There have been ballplayers who hit the way Tony Gwynn and Wade Boggs do—with a premium on contact—in every era, be it the turn of this century or the previous one. Gwynn and Boggs could comfortably talk shop with the grandpappy of singles hitters, 140-pound Wee Willie Keeler, who in 1898 sprayed a record 206 singles among his 216 hits for the Baltimore Orioles. These days the ranks of singles hitters are, shall we say, weer than Willie. These days, the singles scene is dying.
Where is the heir to Gwynn and Boggs, who followed Rod Carew, Pete Rose, Nellie Fox, Lloyd Waner, Eddie Collins and Keeler in the line of succession of Hall of Fame-quality contact hitters? Of the other 22 active career .300 hitters (minimum: 3,000 plate appearances), only Kenny Lofton of the Cleveland Indians has a percentage of singles among his total hits (75.5) that closely rivals those of Gwynn (76.0) and Boggs (74.8).
Keeler (85.6), Fox (81.1), Richie Ashburn (82.3), Matty Alou (82.2) and Brett Butler (80.5) are among the many players who exceeded 1,700 career hits with at least 80% of them being singles. Not one of the 25 active players with that many hits has done so.
"That's because the home run pays so much more," Milwaukee Brewers general manager Sal Bando says. "Guys are in the weight room more and are more willing to give away at bats trying for the long ball." During and after the 1997 season Bando signed Jeff Cirillo and Jeromy Burnitz to four-year contract extensions. They were born within months of each other and both had about equal major league service. Cirillo was an All-Star and a career .295 hitter with 178 more hits than Burnitz, who was only a .266 hitter. But Burnitz had more home runs, 52-37. Guess who was paid about 15% more? Right. The Brewers valued Burnitz ($14.5 million) more than Cirillo ($12.7 million).
Power hitters traditionally have earned more than singles hitters, but the pronounced preference for slugging by fans and management today has further discouraged contact hitting. Gwynn tells a story about his upper-deck home run against lefthander David Wells at Yankee Stadium in last year's World Series that illustrates the infatuation with the long ball. "The first AB we put the hit-and-run on, and Wells threw a good breaking ball that I flipped into left center [for a single]," Gwynn says. "He was pissed. I could hear him say, 'God!' The rest of the night I knew he was going to come inside because he wasn't going to give me the opportunity to do that again. So he came inside with a slide-step fastball, and I was on it. I hit it good, but I've hit balls better. A reporter came up to me after the game and said, 'Is that the farthest you've ever hit the ball?' This guy, he got my goat that night. I said, 'Look, I've been playing for 17 years. I've hit some balls a lot farther than that.' "
No one bothered asking about that exquisite hit-and-run single.