Individual Records in baseball by Decades Essay

Forget about your rookie sensations, your flashes in the pan, your sophomore jinxes! Great careers? Not here, please. This is about decades. Now that we’ve completed ten of them in baseball’s modern era, it’s interesting to take a look at individual records for each ten-year period.

Individual greatness is all about performance over time, so some longevity is vital, but a couple of super seasons aren’t sufficient to make any of these lists. Likewise, a few mediocre summers shouldn’t necessarily kill a chance to be a decade leader. And even those with relatively short careers have a chance here to make an honor list.

Career leaders are often rewarded by simple longevity, but here a good ten-year run can put a guy among the elite. Bob Elliott, for instance, had just six 100-RBI seasons in his fifteen years in the big leagues. His best season was 1947 with 113, and he never led his league. But in the ’40s he topped the majors with 903 RBIs.

Guys like Elliott, Gus Suhr, and Ellis Kinder aren’t anywhere near the Hall of Fame, but for one shining decade in baseball history they were the best around in some category. So just who were these stars, the best over a full decade?

The degree to which Honus Wagner dominated the twentieth century’s first decade is seen in his top spot in no fewer than eight of ten batter categories. Same goes for Ty Cobb in the teens.

A fellow named Babe Ruth led in five categories in the ’20s, and in fact set all-time decade records in four of them. Jimmie Foxx in the ’30s, Ted Williams in the ’40s, Hank Aaron in the ’60s and Pete Rose in the ’70s were each leaders in four categories. Rogers Hornsby in the 1920s and Roberto Clemente in the ’60s were leaders in three.

Among pitchers, Walter Johnson in the teens, Hal Newhouser in the ’40s and Jim Palmer in the ’70s were “triple crown” winners.

Over all the years, though, only three performers were statistical leaders in more than one decade:

Williams, whose name appears six times over two decades despite missing about a third of the games while he was injured or in the military, was tops in batting and slugging averages in both the ’40s and ’50s. Stan Musial led in total bases in the ’40s and ’50s, to go along with two other appearances in the rundown. And Nolan Ryan led the majors in strikeouts in both the ’70s and ’80s.

Twenty-two decade leaders on the list are not found in the Hall of Fame, led by Pete Rose, of course, who was banned for gambling infractions.

Other inactive notables who’ve been decade leaders but aren’t in the Hall include Willie Wilson, Dale Murphy, Maury Wills, Jack Morris, and John Tudor. Eddie Murray, the ’80s leader in RBIs, will soon be eligible for election.

Some who compiled top totals in a decade never led their league in a given year within the time frame. They include Mark Grace, still active, and Lou Boudreau in hits; Rose in total bases; Nellie Fox in triples; Tudor in ERA; Jeff Reardon in saves; and Bob Feller and Jim Palmer in winning percentage.

Sometimes ten also-ran performances will win the decade title

Surprisingly, a quartet of major league career record holders never led the way for a decade in their specialty:

Hank Aaron, who owns one of the most notable marks, 755 home runs, hit 375 of them in the 1960s, but Harmon Killebrew slugged 393 in that period. Cy Young’s 511 pitching victories lead the all-time career list by nearly 100, but just 232 of them came in the 1900-1909 period when Christy Mathewson won four more. (Young won 265 games in the 1890s, not covered in this study.) Ed Walsh owns the career ERA record of 1.82, but his 1.68 mark for the century’s first ten years was second to Mordecai Brown’s 1.63. And though Lee Smith holds the career saves record of 478, he had just 239 of them in the ’90s, while John Wetteland posted 295. Smith had 358 saves in the ten years 1986-95, but that doesn’t count here.

Ruth’s remarkable roaring ’20s produced not only five decade titles but all-time decade records in four categories: home runs (467–that’s a 46.7 average for ten years!), runs scored (1,365), total bases (3,613), and slugging percentage (.740).

