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Modest Joe Bauman Could Pound the Ball Out of Sight

By Toby Smith
Journal Staff Writer
    ROSWELL— It's the fingers you notice first. Brick-thick and long as snakes, they're the kind of fingers that might be able to pry up a railroad spike. Or whip a baseball bat around hard enough to send a ball a country mile.
    And that's just what Joe Bauman— a man as country as a pie on a windowsill— did 50 years ago: Hit baseballs out of sight. Dozens of them.
    During the summer of 1954, Joe Bauman, a Bunyanesque, cement-footed bush leaguer for the Roswell Rockets, launched 72 home runs.
    That's still the minor league mark, though more than a few baseball purists think it ought to be the professional one, the all-time, no-asterisks-attached, no-suspicions-aroused record.
    And why not? In 1954, nobody knew chemical enhancements from chemistry sets.
    "Back then," drawls Joe, "steroids were a coupla beers after a game."
View from the bench
    At 82, Joe Bauman is on the disabled list. A stroke a year ago stove up his left side, his batting and throwing side. Not long after, a bout with pneumonia set him back more.
    "Only time I go out now," says Joe, "is to visit the doctor. I'm awful draggy."
    He spends his days in the living room of the blue bungalow he shares with Dorothy, his wife of 62 years. Alongside his easy chair pill bottles on a tray table stand at attention.
    Across the room sits a TV with cable, because there's always a ballgame on somewhere.
    There was none of that ''It might be, it could be" stuff with Joe Bauman's home runs.
    "Joe didn't just hit 'em over the fences," says Floyd Economides, who played against him in 1954. "He hit 'em over the lights."
    After he whacked a long ball, there was no hopping around for Joe. No stopping to gaze in pleasure at his handiwork, or to point heavenward.
    Joe Bauman's batting tip No. 1: "Never show up the pitcher, even if he's piss poor."
    He never made the major leagues or had his own baseball card, but he doesn't sit home fuming about it. "What's in the past needs to sleep there."
    For years few paid him much heed. Then in 1998, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa hit 70 and 66, homers, respectively. Both were major league records, but Joe still had more.
    "The phone was ringing off the hook that summer," Joe says. "Even newspapers from Canada, for crying out loud."
    Everyone wanted to know what Joe thought of McGwire and Sosa.
    Don't know 'em, Joe said.
    Then, three years later, Barry Bonds belts 73 home runs, and beats Joe's pro ball high by a knock.
    More telephone questions.
    Are you sad, Joe?
    Nah. What's to be sad about?
    This spring, more calls.
    Joe, those hitters have arms the size of legs. What gives?
    Don't reckon I know.
    Joe, you hit 72 and you didn't swallow a single pill to juice yourself up. How'd you do it?
Taking one more swing
    He did a lot of it with those sausages attached to his hands. Probably inherited the fingers from his father, a burly Okie who shoveled coal on a locomotive.
    But Joe was always outsized. The myth for a while was that he stood 6-9 and weighed 300. But in fact, he was 6-4, 240, in 1954. Time and the stroke have whittled him down, but even ailing he remains an imposing figure.
    Carefully, his park bench of a jaw clamped tight, Joe pushes himself up out of his easy chair, steadying his frame with a walker.
    "Dorothy!" he hollers. "Get my bat!"
    Next up, Joe Bauman.
    A country girl from Oklahoma who went wobbly the first time she set eyes on Joe in high school, Dorothy Bauman returns from a back bedroom with a Louisville Slugger. The bat is 35 inches long and weighs 34 ounces. A warclub. Uncorked, of course.
    Bauman batting tip No. 2: "Just meet the ball, like you was meeting the bathroom door."
    Joe takes a tiny half swing.
    "See, I'd give the bat a little extra oomph with my fingers and forearms. Never lifted no dumbbells."
    He blames the hurricane of home runs these days not on medical labs but on lively baseballs. "Guy'll fall over trying to hit a homer and he'll still manage to one-hand it out of the park. Gotta be the ball."
    "'Cowtailing,'" we use to call it," says Jim Waldrip, a Roswell Rockets teammate of Joe's. "If you cowtailed a bat, you got way down on it. Joe held the knob in the palm of his right hand. That's how he got under the ball, how he got leverage."
    A dead pull hitter, Joe golfed pitches over the right field wall. Half of his home runs that summer five decades ago came at Roswell's Fair Park Stadium. It was 330 feet down the lines, 385 in center. "A nice park," says Joe. With a roofed grandstand and a wooden outfield fence, it was nice.
    The stadium's gone, replaced by a field where Roswell's two high school teams play. Then, as now, the field bordered the Eastern New Mexico Fairgrounds. When Joe snapped his warclub, cowtailing the ball in a humongous arc, the landing zone was often the fairgrounds. Grown men in Roswell today brag that they chased one of Joe Bauman's moon shots across the rodeo arena, where it kept bouncing, like a croquet ball on a sidewalk, headed for Texas.
Artesia, here I come
    He arrived in Southeast New Mexico in 1952. He'd been signed after the war by the old Boston Braves, and he stumbled around the minors for a while, getting to Triple A for one game. As good as Joe felt he was, he kept getting sent down, kept getting paid less. Though he and Dorothy didn't have children, the couple liked to eat.
    "I told Boston I could earn more money selling shoelaces on a street corner."
    Go ahead, said the Braves.
