Roger Connor, The Baseball Player Who Held The All-Time Home Run Record Before It Was Broken By Babe Ruth On July 18, 1921
Excerpts from a terrific 1994 article by Steve Gietschier:
As clear a target as Ruth had established, the question remains: Whose record did he break? Who was the home run king before there was a home run king? When Ruth reached the major leagues with the Boston Red Sox in 1914 as a pitcher, a record book in the modern sense didn't exist. ...
When Americans celebrated the birth of the 20th century, the N.L. leader in career home runs was Roger Connor, a first baseman who played from 1880 to 1897, mostly with New York. When Connor died January 4, 1931, The Sporting News recalled that he had been a quiet player in a boisterous era, one who "criticized seldom or never, and was always ready with a word of encouragement."
At 6 feet 2 and 220 pounds, Connor cut a robust figure on the field. He towered over most other players and was quite possibly the inspiration that caused his manager, Jim Mutrie, to start calling the New York club the Giants. Connor took pride in his power and defied the early baseball rubric that placed a higher value on putting the ball in play. By the end of his career, he was credited with 131 home runs, 118 in the National League and a league-leading 13 in the Players' League of 1890. ...
The trouble with this scenario is that recent research has turned up six or seven additional homers for Connor, depending on what source you trust. Thus, Ruth truly surpassed Connor on July 15 when he hit No. 35 or July 18 when he hit No. 36. Both of these were tape-measure jobs. Of the first, hit in St. Louis, The Sporting News said, "The ball went over the bleachers in right-center and into the street on the fly." And three days later in Detroit: "Babe Ruth hit his longest home rune of the season, sending the ball over the corner of the center field fence. The ball hit the ground 500 feet from home plate."
And from an article by Mike Attiyeh:
"At eight years old", Crowley wrote, "Roger began to sneak off his family chores to play baseball. His parents, who believed in only hard work, were appalled."
His parents didn't believe baseball was a respectable trade, and would not allow Connor to engage in the sport. It was typical of how many parents felt about baseball in that day and age. Baseball was not as respected as it is today; in fact it was looked down upon and said to have been for kids who couldn't succeed at anything else. It was deemed a last resort.
When Connor was 14, he left home for New York city to play baseball. When he returned to Waterbury, Connor ascertained his father had passed away. To help support the family, Connor took a job in a local factory, although he didn't quite put his baseball dreams on hold, instead honing his skills in neighborhood games. Almost seven years later, his mother (who had opposed baseball from the start) gave Connor permission to play with the New Bedford team in Massachusetts.
After participating in just 11 games for New Bedford in 1878, Connor found himself in Holyoke the following year, when he belted pitchers at a .335 clip to earn praise and a promotion to Troy City of the National League for the 1880 season.
And from The Troy Polloi:
The Troy Trojans played in the National League for four years, 1879 - 1882. Basically, they sucked. Their best year was 1880 when they went 41 - 42. They were 134 - 191 for the entire four years. ...
Connor's story is interesting. When his contract was purchased by the Troy Trojans, Connor came to Troy and was sent to a local shirt company to be fitted for a uniform. The young lady that fitted him for the uniform was quite knowledgeable about baseball. It was a classic story of girl meets baseball player. The two were later married. The couple lost a baby girl just before her first birthday. Then, the Connor's adopted a child that had been abandoned on a doorstep. An excellent article by Bernard Crowley, Baseball's First Stars goes into more detail about Connor and his life.
Although only in Troy for four years, the franchise did not disappear. Like many young people today, the Trojans headed for the big city (New York, not Albany) and became the New York Giants.
And from Foxsports:
Connor's accomplishments were washed away by the sands of time and he was buried in an unmarked grave in St. Joseph's Cemetery in Waterbury, Conn.
Slowly, as historians began studying the game more closely, Connor's achievements were noticed. In 1976, two years after Hank Aaron eclipsed Ruth's record, baseball's first home run king was elected to the Hall of Fame by the Veterans' Committee.
"And now," Crowley said, "there's a gravestone for him at St. Joseph's."