IT’S OUTTA HEEERRE!!! : A New Generation of Sluggers Invites Tape-Measure Comparisons
In a home run hitting contest before last week’s All-Star game at the Houston Astrodome, Darryl Strawberry raised the roof some.
He hit a towering blast that eventually caromed off a speaker hanging from the rim of the dome in right-center field.
While coming at the expense of a batting-practice pitcher named Stretch Suba, the impressive wallop still offered credence to an opinion expressed by ABC analyst Tim McCarver when he introduced Strawberry as the leading All-Star vote-getter at a Monday morning press conference.
“Some day, somewhere, this guy will hit a ball farther than anyone has ever hit one,” McCarver said about Strawberry.
That may be true, but who would know for sure?
Who really knows how far Babe Ruth or Jimmy Foxx or any of the game’s subsequent strong men hit their longest shots.
Did the Babe himself launch a drive at Detroit’s old Navin Field in 1926 that cleared the right-field wall, bounced off the top of a parked car and rolled to a stop two blocks down Plum Street? Baseball writer H. G. Salsinger reported that the ball carried an estimated 602 feet in the air and ultimately traveled 800 to 850 feet. He had a dozen or so fans sign an affidavit, but he never paced off the distance and no other Detroit writer even mentioned it in their game accounts.
Did New York Giant first baseman Roger Connor, on opening day of the 1883 season at the original Polo Grounds, hit a drive over the left-field fence that rolled three blocks into an embankment on 113th Street, ultimately traveling more than a quarter of a mile? Must have. President Ulysses S. Grant was there to see it, and the Giants gave Connor a gold watch in recognition of his feat.
Baseball’s tales of the tape are shrouded in myth, each of the longest home runs becoming longer in the retelling. A game that thrives on numbers has no official statistics for Bunyonesque home runs. They are recorded only in the camera of the mind.
Even Mickey Mantle, who hit many of the longest, said by telephone from New York, “later on they tend to get longer than they really were.”
It was Mantle who generated the term “tape-measure homer” when he became the first player ever to clear the left-field bleachers at Griffith Stadium in Washington D.C.
The New York Yankee center fielder connected against Chuck Stobbs on April 17, 1953. The ball ticked a corner of the 60-foot high scoreboard on the back-bleacher wall and ultimately landed in the backyard of a house on Oakdale Street, which meant it first cleared a two-story building on Fifth Street, bordering the stadium.
Red Patterson, most recently an executive with the Dodgers and Angels after beginning his 45-year baseball career as a Yankee publicist, left his press-box seat after Mantle connected and went behind the bleachers in search of witnesses who might have seen the ball land.
“People laughed at me,” Patterson said in reflection. “They said there had never been a ball hit over those bleachers. Then I saw a kid running down the street with a ball and asked him where he had gotten it. He showed me the yard and I paced off the distance back to where it was already measured on the outfield fence.”
Patterson came up with 565 feet, giving birth to the tape-measure homer.
Skeptical now regarding some of the distances, Mantle said: “I really don’t think Red ever left the press box.”
Said Patterson: “I didn’t leave the press box? What the hell does he mean? I’d throttle him if he wasn’t so strong. Casey (Stengel, who then managed the Yankees) kept saying to me: ‘This is going to be a famous thing for him. You’ve got to make some money for him.’ ”
Mantle’s name is always among the first mentioned when the subject is long home runs.
The names of Willie Stargell, Harmon Killebrew, Reggie Jackson, Frank Howard and Richie Allen are also certain to come up.
Said Stargell, with a touch of reverence: “Richie Allen. Could hit ‘em as far as anyone. Saw him hit one off Bob Veale in the old ballpark in Philadelphia. Hit the sucker over the Cadillac sign on the center-field roof. I mean, that’s why people in Philadelphia booed Richie so much. He never hit those people a souvenir. He hit ‘em all over the roof and out of the park.”
Said Mantle: “No one hit the ball harder than Frank Howard. He was the strongest I ever saw. I saw him hit a line drive off Whitey Ford at the stadium (Yankee Stadium) that Whitey actually jumped for, it was hit that low. It ended up hitting the speakers behind the monuments in dead center (for a home run). I told Whitey later that it was lucky he didn’t catch it because it would have drug him to death.”’
