Where do writers get their ideas? Something as small as a few lines in a record book can spark an entire novel. That’s the case with my novel, The Fat Lady’s Low, Sad Song.
Joe Bauman was an Oklahoma boy in the Great Depression, raised on spankings and doses of castor oil. His dad taught him to play ball. A three-sport star in high school, he signed a baseball contract just out of high school in 1941. After serving in the Second World War, he bounced around the minor leagues for a while before settling for a semi-pro team in a town now famous for alien visitations. You probably don’t recognize his name or know his claim to fame.
Playing in 138 games in 1954 for the Roswell Rockets, Joe Bauman gave the New Mexico fans a performance that was truly out of this world. He batted .400, drove in 224 RBIs and hit an unprecedented number of home runs (72). The Pacific Coast League noticed and made him an offer, but Joe decided one minor league job was the same as another and opted to stay in Roswell.
Despite being a lifelong baseball fan, I hadn’t heard of the big first baseman until I saw a short blurb in Bill James’s Historical Baseball Abstract. A man who could hit that many home runs in any league fascinated me.
Why weren’t the major leagues interested in a man who could hit that well? Baseball folks knew about Joe. The Associated Press reported his feats, once detailing a home run that cleared the park and landed in the adjacent rodeo grounds. Perhaps the class-C Longhorn League wasn’t respected enough to merit attention.
A fine player, Joe was reputed to be an even finer man. Newspapers sometimes referred to him as “the gentleman first-sacker.” A local meat packer gave him a ham after every home run. He gave most of them away to teammates, often young Cuban players with small salaries.
Did he ever regret not playing in the big leagues? “I still have that question in my mind. Could I have done it or not?” Regrets aside, he had a certain quiet pride in his minor league accomplishments. “Hell, it’s a record, it’s something.”
The best thing about Bauman’s story was the happy ending. Bauman made a lot of money for a minor leaguer. Fans loved him, often shoving cash to him through the chain-link backstop after another monster home run. He was frugal—a child of the Depression—and parlayed his earnings into ownership of two gas stations and a tire distribution center.
After another stellar season in 1955, Bauman slipped in a snow storm and injured his ankle. He wanted to retire then, but the fans wanted him back. He played a short season and then hung up his glove to run his businesses. He later became a sales manager for a beer distributor.
When Barry Bonds hit his 73rd home run, Joe was philosophical. “It didn’t bother me or anything. I just thought, well, there goes my record.”
Today, the top home run-hitting minor leaguer receives the Joe Bauman Award—a trophy and $200 per home run the winning player hits that year—a welcome reminder of baseball’s “other home run record”!
A huge thanks to the following sources:
Leo Banks, Sports Illustrated, August 1991
The Baseball Almanac, http://www.baseball-almanac.com/awards/joe_bauman_award.shtml
Richard Goldstein, New York Times, September 22, 2005
Bob Rives, The Society for American Baseball Research