In addition, the ’20s saw Hornsby generate the best decade ever for hits (2,085) and doubles (405). In the teens Walter Johnson recorded the best decade in this century for wins (265) and ERA (1.60).

Other all-time records for a decade: Cobb’s amazing .387 batting average for the teens, Sam Crawford’s 167 triples for the first ten-year period, Foxx’s 1,403 RBIs in the ’30s, Rickey Henderson’s 838 stolen bases in the ’80s, Lefty Grove’s .724 winning pct. in the ’30s, Ryan’s 2,678 strikeouts in the ’70s, and Wetteland’s 295 saves in the ’90s.

Interestingly, Hornsby is the only all-time decade record holder to spend all or most of his career in the National League.

Ranking decade leaders in the fifteen stat lists points to the ’20s as tops, the ’30s as runnerup and the ’90s in third place. The ’40s through ’60s produced no all-time decade leaders.

Different season lengths appear to have had little effect on records over the decades. However, each team did play about fifty-three more games per decade in the ’20s through ’50s than in the first two decades. Seventy-two or so games per decade were added in the ’60s and ’70s, but strikes canceled about sixty games in each of the past two decades.

All these numbers, of course, reflect production over a specific ten-year period and ignore the claim that a decade runs, for instance, from 1991-2000. Any of the marks listed here might be exceeded within an indefinite ten-year window. But that’s another story.

Two batters and two pitchers made an especially heavy impact on cumulative baseball statistics of the 1990s. Mark McGwire in home runs and slugging, Mark Grace in hits and doubles, Greg Maddux in wins and ERA and Randy Johnson in shutouts and strikeouts were tops in the decade just past.

McGwire had the third best decade in history with 405 circuit clouts, despite missing 400 games because of injuries and player strikes. (He hit just nine homers in both 1993 and 1994.)

Grace never led the National League in hits in the 90s but compiled 1,754 in ten years. In doubles, he edged Craig Biggio by two, 364-362.

Maddux beat teammate Tom Glavine 176-164 for the ’90s victory title, and won the ERA crown (2.54) by a good margin over Pedro Martinez (2.83), who had the best win-loss percentage (.682) of the decade.

Johnson edged Roger Clemens in shutouts in shutouts, but had over 400 more strikeouts than runner-up Clemens.

Tony Gwynn, who batted .332 in the ’80s, second to Wade Boggs’ .352, easily led the ’90s with a .344 mark. Barry Bonds and Lance Johnson were likewise big winners in runs scored (1,091) and triples (113), respectively, while McGwire had 23 more homers than Ken Griffey.

Griffey led in total bases with just five more than Rafael Palmeiro, and Albert Belle beat out Griffey in RBIs, 1,099-1,091.

Johnson’s 2,538 strikeouts in the ’90s is second only to Nolan Ryan’s all-time decade mark of 2,678 in the ’70s. Fourth best decade marks are claimed by Bonds (runs scored), Belle (RBIs), Griffey (total bases) and Maddux (ERA).

While Rickey Henderson set the all-time decade mark of 838 stolen bases in the ’80s, he lost the ’90s crown to Otis Nixon, 478-463. John Wetteland set a new all-time decade record for saves with 295, just a pair more than Dennis Eckersley, who retired after the 1998 season.

Griffey, just thirty-one years old, and Martinez, twenty-nine, appear to have the best chance to make marks in this decade. Belle, Bonds, Grace, Johnson, McGwire, Maddux and Wetteland are all in their mid-thirties. Gwynn is forty.

Henderson, nearly forty-two, is a story by himself. Not only did he set the standard for stolen bases in a decade in the 1980s, but he scored 1,122 runs, the most since Lou Gehrig in the ’30s and the third highest ever. In the ’90s he scored 932 times, just 33 short of making the top five for the period.

In the ’90s rundown of the top five performers and ties, Bonds, Belle, Griffey and Palmeiro each appear in five of ten lists. Among starting pitchers, Johnson appears among the leaders in all five categories, Maddux and Clemens in four and Glavine in three.

