The most unlikely fifty home-run hitter in baseball history, Brady Anderson struggled for years to fulfill the potential he showed as the onetime prize of the Red Sox farm system. In 1988 Baseball America tabbed him as the top rookie prospect in the AL East, but after a three-for-five Opening Day performance against the Tigers’ Jack Morris, Anderson soon faltered at the plate and was sent back to Triple-A Pawtucket.
Anderson’s career took a dramatic turn on July 30th, when Boston traded him and right-hander Curt Schilling to Baltimore in exchange for Orioles starter Mike Boddicker. Given a chance to play immediately on the rebuilding Orioles, Anderson hardly made the most of the opportunity, batting below .200 for the final two months of the season. Still, his hustle and superb glove-work in the outfield left a positive impression on the Orioles and their fans.
The next three seasons Anderson shuttled back and forth between Baltimore and Triple-A, plagued by injuries and an inability to hit consistently. The Orioles wanted Anderson to develop into a traditional leadoff batter, to shorten his swing and utilize his formidable speed by hitting the ball on the ground. Anderson, however, preferred to swing for the fences, infuriating the club with numerous warning-track fly balls sandwiched around occasional flashes of power.
Not until 1992, when Baltimore had all but given up on him (and stopped trying to alter his batting technique), did he finally break through to the level of production the Orioles had hoped for. In addition to making his first All-Star team, Anderson became the only player in AL history to reach 20 home runs, 50 steals and 75 RBIs in the same season. He drove in 80 runs from the top of the lineup, the seventh-highest total ever for a leadoff batter. With the Orioles moving into Camden Yards, Anderson took advantage of the new stadium’s low left-field wall to make spectacular catches on a seemingly nightly basis, pulling back several sure home runs with leaping grabs at the fence.
An overnight sensation after four years, Anderson quickly became a favorite of Oriole fans and something of a celebrity. He received as much attention for his prominent Luke Perry sideburns as for his newfound success on the diamond, and he endeared himself to Baltimore with eccentricities like roller-blading to Camden Yards from his downtown apartment. The spotlight suited him well, and Anderson never shied away from his adoring public. On a bet one night, Anderson raced and beat a local track competitor in the parking lot of a Baltimore nightclub.
While Anderson’s production from 1993 to 1995 didn’t quite match his 1992 standards, he proved that his sudden improvement was no fluke. Anderson became a reliable leadoff hitter with strong extra-base pop and good speed on the bases. In 1994 he stole 31 bases in 32 attempts, setting a single-season record for the highest percentage of any player with at least 25 steals. From May 13th, 1994 through July 3rd, 1995, Anderson set an AL record (since broken by Tim Raines) by stealing 36 straight bases without getting caught.
No one, though, with the possible exception of Anderson himself, was prepared for the spectacle of his 1996 season, when he became a poster boy for the year of the home run. In the previous three years he had managed just 41 homers and had hit only 72 in 945 major league games. In 1996, however, Anderson went deep with astonishing regularity. His eleven round-trippers in April tied a league record, and from April 18th to April 21st he established a new major league mark by leading off four consecutive games with a home run.
By the All-Star break, when an injury to Ken Griffey Jr. pushed him from reserve to the first of two consecutive All-Star starts, he led all of baseball with thirty. Although his production slipped during the middle of the season, he finished strong, launching nine round-trippers in September. On the final day of the regular season, he led off the game with home run number fifty against eventual Cy Young winner Pat Hentgen. For good measure, he added three more in nine post-season games against Cleveland and New York.
During his magical mystery season, Anderson set or tied a host of records. 35 of his home runs came while batting leadoff, tying a record set by Bobby Bonds in 1973. Anderson broke another of Bonds’ 1973 records by leading off twelve games with a home run. With 21 steals he became the first player to own a 20-homer, 50-steal season as well as a 50-homer, 20-steal season. His 50 home runs set an Orioles record, as did his 92 extra-base hits.
No real explanation could be found for his season-long power surge. Although always a health and fitness buff, an off-season a weight-training program and use of the muscle enhancer creatine had added considerable bulk to his previously slender frame. Some people offered the friendly dimensions of Camden Yards as a cause, but Anderson actually hit 31 of his 50 home runs on the road. Others suggested the addition of All-Star second baseman Roberto Alomar behind him in the lineup and the steady diet of fastballs that ensued. For his part, Anderson was nonchalant about his sudden long-ball propensity. “I always had the ability to hit home runs for two or three weeks at a time,” he said. “But I never sustained it like this year. When you do, the homers really add up.”
Whatever planetary alignment had produced such a memorable season wouldn’t carry over into 1997. Although he put together a strong year (.288, 39 doubles, 97 runs and 73 RBIs), a cracked rib suffered in spring training hindered his swing and dropped his home runs to 18. One season after having the second-biggest one-season home run increase in baseball history (behind his manager Davey Johnson, who had hit 43 homers in 1973 after hitting just five in 1972) Anderson had posted the second-biggest decrease. Only Hack Wilson — who hit just 13 homers in 1931 after swatting 56 in 1930 — had suffered a greater fall.
Once again, however, Anderson turned in another exceptional post-season, batting .294 with a home run as the Orioles beat Seattle in the Division Series, and .360 with two homers as the Orioles fell to Cleveland in a six-game ALCS. In Game One of the ALCS, Anderson recorded the final out of the first inning by leaping at the right-centerfield wall to take a home run away from Manny Ramirez. Leading off the bottom of the first, he launched Charles Nagy‘s first offering over the out of town scoreboard in right field. In a span of two pitches he had saved one home run and hit another.
Following the season, Anderson engaged in a lengthy holdout with the Orioles, seeking a long-term deal to stay in Baltimore. Anderson had become a senior statesman of the Orioles, second in both longevity and popularity only to Cal Ripken Jr. (In fact, Anderson appeared in the same lineup with the Iron Man more often during his consecutive-games streak than any other player.) When the potential of losing Anderson as a free agent to the rival Yankees arose, owner Peter Angelos sensed a public relations disaster and anted up a five-year, $33 million deal.
Unfortunately, a miserable start to 1998 all but ended Anderson’s season before it began. He collected just four hits in his first 63 at bats, and never managed to climb out of the hole he had dug himself. Anderson was snakebit by his admirable desire to play through pain and stay in the lineup. (In 1996 he had ignored a doctor’s recommendation to undergo an appendectomy during the season.) Attempting to play a full 162-game season, Anderson began the year with a sore right shoulder and a strained neck muscle that never fully healed. Eventually he had no choice but to go on the disabled list for the first time since 1993.
With so much time off the field, Anderson took to more intellectual pursuits, launching a reading campaign inspired by his discovery of a list of the top 100 English-language novels of the twentieth century. “I hadn’t read many of the top 100,” he said. “So I decided to start with number one, which was Ulysses. I got through about 25 pages of that, then decided I would go to number two. A couple of days later I saw an article in the New York Times entitled ‘Why They Invented Cliff’s Notes’. There was a picture of Ulysses, so I didn’t feel that bad about not completing it.”
Although a solid second half in 1998 made Anderson’s final numbers more respectable, he finished up hitting a disappointing .236 with just 51 RBIs. Putting his poor year behind him, Anderson spent the offseason continent-hopping from Japan to Australia to South Africa with his girlfriend, tennis pro Amanda Coetzer. The travel seemed to suit him well, as he rebounded to post one of his best seasons in 1999, scoring 109 runs while hitting 24 homers, stealing 36 bases, and posting a .404 on-base percentage. During the season, he joined Willard Schmidt (1959) and Frank Thomas (1962) as the only players in baseball history to be hit with pitches twice in an inning.