Mantle meant dragged, but the message is clear.
Jackson put it another way.
“I’ve probably hit a hundred balls more than 400 feet, but to me the personal satisfaction is having the ball leave the park before you can take a step out of the batters box,” he said. “The awesome thing to me is not how far but how quickly the ball travels.
“Guys like Allen, Howard, Stargell and (Willie) McCovey could hit 400-foot shots like some guys hit line-drive singles. They made ballparks look small. I saw Howard hit one on the left-field roof at Tiger Stadium that was hit so hard it had to have skipped to Canada. I mean, every infielder in the league played on the outfield grass when Howard was up. He was frightening. I prayed he didn’t hit it to me--and I was the right fielder.”
Now a coach with the Milwaukee Brewers, Howard is 6 feet 7. He played at about 260 pounds, maybe 360. Amid the confined dimensions of RFK Stadium in Washington, after the Dodgers traded him to the Senators, Howard splintered a number of upper-deck seats that were then painted to identify his personal shooting gallery.
In the 1963 World Series against the Yankees, while still with the Dodgers, Howard hit a drive off Ford that hugged the left-field foul line at Dodger Stadium and landed in the loge level. Dave Kingman and Dave Parker are the only other hitters to reach the loge seats.
“I know that went over 500 feet but it wasn’t my longest,” Howard said by telephone from his Green Bay home. “I hit one over the left-field roof at Tiger Stadium that had to have been longer. (He and Killebrew are the only players to have cleared that roof.) And I hit a ball off Jimmy Umbright at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh that hit about three-quarters of the way up a 30- or 40-foot light tower at the 407-foot mark in left center. That one had to travel 600 feet and may have been my longest.”
Duke Snider won that game in Pittsburgh with a 300-foot homer down the right-field foul line. He later teased Howard, saying, “Yours didn’t count any more than mine did.”
“He had a point,” Howard said. “I mean, for guys who make their living by hitting the ball with power, the question isn’t how far but how many. I’d like to know that I was going to hit 30 or 40 and have a good payday. The only satisfaction in hitting it 100 or 150 feet longer than usual was knowing I had everything together . . . bat speed, balance, leverage. In my case I was more of a line-drive hitter than a guy who could really elevate the ball like Killebrew, Jackson, Mantle and Stargell. More of my home runs were line drives.”
Mantle remembered seeing Howard elevate a drive toward the left-field corner at Yankee Stadium before the park was re-designed. Pete Mikkelsen was the pitcher.
“I wasn’t playing that night,” Mantle said. “I was in the dugout. I was watching it all the way. It was called foul, but I thought it went by the pole fair. I never saw it come down. I never saw the kids who ran up in the corner looking for the ball find it. I still believe that Howard hit that one out of the stadium.”
That would have been a first. Officially, there has never been a ball hit out of either the old or new Yankee Stadium. Mantle came closest. He first hit the facade of the right-field roof May 30, 1956, connecting against Washington’s Pedro Ramos. The point of impact was said to be 115 feet high and 390 feet from home plate. He did it again against Kansas City’s Bill Fischer May 22, 1963. The height was about the same, the distance a little less. Mantle, however, said the first was a fly ball compared to the second.
“That was the hardest ball I ever hit,” he said. “It was still going up.
“I still walk into the stadium and look up there and say, ‘God, if I only could have gotten it up another foot or two.’ ”
Conservative mathematics project the flight of that second homer at between 630 and 700 feet.
The figures stem from research conducted in preparation for a book to be published by Arbor House next spring and tentatively titled, “Explosion: The Legendary Home Runs of Mickey Mantle.” The project began as a hobby for three Mantle fans: author-publisher Mark Gallagher of Baltimore, psychologist Paul Susman of Skokie, Ill., and Robert Schiewe, the manager of a Rolls-Royce agency in Northbrook, Ill.
Their purpose was to separate fact from fiction by establishing reputable data.
Said Schiewe: “We didn’t want to say the old days were better if they weren’t, if we couldn’t prove it. We didn’t want to say ‘tradition has it’ if instead we could say ‘the facts show . . . ‘ “
The facts, Schiewe said, show that Mantle was in a class by himself regarding long home runs.
