Former Slugger Shared Record That Mark McGwire Broke : Wally Berger: A Blast From Past

Times Staff Writer

No, Wally Berger isn't the guy who always lost to Perry Mason. And he isn't the former chief justice of the Supreme Court.

And no, Wally Berger, former slugger for the Boston Braves, New York Giants and Cincinnati Reds, is no longer the holder of the record for home runs in a season by a rookie.

Berger was sitting quietly at home in Manhattan Beach Aug. 14 when rookie Mark McGwire of the Oakland Athletics hit his 39th homer against the Angels in Anaheim, breaking the mark Berger set in 1930 and shared with Frank Robinson since 1956.

Nobody from the A's or Angels contacted Berger, who says he wouldn't have cared to go out to the ballpark anyway. Not that he has anything against McGwire. It's just that Berger, at 81, has arthritis in his legs and isn't comfortable going out.

"I think it's fine he did it," Berger said. "Pete Rose broke some of Ty Cobb's records. Records are broken all the time."

Berger said that he has seen McGwire on television once--"I saw him pinch-hit in the All-Star Game and I think he flied out. He looks impressive. He's got the power. . . . I'd like to meet the guy, but it's very hard to walk."

Besides, the record was no big deal in 1930. In fact, home runs were flying so regularly in 1930 that it was easy to overlook not only the rookie's 38 home runs but also his .310 average and 119 runs batted in.

In the National League, for instance, Hack Wilson was hitting a league-record 56 home runs and setting the major league record of 190 RBIs. Chuck Klein had 40 and 170--while batting .386. In the American League, Babe Ruth was hitting 49 homers and Lou Gehrig 41.

It seems to have been Berger's fate to slug away in relative obscurity despite a 10-year career during which he hit 34 or more homers three times, finished with a lifetime .300 average and, in 1935, led the National League in home runs, with 34, and RBIs, 130.

In fact, Berger says, he really wasn't recognized as the rookie record-holder until Bobby Thomson's rookie year with the New York Giants in 1947, when Thomson's slugging sent statisticians scurrying through the record books.

Berger said that when he broke in: "They didn't pay much attention to records, except Ruth. We all looked up to Ruth. . . . No one mentioned much about it until Thomson hit 29 (home runs) with the Giants, and they thought that was the record."

He added with a laugh: "So they looked it up and there I was."

Berger said he was surprised his record lasted 57 years, since home runs were hardly a novelty in his day.

"I had hit 40 the year before and led the Coast League, so home runs were nothing new to me," he said. "I swung a pretty good bat for years. I was called a free swinger. I wanted to hit it hard, and I didn't care where."

When Berger came up in 1930 there were rumors of--gasp!--a lively ball. Berger agrees. "I thought it was livelier," he said. "I hit some tremendous shots. Sometimes I couldn't believe I was hitting the ball that far. I thought the ball was juiced up a little bit. I think it was wound tighter.

"Later, they put a heavy seam on the ball. I hit one ball real hard and I thought it was gone, but it dropped instead of getting up in the air. So I went for base hits that year (1931, when he had career highs of 199 hits and a .323 average). I was proud of that mark."

Berger still managed to hit some long home runs. A natural right-handed power hitter at 6 feet 2 inches and nearly 200 pounds, Berger said his favorite parks were Forbes Field in Pittsburgh and Crosley Field in Cincinnati. He also hit well in Wrigley Field in Chicago but, he said, the Cubs and Giants had the toughest pitching in the 1930s.

"If you went into New York and got a couple hits each day, you felt pretty good," he said. "I hit 'em across the street in Chicago. Pittsburgh didn't have any good pitchers and you could see the ball good. That was a triples park because it was so big.

"In Cincinnati, there was a laundry across the street from left field, and a sign for a watch store on top. If you hit the sign you got a watch. I hit one over the sign and the guy gave me a watch. I've still got it."

Berger's major league career ended in 1940, and he played two more years in the Pacific Coast League before being drafted into the Navy.

He has lived in the same house in Manhattan Beach for 40 years and spends much of his time watching baseball on TV, especially the Cubs on cable.

"I enjoy watching the games," he said. "That Guerrero for the Dodgers is a pretty good hitter. Quite a few look good. There's fantastic shortstops--I don't think anybody could make the plays these guys make.

"The pitchers are bigger. It looks like they all throw fast. I saw (Andre) Dawson get hit in the mouth. I don't know how he stood up there so long. A ball came for my head, I was down. I went down fast. I got beaned five times in the Pacific Coast League. I got knocked down every day."

Berger has also spent time recently talking to reporters about McGwire's record. He wouldn't mind going back to obscurity.

"It's kind of bothersome," he said of the attention. "I got a couple calls from Oakland, a New York radio station, the Boston Herald, somebody in Minneapolis," he said. "They all want to know my reaction. I think it's fine. I'm happy for him. I'm getting kind of tired coming to the phone and talking to reporters all the time. Why don't you talk to the guy who hit 39 homers?"

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