Jack Graham was on pace to set a new Pacific Coast League (PCL) single-season home run record in 1948 when his run came to an abrupt end due to an injury.
He had hit 46 home runs by July 24 for the San Diego Padres (a Triple-A team at the time). He went on to drive in 136 runs and hit .298/.427/.677 - earning him the PCL MVP award that season. Graham was closing in on Tony Lazzeri's record of 60 home runs, which he hit in 1925 for Salt Lake (they played nearly a 200-game season at the time).
I should back up a bit.
Since the PCL has had several incarnations, its record book contains a number of asterisks. I reached out to Rob White, who has been covering the Omaha Royals, now Storm Chasers, for the Omaha World Herald for many years. He confirmed that Lazzeri holds the PCL record with 60 home runs in 1925, but he provided a lot of great insight regarding the single-season all-time home run list.
"The modern** record (which, near as I can tell, is since 1958, though there's no real reason to make that the cutoff, other than that's when MLB moved to the west coast), is 55 by Bill McNulty of Sacramento, 1974, but there's a double-asterisk attached since left field at Hughes Stadium in Sacramento was less than 250 feet," White said.
"The modern* record is 50 by Ron Kittle, Edmonton, 1982."
See what I mean about the asterisks?
No matter how you slice it, Graham was going to make a run at the all-time PCL single-season home run record when the left-handed, power hitting first baseman and outfielder fell short of the record due to the aforementioned injury, which Bob Brigham wrote about in a fantastic article on The Diamond Angle website.
"The Padres were in L.A. for a series with the Angels at old Wrigley Field, a smaller version of the Cubs major league ballpark," Brigham wrote.
"Late in the game, when a shadow falls across the infield, Jack stepped up to the plate. Graham lost the pitch, which was coming out of the sun, on its flight to the plate. He took the pitch in his right eye. Helmets were not worn in those days, only lightweight plastic liners under the cap; and Jack wasn't even wearing that on the hot July afternoon. He could have been killed."
"I was in a zone during that season," Graham is quoted as saying in "Baseball in Long Beach," written by Bob Keisser. Keisser cites a 2002 Press-Telegram column for the quote. "I had 46 home runs in late July, and I thought with two months left I had a good chance to break Tony Lazzeri's record. But I lost a fastball that came out of the shadows one Sunday afternoon at Wrigley Field when we were playing the Los Angeles Angels, and the ball hit me in the head.
"I was sidelined until the final week of the season. I sometimes wonder how many homers I would have hit had I not been sidelined. But those are the breaks. I just feel blessed I recovered completely from the injury."
According to Keisser, Graham ended up missing 46 games that season, leaving fans to wonder what might have been. Keisser says local icon John Herbold believed Graham would have hit 70 home runs if he hadn't been injured. That seems a bit optimistic because Graham would have needed to hit an additional 22 home runs in the 46 games he missed. But his pace of hitting one every 2.875 games would have put him in the 64 home run range.
Unfortunately, we'll never know if he would have set the new record or not. But here's a bit of a horrifying twist to the story - according to Brigham, doctors recommended that Graham take the rest of the season off, but at least one sportswriter told him that if he returned to finish the season, they would name him MVP. So he did, but he was only able to play in four games, during which he hit two more home runs (bringing his season total to 48) before he had to shut it down for the season.
Obviously, he still won the MVP award.
Graham only played two seasons in the major leagues (1946 and '49). Uncle Sam came calling when he was 26 years old and he served during the war. He didn't return to the game until he was 29, in 1946. Upon his return, he played 102 games for the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants that season and after the ‘47 season, his rights were sold to San Diego in the PCL.
His 1948 PCL MVP season with the Padres earned him another shot in the big leagues with the St. Louis Browns in 1949. But he returned to the PCL in ‘50 and stayed there through the '52 season (the PCL paid more than some major league teams at the time). He played two more seasons in other minor leagues and retired at the age of 37, ending his career with 384 minor league home runs.
He passed away in 1998 at the age of 82.