Last week, I wrote about a conversation I overheard between two new Dodger outfielders, rookie Joc Pederson and recently acquired Chris Heisey. Heisey is quite aware and proud of his power-hitting accomplishments in Major League Baseball, and Pederson was absolutely incredulous at the idea that Heisey once hit three homers in a game.
I mentioned this story to a friend over breakfast the other day, and we got to thinking about the most unlikely players ever to hit three home runs in one game. I decided to take a look at every such game and see what I could find.
My approach was simple: for every three- or four-homer game, pull the number of home runs that player hit in that season, as well as his career dingers, with more weight given to low career numbers than low season numbers (so Babe Ruth‘s three-homer game in 1935, while a novelty, was not entirely unlikely). Obviously, if someone hit only three career homers and they all came in the same game, that would be our winner. Of course, no one fit those criteria, but there were some pretty interesting cases.
As it turns out, Heisey’s game was not very close to being the most unlikely, coming in 69th place (out of 525 games) on my scale. He has 50 career homers and hit 18 in the 2011 season, so while he wasn’t a prime candidate to hit three in one game, he wasn’t as surprising as some of the others we’ll talk about.
A few notable games, either for their unlikeliness or their likeliness:
Freddie Patek — June 20, 1980
My friend grew up a Kansas City Royals fan in the Freddie Patek era, so he remembered Patek’s game off the top of his head even though it happened the year after Patek signed with the California Angels as a free agent. This game was an offensive outburst for the Angels, who beat the Boston Red Sox 20-2. The worst offensive performance for the Angels probably came from left-fielder Joe Rudi, who “only” went 2-for-6 with one run scored and no runs driven in. Every Angel had at least two hits, and the other two with only two were Rick Miller and Carney Lansford, each of whom hit a home run. Every Angel scored at least two runs except Rudi and Rod Carew, and Rudi and Bobby Grich were the only Angels not to drive in a run.
So the Angels performed well on offense, but no one hit better that day than Patek, the light-hitting shortstop who was listed at 5’5″ and 148 pounds. Patek, nicknamed “The Flea,” was in his thirteenth (and second-to-last) season in the majors, having spent three years in Pittsburgh and nine in Kansas City. His career high in homers for a season was six, put up in 1971 when he finished sixth in the American League MVP voting and his 98 OPS+ was the closest he would ever come to being league-average offensively. In exactly half of his seasons, Patek had hit fewer than three homers for the entire year.
When asked once how it felt to be the shortest player in baseball, Patek said, “I’d rather be the smallest player in the majors than the tallest player in the minors.” What were the chances that this tiny man would become the second shortstop ever to hit three home runs in a game? It happened. He hit home runs in third and fifth innings off Dick Drago, and in the eighth inning off Jack Billingham, all three clearing the Green Monster in left at Fenway Park. He also hit a double to left in the second inning off Red Sox starter Steve Renko, but I can’t find any information on whether that ball came close to leaving the yard.
Patek hit only 41 home runs in his career and five in 1980, so this one game accounted for 7.32 percent of his career total and 60 percent of his season total. It’s not the most unlikely three-homer game ever, but it was pretty darn unlikely.
Dan Johnson — October 3, 2012
Dan Johnson is not a famous power hitter. He has hit only 57 home runs in his nine-year career, and he hasn’t hit more than seven in a season since 2007. But he has had two very notable power-hitting days, and they both happened to come on the final day of the season.
In 2011, baseball fans were treated to the best Last Day of the Season in recent memory. The Red Sox, at the tail end of an epic collapse, entered game 162 tied with the Rays for the AL Wild Card spot, having gone 8-20 over the previous month to drop nine games in the standings. The Sox were in Baltimore taking on the Orioles, and the Rays were hosting the Yankees in St. Petersburg.
