If you were to take even a casual look through individual and team offensive statistics in the 19th century, there's something that jumps out. The 1884 Chicago White Stockings underwent an unprecedented and dramatic increase in home run power. They played in the same venue with many of the same players as previous seasons. So what contributed to this incredible surge?
To put the home run numbers for this team in a little perspective, consider the individual season home run records prior to 1883. No player had ever hit more than nine home runs. During the 13th season of professional baseball in 1883, three players finally broke the double-digit barrier, with Harry Stovey setting a new record with 14 dingers.
Stovey's record would end just one season later in 1884 when, not one or two, but FOUR White Stockings crushed that mark. The four players' home run numbers were: Ned Williamson (27), Fred Pfeffer (25), Abner Dalrymple (22), and Cap Anson (21). Future Hall of Fame inductee King Kelly fell just short with 13. Williamson's record would hold for 35 seasons (interestingly, one season longer than the span between Babe Ruth's 60 and Roger Maris' 61). In fact, these four would be in the top seven of home run producers over that same 35 season time frame. (enter Babe Ruth)
The results were quite unpredictable given these players' histories. Cap Anson had a total of five homers over his previous 13 seasons. The others were similarly home run shy - none having had more than three in a season. As a team, the White Stocking's stats over previous seasons emphasize the curious 1884 uptick even more. Chicago's total home runs by season: 1878 - 3; 1879 - 3; 1880 - 4; 1881 - 12; 1882 - 15; 1883 - 13; 1884 - 142! (The next closest team in their league in 1884, the Buffalo Bisons, had a total of 39).
The surge was short lived. The four would play a combined 38 more seasons with just four more double-digit home run seasons between them; Pfeffer with 16 in 1887, Dalrymple with 11 in 1885, Anson with 10 in 1886 and 12 in 1888, and none for Williamson. The following year (and in a new ballpark) the team production settled into more typical numbers.
PED's in 1884 perhaps? No, nothing that sinister. Unraveling this odd outlier season has a rather simple explanation yet dramatically underscores how a venue and local ground rules can influence outcomes. In 1884, the White Stockings played at the Union Base-Ball Grounds. Located in the heart of downtown Chicago, it was bounded from home plate on the west by Michigan Avenue, on the north by Randolph Street, and on the east by railroad tracks and the lakeshore. It is now part of Millennium Park.
Due to its configuration within the city block, the outfield fence was especially short in right field. It was less than 200 feet from home plate - imagine 110 feet shorter than Fenway's left field with no Green Monster! A ball hit over that fence was awarded a ground rule double. Understandably, batters aimed for the right field fence, and during their years at the park the Chicago club would regularly lead the league in doubles. However, for some reason, in what would be their final season on the lakefront in 1884, the White Stockings decided to make the entire outfield fence home run territory. This explains the curious anomaly.
After the season, the city reclaimed the land and the White Stockings moved to the new West Side Park for the 1885 season. Perhaps as a result of these inflated results, a new rule to be followed by all teams was introduced for the 1889 season. The rule stated that a ground-rule double rather than a home run is to be rewarded if a ball is batted over a fence in fair territory when the fence is less than 210 feet from home plate. Beginning in 1892 the distance was increased to 235 feet.