Bash Brothers and 100 steals: 1987 was wild

10 fun facts from a wild season

March 19th, 2020

Throughout our hopefully short time without real live games, we’ll be taking a weekly look back at a specific year in baseball history. What happened, why it mattered, what we’ll remember most. Send us the years you’d most like us to talk about at [email protected].

Year: 1987
ALCS: MIN over DET in 5
NLCS: STL over SF in 7
World Series Winner: MIN over STL in 7
MVPs: AL: George Bell, TOR; NL: Andre Dawson, CHC
Cy Youngs: AL: Roger Clemens, BOS; NL: Steve Bedrosian, PHI
ROYs: AL: Mark McGwire, OAK; NL: Benito Santiago, SD

All-MLB Team (chosen by me, in 2020):

C: Matt Nokes, Tigers
1B: Mark McGwire, A’s
2B: Juan Samuel, Phillies
SS: Ozzie Smith, Cardinals
3B: Wade Boggs, Red Sox
OF: Tony Gwynn, Padres
OF: Dale Murphy, Braves
OF: Tim Raines, Expos

SP: Roger Clemens, Red Sox
SP: Frank Viola, Twins
SP: Jimmy Key, Blue Jays
SP: Nolan Ryan, Astros
RP: Steve Bedrosian, Phillies
RP: Tom Henke, Blue Jays

You remember last year, when home runs took off? Was it an all-or-nothing approach from hitters? Was it launch angle? Baseball had seen an explosion like that before, and we all asked questions about the spike in dingers back then, too. That was back in 1987.

In 1987, after a decade in which speed was generally the coin of the realm, home runs exploded in Major League Baseball. A rookie, who turned out to be Mark McGwire, hit 49. Wade Boggs, who never hit more than 11 any other season, had 24. Tigers manager Sparky Anderson openly wondered how his old Big Red Machine teams would have fared with what he saw as a juiced ball. Bert Blyleven didn’t just say it was a rabbit ball: “There's a whole family in there.”

The home run rate leaped from 0.91 homers per game in 1986 to 1.06 in 1987, the highest in baseball history.

Of course, that 0.91 the year before was the highest since 1962, so it’s not like it came out of nowhere. The ball wasn’t the only suspect. Some thought it was juiced (or corked) bats, while some said the pitchers had just gotten worse. But it was quite a scene. Yet some guys remained resolutely themselves. Hall of Fame shortstop Ozzie Smith had the best season of his career -- he absolutely deserved the National League Most Valuable Player Award over the Cubs’ Andre Dawson -- but he did it with … zero homers.

As for that home run rate? 1.06? We’ve had a higher home run rate than that every year since 2015. It was the highest of all time in 1987. Now, it's 12th.

Here are 10 other fun facts from the 1987 baseball season.

  1. Tony Gwynn hit .370 that year, the highest batting average since George Brett's .390 in 1980. Many thought his average was also partly the result of a “rabbit ball” -- he’d hit “only” .329 the year before -- but it would end up being only the third-highest average of his career … and he’d hit .372 a full decade later.
  1. This was the first year of the Bash Brothers, with Mark McGwire making his debut and teaming with Jose Canseco for the first of their five full years together in Oakland. (And delighted the Lonely Island to no end.) For all the talk about McGwire’s 49 homers, he wouldn’t hit that many again until 1996. Canseco never hit that many in his entire career. This was also the year the “Rookie of the Year Award” was renamed the “Jackie Robinson Award.”
  1. A forgotten fact about that Bash Brothers team: Reggie Jackson was on it! After a resurgent stint with the California Angels -- you may remember him trying to shoot the Queen from right field before being stopped by Frank Drebin -- Reggie returned to the A’s, his original team, Ken Griffey Jr.-style. It didn’t go well: It was the worst year of his career, and he retired at the age of 41 when it was over. It still led to this picture existing, though.
  1. Perhaps fittingly, considering there were so many home runs, 1987 marked the end of the 100-stolen base season. Vince Coleman stole 109 for the Cardinals that year, but the practice began to slowly ebb after that. Rickey Henderson stole 93 in 1988, but no one has stolen more than 78 since.
  1. Paul Molitor had a 39-game hitting streak, which was the longest in baseball since Pete Rose had hit in 44 straight in 1978. And no one has matched 39 games since. Jimmy Rollins came within one game in 2006, and Chase Utley came within four that same year.
  1. Cal Ripken Jr. got benched! Well, kind of. After playing 8,243 consecutive innings, his manager sat him down to finally take a quick rest. Ripken couldn’t be too angry with his manager, though, since it was his dad, Cal Ripken Sr. (His brother, Billy, was on the team too.)
  1. The All-Star Game lasted 13 innings, but unlike the one in 2002, they did not run out of players. Something strange did happen, though: They ran out of helmets. Closer Lee Smith was forced to bat in the 13th inning, but because he hadn’t brought a helmet with him (quite reasonably, considering he’s Lee Smith), he came to the plate wearing an Expos helmet.
  1. Fans must have loved the home runs: Major League Baseball set an all-time attendance record in 1987, with 52,029,664 fans going through the turnstiles. But that was just the start. Attendance has surpassed that number every single season since, other than 1994 (the strike season) and 1995 (the season after the strike season).
  1. Offending purists -- and, honestly, offending anyone with good baseball taste -- 1987 featured the first ever World Series game to be played indoors. The Minnesota Twins, a team that had won only 85 games and had a negative run differential during the regular season, had the home-field advantage in the World Series and milked it for all it was worth, winning all four home games to clinch the Series in seven. It was the first World Series in which the home team won every game ... making it, of course, the exact opposite of the 2019 World Series.
  1. Perhaps the most noteworthy long-term thing that happened in 1987, and a sign of the direction the game was going, toward younger fans and a different sort of baseball hero? The first pick of the Draft that year was a guy named Ken Griffey Jr. He was still 17 years old. He’d be in the bigs two years later. But that’s a story for another year.

Send me the year you’d love to have me write about at [email protected].