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IT'S OUTTA HEEERRE!!! : A New Generation of Sluggers Invites Tape-Measure Comparisons

July 21, 1986|ROSS NEWHAN | Times Staff Writer

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.

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