Is this the most unbreakable HR record?

January 29th, 2024

Don Mattingly’s phone buzzes a few times a year when a player gets hot and seems like he might challenge the record. It’s another text from a media member reminding him that someone is trying to match The Streak.

“Judge homers in 4 straight.”

“Corey Seager is at 5 in a row!”

“7 for Votto!!”

After each one, Mattingly responds with a thumbs up, and when each player falls short -- and the record he shares with two others is still safe -- Mattingly replies with appropriate emojis of mock relief.

Full disclosure: I’m the one who texts Mattingly to let him know that what I believe is the most unbreakable home run record of them all still stands. Dale Long homered in eight consecutive games to set the mark in 1956. Mattingly tied the record in '87, and Ken Griffey Jr. tied it again in '93.

"Someday somebody will break it, and they'll forget me," Long told the Chicago Tribune in 1986. "It's there to be broken. They break 'em all the time."

But not this one. Tied twice, never broken.

It’s a record that requires only a week-and-a-half long hot streak, not a full season or full career’s worth of health, stamina and good fortune.

“I always looked at it as a hot streak and nothing more,” Mattingly says. “For me personally, I just got hot. I felt great, and then [the home runs] just happened.”

Six years after his record-tying home run, Mattingly watched Griffey homer two games in a row against his Yankees before tacking on six more games to equal the mark. Griffey was the kind of hitter Mattingly thinks of as a prototype for a streak like this -- a good hitter with power. And Griffey sees things pretty much the same way Mattingly does.

“You can’t explain it,” Griffey says. “It’s just one of those things that happens. Nobody is going up there thinking about hitting a home run eight days in a row.”

In 30 seasons since Griffey tied the record, there have been 80 streaks in which a player has hit a home run in five consecutive games and another 13 of six straight games.

There have also been six streaks of seven straight games:

Mike Trout, 2022
Joey Votto, 2021
Kendrys Morales, 2018
Kevin Mench, 2006
Barry Bonds, 2004
Jim Thome, 2002

That’s six times a player could have tied the record, yet none did. While longstanding home run records of Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron and Roger Maris have all been toppled -- in some cases more than once -- why has this one stood for so long?

“Hitting a home run is the hardest thing to do,” says Griffey, who hit 630 of them in his 22-year Hall of Fame career.

So, what was his secret?

“The only thing my dad [Ken Griffey Sr., 19-year MLB veteran and Mariners hitting coach in 1993] and I talked about was pick out one pitch you think you can hit,” Griffey says. “You’re picking out one pitch per plate appearance and trying to put a good swing on it. He kept relaying that: ‘Just see one pitch that you can hit.’”

And while it looked easy during a hot streak, when almost everything Griffey swung at would go out of the park, it was just never that simple.

“It is one of the toughest things to do,” Griffey says. “People have to understand that. I mean, it’s hard to hit home runs in back-to-back games.”

“So many different variables,” Mattingly says. “You run into the wrong [pitcher] who’s on fire that night and you can’t do anything with him, or the wind’s blowing straight in. There’s just a lot of factors.”

Long, who hit 22 home runs in 696 career at-bats against left-handed pitchers, hit three of his eight home runs during the streak off of southpaws. Mattingly slugged one against knuckleballer Charlie Hough.

“His ball may be moving all over the place that night and you’re just hoping to make contact,” Mattingly says.

Thome’s streak in 2002 included home runs against Hall of Famer Pedro Martinez, seven-time Cy Young Award winner Roger Clemens and 200-game winners Curt Schilling and David Wells. His streak ended in a game against Hall of Famer Mike Mussina. To be on a streak like that while facing pitchers of that caliber would seem to be an even greater feat and underscores how fortunate one has to be on a given day, let alone eight or nine days in a row.

“You might get one [or] two balls a game that you feel like you can do damage,” Thome said. “And to actually get one, capitalize on it on the fifth day, the sixth day, the seventh day -- that’s special, man.”

