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Jersey numbers, big homer totals, and an obscure deep dive

Baseball numbers and some free time can be a dangerous combination.

Mickey Mantle and Hank Aaron Holding Baseball Bats

Some journeys were never meant to happen. But as winter slogs along in the anxious anticipation for spring training, your baseball mind can sometimes take you to strange places.

At the core of baseball are numbers, stats, and records. It can feel like an endless pit if you aren’t too careful. I’ve come to the conclusion that the combination of Google and baseball numbers is a blessing and a curse, which now that I think about it, is hardly a conclusion at all. But for this article, I took off the blinders and let myself dive into the unknown. I wanted to answer a unique and seemingly useless baseball question. Which MLB player has hit the most home runs in a single season in which their total matched their jersey number?

On the surface, it feels like a simple task. Look up the single-season home run leaders and simultaneously look up their jersey numbers. What should have been no surprise to me, considering the history of the sport in general, is that the players who wore low numbers generated a lot of the top home run seasons. Immediately, guys like Babe Ruth, Hank Greenberg, Mickey Mantle, and Jimmie Foxx are crossed off the list. They have plenty of home runs to those names, but they will not be winning this award (nor will a No. 3/No. 13 like Alex Rodriguez). You also have the obvious new-age player in Aaron Judge, whose No. 99 will forever leave him off this list as well. Sad.

You then enter slightly higher jersey number territory: Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Giancarlo Stanton, Willie Mays, Jim Thome, etc. But I thought for sure that there needed to be someone higher than the 20s.

At first, I decided that the best way to go about this was to take the top 500 home run seasons and work my way up from the bottom. In hindsight, this is not the easiest way to go about this process. I can read the comments now: “Why didn’t you just work your way from the top to the bottom?” Maybe I was curious, hindsight is 20/20, and boy do I need an eye exam after this endeavor.

I trudged my way through the upper 30s, passing names like Chipper Jones, Frank Thomas, Joey Gallo, and former Chicago Cub Hack Wilson, who hit 56 home runs in 1930 before the Cubs used uniform numbers! Let’s just say that there are a good number of players who hit 37 home runs or more in a season.

I finally reached the 40s and came upon Hall of Fame third baseman Eddie Mathews. No. 41 hit that same number of home runs in 1955 for the Milwaukee Braves. I felt content with that being the final answer but obviously couldn’t stop there.

1957 World Series - Game 5: New York Yankees v Milwaukee Braves Set Number: X4781

Now that I had reached the 40s, I decided to give my brain a rest from the monstrosity that was the upper 30s and work from the top down. I quickly worked my way from the top, through the 50s, before finding myself in the 40s again. This is where things got interesting. Dave Kingman wore No. 48 during his brief stint with the Yankees, but his 48-homer season came in 1979 with the Cubs, when he wore No. 10. So close, but Mathews was still the top dog. Then there was Mark Trumbo, who hit 47 in 2017 for the Orioles. How fitting would it have been if “Mark Trombone” of all people, stole the crown from Eddie Mathews? However, Trumbo donned No. 45 that season. Cecil Fielder also wore number 45, but for the Tigers, and in 1991 he hit 44 home runs. (I wonder how many he hit to the warning track that year…)

Then came No. 44. Of course. Three greats of the game who each wore that number: Reggie Jackson, Willie McCovey, and Mathews’ longtime Braves teammate, Hank Aaron. This felt too perfect. Jackson wore No. 44 for the Yankees but never reached that mark with the club. As it turns out, McCovey did hit 44 home runs in 1963 for the Giants, dethroning Mathews in this made-up game of mine. But Hammerin’ Hank also hit 44 home runs in a season ... four different times (1957, 1963, 1966, 1969). What a legend.

Atlanta Braves Hank Aaron at Bat

Maybe I should have realized earlier that these two greats would have been a good place to start. Also, maybe I should have made more of an effort to check each of these players’ entire careers as I was working through the list. I probably would have found the answer sooner, but hey, it’s about the journey, right? Maybe my brain will be better next time.

I’m already thinking about what obscure baseball question I should answer next.