Tape Measure Home Runs And Baseball's Biggest Hits

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A home run by Washington Nationals outfielder Jayson Werth during spring training had baseball lovers breaking out the tape measure to figure out how far the ball had gone. Sports writer Jane Leavy explains the practice that dates back to Mickey Mantle's historic 565 foot hit in 1953.

NEAL CONAN, HOST:

The other day, during a spring training game, Jayson Werth of the Washington Nationals smashed a mammoth homerun that cleared three sets of fences at Space Coast Stadium in Florida and landed in the player's parking lot. Werth joked that it hit his truck and left a hole where it used to be. But columnist Tom Boswell of The Washington Post, in a story about(ph) the game, decided the anecdote alone just would not do. He took the distance to the fence, walked off measured steps to the parking lot, and found a witness who testified that Werth's dinger struck the top of a palm tree, hit the asphalt and bounced off the bumper of his truck. A little trigonometry and voila, somewhere between 489 and 499 feet - best guess: 492. Would like to have gotten him 500, Boswell said. I just couldn't.

So what's the longest home run you've ever seen? And why does a monster shot seem to count for more than one that just barely clears the fence? Call us: 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. You can join the conversation at our website. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. The entire incident brings the original tape measure shot to mind and its historical reconstruction by Jane Leavy in her book "The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America's Childhood." She joins us here in Studio 3A. Nice to have you back in the program, Jane.

JANE LEAVY: Play ball, Neal.

CONAN: Now, Mickey Mantle hit a lot of homeruns, but that tape measure came out once.

LEAVY: Well, there was no tape measure, Neal. That's the whole joke of the thing. There was a term of art that originated that day, April 17, 1953 in Washington, D.C. at Griffith Stadium, which, of course, no longer exists. Boz spent a lot of time there as a kid. He's a Washington kid. I'm not. But Red Patterson, the Yankees PR guy, who saw an opportunity and knew what to do with it, said oh, that has to be measured as it disappeared over 32 rows of concrete bleachers that had been erected back in the mid-'20s when the, you know, when the Senators were capable of doing things.

CONAN: Drawing a crowd.

LEAVY: Right. So fifth inning, you know, it's a Friday afternoon game. There are 4,000 kids in the stadium, mostly kids because it was patrol boy day in Washington, D.C. And opening day had been delayed the day before - sellout. Eisenhower was there. The next day, 4,000 people show up. Chucks Stobbs, a diminutive lefty acquired that year from the Chicago White Sox, was pitching. And there was a wind blowing out from behind home plate toward the left field stands. And during batting practice, Irv Noren, who later was traded to the Yankees, said to Mickey, you know, you might be able to hit one out of here today, you know, (unintelligible)...

CONAN: Get out of here.

LEAVY: Get out of here. And when he came to the plate in the fifth inning, a couple of, you know - a rookie, Jim Brideweser, leaned forward and said, I think that guy might hit the scoreboard. There was a big ad plastered on the scoreboard overlooking these stands with Mr. Boh, the mascot for National Bohemian Beer, which, by the way, couldn't be sold in the stadium in those days. And Mickey hit a ball. And Chuck Stobbs later said he could not remember what it actually was. It probably didn't matter.

It ticked off the side of the sign and disappeared into the neighborhood beyond, which is a neighborhood called LeDroit Park, which was then a lower to middle class black neighborhood and part of a neighborhood that really serviced the stadium. I mean, those were the people who cleaned it, who swept it. The little kids in the neighborhood played there when the Senators or the Grays(ph) or the Redskins weren't at home. They knew all the ways around.

And there was a young man, young boy named Donald Dunaway, who was hooking school, as he told me, and had bought himself a seat in those bleachers. And he looked. He saw the ball go over his head, hit Mr. Boh, he said, I think I'm gonna get me that ball. And he went up and down the street. One of the short side streets dead-ended at 5th Street, the back of the stadium along the left-field wall. And through what he called a cut-through, there's a little grass pathway between a set of six row houses that faced the back of the stadium and another six that were perpendicular, and he found the ball. Now, Red Patterson made a great story. He came back. He said, 565 feet. I measured it. Well, nobody stopped to say, as Boz did, let me go check that.