They might not be pitching to you at all. In the seventh game of his 2004 streak, Bonds saw 16 pitches total, swung at only one of them, and blasted it for a home run. Asked after the game how he could do that, luck wasn’t on his mind.

“Talent,” Bonds said.

With his 762 career home runs, no one would argue with Bonds.

Mench hit 89 home runs during his eight-year career, averaging one home run every 26.5 at-bats. But in one magical stretch in 2006, Mench hit homers in seven straight games.

“You know how Michael Jordan talks about being in a zone of not even thinking, just basically unconscious?” Mench asks. “I wasn’t trying to do anything out of the ordinary.”

While Mench fell one game short of the overall record, he set a record for right-handed batters which was tied by Trout in 2022.

“The lefties have it a little bit easier because of the amount of right-handed pitchers,” Mench says.

Long, Mattingly and Griffey were left-handed batters, and so were Thome, Bonds and Votto. Morales was a switch-hitter who hit all but one of his home runs during the streak as a left-handed batter.

Attention on streaks like this tend to build pretty quickly. Teammates, opponents, media and fans all know when a player is starting to heat up.

“If you start thinking about it, that’s when you get in trouble,” says Trout. “You have to live in the moment. That was my key. Just trying to ride the wave.”

Not thinking about it. That is the part that’s much easier said than done.

In 1956, Long -- then playing for a struggling Pirates team -- received attention from coast to coast when he homered in his seventh straight game for a new record. His streak was so captivating that he was getting calls to make national TV appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show and The Today Show. The attention wore him out.

“I was just plain tired,” Long said after his streak ended at eight games. “I couldn’t get my bat around.”

Pressure and how people handle it can be a funny thing. Mattingly laughs when asked about the pressure to break the record.

“When you’ve hit home runs eight games in a row, you’re feeling so good at the plate that there’s no such thing as pressure,” Mattingly says.

Griffey just didn’t allow the momentum of such a streak to build into pressure.

“I never looked at it [as pressure],” Griffey says. “I was just worried about one at-bat at a time and one pitch at a time, not looking to extend a streak.”

And the media attention didn’t faze Griffey because he wouldn’t talk about the home run streak. By the time he was at five straight games and the national attention began to build, he simply refused to answer any questions about going for the record.

“Home runs come in bunches and for a week and one day, I got eight of them,” Griffey says. “But I wasn’t swinging for the fences because I got to three, four or five, and people started talking about it. I left that up to them.”

“The only time I really felt pressure was my last at-bat when I knew I needed to do it,” Trout says. “Other than that, it was just going out there and playing. You have to live in the moment. That was my key.”

Players for the most part would rather not change how they go about any part of their routine, especially during a streak. And so the normally outgoing Thome remained the same and didn’t see the media attention as added pressure.

“I don’t remember shutting any media down,” Thome says. “It was just something that happened over a short time. It was only a week long. And man, the enjoyment you get out of it as a hitter because you understand how hard it is to hit at the Major League level; to me, I was just enjoying it because I knew it wasn’t going to last.”

“I like the media, but they were just hovering,” Mench says. “They asked what I was excited about most, and I said jokingly, ‘When this ends you guys will leave me alone.’”

Bonds, who wasn’t the most talkative fellow on most subjects to begin with, had even less to say after the seventh game of his April 2004 streak left him one shy of tying the record.

“It doesn’t matter, we’re losing,” Bonds said, as his Giants went 3-4 in that stretch, then lost again the next day when his streak ended with a strikeout and two walks in three plate appearances.

Even players used to media and fan attention know there’s something different about being on the verge of a record or milestone. It’s just hard to avoid, especially now in the age of cell phones and social media. Trout’s family and friends weren’t shy about their interest in his home run streak.

“I’m not going to lie, I’ve been thinking about it, for sure,” Trout said the day his 2022 streak ended at seven games. “Everyone’s texting me, you guys are asking questions. It’s just hard not to think about the streaks in Major League history. You’re always thinking about it.”

