- The Lost Years of Home Run King Joe Bauman
When Baseball America's bimonthly newspaper polled its readers in 1999 to select the Minor League legend of the twentieth century, Joe Bauman was chosen as the number one legend.1 If I had voted I would have stuffed the ballot box for Joe because he is my number one baseball hero. To boys like me who grew up in the late 1940s and early 1950s in western Oklahoma, he took on almost mythical status from the moment he arrived in my hometown to play baseball for three glorious semipro seasons. Like Paul Bunyan of the north woods, he seemed to be at least ten feet tall although he stood only six feet four and one-half inches and weighed 230 pounds. Bauman's legend lives in anyone who ever saw him swat a ball. You couldn't put a fence out there that he couldn't knock over. And he did it all without steroids, other muscle-enhancing drugs, or weight machines.2 I was one of the lucky ones who got to watch him play for free, selling pop at the ballpark.
When a panel of Baseball America experts in 1999 were asked to name the "most significant or spectacular feats in 100 years of Minor League baseball," Bauman's hitting 72 homers in 1954 for the Roswell, New Mexico, Rockets of the class C Longhorn League was second behind "Jackie Robinson signing a minor league contract with the Dodgers on October 3, 1945."3 I've got a lot of respect for Jackie Robinson, but come on now—signing a contract to begin playing for Montreal, Quebec, way north of the Mason-Dixon line in the International League is simply nothing compared to hitting 72 dingers in a 138-game season in the hot dust storm fields of southeastern New Mexico and the panhandle of Texas.
It was a sad day for me when Barry Bonds hit his 73rd home run of the season in 2001. Sitting before a television set in his Roswell home as Bonds hit number 73, Bauman watched the hit and later said, "It didn't bother me or anything. I just thought, 'There goes my record.'"4
I gave a little cheer when I learned that Minor League baseball at its winter meetings in December 2004 had given its first Joe Bauman Award to Philadelphia [End Page 68] Phillie prospect Ryan Howard, who led all Minor Leaguers during the 2004 season with 38 home runs. This award is to be given annually to the leading home run hitter each year in the minors and will be accompanied by a check for the handsome sum of $200 per homer.5
Many authors have penned well-written articles about Bauman hitting those 72 homers in 1954 and his hitting 337 home runs during his nine seasons in the Minor Leagues.6 However, only brief comments appeared in those articles about Bauman's baseball exploits during his "lost years," his eight seasons outside the Minor Leagues when he played sandlot, semipro, or service baseball.
Joe Bauman was born on April 17, 1922, in Welch, a tiny northeast Oklahoma community twenty-one miles down the road from Mickey Mantle's mining hometown of Commerce. Moving from Welch at a very young age, Joe grew up in the Capitol Hill area of southern Oklahoma City in a strictly run home with his mom, dad, and an older brother. Joe was raised by his dad to play baseball, but he also starred in basketball and football. He was a natural right-hander. His dad helped him learn to both hit and field as a lefty. Jack Baer, later a semipro teammate of Bauman's and the University of Oklahoma's baseball coach for many years, described Bauman's switch from right to left hand as one of the most amazing changes he had ever seen.7
In the spring of 1939 Bauman was a sophomore and the starting first baseman for the Redskins of Oklahoma City's Capitol Hill High School, the leading athletic school in Oklahoma in that prewar era. In early...