As the Red Sox and Orioles sat in a rain delay, they watched as the Rays’ season seemed to unravel. Ace David Price was shelled for six runs (five earned) in four innings, and the Rays found themselves down 7-0 going into the bottom of the eighth. Tampa rallied against Boone Logan and Luis Ayala in the eighth, scoring six runs to pull within one. Then, with two outs and two strikes in the bottom of the ninth inning, pinch-hitter Dan Johnson deposited a home run just inside the right-field foul pole to tie the game and send it to extra innings.
Back in Baltimore, the Red Sox went to the bottom of the ninth with a 3-2 lead, and their chances looked good when closer Jonathan Papelbon struck out Adam Jones and Mark Reynolds to start the inning. (It was Reynolds’ 196th and final strikeout of the season, the first time in his career that he struck out fewer than 200 times in a full season.) But back-to-back doubles by Chris Davis and Nolan Reimold tied the game, and Robert Andino hit a single into short left field to score Reimold and give the Orioles the victory, pushing Boston a half-game behind Tampa.
Back in Florida, the Rays and Yankees had gone to the twelfth inning. Scott Proctor struck out B.J. Upton to start the inning, bringing up third baseman Evan Longoria. Just seconds after the Red Sox lost in Baltimore, Longoria hit a home run to left field to win the game and the Wild Card spot for the Rays. But it wouldn’t have happened without Johnson’s homer, only his second of the season.
Fast forward one year. Once again, it was the last day of the season. This time, Johnson was playing for the Chicago White Sox. He had spent most of the season in the minors, coming up to Chicago in September when the rosters expanded. He hit pretty well in limited action that final month, but he did not hit any home runs. On October 3, though, Johnson hit three homers: in the second and fifth innings off Cleveland starter David Huff, and in the ninth against Vinnie Pestano.
Johnson is the only player in MLB history to hit three home runs in a game and hit zero the rest of the season.
Bobby Estalella, September 4, 1997
Bobby Estalella was the grandson of Cuban infielder Bobby Estalella, who hit just 44 career homers in his nine-year career and twice hit two in a game. The younger Estalella hit only 48 home runs in his nine-year career, and he hit only four in 1997 (granted, that was in 36 plate appearances).
But on September 4, in his first game after being called up from the minors with the expanded September rosters, the 23-year-old rookie went 3-for-4 with three home runs and four RBIs in a 6-4 win. He would have five two-homer games later in his career and a career-high 14 in the 2000 season, but he never again hit three in a game.
Darnell Coles, September 30, 1987, and July 5, 1994
Darnell Coles wins the award for least likely player to have multiple three-homer games. Coles, currently the hitting coach for the Milwaukee Brewers, hit only 75 career homers, including three two-homer games and two three-homer games.
On September 30, 1987, Coles hit three home runs for the Pittsburgh Pirates in the second game of a doubleheader. After singling in the second inning, Coles hit home runs in the fourth and fifth innings against Chicago Cubs pitcher Jamie Moyer, the second one a three-run shot that tied the game, 5-5, and knocked Moyer out of the game. After the Cubs rallied to take a 10-6 lead, Coles walked and was erased on a double play in the seventh inning. Then, with one out in the bottom of the ninth and the Pirates still trailing by four, Coles hit a two-run homer to pull within two. Unfortunately, a Sid Bream groundout and a Junior Ortiz strikeout ended the game, and Coles’ perfect day was wasted. On a personal level, though, Coles’ 4-for-4 day raised his batting average to .200 for the first time since April 19, and he went 3-for-13 the rest of the way to finish the year with a .201 mark.
In 1994, Coles went 2-for-5 with a home run in his first game of the season for the Toronto Blue Jays. He then went 6-for-50 over his next 23 games, and as he went to bed on July 4, he was batting .145/.226/.236. On July 5, he hit a two-run home run in the fifth inning off Minnesota Twins pitcher Pat Mahomes to give the Blue Jays a 2-1 lead. The Jays scored eight more runs in the next four innings against Mahomes and reliever Dave Stevens, so by the time Larry Casian came in to pitch to start the eighth inning, Toronto had a 10-3 lead and the game was out of hand. The first batter Casian faced was Coles, who deposited a 1-0 pitch into the left-field stands for his second homer of the game. Coles faced Casian again with two outs in the ninth, this time with a 13-3 lead, and whacked a 2-2 pitch over the left-field wall for his second career three-homer game.