“It’s been special, and I’ve enjoyed it,” Votto said when his streak also ended at seven games in 2021 (he came within a few feet of tying the record, but his drive to right at Citi Field bounced off the top of the wall and fell for a single). “I’ll probably never do it again, but I had a great time doing it.”

Votto’s ability to accept the pressure and embrace that chaos was similar to Thome’s, and it paid off for Votto when he got near the record on the road against the Mets.

“People were very excited about it,” Votto says. “At the ballpark, on the street. We were in New York at the end of it and everybody came up to me and said something. I’ve never been so acknowledged in New York City. It was an exciting experience for me, and I had a great time.”

One thing that most players agree on is that hitting a home run becomes harder when they are actually trying to hit a home run. And with the added attention of a streak, it becomes even more difficult. That’s why the game situations become just as important to the hitter.

“The biggest thing in streaks like this is you’ve got to have great teammates that are great hitters and ... also the reason you might be getting great pitches in games,” Thome says.

The depth of the lineup mattered to Thome, whose Cleveland team was stacked with both on-base and power threats throughout. Pitchers preoccupied by men on base were more likely to make mistakes to a hitter like Thome, who was waiting to pounce.

“That happened so many times with us,” Thome says. “You might have multiple guys swinging the bat well in the middle of the lineup, and you’re feeding off of all that. Yes, the individual has to go through this streak, but it’s a team and lineup thing that happens as well, where you have to recognize that you might be getting pitches because these guys are around you.”

The deeper the lineup, the harder it becomes to pitch around even the hottest and most dangerous hitters. Game situations can dictate how willing pitchers are to challenge a hitter like that, but Griffey believes it becomes personal for them, too.

“Pitchers don’t want to be that guy,” Griffey says. “They don’t want to have their name in the record book. Pitchers take pride in not giving that home run. Even the one I hit off Willie Banks [in the record-tying eighth game], he threw a fastball outside that I hooked [to the upper deck in right field], but it wasn’t a strike.”

Griffey’s home run off Banks came in the seventh inning, in his third at-bat that evening against the right-hander. Banks was pitching with a 4-0 lead. But would modern thinking allow Griffey to have a third shot at the starting pitcher? Not likely, especially as a left-handed batter.

“Nowadays, the pitching is so good,” Mattingly says. “There’s way more power, and more teams that third time through the order give you a different guy and match you up from the bullpen from the fifth inning on. So you don’t get three or four shots at the same guy.”

When Mattingly was going for the record of nine games in a row, his Yankees were being pummeled by the Rangers, 15-2, in the eighth inning. His final chance came against right-hander Jeff Russell. Mattingly has always said this was the only time during the streak he actually tried to hit a home run.

Russell said in a 2017 interview that he remembered “giving Mattingly the glove,” meaning the sign he would give hitters in batting practice to indicate that a fastball was coming. Still, he wasn’t laying it in there on a tee.

“I was going to give him good fastballs, but I wasn’t going to let up on a fastball,” Russell said.

Mattingly doubled down the left-field line, and his streak was over. While standing on second base, he tipped his helmet to Russell as a show of appreciation for giving him an honest chance to get there.

To set a new record, a player would have to homer in nine consecutive games. With all the variables in play now like deeper bullpens and increased media pressure, is it possible?

“It’s possible,” Griffey says. “I mean, maybe people didn’t think anyone would tie [Long’s record] until Donnie got there and then I tied it later on. Records are meant to be broken.”

“For sure, we’ll see it at some point,” Mattingly tells me. “So up until then, I’ll just get a text from you every time somebody gets hot.”

Last September, Toronto’s Vladimir Guerrero Jr. homered in three straight games. I alerted Mattingly, the Blue Jays bench coach, with a text.

“Well I guess I don’t have to tell you Vlad has three in a row,” I wrote.

The Blue Jays were battling for a playoff spot and had 13 games left to play, and Mattingly knew what he was rooting for. The reply?

“I hope he gets 16 in a row.”