“He was so awe-inspiring long all the time that the media got blase about it,” Schiewe said. “Here was a man who in any given season averaged 20 shots of 500 feet or more.
“Foxx and Ruth hit a few that rivaled Mantle’s best, but never with the same consistency. Mickey hit 536 career homers. Conservatively a third of those were in the tape measure neighborhood of 425 feet or more.”
Schiewe believes that the longest home run Mantle hit was one that Mantle himself doesn’t remember. It came during Mantle’s rookie spring of 1951 while the Yankees were barnstorming through the West. It was hit here in Los Angeles during an exhibition game against USC at Bovard Field, the Trojans’ former home. The drive carried the right-field fence and the width of the neighboring football field, bouncing once before hitting the fence on the far side of the football field.
Schiewe said he reconstructed the blast via communication with USC players who saw it and is certain that the flight spanned 654 to 660 feet.
Rod Dedeaux, the recently retired USC baseball coach, remembered it as the longest home run he has ever seen and said that Joe DiMaggio, Mantle’s center field predecessor, came on campus to visit with the Trojan players last year and brought it up to them on his own.
Said Dedeaux: “Joe called it an unbelievable shot. He said it convinced the Yankees that Mickey had super human ability.”
Mantle almost always toured the bases with his head down, as if embarrassed by how far he had hit the ball, but he actually took pleasure in it.
“I’d never show up a pitcher by standing in the batters box and watching how far the ball goes like a lot of players do now,” Mantle said. “But it made me feel good to know I could hit a ball longer than anyone else. It tickled the hell out of me. It was like playing in a golf tournament and hearing all the ohhs and ahhs when you hit a good drive.
“I mean, every time I swung at it I was trying to hit it longer than the time before. I’m sure that was why I struck out so much, but I’d get a kick out of it. Poor Casey would get so mad. He’d say, ‘Hey butcher boy, just make contact.’ But he couldn’t get me to change. In fact, Whitey told me just last year that I’d shut my eyes just before I lunged.”
Mantle’s eye-opening homers off the facade at Yankee Stadium and over the left-field bleachers at Griffith Stadium are the among the most famous ever. Jackson contributed another, scorching a fastball thrown by Dock Ellis in the 1971 All-Star game at Tiger Stadium in Detroit off a power transformer in right-center. Most observers think the ball was still going up and would have traveled more than 600 feet.
Jackson, however, said he didn’t think it was his longest. He cited a drive hit off Jim Perry in the outdoor stadium at Minneapolis that struck the center-field corner of the scoreboard “about 70 feet high.” The point of impact was said to be 521 feet from the plate.
Jackson also recalled hitting several homers over the exits on the third deck at Yankee Stadium; driving a pitch thrown by Gaylord Perry over the lower bleacher section in Oakland, the ball hitting on the walkway and then bouncing into a concession stand; reaching the second deck of the center-field bleachers in Tiger Stadium, where the distance to the bottom is marked 440; hitting the back wall of the right-field bullpen at Dodger Stadium against Tommy John in the 1977 World Series, and then, later in that Series, on the memorable night he hit three home runs, sending a knuckleball from Charlie Hough about 50 or 60 feet into Yankee Stadium’s right-center-field bleachers, above the 417-foot sign.
Jackson has stood and admired almost all of them in a style Mantle said he would never do.
“I’ve gotten pitchers angry by putting on a floor show,” Jackson said. “But that’s not my intention when I pause and watch it. That started when I hit that dinger in the All-Star game. I was genuinely surprised it went that far and I had to stop and look. Now it’s part of what I do, a habit.”
Said Stargell: “I didn’t hit ‘em to show anybody up, but I didn’t apologize for how far I hit ‘em. My job was to drive in runs and my approach was to hit the ball as hard as I could so that an infielder couldn’t catch it and God forbid he got in front of it. If I hit it in the alley I wanted to knock out a few panels in the fence. If I hit it in the seats I wanted to knock out a few rows and hope no one was sitting in them. I wanted to attack the ball.”
Stargell generally succeeded. His was the first name current Angel and former Montreal manager Gene Mauch mentioned, recalling how Stargell frequently hit balls in the neighborhood of a swimming pool about 200 feet beyond the right-field fence at Jarry Park, the original home of the Expos.
