Baseball's Power Hitters of the '60s and '70s
Home Runs and More
A power hitter in baseball is a batter who excels at driving the ball far into the outfield, or out of the ballpark altogether. Where a great hitter is usually measured by their batting average, the player who hits for power is one who is mostly judged by their home run totals.
There were far fewer power hitters in the 1960s and 1970s than there have been in more recent years. That is, there was a more elite group that carried over from the 50s. The sixties, in particular, saw plenty of dominant pitchers, so unless the players were able to hit for average and power, they'd likely lose favor with management and their fans.
The pitcher's mound was lowered in 1969 from 15 inches above home plate to 10 inches. Baseball executives and owners yearned for the days when big home run hitters like Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig drew giant crowds to baseball stadiums. In 1968, pitchers were overpowering hitters, and the games were closer, and fewer runs were scored.
An increase in offense resulted from the mound being lowered, and though there were some exceptional power hitters playing in the 1960s, the decrease of pitching dominance allowed more players to hit for power in the 1970s.
Managers and owners became less reliant on players with multiple tools at their disposal. Especially in the American League, power hitters could get by without being able to run fast or play spectacular defense in the field. Players like Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, Willie Mays, and Mickey Mantle were all-around players who hit for power. In the '70s, players like Reggie Jackson, Boog Powell, Frank Howard, and Willie Stargell were penciled into the lineups every day simply because they were a threat to get a big hit, and they produced a lot of wins for their respective teams by doing so.
Power numbers aren't an entire evaluation of a ball player's talent. It is just one aspect of the game, and the few hulking or country-strong men who blast balls over outfield fences are individuals that stand out in the ultimate team game of baseball.
Home Run King of the 1960s
Since the power hitter is ultimately measured by their home run totals, let's first examine those players that put up eye-popping home run totals over long stretches of the 1960s.
Harmon Killebrew was a perennial All-Star in the 1960s. He was a big, strong, right-handed hitter, who hit some memorably mammoth home runs during his career. Though he didn't win the American League MVP until 1969, he had several seasons in the decade where the numbers he put up were MVP-worthy.
Killebrew was one of those rare players that stayed with one team during most of his career. The Washington Senators (who later moved and became the Minnesota Twins) boasted many fine players from their past, but Killebrew in the '60s was especially memorable because he was always a threat to hit a home run or drive in a run. During the decade, he hit an astonishing 393 home runs and 183 doubles.
Highlight Year 1969: Killebrew wins the AL MVP after posting 49 homers and 140 RBI. The big slugger drew 145 walks and had an on base percentage of .427.
When the 60s arrived, Hank Aaron's storied career was well under way. The right-handed power threat was a fine all-around hitter, and his .305 lifetime average is impressive for someone who played so long (23 seasons). Beginning the new decade with a National League Most Valuable Player Award (1957) already in his pocket, Hammerin' Hank continued his hitting dominance throughout the decade.
Not to be overshadowed by "Killer" Killebrew in the American League, Aaron hit 375 home runs for the National League's Braves (who moved from Milwaukee to Atlanta in 1966) in the Sixties. He also doubled 309 times and tripled 45 times. At a time when some big National League power hitters were putting up incredible numbers, Aaron stood above them all.
His ability to drive the ball so consistently is even more impressive when it's noted that he also racked up 204 stolen bases over the same period of time. Incredible.
Highlight Year 1963: 44 home runs, 130 RBI, .586 slugging average, and 31 stolen bases.
Other Power Hitters From the 1960s
There were several players winding down extraordinary careers in the 1960s. Big-time players from the 1950s could still put fear into opposing teams, still reserving the right to smash a monstrous home run or game-winning extra base hit seemingly at will.
Guys like Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle are two examples of stars who played the tail ends of their careers in the '60s. These two are considered a couple of the finest power hitters to ever play the game, but they also excelled defensively in the outfield (before injuries and age slowed them down). They were all-around ball players, the type of player major league scouts fawn over still today.
Willie Mays began his career with the New York Giants (who moved to San Francisco in 1958) in 1951. So by the end of the Sixties, the "Say Hey Kid" was starting to slow down. Keeping that in mind, his 353 home runs, 259 doubles, 53 triples, and 126 stolen bases in the Sixties decade alone are numbers that many players don't reach over their entire careers.
