick Allen

Melton's glory didn't last long. Everything Melton did in 1971, Dick Allen did better one year later. Allen set the White Sox home run record with 37, which was tops in the AL, too. He also led the league in RBI (113), OBP (.420), slugging percentage (.603) and walks (99). Allen won the American League MVP for his efforts, finally giving 1959 Nellie Fox some company in that department.

Along with the home run record, Allen also set franchise-best marks in slugging and OPS+ (199).

Carlton Fisk tied the record in 1985, but he could have used a little Zernial or Melton magic. He went homerless over his final 11 games that year.

1993: 41, Frank Thomas

The legend of the Big Hurt began in earnest when he drove the White Sox to the AL West title with the first 40-homer in White Sox history. He broke Allen's record with a homer off the Yankees' Scott Kamienicki on Sept. 1, and he hit No. 40 four days later. By that time, the American League had seen 77 40-homer seasons. Finally, one belonged to a White Sox.

Thomas never broke his own record, although it's highly likely that he would have done so the following year had baseball avoided the strike. He had 38 through 113 games, which is a 55-homer pace. Alas, somebody else gets to hold that distinction.

1998: 49, Albert Belle

The most remarkable -- and maddening -- thing about Albert Belle's 1998 season is that he only had 18 homers at the All-Star break. The White Sox were 16 games under and 15 1/2 games out of first at that point. So when Belle went on one of the great second halves of all time...

1st Half 87 378 327 52 91 22 1 18 66 43 50 .278 .354 .517 .871
2nd Half 76 328 282 61 109 26 1 31 86 38 34 .387 .451 .816 1.267 didn't have much of an impact on the season. He did most of his damage on the record books, shattering White Sox records for RBI (152), total bases (399), extra-base hits (99), doubles (48) and, yes, homers. Just like Thomas when he broke Allen's record, Belle set the White Sox home run mark on a Sept. 1 game, with a solo shot off Baltimore's Doug Drabek. He also homered in each of the last two games, including a two-run shot off Tim Belcher in his penultimate at-bat of the season. He missed out on the first 50-homer when Ricky Bones struck him out in the seventh.