“Someone who worked at the pool kept a dog there and every time Stargell hit one, there was a sign on the message board that said: ‘The Dog Will Get It,’ ” Mauch said.
Stargell hit some that were harder to find. Of the 18 homers that cleared the right-field roof at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh, he hit seven. Of the six home runs hit into the upper deck in right field at Three Rivers Stadium, he hit four. There is a gold star in the upper deck in Montreal, commemorating Stargell’s 535-foot blast off Wayne Twitchell in 1978, the longest in Olympic Stadium history. He is the only hitter to reach the 600 level in the upper deck at Philadelphia’s Veterans Stadium and the only hitter to knock a ball out of Dodger Stadium.
He did it first against Alan Foster on Aug. 5, 1969, clearing the pavilion roof in right. He did it again against Andy Messersmith on May 8, 1973, the ball bouncing once on the roof before going over. The first was measured at 506 feet, the second at 470.
“The funny thing is that Foster never spoke to me after that,” Stargell said by phone from Atlanta, where he now coaches for the Braves. “Messersmith congratulated me the next day and shook my hand. He recognized that my job was to get hits and his was to get me out. There was never anything personal in it.”
Stargell said that the home run in Montreal was probably the quickest and hardest he ever hit, but the longest may have come during a home run hitting contest in Portland when the sponsor challenged him to reach the balcony of a health club across the street from the right-field fence. Stargell did it, earning extra cash.
“I never thought much about some of those home runs at the time,” he said. “But now, when I go back to some of those stadiums and look up to where I hit them, I want to say, ‘Wow.’ I mean, it’s kind of eerie and shows me that I was really into the game, accomplishing what I set out to do. What surprises me is that no one has come close to reaching some of those places since.
“I’m sure the fact that I used a heavier bat (a K44 model that was 36 inches long and weighed 36 to 38 ounces) had an awful lot to do with it. All of us on that team (the Pittsburgh Lumber Co. of the 70s) were using war clubs. If the long ball is going to come back, the guys who are strong enough and quick enough are going to have to use a heavier bat to increase their power.”
Killebrew, who hit 573 home runs to rank fifth on the all-time list, disputes that.
“I think Willie is wrong,” Killebrew said by phone from his Idaho office. “The quicker you are, the longer the ball goes, and it’s hard to be quick with a heavy bat. One of the secrets to hitting is waiting (on the pitch) as long as you can. That’s another thing, you can’t do that with a heavier bat.”
Killebrew used an S207 or Roy Sievers model that was 35 inches and weighed 32 or 33 ounces.
He used it to become the first player ever to hit a home run over the left-field roof at Tiger Stadium, connecting against Jim Bunning.
“The interesting thing was that I got calls from about six people saying they had the ball and wondering if I could give them something for it,” Killebrew recalled. “The groundskeeper had already gotten it off the back of the roof for me.”
Two of Killebrew’s longest homers came on successive days in 1967 at the expense of Angel pitchers Lew Burdette and Jack Sanford, both in the twilight of their careers.
The blast off Burdette landed in the second deck of the outdoor stadium at Bloomington and was measured at 522 feet. The second hit off the facing of the second deck and was measured at 500 feet.
Said Killebrew: “Burdette had been experimenting with a knuckler. I guess that was the first and last time he threw one in a game.”
Of his 573, Killebrew said the first home run will probably linger with him longest. It was hit in Washington in 1955 at the expense of Detroit’s Billy Hoeft. Howard Fox, the traveling secretary then, paced it off at 476 feet. Killebrew was 18. He laughed and said:
“Frank House was catching and said to me, ‘Hey kid, we’re going to throw you a fastball.’ The next time he said, ‘We’ll never make that mistake again.’ No one ever did.”
Said Roy Campanella, the former Dodger catcher who now represents the club’s community services department: “The longest home run I ever saw was hit by Joe Adcock. We were playing Milwaukee at Ebbets Field, and Adcock hit one over the left-field fence. No one had ever done that in batting practice or a game. I still tease Ed Roebuck, who was the pitcher then. I tell him that was the longest home run I ever called for. The truth is that I never second-guessed myself about calling pitches.”
Campanella also recalled a home run hit by Josh Gibson, known as the Babe Ruth of the Negro National League, that carried over the left-field bullpen at old Yankee Stadium. Campanella estimated it was hit at least 450 feet.
