by Robert Nishihara
Hitting .400 over a full season is the Holy Grail chased by every single Major League batter who ever laced up a pair of cleats and wielded a stick of white ash in anger. It is one of the most exclusive clubs in baseball history, and the names of most of the players who have been able to accomplish the rare feat are spoken about with reverence. In fact, the exclusivity of this elite cadre is underscored when some of the players not included in this group are mentioned.
Babe Ruth never did it (though, he did come within seven points of the mark in 1923). Tris Speaker (he of the .345 career average) never made it. His high-water mark was .389 in 1925. The role call of legendary players, true luminaries in the sport's history, who never hit .400 in a season is staggering - Honus Wagner, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Stan Musial, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Pete Rose, Tony Gwynn, and the list goes on. (Though, Gwynn has the caveat that he was hitting .394 in 1994 when the plug was pulled on that infamous strike-shortened season. So, no one will ever know if he would have been able to regain those six points over the final month of the season.)
And what of those who were able to reach the magic .400 mark? Cobb. Hornsby. Lajoie. Williams. The names invoke a special kind of cadence, even more so when you add the words ".400 hitter" after each. There are others in the club as well, perhaps less famous, but in some way familiar to many. George Sisler's name gets a mention or two every few seasons whenever a batter starts to bunch together hits in any significant volume, for it is Sisler who still holds the mark for most hits in a season. The 257 hits he collected in 1920 have remained untouched in the record book for over eighty years. Those 257 hits also netted Sisler a .407 average that season and membership in baseball's hallowed ".400 hitter" club. So as to leave no doubt about his batting prowess, Sisler had another remarkable season just two years later when he rapped out another 246 hits en route to the rather amazing batting average figure of .420 in 1922. (As a side note, much like another famous "George", Sisler actually started his career as a pitcher. In 111 innings pitched, Sisler compiled a very respectable 2.35 ERA before his hitting ability took him away from the pitcher's mound for good.)
Bill Terry may be best known for being the man who replaced John McGraw as manager of the New York Giants in 1932. However, Terry is also the last National League player to hit .400. Perhaps serving as a testament to the difficulty of hitting .400, Terry's .401 average in 1930 has remained unsurpassed by single-season averages over the subsequent seventy-plus seasons in the senior circuit. (By the way, Rogers Hornsby still holds the all-time NL single-season mark with the rather eye-popping average of .424 in 1924.)
Shoeless Joe Jackson's fall from grace has been well documented. The most famous figure from the 1919 Black Sox scandal, Jackson has been forever linked to that dark chapter in the game's history. However, Jackson also proved himself to be one of the game's greatest hitters prior to his aforementioned defining moment in history. In 1911, long before he became a member of the Chicago White Sox and long before he would cross paths with Chick Gandil and Arnold Rothstein, Jackson (as a member of the Cleveland Indians) carved out his place in the ".400 hitter" club by finishing the year with a .408 average.
Of course, there were also players from the 19th century who reached the .400 mark. Hugh Duffy, Wee Willie Keeler (of "Hit Ćem where they ain't" fame), Big Ed Delahanty, and Pete Browning (the original "Louisville Slugger") are likely the most recognizable names among that group. However, the turmoil in the early days of organized baseball (constant changes in the rules, teams and players jumping from one league to the next from season to season, etc.) has eventually lead, fairly or unfairly, to a cautious interpretation of the statistics from that period. Thus, the formation of the American League in 1901 marks, for many, the official beginning of "Modern Baseball" as we know them today.
And, among 20th century players who managed to reach the rarified peak of hitting .400 in a season, there is one player in that group who has an anonymity not shared by his more famous peers. His name is Harry Heilmann, and he may be the best hitter in baseball history that you've never heard of.
Heilmann, an outfielder for the Detroit Tigers in the 1910's and 20's, was largely overshadowed by teammates Ty Cobb and Sam Crawford. However, in his prime (from 1921 to 1927), he was one of the most feared hitters in baseball and his extraordinary numbers from that period indicate such a fear was warranted. In those seven seasons, he hit better than .390 three times. His apogee was in 1923 when he joined the .400 club with a .403 average. In fact, in that seven-year period, he never finished with a mark lower than .346. His yearly averages over that span include a collective .380 batting average, 202 hits, 104 runs scored, and 117 RBI per season.
By the time he retired in 1932, Heilmann had amassed over 2,600 hits while compiling an impressive career batting average of .342. In addition, he accomplished the difficult career triumvirate of .300/.400/.500 in the major offensive average categories. Aside from his .342 career batting average, Heilmann also finished with a career on-base percentage of .410 and a career slugging average of .520.
As a final tribute to a remarkable life in baseball, a young Boston Red Sox player actively sought out Heilmann to talk about hitting whenever the Sox were in Detroit in the late 1930s and early '40s. That player was, of course, the great Ted Williams. And Williams honored Heilmann in his now-classic book, "The Science of Hitting", by including him in his gallery of great hitters. The "Splendid Splinter" even goes so far as calling Heilmann one of the "top five right-hand hitters of all-time" in the book.
The achievement of the .400 hitter in baseball is one that underscores the patient pace of the sport's long season. As players make the steady march through a full season, they must battle fatigue, psychological as well as physical. They must understand that every game is connected to another. Pennants, batting titles, and home run crowns are won by the ability to string more success over longer periods of time than the competition. However, a .400 hitter must conquer an additional layer of difficulty. By virtue of the sheer number of hits required for a player to hit .400 over a full season, success must be a constant from Opening Day to the last game of the season. Any prolonged lapse in collecting hits ultimately means that a player simply won't have enough of them to reach .400 by season's end.
As evidence of the difficulty of achieving this kind of prolonged consistency, the ".400 hitter" club in major league baseball hasn't admitted a new member in over sixty years. It is, clearly, a membership that remains among the most exclusive in the game. As such, I hope the names of the players who have reached this pinnacle are not lost to time.
It would be a shame if Harry Heilmann's membership in that club should go unrecognized until his name simply drifts off the pages of history. After all, the game's history does tell us that a .400 hitter is a rarity, indeed.
Williams, Ted and John Underwood. "The Science of Hitting". New York: Simon & Schuster, 1986.
Leave feedback on our message board.