Baseball’s Original Home Run King- Roger Connor
One of the most feared sluggers in the early days of the big leagues, the Hall of Famer had quite the career
Before the days of Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron and Barry Bonds, baseball relied on small ball — making timely plays and using strategy and incremental gains to win. However, that doesn’t mean there weren’t any power hitters. One of the earliest was strapping first baseman Roger Connor, who terrorized opposing pitchers during an 18-year big-league career (1880–1897). Needless to say, starring during the infancy of the professional game, he had a lot of fond memories after his playing days were over.
At 6'3" and 220 pounds, Connor was a giant during his time. One of 11 children of Irish immigrants, he left school at the age of 12 to work with his father in the Waterbury, Connecticut brass works to help support the family. Before he embarked on his professional baseball career, he made a living driving a wagon for a bakery. However, his size and ability to wallop the ball made him stand out as an appealing prospect for ball teams.
Connor was a switch-hitting, left-handed thrower. That didn’t stop him from starting his career as a third baseman. His real skill set was hitting, as he not only hit them long but was also a skilled hitter who won a batting title (1885).
Playing with five teams during his career, his greatest years were the 10 seasons he spent with the New York Giants. In total, he hit a combined .316 with 138 home runs, 1,323 RBIs, 2,467 hits, 441 doubles, 233 triples and 1,620 runs scored. He never led the league in home runs but finished in the top-five of extra base hits and also long balls an incredible eight times each.
After a brief disastrous stint as a big-league manager (He went 8–37–1 with the 1896 St. Louis Browns) he served as a skipper for a number of years in the lower levels of baseball. Despite being the game’s all-time home run leader until Ruth came along, he was largely forgotten after his career ended, finally gaining enshrinement in the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1976; 45 years after his death.
Connor saw a lot and did a lot during his days as a player. Speaking with the Wilkes-Barre News in an article that appeared on January 15, 1903, the slugger fondly recalled some moments from his storied career.
Back when Connor broke into professional baseball, one had to get noticed in order to secure a contract. Being athletic and roughly the size of a horse, he clearly stood out, which propelled him towards his star career:
“I can recall my first days of amateur baseball as vividly as if they were but a week ago. Way back in ’76 were my first days at the game, and I played with the old Monitors all about this vicinity. Those were good old times then and I never dreamed that I would follow the game for a living some day. I played with the Monitors for two years and made quite a showing during that time. I was born in Waterbury (Connecticut) in 1857 you know but those days with the Monitors were pleasant ones to me and I like to recall them occasionally.
“I was holding down third base in those days and remember how glad I felt when I had the chance to go to New Bedford and play third base with a real professional team for money. That was in 1878 and I stayed there for about half a season. Then I received a better offer to go with Holyoke and accepted it. I finished the season there and was there the next summer. John Chapman was manager in those days, and I was appointed captain of the team. Almost everyone knows John in these parts. During the seasons of ’80, ’81 and ’82, I played with the Troy team as third baseman and the last season I was there I dislocated my shoulder in sliding to one of the bases.”
It’s often said that older players were tougher; playing through injuries that would sideline their modern counterparts for months or more. Connor was no exception, suffering a dislocated shoulder and still playing every day until an observant doctor corrected the issue:
“In spite of the injury I played all the time and never lost a game on account of it. In ’83 several of us had a chance to go to New York and work out there. Manager John B. Day told us all to get as much as we could elsewhere from other managers and then to go to New York and he would give us money. Well, I went to New York and that was where I made a reputation. My shoulder still pained me when I went there, and I threw a ball as if shoulder bound. A physician noticed my stiffness one day and walked out to the field to see me. He fixed me up in good shape and then I commended to play ball like a fiend.”
Although bunts, stolen bases and moving runners along were the name of the game during Connor’s day, fans still loved to see a display of power. Nobody hit the ball harder and further during his prime than Connor. In retirement, it still tickled him to recall how his prodigious blasts delighted the masses:
“I remained with the New Yorks for several years and made many friends in the big city. I used to nail the horsehide over the fence into the tall grass and that would tickle some of the old stockbrokers.
“Some company offered to give every man on the team a gallon of Pond’s extract every time they made a home run. My room was so full of the stuff that I could hardly turn around in it, and every day or so someone would leave a gallon of the extract at the door. I had enough of it to go into the wholesale business.”
Interestingly, Connor’s home run total was not set to its present total of 138 until well after his death. It was originally 131 and then 136, before a SABR publication researched and set the record right in 1975.
Connor passed away in 1931 at the age of 73. Helping contribute to his fading recognition, he was buried in an unmarked grave that wasn’t rectified until 2001 when Waterbury raised the funds to erect a proper monument for the baseball legend. While it’s sad that so much recognition of his great career occurred long after he died, it’s a good thing that he wasn’t allowed to slip from baseball memory and his legacy has finally grown over the years.