When Prince became the Milwaukee HR king

January 18th, 2022

MILWAUKEE -- homered twice against the Cardinals at Miller Park on Sept. 25, 2007, to supplant a Hall of Famer and personal hero, Willie Mays, as the youngest player ever to hit 50 home runs in a single season.

It should have been a moment of triumph. Instead, it is better remembered by many as an example of the fiery intensity that fueled Fielder during a career split between Milwaukee, Detroit and Texas, and that landed Fielder on the Hall of Fame ballot himself for the first time.

The night he hit No. 50, Fielder said he really wanted 52.

"My dad had 51," he said. "Then, he can't say anything."

It was a difficult period off the field for Prince, who was 23 years, 139 days old at the time, more than a full year younger than Mays when he hit his 50th home run of the 1955 season. Prince Fielder and his famous father, Cecil, had become estranged, an unfortunate turn in a relationship that could not have been stronger during Prince’s childhood. Tagging along as a 12-year-old in 1996, Prince homered to Tiger Stadium’s upper deck off then-Detroit third-base coach Terry Francona. Six years later, Prince was one of the top prospects going into the 2002 Draft, and his dad functioned as his agent.

The Brewers owned the seventh pick and had loved Prince since the previous fall, when he took private batting practice at Eau Gallie High School in Melbourne, Fla., for Milwaukee scouting director Jack Zduriencik, scout Tom McNamara and special assistant Bill Lajoie, the former Tigers scouting director and GM who knew the Fielder family well. Lajoie was the Tigers' GM who signed Cecil Fielder back from Japan as a free agent in 1990, the year Cecil hit 51 home runs.

“My line that year in the Draft,” Zduriencik said, “was that I know a lot of people think of Prince as a power hitter, and he is. But he’s also the best hitter in the Draft, period. I’ve seen guys with power who never became good big league hitters. But Prince could hit.”

“If you look back on the Moneyball book, it ripped Jack for drafting Prince,” said then-Brewers GM Doug Melvin. “Prince had a hell of a career.”

Melvin traded popular first baseman Lyle Overbay to the Blue Jays at the 2005 Winter Meetings to open first base for Fielder. After setting a Brewers rookie record with 28 home runs in his first full season in ’06, Fielder’s career launched into orbit in ’07.

That season, his lowest OPS for a calendar month was .849, in July. He hit 13 home runs in May, a franchise record that still stands. In June, he hit his first career inside-the-park home run when Twins outfielder Lew Ford lost a fly ball against the white roof of the Metrodome. The Brewers remained in contention for the playoffs into September, when Fielder hit 11 more homers and delivered a 1.212 OPS, his highest mark for any single month that season.

On Sept. 25 against the Cardinals, Fielder continued his late-season surge, hitting a two-run home run in a three-run first inning against St. Louis starter Braden Looper and another two-run shot, this time to left field, in the seventh off Kip Wells for No. 50.

That pushed 23-year-old Fielder past Mays, who was 24 years, 137 days old when he hit the 50th of his 51 home runs in 1955 for the New York Giants.

“It was a great thrill,” said Brewers manager Ned Yost following Milwaukee’s 9-1 win. “I told the boys, ‘We’re watching a little history here. Remember it.’ Fifty homers, that’s an unbelievable feat. And to do it opposite field for his 50th just shows you his raw power.”

Fielder's eighth career multi-homer game came a day after he set a Milwaukee baseball record with homer No. 48. That eclipsed the 47 home runs hit in 1953 by another Hall of Famer, Eddie Mathews, for the Milwaukee Braves. Before Fielder, the Brewers' single-season home run record was 45, a mark shared by Gorman Thomas (1979) and Richie Sexson (2001 and ’03).

“His will and desire to get better on a daily basis is unbelievable,” teammate Bill Hall said. “The best I’ve ever seen.”

Fielder finished 2007 with a franchise-record 1.013 OPS (he beat that record in 2009 and Christian Yelich broke it in 2019). Fielder’s .618 slugging percentage in ’07 was also a franchise record until Yelich broke it in ’19. Since Fielder and Alex Rodriguez each topped 50 home runs in ’07, only five Major Leaguers have reached that plateau.

Fielder finished third in National League MVP Award balloting – one of three times he finished in the top four during his Milwaukee tenure – while making the first of his six All-Star Games and winning the first of his three Silver Slugger Awards. He also won the Hank Aaron Award in the NL, an honor bestowed to each league’s best overall offensive performer.

Aaron was on hand at the World Series in Denver to present Fielder’s award. It was a highlight of a memorable year in a career that had plenty more highlights to come.

“I mean, I'm only 23, and when I was in high school I never thought I was going to be able to sit by him and him say all those great things about me, so that's awesome,” Fielder said. “I'm just going to keep working hard, and hopefully he'll keep saying those great things.”