Something funny was going on in the skies over Roswell -- and I'm not talking about the flying saucer crash in 1947. No, I'm referring to the dozens of very earthly baseballs that Roswell Rockets first baseman Joe Bauman bashed over the fence and into the sky in the summer of 1954.
As Aaron Judge looks to set the American League home run record with his 62nd home run, let's look back at the one-time home run king, who once hit an astounding 72 home runs in just 138 games -- while also running his own Texaco station just down the road.
Bauman's career is an odd one, one of those great "what if?" careers in baseball history. The six-foot-four first baseman bounced from the Dodgers to the Braves system, with a long break during World War II when he played for the Beech Aircraft team. After struggling for a season in Double-A and unhappy with what the Braves were offering him, Bauman packed up his things and headed to Elk City, Okla., where he played semi-pro ball for $500 a month and opened his first service station with a teammate. When the oil business hit a downturn and the interest in local baseball did the same, Bauman moved to Artesia for two seasons before, in 1954, he joined Roswell.
Magic, and the Joe Bauman Texaco Station, followed.
Of course, his salary and his side hustle weren't Bauman's only sources of income. At the time, whenever a player hit a home run, fans would press dollar bills through the chicken-wire backstop to be collected and handed over to the slugger. A player might even tour the grandstand after the game, cap in hand, to collect some more. While in Roswell, a ham from the local meat packer would be sent whenever a player homered.
"I never got less than $40," Bauman told the L.A. Times in 1998. "Sometimes a lot more."
Now, Bauman always had power. He hit 48 home runs with Amarillo in the Braves system in 1946, and had hit 50-plus home runs in both seasons with Artesia. But everything clicked while in Roswell.
"That summer the ball looked this big,” Bauman told SABR biographer Bob Rives, motioning his hands around the sides of an imaginary cantaloupe.
The Roswell Rockets would play only a 138-game season that year, thanks to six rainouts which would not to be made up. It seemed impossible for Joe Hauser and Bob Crues' professional home run record of 69 to be broken. But with Park Field's 10-foot-tall right-field wall only 329 feet from home plate, and with the dry desert air helping add a few feet to each blast, the left-handed Bauman made easy work of it. On Sept. 1, and with seven games left in the schedule, Bauman had already hit an unbelievable 64 blasts. Facing the Sweetwater Spudders that night, Bauman mashed four taters.
Just as fans clamor for updates on Judge's nightly exploits, the same was happening in New Mexico now that Bauman was on the precipice of history.
“The eyes of the United States are on Roswell at present," Buck Lanier wrote in the Roswell Daily Record. "It isn’t too often that the activities of a Class C league are pegged on the national Associated Press trunk wires as prime material ... If Joe does break it, pictures of him will be on the sports pages of every paper in the U.S.”
In addition, Sports Illustrated and Life Magazine had sent their photogs to capture the moment.
“I wasn’t really trying for home runs, but after I hit those four, I really got conscious of the durned record," Bauman told SABR's Bart Ripp in 1980. "It went from an impossibility to a possibility in one night.”
After going homerless the next night -- but smashing two doubles and a single along the way -- Bauman tied the record with No. 69 in his final home game of the season.
"It felt good," Bauman said after the game, though chasing the record certainly didn't change his thoughts on where he might play in the future. "I've got my filling station here and I'll probably play the rest of my ball right here in Roswell."
Bauman then went without a dinger in his next two games in Big Spring, Texas, complaining that the team pitched around him the whole time.
That brought Bauman to the final day of the season with a doubleheader against his old team, the Artesia NuMexers.
"We’re not gonna walk you," Artesia's manager Jim Adair told Bauman. He lived up to his word.
Moved up to the leadoff spot, Bauman killed all the drama early. With Bauman's parents in the stands -- they arrived in secret so as not to put too much pressure on their son -- Bauman fouled off two pitches from 19-year-old Jose Galardo. Finally, on his 2-2 pitch, Bauman drove Galardo's offering fair, sending the ball high over the 349-foot fence in right field.
The record was his -- along with about $800 after he was finished collecting the tips from the generous Artesia fans.
“It was the ultimate thrill as far as I was concerned,” Bauman said years later. “Artesia had a big ballpark -- 350 or 60 feet down the right-field line -- and the wind blew in against you.”
With the record broken and the postseason about to begin, both teams rested their pitchers and let position players handle the duties in the nightcap. They were no match for the big first baseman, who smashed home runs No. 71 and 72. In addition to the dingers, Bauman finished his season with a remarkable .400 average, 224 RBIs, 1.451 OPS and 456 total bases.
That night, Bauman celebrated with a few beers, but couldn't have too many. After all, he had to be back at his service station by 9 a.m. the next morning.
"The home run kind of helped business, you know?" Bauman said.
Though Bauman -- who passed away in 2005 -- would see his record eventually broken by Barry Bonds, his name isn't forgotten. The field that the Roswell Invaders of the Pecos League call home is named in his honor, with a plaque honoring Bauman hanging by the concession stand. (Something tells me the old service station owner would find that a fitting tribute.)
The gravestone he shares with his wife, Dorothy, features an engraved baseball player finishing his swing, with fans stopping by to leave baseball mementos upon the marker.
And then there's the Joe Bauman Home Run Award, given out annually to the player who led the Minor Leagues in home runs. Last year's winner, MJ Melendez, has followed up his 41-homer Minor League season with 18 in the Majors this year -- something Bauman never did.
Did he regret not playing Major League Baseball? That's hard to say.
“I still have that question in my mind. Could I have done it or not?” Bauman told Sports Illustrated in 1991. At the time he was playing though, the choice wasn't simple.
"Back then, they didn't make much all that much money in the Major Leagues," Bauman told the L.A. Times. "For me to play for less money just to try to get to the Major Leagues would just have been ego. And you can't spend ego at the grocery store."