CONAN: Let's go check that.

LEAVY: No reporter got off their butts. It was - what Bob Wolff, the Senators voice, voice of the Senator, said, well, the Yankee PR men said it, so, of course, we believed it.

CONAN: Of course, it must be true.

LEAVY: Absolutely.

CONAN: Pinstripe reality.

LEAVY: And so into memoriam went this 565 figure unchallenged.

CONAN: But that testimony, though uncovered by you all those years later, enabled you actually to go back and get a real measurement.

LEAVY: Yeah. And the sweetest part of it for me, Neal, was finding the guy, Donald Dunaway, who had disappeared into the fine print. He'd actually was living just two miles away, near Columbia Road. But he took me to exactly the spot. He said, there, right there. Well, right there was not where Red Patterson had said.

CONAN: Said, yeah.

LEAVY: And you had to go to the place. You had to go to the buildings to understand why the ball couldn't have done what Red Patterson said it did. It couldn't have rolled to that backyard because there were fences and there townhouses in the way. So I took a physicist with me, and we went to the roof of Howard University Hospital.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LEAVY: I had a laser printer - laser no - what, laser finder thing, you know, one of those golf things. I don't play those games. I was hoping to shoot it across and say, aha. No such luck.

CONAN: The old CSI approach.

LEAVY: Exactly. But because there were - there was infrastructure in the way, you couldn't do that. So Alan Nathan who is the chair of the SABR Committee on Baseball and Science...

CONAN: Society for American Baseball Research, go ahead.

LEAVY: ...and who can add, which I can't, did all this fancy figuring. He spent two years on - I spent three, he spent two. And he came out with an estimate that, unimpeded, the ball would have traveled 530 to 540 feet. It could not have gone 565. But compared to Jayson Werth, this is a poke.

CONAN: This is a smash. This is a tater as they would say.

LEAVY: And two years later between - to between games of double header in association in (unintelligible), a surveying association from Northern Virginia, presented Mantle with an honorary tape measure. And the plaque underneath it - it's now in the restaurant of his name in Oklahoma City - says, you know, in honor of his 600-foot or 585-foot homerun. So they made it even bigger, and nobody ever stopped to check until, you know, I came along and, short as I am, I figure I'd - length matters. In fact, it was Ed Reulbach - that's your question. Picture Ed Reulbach. He said, so why do people care about this? He looked at me and he said, you're talking about this - the male of the species.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LEAVY: Length matters.

CONAN: We're talking with Jane Leavy as she tells this story and many others in her book, "Mickey Mantle and the End of America's Childhood." It's - the title of the book is "The Last Boy." What is the longest home run you ever saw? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org.

Parenthetically, I have to say, again, it was Mickey Mantle. I had, as a young boy filled with pretentions, decided that morning that I would no longer applaud anything unless it was truly great. And I happened to go to Yankee Stadium that day and Mickey Mantle - I would say a nice turn of a double play, but my hands set at my side as I primly watched the game. And then all of a sudden, Mickey Mantle came up, and I think it was the fifth inning again, and poked one about three quarters of the way up the bleachers in the old Yankee Stadium. And I sat there, my mouth agape and lept to my feet, and I've never stopped applauding ever since.

LEAVY: Left-handed home run?

CONAN: Yeah.

LEAVY: Yeah. Do you know what game what it was?

CONAN: No, I don't.

LEAVY: You could check it at the record sheet.

CONAN: I could.

LEAVY: I'll find it for you if you want me to.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: Let's get some other memories on the program. Let's go to Bill. And Bill is on the line with us from Beaverton in Oregon.

BILL: Good morning.

CONAN: Good morning.

BILL: Well, in 20 years or so of umpiring baseball, I have to tell you about one homerun I saw from behind. I was looking behind the plate at a summer tournament game for graduating high school seniors, and it was being played on a college field so it was not a short fence, and that ball sailed clean over the fence and into the open door of a boxcar on southbound train. So I imagine that ball went several hundred miles before it came to rest.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: There you go, Bill. That's quite a shot.