There are legendary stories of Gibson’s power, most hard to document. Said Campanella: “Josh was the most consistent long-ball hitter I ever saw because he didn’t strike out a lot. Most power hitters strike out 100 or more times a year. Not this man. And what balls he could hit.”
Campanella himself could hit with power. He once went the opposite way in the old park in Philadelphia, clearing the 35-foot wall in right field that Connie Mack had built to prevent people from sitting on the roofs of adjacent buildings and watching the game. Campanella connected against the illustrious Robin Roberts and was the first right-handed hitter to clear the fence since Foxx.
No one, of course, has hit more home runs than Henry Aaron, but Aaron is remembered for the frequency of his homers, for the speed with which they left the park, rather than the distance.
Dave Kingman is yet another who boasts some of the game’s longest homers. Dedeaux, his college coach, recalled a game against the Dodger Rookies at Quigley Field in Commerce in which Kingman struck out three times and then teed off against Joe Moeller, hitting a drive over the left-field light tower that was “last seen approaching the Langendorf Building about 900 miles beyond the fence. Moeller still says that’s the longest home run he ever saw.”
Jimmie Reese, the 80-year-old Angel coach who was a Yankee teammate of Ruth’s, recalls the Babe with similar clarity.
“He consistently hit them as far as anybody and he could hit them almost as far to the opposite field as any right-handed hitter I’ve ever seen,” Reese said. “We’d barnstorm north (from Florida) each spring and he’d earn his money before the season started by putting on (home run) exhibitions before each game. He’d start off by hitting the ball to right field, then to center, then to left. He was the greatest power hitter I’ve ever seen.”
Ruth’s 714th and last home run was typical. It came off Pittsburgh’s Guy Bush on May 25, 1935. It was Ruth’s third homer of the game and cleared the right-field roof at Forbes Field, an estimated 550 feet.
Now the long ball successors may be Strawberry and two American League phenoms, Jose Canseco and Pete Incaviglia, of whom there are already stories.
Incaviglia set NCAA home run and runs-batted-in records at Oklahoma State last year. Then, in his first spring with the Texas Rangers, he hit a batting practice pitch so hard that it tore a hole in the outfield fence.
Canseco leads the majors in homers as an Oakland rookie. Some of the 25 he hit at Huntsville last year traveled farther than the products produced at the nearby space lab. His first home run for the A’s landed in the center-field bleachers at Oakland. His second hit on the left-field roof at Chicago’s Comiskey Park.
Said Frank Howard: “The kid in Oakland is going to be electrifying. He’s going to put a lot of people in the park.”
Said Reggie Jackson: “Just look at his size, strength and bat speed. He’s going to put up some distance home runs before he retires that may make everyone else’s look like pop ups.”
There is a suspicion that Canseco and the other hitters of today are swinging at a livelier ball. The home run total is up, but the evidence is inconclusive. All you have are opinions. Campanella, for instance, said the ball now jumps off the bat, that it has to be livelier.
“The smallest players are hitting it in the seats,” he said. “There was a time they wouldn’t even try.”
Mauch agreed. “If some of those fellows (the retired Stargell, Mantle and Killebrew, for instance) hit the ball we’re playing with now there’s no telling where it would go,” he said.
Countered Jackson: “I think the ball is lively, but I don’t think it’s livelier. I don’t think it’s changed since the early ‘70s. If you had 10 or 12 guys with 40 homers and another 10 or 12 with 30, then I think you’d have a case for the juiced ball. But I don’t see that happening. I mean, if it’s juiced, why does Dale Murphy have only 14 homers and Jim Rice only 9 and Robin Yount only 3? I just think you have some legitimate young power hitters now and that they’re all a lot stronger from working with weights.”
“We went through a period where the emphasis was on signing kids who could run,” he said. “We found out that speed is an asset, but you can’t steal first base. Now we seem to be back signing the type kids who can move the ball a long way . . . Canseco, (Wally) Joyner, Incaviglia, Strawberry, for example.”
Ruth and Mantle moved it a long way, consistently longer than most. They had a similar training method that is not to be found in any instructional book. Said Mantle: “I never lifted weights in my life. Well, maybe a glass or two.”