Braves could repeat their 1973 feat: three players with 40 homers

Ronald Acuna Jr.  of the Atlanta Braves celebrates with Freddie Freeman  after hitting a home run in the fifth inning against the Miami Marlins at SunTrust Park on August 21, 2019 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Logan Riely/Getty Images)

Credit: Logan Riely

Credit: Logan Riely

Ronald Acuna Jr. of the Atlanta Braves celebrates with Freddie Freeman after hitting a home run in the fifth inning against the Miami Marlins at SunTrust Park on August 21, 2019 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Logan Riely/Getty Images)

Not even the 1927 New York Yankees, despite a lineup famously known as “Murderers’ Row,” had three players with 40 or more home runs. They had two, Babe Ruth with 60 and Lou Gehrig with 47, but no one else with more than 18.

In fact, only three teams in MLB history have had three 40-homer hitters in the same season: the 1973 Atlanta Braves, the 1996 Colorado Rockies and the 1997 Rockies.

Now the 2019 Braves are challenging to join the list.

Entering their final regular-season homestand, which opens Tuesday night against the Philadelphia Phillies, the Braves have three players closing in on 40 homers. Outfielder Ronald Acuna has 39, first baseman Freddie Freeman 38 and third baseman Josh Donaldson 37.

With 11 games remaining, it’s possible, albeit far from certain, all three will make it to 40.

If so, they’ll join the 1973 trio of Hank Aaron, Darrell Evans and Davey Johnson in Braves history.

In that season 46 years ago, Johnson hit 43 home runs, Evans 41 and Aaron 40, marking the first time an MLB team had three 40-homer sluggers in one season. Eleven times previously, two teammates had reached 40 homers, including the Ruth-Gehrig tandem three times from 1927-31.

The 1973 Braves were an improbable team to achieve the three-at-40 feat. Only Aaron seemed to belong in such a group. Johnson was a 30-year-old second baseman acquired the previous winter from Baltimore for his defense, and he had hit only five home runs in 1972. Evans was a 26-year-old third baseman in his second full big-league season, having hit 19 homers in ’72.

Aaron was engulfed by a bigger home-run chase, closing in on Ruth’s career record of 714, but by the final week of the 1973 season Evans and Johnson recognized the historical implications of their potential parts in MLB’s first 40-homer trio.

"That's the only way we'll get in the Hall of Fame," Evans said at the time.

Entering the final weekend of the season, Evans and Johnson had reached or surpassed 40. Aaron, who played in only 120 games and got only 392 at-bats that season, was at 39.

"We told him he had to have one more to make it a threesome,” Johnson recalled in a 1989 Atlanta Journal column by Furman Bisher, “and Hank was the kind who always got what was needed.”

In the Braves’ next-to-last game of the season, Aaron hit his 40th homer, the 713th of his career. Early the following season, April 8, 1974, he broke Ruth’s record.

Evans went on to hit 414 home runs across a 21-year big-league career, including another 40-homer season for Detroit in 1985, while Johnson didn’t hit more than 18 in any other season of a 13-year career.

The Braves also have connections to the Colorado teams, nicknamed the Blake Street Bombers, that had three 40-homer hitters. For the 1996 Rockies, future Brave Andres Galarraga hit 47 homers, former and future Brave Vinny Castilla 40 and Ellis Burks 40. For the 1997 Rockies, Larry Walker hit 49 homers, Galarraga 41 and Castilla 40.

Galarraga signed with the Braves as a free agent after the 1997 season, while Castilla, who first reached the big leagues with Atlanta, returned to the Braves in 2002.

Not coincidentally, the 1973 Braves and 1996-97 Rockies had homer-friendly home stadiums.

The 1973 Braves played in Atlanta Stadium (later renamed Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium), which was appropriately nicknamed The Launching Pad. Johnson, Evans and Aaron hit significantly more home runs at home than on the road in ’73 -- Johnson 26 at home vs. 17 on the road; Evans 24 at home vs. 17 on the road; Aaron 24 at home vs. 16 on the road.

The 1996-97 Rockies played in the mile-high altitude of Coors Field, and that was before the stadium installed a humidor (in 2002) in which the baseballs are stored to keep them from drying out, becoming harder and flying out of the park quite as often.

In 1996, Galarraga hit 32 homers at Coors vs. 15 on the road, Castilla 27 at Coors vs. 13 on the road and Burks 23 at Coors vs. 17 on the road. In 1997, for whatever reason, such disparities didn’t exist: Walker hit more homers on the road (29) than at home (20) that year, while Galarraga and Castilla were within one and two homers, respectively, of hitting as many on the road as at Coors.

Acuna, Freeman and Donaldson have mixed home-road splits this season. Acuna has hit fewer homers at SunTrust Park (16) than on the road (23), while Freeman has hit 22 at home vs. 16 on the road and Donaldson 22 at home vs. 15 on the road. As a team, the Braves already have tied their franchise single-season record for home runs (235, including 123 at home and 112 on the road).

Even in a power-packed season in which a record number of home runs have been hit around the big leagues, leading to much talk of juiced baseballs, the Braves are the sole team within striking range of the three-at-40 feat this year.

Whether the 2019 Braves join the 1973 Braves and 1996-97 Rockies in home-run history, they are assured a more successful season than those teams. The ’73 Braves had a losing record (76-85) despite leading the National League in runs scored, because they also led the league in runs allowed. The ’96 and ’97 Rockies had winning records (83-79 in both seasons) but failed to make the playoffs.

These Braves, who are more than the sum of their home runs, open their final homestand with a 93-58 record, a secured playoff spot and a chance to clinch the NL East championship as soon as Wednesday.

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