    Frustrated, Joe quit in his prime, and went back to his native Oklahoma, to Elk City, to pump gas and to play semipro ball in the Red River Valley. He did this for three years and was reasonably content.
    "Pretty good fishing up there," he says.
    In his third year in Elk City a fella showed up at Joe's filling station.
    "Big ox like you oughta be playing ball in Artesia," the man said.
    "Where the hell's Artesia?" said Joe, wiping a windshield.
    The stranger said there was an outfit in New Mexico and West Texas, the Longhorn League. It was mostly independent teams comprised of freelancers.
    Joe and Dorothy drove down, took a look and said yes. Joe sold his Elk City gas station, signed on with the Artesia Drillers for $4,000 a season, and the stranger bought his contract from Boston.
    He hit 50 and 53 home runs his first two years with the Drillers, and he loved it. The ball flew. Oh, the lights could have been better, but mediocre pitching offset what Joe couldn't see.
    Bauman batting tip No. 3: "Have a plan when you go up to the plate. If you ain't got one, then be a good guesser."
    Joe's plan was to wait for a low and inside pitch. When he got it the ball usually vanished in the night air.
    "He had such power," remembers his Artesia manager, Earl Perry. "You can't teach power. You just watch it, amazed, and hope your teeth don't fall out."
    Few folks outside the Southwest paid much attention to the league, for Class C players in the desert typically were stranded there for a reason. Dust-ridden, the Longhorn wasn't without color, however. Artesia employed a left-handed catcher. A sportswriter suited up for San Angelo, Texas. The Sweetwater, Texas, team was called the Spudders. Indeed, everybody had a nickname: Stubby, Goldy, Banana Boat.
    Bauman was Joe. Just plain Joe.
    What brought real distinction to the league were the screens behind home plate. Into the screens' wire mesh appreciative fans stuffed money, usually a one or a five dollar bill, but sometimes lots more if a player had a good night.
    Joe Bauman seldom had a bad night.
    "The story went around that Joe never cashed his paycheck during the season," says James "Bud" Mulcock, the Drillers batboy in early '50s. "Joe supposedly lived off the money he got from hitting home runs."
A touch of Hollywood
    "Dorothy! Dorothy, get the scrapbook, willya?"
    Photographs, many taken by Life magazine and Sports Illustrated during that golden summer, spill from an album.
    There's the wonderful picture of Dorothy kissing Joe through the backstop screen. The photo was taken just after Joe had smacked one. He and Dorothy, both 32 at the time, appear magnetic: Joe, darkly handsome, is clutching a wad of bills in his massive paw; Dorothy, fair-haired and cute as a bug's ear, can't keep her eyes off her man.
    If the two weren't Gary Cooper and Teresa Wright from "The Pride of the Yankees," they surely could have been.
    When Joe spotted a Texaco station for sale on Roswell's West 2nd Street, he got out of his Artesia contract and joined the Rockets in 1954.
    The professional baseball record for home runs stood at 69, first set in 1933, then tied in 1948. Soon as the '54 season began, Joe's home runs piled up like cans in a supermarket. "Damn ball was big as a cantaloupe," Joe says. In one game he hit four. As the season wound down, his health held up. "Never got a cold that whole summer," he says.
    He tied the record on Sept. 2. Then he went to Big Spring, Texas, and in three games there failed to hit a loud foul. He returned to New Mexico to face the Drillers with two games left.
    In the first game of a twi-night doubleheader, on Sept. 5, 1954, Joe lofted one down the line to give him 70. In the second game, he clubbed two more. Both sailed a country mile.
    In only 138 games that summer of '54, and in just 498 at- bats, Joe racked up an astonishing 224 RBI. If that wasn't enough, he hit .400.
    "People say, 'Well, it was the minors,'" says Jim Waldrip. "Heck, when I was young I could have stood at home plate in Fair Park with a fungo bat and hit thousands of balls. I don't think 70 would have gone over the fence.
    "What Joe did is remarkable, by any standard."
    As noteworthy as his feat may be, there is almost nothing in Roswell to remind anyone of it. And it's not as if Joe left Roswell after 1954. He played another season there, and part of a third, then left the game to run his Texaco station.
    In time, he sold the station, moved to Hobbs for a spell, then back to Roswell to distribute beer. He retired 20 years ago.
    When the new stadium was built on top of Fair Park Stadium, there was talk of naming it after Joe. But when Coca-Cola paid for the lights, the place took the name of the soft drink company.
    When a "Hometown Heroes" wall went up in a local restaurant, it neglected to include Joe. An annoyed Jim Waldrip urged the manager of the restaurant to put up a photo of Joe Bauman.
    Joe who? the man said.
    The omissions don't bother Joe, says Waldrip. "He's a real modest gentleman who never toots his horn. Never."
    Last October, when Bill Richardson came to Roswell to help celebrate the re-opening of a bus plant, the governor learned that Joe still lived in town. Quickly, Richardson proclaimed a Joe Bauman Day.
    Somehow, Joe made it to the top of a podium at the bus plant site. There he gave an I'm-the-luckiest-man-on-the-face-of-the Earth speech, just like Gary Cooper.
    Dorothy thinks Joe was an afterthought that day. But Joe waves away such talk. He is happy to be remembered. Anyway, even if he wasn't remembered, he'll always have a ballgame on the TV.
    And to more than a few people, he'll always have the record.