Coles went 19-for-83 with no home runs the rest of the season. We can only guess what sort of power surge he had in store, because the strike ended the season on August 12, leaving him with just the four home runs. That July 5 game ranks 11th on my list of least likely three-homer games, mostly because he had only one other home run that season.
Sammy Sosa, August 9, 2001; August 22, 2001; and September 23, 2001
There are only 37 players who have had three or more three-homer games in their careers. Sammy Sosa did it three times in 46 days in 2001. Sosa is tied with Johnny Mize for most such games in a career, with six.
In the September 23 game, all three home runs came against Houston Astros pitcher Tim Redding. It was only the second game the two had faced off, and after that game Sosa was hitting .667/.667/.2.333 against Redding. From that point on, though, Sosa went 0-for-11 with six strikeouts (.000/.154/.000) the rest of his career against Redding.
Babe Ruth, May 21, 1930, and May 25, 1935
In the regular season, Babe Ruth had only two three-homer games. One was not at all unlikely: it came in 1930, when he led the league with 49 home runs. The other game is one of our most unlikely games on a single-season basis: as he played out his last partial season as an ineffective and hobbled member of the Boston Braves, his last three career homers came in a game against the Pirates at Forbes Field. He went 4-for-4 with three homers on May 25 to briefly push his batting average over .200, but he followed that up with an 0-for-9 streak to drop to .181 before retiring midseason.
And now, let’s get down to the least likely three-homer games:
Honorable Mention: Jim Tobin, May 13, 1942
Tobin was a pitcher. He hit only 17 homers in his career, and his six in 1942 were his career high.
Sure, pitchers hit more home runs in 1942 than they do now, but it was still not a likely occurrence for a pitcher to hit three.
Honorable Mention: Tuffy Rhodes, April 4, 1994
Before 1994, Rhodes had five career home runs.
He hit three on Opening Day 1994.
He hit just five more in his career before shipping off to Japan, where he would hit 464 career homers and become a power-hitting legend.
But hitting three in a game when you had eight that season and 13 in your MLB career counts as unlikely, no matter how many you hit later in Japan.
Honorable Mention: Don Leppert, April 11, 1963
Leppert was a weak-hitting catcher who played four seasons in the majors. He hit three homers in each season except 1963, when he doubled that output thanks in part to a three-homer game in the season’s first series.
Fifteen career homers and six in 1963, but he somehow hit three in one game.
Runner Up: Bill Glynn, July 5, 1954
Glynn was a powerful first baseman who hit 167 career home runs in the minor leagues, but when he woke up on July 5, 1954, he had six career homers in the majors.
In the first game of that day’s doubleheader, Glynn went 3-for-5 with three homers and eight RBIs. The next day, he hit his tenth (and final) career homer.
Glynn went .179/.238/.256 over his final 65 games that season, and then his career in the big leagues was over. He went back to the minor leagues, but he never made it back to the majors.
Glynn’s three-homer day accounted for 30 percent of his career total and 60 percent of his season total.
WINNER: Merv Connors, September 17, 1938
Connors hit 400 home runs in 18 minor league seasons. He had September cups of coffee with the Chicago White Sox in both 1937 and 1938, playing in 52 career games and putting up a very respectable .279/.367/.485 slash line in 190 plate appearances.
In 1938, Connors hit six homers and put up a .710 slugging percentage, thanks in part to his three-homer outburst on September 17. He is the only player in history with fewer than ten career home runs to hit three in one game.
Put another way, Connors had 747 fewer home runs than Hank Aaron, but the two had the same number of three-homer games.
Connors played 15 more seasons in the minors but never made it back to the big leagues. He was a decorated veteran of World War II and spent his later life as a truck driver. He died in 2006, just a couple of weeks before his 92nd birthday. He lived a long and full life, and for one September day when he was 24 years old, he was the Most Unlikely Three-Homer Hitter in baseball history.