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Long Memories for Long Homers

NEWSDAY

Watch them. See one of them point to some distant corner of the arena or beyond and then re-enact, in slow motion, the swing that propelled the baseball to that faraway destination. Watch the others smile and shake their heads, either in awe or disagreement. Then hear them argue: “Nah, I saw Mickey hit one that cleared ... " or “Yeah, well, you shoulda seen the two Luzinski hit off ... " or “I heard that McCovey’s ball off ... “

Hear them talk. Hear them tell fish stories -- The One That Flew Away. See their fascination.

These aren’t the guys from the local gin mill lying about what they wished they had witnessed or kids comparing the electronic shots they crushed in Nintendo. These are major-league players, talking baseball, talking Longball. There is no more favored topic in any dugout or at any batting cage. Put five players together, and conversation eventually will turn to Longball. And when it does, it will remain there for a long time. They can’t say enough about it.

Nothing in baseball stirs the juices or prompts conversations like something long, deep, distant and outta here. Not a fastball nor a no-hitter; not a triple play nor a cycle; and certainly not some mundane grand slam.

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Each of those can be measured or quantified. You can clock a fastball, even Nolan Ryan’s. And the most dominant no-hitter produces a specific number of outs. No triple play, no matter the situation, sequence or spectacle, achieves anything more than three outs. A cycle is 10 total bases, period. And even the grand-est of salamis provides only four RBI.

Longball, though, is infinite. A Mickey Mantle home run traveling toward Jerome Avenue -- or maybe the Grand Concourse. No one ever knew -- or ever will know -- just how far Mantle’s bests might have traveled if the lights or the facade at Yankee Stadium hadn’t interfered. And the ball Frank Howard crushed against Whitey Ford at The Stadium in the ’63 Series, how much farther might that have gone if the left-centerfield wall hadn’t stood in its way? And what of Darryl Strawberry’s ball off the clock in St. Louis, Willie McCovey’s ball off Al Jackson that hit higher than Strawberry’s; the two Willie Stargell hit out of Dodger Stadium, and Dave Kingman’s shots to various outposts beyond the friendly vines of Wrigley?

Nothing finite about them. Even if we knew how far they traveled unobstructed, we’ve never known the trajectory or the force, so we only could speculate how far they might have gone if their paths had been unimpeded.

Therein lies the intrigue of Longball. The charm. The fascination. We can estimate, we can suppose, we can dream. And if all else fails, we can lie. Anyway, the apocryphal home runs are the most fun, the ones no one even tried to measure. They’re part of the romance of the game.

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The late Leo Durocher delighted in this tale. It seems Chicago Cubs slugger Billy Williams crushed a pitch well over the right-field stands at Wrigley Field one fine afternoon. The home run was measured for distance (505 feet) and for damage (a broken window and lamp in a tenement apartment across Sheffield Avenue). Upset by her loss, the tenant complained to the Cubs, who happily replaced both. And, The Lip said, “Don’t you know we kept hitting balls through her window, so she rotated her lamps until they all were broken and they’d bought her a whole new set.”

St. Louis Cardinals broadcaster Mike Shannon enjoys reminding his audience of the ball Howard hit against Curt Simmons at old Sportsman’s Park in St. Louis. The ball struck a shrub beyond the center-field fence, and two days later the shrub turned brown, giving new meaning to the term “dead center.” Simmons had the grounds crew replace the shrub.

And then there was the ball Kingman hit against Catfish Hunter over the center-field wall at Fort Lauderdale Stadium in 1975. Wind-aided as it was, it left the playing field in a millisecond, according to eyewitness Rusty Staub. “It had to go 680 feet; it had to double the distance to the fence,” he said. “That was as hard as David could hit a ball.”

“Anybody who saw McCovey or Kingman or Stargell play more than a couple of games has to have a Longball story,” says Shannon, a National League lifer. “Those guys didn’t hit many cheapies.”

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Bill Virdon, the former Pittsburgh Pirates, Houston Astros and New York Yankees manager, was playing center field at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh during the 1960 World Series when Mantle hit a ball over the right-centerfield wall, which stood 457 feet from home plate. “It must have been 50 to 70 feet over the fence,” Virdon recalled. “I don’t mean beyond the fence. I mean over it. It was 70 feet higher than the fence when it went over and it hadn’t started to come down yet. I can’t even guess how far it went.”