Leaders by the Decade

(a) (All-Time Decade Leaders in Bold)Batting Average (3,000 AB)

1900-09 Wagner .351
1910-19 Cobb(a) .387
1920-29 Hornsby .382
1930-39 Terry .351
1940-49 Williams .356
1950-59 Williams .336
1960-69 Clemente .328
1970-79 Carew .343
1980-89 Boggs .352
1990-99 Gwynn .344

Hits

1900-09 Wagner 1,847
1910-19 Cobb 1,949
1920-29 Hornsby(a) 2,085
1930-39 P. Waner 1,959
1940-49 Boudreau 1,578
1950-59 Ashburn 1,875
1960-69 Clemente 1,877
1970-79 Rose 2,045
1980-89 Yount 1,731
1990-99 Grace 1,754

Doubles

1900-09 Wagner 372
1910-19 Speaker 367
1920-29 Hornsby(a) 405
1930-39 Gehringer 400
1940-49 Boudreau 339
1950-59 Musial 356
1960-69 Yastrzemski 318
1970-79 Rose 394
1980-89 Yount 337
1990-99 Grace 364

Triples

1900-09 Crawford(a) 167
1910-19 Cobb 161
1920-29 Rice 133
1930-39 Suhr 114
Averill 114
1940-49 Musial 108
1950-59 Fox 82
Ashburn 82
1960-69 Clemente 99
1970-79 Carew 80
1980-89 W. Wilson 115
1990-99 L. Johnson 113

Home Runs

1900-09 H. Davis 67
1910-19 Cravath 116
1920-29 Ruth(a) 467
1930-39 Foxx 415
1940-49 Williams 234
1950-59 Snider 326
1960-69 Killebrew 393
1970-79 Stargell 296
1980-89 Schmidt 313
1990-99 McGwire 405

Runs

1900-09 Wagner 1,014
1910-19 Cobb 1,050
1920-29 Ruth(a) 1,365
1930-39 Gehrig 1,257
1940-49 Williams 951
1950-59 Mantle 994
1960-69 Aaron 1,091
1970-79 Rose 1,068
1980-89 Henderson 1,122
1990-99 Bonds 1,091

Runs Batted In

1900-09 Wagner 956
1910-19 Cobb 828
1920-29 Ruth 1,331
1930-39 Foxx(a) 1,403
1940-49 Elliott 903
1950-59 Snider 1,031
1960-69 Aaron 1,107
1970-79 Bench 1,013
1980-89 Murray 996
1990-99 Belle 1,099

Total Bases

1900-09 Wagner 2,668
1910-19 Cobb 2,725
1920-29 Ruth(a) 3,613
1930-39 Foxx 3,580
1940-49 Musial 2,388
1950-59 Musial 3,047
1960-69 Aaron 3,343
1970-79 Rose 2,804
1980-89 Murphy 2,796
1990-99 Griffey 3,125

Slugging Pct.

1900-09 Wagner .508
1910-19 Cobb .541
1920-29 Ruth(a) .740
1930-39 Foxx .651
1940-49 Williams .647
1950-59 Williams .622
1960-69 Aaron .565
1970-79 Stargell .555
1980-89 Schmidt .540
1990-99 McGwire .615

Stolen Bases

1900-09 Wagner 487
1910-19 Cobb 576
1920-29 Carey 346
1930-39 Chapman 269
1940-49 Case 285
1950-59 Mays 179
1960-69 Wills 535
1970-79 Brock 551
1980-89 Henderson(a) 838
1990-99 O. Nixon 478

Wins

1900-09 Mathewson 236-112
1910-19 Johnson(a) 265-143
1920-29 Grimes 190-130
1930-39 Grove 199-76
1940-49 Newhouser 170-118
1950-59 Spahn 202-131
1960-69 Marichal 191-88
1970-79 Palmer 186-103
1980-89 Morris 162-119
1990-99 Maddux 176-88

Winning Pct. (1500 IP)