Mickey Mantle, playing for the Yankees in the American League, was possibly the strongest switch-hitting power hitter ever to wear a baseball uniform. He had a formidable physique (they called him "Muscles") and an incredible knack for performing superhuman feats both at the plate and in the field.
"The Mick" probably would have had a longer and better career had his knees and legs held up better. He played through the pain and finished in 1968. Mantle played eighteen years on wrapped knees. His 256 homers (many of them towering, monstrous drives) from 1960–1969 were memorable and have become a part of baseball lore.
Frank Robinson menaced pitchers in the 1960s, producing 316 home runs and 309 doubles during the decade while playing for the Cincinnati Reds (1960–1965) in the National League and the Baltimore Orioles (1966–1969) in the American League.
Hall of Famer Orlando Cepeda played for three teams during the Sixties. His early years with the San Francisco Giants were one of baseball's warmest stories (Cepeda had been born into poverty in Puerto Rico). During the early part of the decade, he put up some impressive power numbers. The big, lanky right-handed slugger nailed 254 home runs in the 1960s.
Eddie Mathews, Al Kaline, Willie Horton, and Norm Cash all spent parts of the 60s belting home runs for the Detroit Tigers. Mathews had his best years with the Milwaukee Braves in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Kaline was an agile right fielder with a cannon for an arm, but he was also a deceptively strong hitter. He led the American League in doubles (41) in '61. Horton was a giant of a man who thrilled Tigers fans with his high, towering homers. Norm Cash steadily produced power numbers during the decade, averaging 27.8 home runs.
Power Hitters: Big Statistical Years in the 1960s
Ernie Banks, 1960: It's rare that a shortstop puts up big power numbers, even today. But in 1960, Banks shocked baseball fans with his 41 homers and 117 RBI.
Roger Maris, 1961: The Yankees' left-handed slugger broke The Babe's (Babe Ruth) home run record by belting 61 in '61.
In 1963, Willie McCovey and Hank Aaron tied for the National League's home run title at 44 home runs. Amazingly, Willie Mays hit 38, and Orlando Cepeda hit 34. Both were members of the San Francisco Giants, as was McCovey.
Frank Robinson, 1966: In his first year with the Baltimore Orioles (after being traded by the Cincinnati Reds), he won the AL Triple Crown, hitting .316 with 49 homers and 122 RBI.
Carl Yastrzemski, 1967: Won the Triple Crown (a feat no player after him accomplished until 2012 when Miguel Cabrera of the Detroit Tigers won it). In '67, "Yaz," the Red Sox left fielder, led the league in batting at .326 and hit 44 home runs with 121 runs batted in.
Along with Mays and Cepeda, Willie McCovey was a feared Giants power hitter. He hit 300 home runs during the 1960s. He was a four-time all-star during that time, and in 1969, he won the National League Most Valuable Player Award.
The Chicago Cubs had three spectacular power hitters play for them during the Sixties. Ernie "Mr. Cub" Banks was respected by pitchers in the Sixties. In that period, Banks hit 269 home runs and 243 doubles. Billy Williams had the type of swing that produced a lot of balls bouncing around Wrigley Field's difficult-to-play outfield. He hit 249 during the decade, but he also belted 263 doubles and 69 triples. And Ron Santo, who was one of finest fielding third baseman the game of baseball has ever seen, averaged 25.3 home runs per year during the 60s.
If one examines major league power numbers players put up during this decade, they will notice that both leagues possessed players who could change a game with one swing of the bat. The Baltimore Orioles' manager Earl Weaver was one of many club leaders who believed that having a lot of power hitters in the lineup was the best way to win baseball games, and the American League and National League were forever set on different paths.
Reggie and Pops: True Power Hitters of the 1970s
There might have been bigger stars in the 1950s and 1960s, but the '70s had their own stars, too. The decade saw an increase in power hitters, but a drop off in household names. One exception was "Reggie." When Reggie Jackson joined the New York Yankees in 1977, he had already been a star in Oakland (for the Athletics). But New York is a bigger stage and Reggie's flamboyant personality won over or put off most baseball fans. You either loved or hated Reggie, just like you loved or hated the Yankees.
His numbers were beyond debate, however. In the Seventies, Jackson walloped 292 home runs and 270 doubles. Seven out of ten years in the decade, Reggie had a slugging percentage over .500.
Over in the National League, a bunch of fading stars were ending their careers. Still, a new power hitting star emerged from the Sixties and dominated the Seventies. Willie 'Pops' Stargell played his entire 22-year major league career with the Pittsburgh Pirates. Some of his best years came in the '70s, and he posted 296 home runs and 253 doubles in that period.
