Earl Webb was a pretty good player. He was a left-handed hitting outfielder. He played for five teams in seven seasons, his lifetime average was .306 and he drove in 103 runs in 1931 for the Red Sox. Nothing was exceptional about his career except for that 1931 season, the only year in which he hit more than 30 doubles. That season, he hit a record 67.
This is relevant again because Tigers outfielder Magglio Ordonez has 34 doubles in his team's first 71 games, a pace for 78 doubles this year. Only six players in major league history have hit 60 doubles in a season.
George Burns hit 64 in 1926, and he was the record holder until Webb's 67. In 1932, Paul Waner hit 62. In 1934, Hank Greenberg hit 63. In 1936, Ducky Medwick hit 64 and Charlie Gehringer hit 60. Every player with 60 doubles in a season is in the Hall of Fame except Webb. No one has hit at least 60 doubles in 71 years.
"Seventy-one years?'' Ordonez said. "That's a long time. I don't think about it [breaking the record]. Maybe if I get to the last month of the season, I will. But it is too early for that.''
In the last 30 seasons, a player hit more than 50 doubles 30 times. In the last eight years, a player hit at least 55 doubles six times. Five of them had a shot at Webb's record, but suddenly stopped hitting doubles.
In 2000, Todd Helton had 53 doubles through August, but hit six the rest of the way. Also in 2000, Carlos Delgado had 52 doubles on Sept. 6, but finished with 57. In 1999, Craig Biggio had 52 doubles on Aug. 29, but hit only four the rest of the way. In 2002, Nomar Garciaparra had 55 doubles, but managed to get just one in his last seven games. In 2002, Garret Anderson hit 56 doubles, but hit just four after Sept. 6.
(Going further back, Chuck Knoblauch was on pace to challenge the record in 1994, with 45 doubles through Aug. 12, but then the strike happened and the season was done.)
Maybe Ordonez will be the guy who doesn't stop. He has a shot at the record for several reasons.
"The way he has hit to all fields this year is phenomenal,'' said Tigers hitting coach Lloyd McClendon. "He goes gap-to-gap and line-to-line. He can cover the slider down and away, and get to the fastball up and in.'' Andy Van Slyke, the Tigers' first base coach, said Ordonez "would be a great doubles partner in tennis. He's hit the [foul] line several times this year. We've seen chalk flying down both lines this year.'' Ordonez says that being able to use all fields "is a big advantage. If I have to pull, I can, or go the other way.''
Ordonez is helped by playing in Comerica Park, which is among the biggest parks in baseball.
"It's big and it's wide,'' Ordonez said. Size matters in ballparks because there's more room to hit a ball over an outfielder's head or up the gap.
"The maid has more carpet to vacuum in a big house than in a trailer, right?'' Van Slyke said. "Our ballpark is a mansion.''
The way he has hit to all fields this year is phenomenal. He goes gap-to-gap and line-to-line. He can cover the slider down and away, and get to the fastball up and in.
Tigers hitting coach Lloyd McClendon on Magglio Ordonez
Ordonez's average speed also helps him. "He's not a clogger, but he has hit balls that are triples for other guys,'' said McClendon.
Very few players hit triples these days. Very few players bust it right out of the box, thinking triple. Most are content with a double. The six players who have hit 55 or more doubles in a season in the last eight years combined for only 16 triples in those seasons. Biggio had 56 doubles and zero triples in 1999.
"It's impossible to compare eras, and this isn't fair to the older players, but it is harder to hit a double today than it was in the 1930s,'' Van Slyke said. "Overall, the parks are much smaller today. The players today are better, the outfielders are getting to more balls than they used to. The technology of scouting has changed: Teams know where you hit the ball.''
There has been no defending Ordonez this year, especially when it comes to doubles. Maybe he'll break Webb's record. Or maybe, like many players before him, he'll stop when he gets close to 60.
"I hope that doesn't happen to me,'' Ordonez said.
Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His new book "Is This a Great Game, Or What?" has been published by St. Martin's Press and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy. In addition, click here to subscribe to The Magazine.