Freddie Freeman is a Dodgers first baseman leading the major leagues in batting average, so it’s only natural that my mind strays to Eddie Murray, who did the same 32 years ago.
Only Murray didn’t win a batting title. More on that in a moment.
Murray and Freeman are linked in other ways. Both were franchise icons who won a World Series other cities, Murray spending his first 12 years with the Orioles and Freeman playing a dozen seasons in Atlanta. Murray was 33 years old in his first season in Los Angeles, Freeman 32.
Freeman sat on Wednesday after starting the first 141 games this year, only his eighth game missed over the last five seasons. Murray played at least 155 games in a season a dozen times, and 160+ games six times.
Similarity scores were introduced by Bill James in the 1980s, a way to figure out which players had stats the closest to each other. At Baseball Reference, they not only track a player’s career similarity scores, but also the career totals through each age.
Freeman’s most similar player through every single age from 21 to 31 was Murray.
Though in this season Freeman, who turned 33 on Monday, is two years younger than Murray was in 1990, their campaigns are remarkably similar.
Murray in 1990 hit .330/.414/.520 with a 156 wRC+. Freeman this year is hitting .329/.402/.527 with a 158 wRC+
A four-hit game by Freeman on September 10 in San Diego brought Freeman’s batting average to .330 on the season, which set off alarm bells in my brain, since that’s what Murray finished at in 1990, a season near and dear to my heart.
I will always remember that Murray had 184 hits in 558 at-bats that season, thanks to Topps baseball cards taking up the bulk of my brain space back then, well before the Internet.
Freeman entering Friday has 181 hits in 550 at-bats, which puts him in line to possibly join Murray at some point this weekend, even if for only an inning or two since there is still plenty of season left to play.
But it got me to thinking, how many other Dodgers had exactly 184 hits in their first 558 at-bats in a season. So I pored through the list of Dodgers to total at least 184 hits and at least 558 at-bats in a season in the modern era, trying to find the answer.
The answer to how many Dodgers were 184-for-558 is the same as how many licks it takes to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop: Three.
558th at-bat: October 3, 1990
Padres at Dodgers
5th inning: RBI single vs. Eric Show
Cardinals outfielder Willie McGee was traded to the A’s on August 29, switching leagues. McGee at the time of the trade was hitting .335 with 542 plate appearances, already accumulating enough plate appearances to qualify in the National League.
No matter what McGee did in the American League, his NL batting average was .335, which at the time trailed Phillies outfielder Lenny Dykstra at .340.
With two weeks left in the season, McGee admitted to keeping tabs on the NL batting race from afar, in an admittedly odd situation.
“You have to remember there’s Eddie Murray and a couple of other guys,” McGee said to the Associated Press on September 21. “You hate to see this kind of thing happen, but it was out of my control.”
That same AP article said winning in absentia wouldn’t sit well with McGee, who added, “It’s not my choice.”
Murray, in his second year with the Dodgers and 14th year in the majors, was hitting .312 on August 29, then got hot down the stretch, getting up to .329 on September 21.
After a Dodgers’ loss in Houston on September 26, the notes section of the San Bernardino Sun game recap said Murray’s hopes for a batting title, at .324, were pretty much over: “Murray would need approximately three hits in each of the final six games to catch McGee.”
Murray did finish with a hot streak, going 11-for-24 over those final six games. That prediction wasn’t too far off. If Murray had four more hits in the at-bats he had, he would have finished ahead of McGee at .337, or if Murray added a 5-for-5 to his total he’d hit .336.
McGee hit .274 in 29 games with Oakland, dropping his seasonal batting average to .324, which ranked sixth in the majors.
“He earned it,” A’s manager Tony LaRussa said of McGee’s batting title, per the AP. “He didn’t ask to come over here to protect his average.”
Murray’s .330 average was tops in the majors, and American League batting champ George Brett was next at .329, winning his third career batting title.
558th at-bat: September 20, 1924
Pirates at Dodgers
9th inning: single vs. Wilbur Cooper
High was a third-year second baseman for Brooklyn who hit mostly leadoff in 1924. A .284 career hitter, this was one of two seasons in a 13-year career that High reached .300. He entered September 20 against the Pirates at Ebbets Field hitting .325, with 180 hits in 554 at-bats on the season.
After a first-inning walk, High singled off Wilbur Cooper and scored in the third. High added an RBI single and scored again in the fourth, and singled again in the seventh. In a tie game in the ninth, High singled with one out, getting him to exactly 184 hits in 558 at-bats, 66 years before Murray.
High was stranded in the ninth, then the Pirates scored in the 11th when Pie Traynor, running on the pitch, scored from first base on a flyball single to center. “Traynor sped on to third and rounded for the plate when Andy High, Robin second baseman, forgot what to do with the ball,” said the United Press recap. “High thought too late and Traynor was over the plate in a cloud of dust with the winning run before the ball arrived.”
558th at-bat: September 26, 1943
Dodgers at Cubs
7th inning: double vs. Ed Hanyzewski
Herman made seven straight All-Star Games with the Cubs, then after the Dodgers acquired the second baseman in 1941 he made three more midsummer classics with Brooklyn. Herman, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame by the veterans committee in 1975, finished in the top ten in batting average three times with Chicago, but in 1943 with the Dodgers he had his highest finish in the batting title race.
He entered a doubleheader against his old team at Wrigley Field on September 26 with 183 hits in 551 at-bats, hitting .332, but went hitless in four at-bats in the first game against Cubs right-hander Claude Passeau. Herman was a heart-of-the-order hitter with Brooklyn, and batted fifth in both games of the doubleheader.
Herman grounded out in his first two at-bats off right-hander Ed Hanyzewski, but to open the seventh inning, in his 558th at-bat, Herman doubled off Hanyzewski for his 184th hit.
Herman fouled out in the ninth inning to end his day at .329, good for second place in the National League batting race. Only problem was, a young outfielder in St. Louis was hitting .360. That was the first of seven batting titles for Stan Musial.
There were a few close calls in Dodgers joining the vaunted 184-for-558 club. Wee Willie Keeler entered the final day of the 1902 season with 184 hits in 555 at-bats. He needed to go hitless in his first three at-bats to get there, and though neither Baseball Reference nor Retrosheet have play-by-play data for that game, newspaper accounts say Keeler singled in the first inning of that October 3 game in Philadelphia.
The other near misses actually batted with a chance to be 184-for-558.
Goody Rosen, the outfielder who was a Dodgers rewind subject on a recent Leading Off with True Blue LA podcast, made the NL All-Star team in 1945. In the second game of a doubleheader on September 16 at Wrigley Field, Rosen was 184-for-557 entering his fourth-inning at-bat, when he singled against Cubs right-hander Hank Wyse.
Steve Garvey during his MVP season in 1974 singled in each of his first three at-bats against Jack Billingham on September 8 in Cincinnati, to get to 183-for-557, but then flew out to centerfield in the seventh inning against (“Pinch-hitting for”) Pedro Borbon.
Steve Sax made the third of his five career All-Star Games in 1986, and finished a close second in the National League in batting average (.332) to Tim Raines (.334). On September 16 in Atlanta, Sax came to the plate in the fifth inning against veteran Doyle Alexander with 183 hits in 557 at-bats on the season. Sax hit a line drive, but it was snagged by third baseman Ken Oberkfell.
Freeman can join the 184-for-558 club with three hits in his next eight at-bats.