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July 12, 2006

From The Bleachers


A Trip Back to Glory For "Big Joe"

Before Roger Maris eclipsed Babe Ruth's longstanding single-season home run mark in 1961 and long before steroid-enhanced sluggers the likes of Mark "I will not comment on that matter" McGwire, Sammy "I forget I no speakka de English" Sosa and Barry "Balco" Bonds set home run records that will hopefully be erased from the Major League Baseball record books someday, there was Joe Bauman.

Now if you're reading this column and asking yourself, "Who the (insert favorite four letter word) is Joe Bauman," I think an excerpt from the esteemed Royse M. Parr from his Journal of Baseball History and Culture (University of Nebraska Press) does an outstanding job of portraying this obscure baseball legend:

"When Baseball America's bimonthly newspaper polled its readers in 1999 to select the Minor League legend of the 20th century, Joe Bauman was chosen number one. If I had voted, I would have stuffed the ballot box for Joe because he is my number one baseball hero. To boys like me who grew up in the late 1940's and early 1950's in western Oklahoma, he took on almost mythical status from the moment he arrived in my hometown to play baseball for three glorious semipro seasons. Like Paul Bunyan of the north woods, he seemed to be at least 10 feet tall although he stood only six feet four and one-half inches and weighed 230 pounds. Bauman's legend lives in anyone who ever saw him swat a ball. You couldn't put a fence out there that he couldn't knock over. And he did it all without steroids, other muscle-enhancing drugs or weight machines. I was one of the lucky ones who got to watch him play for free, selling pop at the ballpark."

Parr goes on to add, "When a panel of Baseball America experts in 1999 were asked to name the most significant or spectacular feats in 100 years of Minor League baseball Bauman's hitting 72 homers in 1954 for the Roswell, New Mexico Rockets of the class C Longhorn League was second behind Jackie Robinson signing a minor league contract with the Dodgers on October 3, 1945. I've got a lot of respect for Jackie Robinson, but come on now — signing a contract to begin playing for Montreal, Quebec, way north of the Mason-Dixon line in the International League is simply nothing compared to hitting 72 dingers in a 138-game season in the hot dust storm fields of southeastern New Mexico and the panhandle of Texas."

During that 1954 season, while playing for Class C Roswell of the Longhorn League, Bauman hit 72 homeruns, had 224 RBI and hit .400! He also amassed 456 total bases, 150 walks and 99 strikeouts. Bauman's .916 slugging percentage was 69 points higher than Babe Ruth's record of .847. And remember, these feats were accomplished in only 138 games.

Bauman was a baseball enigma, never playing above Class A ball after signing his first professional contract with Little Rock in 1941. He served proudly in the U.S. Navy from 1942-45 before playing three more seasons of professional ball. Bauman quit baseball after the 1948 season and spent the next three years running a Texaco gas station in Oklahoma before returning to play pro ball in 1952. In an article in the Albuquerque Journal on April 1, 1979, Bauman explains what happened next: "Boston had called me in the winter of '52 and wanted me to go play for the Atlanta Crackers in Double-A. But this doctor, I can't recall his name now, he wanted me to play for Artesia in the Longhorn League. Hell, I didn't even know they had baseball out there. Anyhow, this doctor wanted to buy my contract from Boston, and he did. I don't know what he got, maybe a dollar bill or a jockstrap."

In 1952, he hit .375 with 50 home runs and 157 RBI for Artesia. In 1953, he cranked out a .371 average, 141 RBI and a league-record 53 homers.

After the 1953 season, Bauman bought his own release, moved to Roswell Texas, bought a gas station and named it Joe Bauman's Texaco Service. Shortly after, he signed a contract to play with the Roswell Rockets for $1,000 per month. Bauman also followed his historic 1954 season with another gem of a year in 1955 that saw him hit .336 with 46 home runs and 132 RBIs. Sadly, in 1956 he played in only 56 games for Roswell before retiring when an X-ray revealed a chipped bone in his left ankle. Bauman stayed in Roswell after his playing days, running his gas station and working for a beer distributorship. Bauman passed away on September 20, 2005, leaving minor league baseball history enthusiasts with an iconic presence that will never be duplicated.

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