1900-09 Leever .697 (166-72)
1910-19 Alexander .675 (208-100)
1920-29 Mays .636 (126-72)
1930-39 Grove(a) .724 (199-76)
1940-49 M. Cooper .626-114-68
Feller .626 (137-82)
1950-59 Ford .708 (121-50)
1960-69 Koufax .695 (137-60)
1970-79 Palmer .644 (186-103)
1980-89 Tudor .612 (104-66)
1990-99 P. Martinez .682 (107-50)

Strikeouts

1900-09 Waddell 2,251
1910-19 W. Johnson 2,219
1920-29 Vance 1,464
1930-39 Gomez 1,337
1940-49 Newhouser 1,579
1950-59 Wynn 1,544
1960-69 Gibson 2,071
1970-79 Ryan(a) 2,678
1980-89 Ryan 2,167
1990-99 R. Johnson 2,538

Earned Run Average (1500 IP)

1900-09 Brown 1.63
1910-19 W. Johnson(a) 1.60
1920-29 Alexander 3.04
1930-39 Hubbell 2.71
1940-49 Newhouser 2.84
1950-59 Ford 2.66
1960-69 Koufax 2.36
1970-79 Palmer 2.58
1980-89 Tudor 3.13
1990-99 Maddux 2.54

Saves

1900-09 J. McGinnity 22
1910-19 Sallee 32
1920-29 Marberry 75
1930-39 Murphy 54
1940-49 Page 63
1950-59 Kinder 96
1960-69 Wilhelm 152
1970-79 Fingers 209
1980-89 Reardon 264
1990-99 Wetteland(a) 295
Leaders in the 1990s

Batting Average (3,600 AB)

Gwynn .344
Piazza .328
E. Martinez .322
Thomas .320
Walker .313
Molitor .313

Hits

Grace 1,754
Palmeiro 1,747
Biggio 1,728
Gwynn 1,713
Alomar 1,678

Doubles

Grace 364
Biggio 362
E. Martinez 358
Belle 344
Palmeiro 343

Wins

Maddux 176-88
Glavine 164-87
Clemens 152-89
Johnson 150-75
Brown 143-98
Brown 143-95

Percentage (1,500 IP)

P. Martinez .682-107-50
Mussina .673-136-66
Johnson .667-176-75
Maddux .667-176-88
Glavine .653-164-87

Triples

L. Johnson 113
Finley 83
DeShields 63
Offerman 62
Lofton 60

Home Runs

McGwire 405
Griffey 382
Bonds 361
Belle 351
J. Gonzalez

Runs Scored

Bonds 1,091
Biggio 1,042
Griffey 1,002
Thomas 968
Palmeiro 965

Runs Batted In

Belle 1,099
Griffey 1,091
Bonds 1,076
Palmeiro 1,068
J. Gonzalez 1,068

ERA (1,350 IP)

Maddux 2.54
P. Martinez 2.83
Clemens 3.02
Johnson 3.14
Glavine 3.21
Cone 3.21

Shutouts

Johnson 25
Clemens 24
Maddux 23
R. Martinez 18
Cone 16
Brown 16
Erikson 16

Total Bases

Griffey 3,125
Palmeiro 3,120
Belle 2,949
Bonds 2,944
Thomas 2,804

Slugging Percentage (3,600 AB)

McGwire .615
Bonds .602
Belle .581
Griffey .581
J. Gonzalez .576
Ramirez .576

Stolen Bases

O. Nixon 478
Henderson 463
Lofton 433
DeShields 393
Grissom 381

Strikeouts

Johnson 2,538
Clemens 2,101
Cone 1,928
Smoltz 1,893
Finley 1,784

Saves

Wetteland 295
Eckersley 293
R. Myers 291
Montgomery 285
Aguilera 282

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Scott Nelson is a retired high school teacher in Mankato, Minnesota. He recently published a family history on his wife’s side and a 115-page history for his church’s 50th anniversary. But the best of times are those at the family cabin in Northern Minnesota.