Once it passed over the wall, it entered our imagination. And that’s worth at least 100 feet, not that Mantle needed additional distance.

Dave Kingman may have hit them higher. Henry Aaron, Babe Ruth and five others may have hit more of them. But no one since World War II consistently hit them farther than Mantle. Left-handed, right-handed, even one-handed, he brought Longball to postwar baseball.

Even before Mantle’s major-league debut, a fascination had developed for the “farm-strong” kid playing in the big city. Hitting baseballs to new frontiers. On the streets outside Yankee Stadium, they were called “two-sewer jobs,” a term Hank Greenberg’s stickball power helped create. Baseball learned to call them “tape-measure shots” when Mantle consistently reached areas few had even thought could be reached.

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Seven times on or over the roof in Detroit. Three on the roof at old Comiskey. One over the stands just to the left of center at Fenway -- while batting left-handed. Two in one game over the hitter’s backdrop in center at the old Yankee Stadium and untold dozens to other areas in that storied arena. Mantle couldn’t pronounce facade -- he called it the “fa-kaid” -- but he could reach it.

He wrote the book on Longball. And Mark Gallagher wrote a book on Mantle’s home runs. “Explosion: Mickey Mantle’s Legendary Home Runs,” published in 1987, details each and canonizes some of the 536 home runs that rank Mantle higher than all but seven men who have swung the bat.

The baseball world knows that in 1953, Mantle hit the ball against Chuck Stobbs in Washington that prompted Yankees publicist Red Patterson to invent the adjective “tape measure.” (The “Yankees Power Hitters” Topps card from 1957 claimed the home run Patterson estimated as having traveled 565 feet “is still rolling.”)

And any real Yankee fan knows Mantle twice came within a few feet of accomplishing a still-unprecedented feat, hitting a fair ball out of Yankee Stadium, against Pedro Ramos May 30, 1956, and Bill Fischer May 23, 1963. (An enlarged photograph, with arrows depicting the path of the latter home run, still hangs in the manager’s office at Yankee Stadium.)

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But research done by Gallagher and his associate, Paul Susman, discovered three other instances in which home runs by Mantle nearly escaped right field at Yankee Stadium -- Aug. 7, 1955, against Babe Birrer, May 5, 1956, against Lou Kretlow, and June 23, 1957, against Dick Donovan.

The legitimacy of that particular research has been questioned by other Longball devotees, but the ones against Donovan and Birrer were given credence by none other than the pitchers themselves. Then again, pitchers often find some sort of masochistic honor in having played a role in Longball.

Whitey Ford gladly speaks of the line drive Howard smoked against him in ’63 and laughs when Tony Kubek says “It went through my legs” en route to denting the wall in left-center. Al Jackson and Tim McCarver, former batterymates, happily reminisce about McCovey’s bolt above the clock at Busch Stadium each spring in the Mets’ camp.

“You threw it,” McCarver will say.

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“Yeah, well, you called it,” Jackson will reply.

It’s good baseball talk.

Ramos understands he is remembered as much for the pitch he served Mantle in ’56 as he is for anything else he did. And Dwight Gooden remains proud of the role he played in Jack Clark’s home run over the picnic area at Shea on opening day in ’85. “Couldn’t have done it without me,” Gooden says.

And who can forget The Goose smiling after Kingman took him onto the back field in Fort Lauderdale in ’82? Gossage had watched Kingman swing in batting practice and mused, “We could get together on a long one, couldn’t we?”

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They did. But no one bothered to determine just how long, even though the ball clearly had landed just beyond shortstop on the other field. What was the point? It was enough that Kingman had added another 160 yards or so to his resume.

It’s better not to know the precise distance. The game’s become so cluttered with decimal points. It’s enough to know Lou Brock and Joe Adcock reached the bleachers at the Polo Grounds and that Kingman and Strawberry each dented the ceiling ring at Olympic Stadium, that Reggie Jackson once reached the transformer atop the right-field stands in Detroit and that Greg Luzinski once put two on the roof at old Comiskey against Ray Fontenot. For what other reason would Fontenot’s career be recalled?

Precisely how far, who cares? When you’re talking Longball, you don’t need distances or dates, innings or game situation. Just identify the pitcher, picture the swing and the arc, and let your imagination carry the ball. It will go farther that way.


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