The similarities on the field between Jackson and Stargell were notable. While the National League stood firm in its resolve to keep the pitcher in the batting lineup, an idea was forming in the American League so big power hitters, like these two, could stay in the lineup into the twilight of their careers. It would become known as the designated hitter rule, and with its implementation in 1973, the National League and American League once again became two distinctly different major leagues.
George Foster's Big Year
After winning World Series titles in 1975 and 1976, the Cincinnati Reds finished in second place in the NL West. But something magical still happened that season. The Big Red Machine's left fielder, George Foster, became the first major league hitter to belt 50 home runs in a season since Willie Mays accomplished the feat in 1965 (Mays hit 52 that year).
Foster led the National League in home runs (52), RBI (149), runs scored (124), and slugging percentage (.631). In a year when Reds fans could have experienced a letdown, the lanky slugger from Tuscaloosa, Alabama wowed crowds with his MVP-winning feats of power at the plate.
National League Sluggers of the Seventies
There were some notable names that broke out during the decade in the NL:
C Johnny Bench: Won the NL MVP in 1970 and became one of the finest power hitters in the game. Catcher is a demanding position, and most players that caught didn't put up big slugging numbers. Hall of Famer Bench, at the time, was the exception to the rule. Outfielder George Foster, Bench's teammate on the Big Red Machine, hit 122 homers in a three-year span (1977-1979). At first base for the Reds, Tony Perez averaged 22.6 homers per year in the Seventies.
3B Mike Schmidt: Though the third baseman dominated the '80s, he put up some pretty spectacular numbers in the 1970s, too. He didn't play his first full season until 1973, and between then and 1979, he hit 225 dingers. By comparison, his gigantic teammate, Greg Luzinski, a renowned slugger in his own right, hit 204. Schmidt was also renowned for his defense at third.
OF Dave Parker: "The Cobra" knew how to strike a baseball, and he was capable of hitting as hard as anyone in the game. His drives, especially earlier in his career, dented outfield walls all over the National League. The Pirates slugger belted 184 doubles over a five-year span ('75–'79).
2B Joe Morgan: There weren't many power hitters playing second base before Joe Morgan came along. He was fast and had the uncanny ability to turn a single into a double. He developed a power swing that resulted in 175 home runs during the '70s. But just as dangerous for other teams, he compiled 275 doubles and 47 triples during that same time frame.
IF/OF Dave Kingman: "Kong" took his big bat for hire through a bunch of towns in the 1970s. Some used to say that his fly balls just went further than other people's. He hit some majestic dingers during the decade, and the free swinging slugger led the National League in both home runs and strikeouts in 1979.
More Power Hitters From the 1970s
With the pitching mound lowered, temporarily gone were the days where a few players dominated the power hitting statistical categories. More and more, the home run became the objective, especially in the American League. Here are a few who provided big hits and home runs for their teams during the 1970s.
Carl "Yaz" Yastrzemski was a fixture in a powerful Boston Red Sox lineup during the '70s. He hit 209 home runs during the period. And while Yaz was nearing the end of his career by the end of the decade, two new and exciting Red Sox outfielders would raise the hopes of Beantown fans for the next decade. From 1975–1979, Jim Rice hit an amazing 171 home runs, and Fred Lynn belted 173 doubles.
Reggie Smith started the '70s on the Red Sox. He also brought his power bat to the St. Louis Cardinals and L.A. Dodgers. He was a true power hitter, posting a slugging percentage of over .500 four out of the ten years. During that time, he crushed 225 home runs and 247 doubles.
Lee May played for the Cincinnati Reds and the Houston Astros in the National League, and the Baltimore Orioles in the American League during the Seventies decade. Over that time, the big power hitter hit 270 home runs and 224 doubles.
Hank Aaron: On April 8, 1974, Hank Aaron became the new home run king (since surpassed by Barry Bonds). His achievement put a black man in Babe Ruth's place in baseball history and broke down barriers that had held back African-American athletes for generations. His story of resilience and determination may be the best of any of the power hitters who have won big baseball games with their dangerous bats.
The author of this article is aware that there were many, many more power hitters during the 1960s and 1970s. If you feel your favorite player's been slighted by not being included in the article, please state your (his) case in the comments. Good arguments will get consideration for inclusion in the hub. Thanks for reading. --JM