For much of his baseball career, Joe Bauman played in the obscurity of the low minors. But at the end of the 1954 season, his name was on the lips of fans across the country as he closed in on a prodigious home run record.
Bauman, who played for the Roswell (N.Mex.) Rockets of the Class C Longhorn League, had 64 homers going into the last days of the season. The minor league record was 69, set by Joe Hauser of the Minneapolis Millers in 1933 and tied by Bob Crues of the Amarillo Gold Sox in 1948.
As close as he was, Bauman didn't think he could break the record—until Aug. 31, when the 6'5", 245-pound first baseman hit four homers in one game against the Sweetwater ( Texas) team. Two nights later, against the Midland ( Texas) Indians, he hit another to tie the record, with four games to play.
"The four against Sweetwater got me knocking on the door," says Bauman, 69, a retired beer distributor who still lives in Roswell. "But the closer I got, the more I pressed."
On the road in Texas, against the Big Springs Broncs, Bauman went homerless in two games, and the pressure intensified. On the final day of the season, Sunday, Sept. 5, the Rockets played a double-header in Artesia, N.Mex., against the NuMexers (formerly Drillers).
Some 2,600 fans were on hand to see if Bauman, dubbed "Joltin' Joe" and the "gentleman first sacker" by the local press, could make history. As Buck Lanier wrote in the Roswell Daily Record: "The eyes of the U.S. are on Roswell at present. It isn't too often that the activities of a Class C league are pegged on the national Associated Press trunk wire as prime material."
Bauman's wife, Dorothy, told reporters at the time that no one talked about home runs at their house for days. "We avoided even mentioning it, but of course we couldn't help but think of it," she said.
Bauman's biggest irritation was the growing number of photographers, including those from LIFE magazine and SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, hoping to capture the record-breaking hit. The clicking of cameras whenever he went into his swing broke Bauman's concentration and made him wonder if he would ever break the record.
"It was on my mind that I wouldn't, especially after Big Springs," says Bauman. "But I kept looking for that one pitch I could really get on."
It didn't take long. His manager moved him to the leadoff spot so he would get more at bats, and in the first inning of the first game of the doubleheader he fouled off two pitches before lofting a 2-2 pitch over the rightfield wall for No. 70.