BILL: It was, best I ever saw.

CONAN: I was going to say, and that young man's name was but do you remember?

BILL: I have - I couldn't even begin to remember. That's been probably 10 or 15 years ago.

CONAN: All right. Bill, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

LEAVY: You know, Don Newcombe, a great Dodger pitcher, told me a story about watching Willie Mays in a Mexican League game go - traverse a centerfield with railroad tracks running through the middle of it and pull a ball back over the centerfield fence and come back down across the railroad tracks to put the ball back into the infield like that.

CONAN: Let's see if we go next to - this is Robert. Robert with us from Hood River in Oregon, another caller from Oregon.

ROBERT: Hi. The longest home run I ever saw - actually didn't see, and I don't think anybody saw it. It was in the '90s and it was a pitch from Randy Johnson to Mark McGwire. I was watching it on TV. It was in the Kingdome, so there wasn't any wind aid, and there weren't very many fans. The outfield was pretty much completely empty. When the ball was hit everybody knew it was gone and no - none of the cameraman got it. So they're panning and they showed the - where they thought it went, and you could hear it clinking around, but nobody actually ever saw where the ball landed because it went so fast. The camera guy couldn't keep it on screen.

CONAN: Jane, this is - the introduction of domes has changed this science because even now in the Tampa Bay Stadium, which walkway did - catwalk did it hit? Is it a triple or a home run or a foul ball?

LEAVY: That's what's wrong with playing baseball inside - in my opinion. You know, there's a guy - there's a site called Hit Tracker Online. Have you ever looked at that?

CONAN: Mm-hmm. I have, yes.

LEAVY: That measures - and they've already measured the homeruns in the regular season games played in Japan just the other day - who measures all these homeruns. And he has the statistics for what he calls historic runs. He doesn't do Mantle's tape measure homerun because there wasn't enough data. He does do the Mantle, May 22, '63 game. And there's a Pujols homerun. There's McGwire homerun. I'm not sure which one it is. But, you know, yes, I emailed him today. I said, can you do Werth? Can you check this out for me?

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Robert.

ROBERT: Thank you.

CONAN: That 1963 Mantle homerun, I remember the back page of The New York Daily News, and it had the picture of Mantle hitting the ball in a gigantic Yankee Stadium, and then the dotted line, as it arcs up, it doesn't ever bend down. It keeps rising and rising and rising until it hits just at the top of the facade, what we call the facade. We'd learned out later it was not the facade. But anyway, the top of - the facing on the third deck nearly out of Yankee Stadium, and then the physics professors got involved and the calculations started.

LEAVY: Yeah, and, well, actually, they'd started that night. They got some guy to come in that night, and they had - that's how they got all the diagrams and got out the old blueprints. Now, all the players said it was still rising. Clete Boyer - the late Clete Boyer, great Yankee third baseman - said, wow, that's a three-dollar cab ride up there.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LEAVY: My favorite line. But...

CONAN: Tells you how long ago it was.

LEAVY: Yes, exactly. Probably took the nickel. But the physicists say it was not still rising. I found the guy who playing right field that night, poor George Alusik and Tony La Russa who was then a rookie on the Kansas City A's and, you know, scrub sitting on the bench, said that when Alusik - this is what baseball stories make you, you know, God, it's great to have baseball back - came back and he was covered with bird stuff that had been loosened by the force of the ball hitting the facade out there and generations of birds and...

CONAN: Guano. We'll call it guano.

LEAVY: That's it and - thank you - have been dislodged and, of course, George did not take much pleasure in reading...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: We're talking with Jane Leavy, the editor of Best American Sports Writing 2011 and "The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America's Childhood." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And let's see if we go next to Phil, Phil with us from Oakland.

PHIL: Yes, hi. I had season tickets out at Pac Bell Park and got to watch many homeruns over the lawns of McCovey Cove. But the most memorable home run that I ever saw was one hit by Andres Galarraga. It went out to left center field and just fell short of the big glove out there in the Promenade.

CONAN: Anybody who's seen Pac Bell Park, that's a long way out there.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

PHIL: Yeah, and I kept expecting it to land right in the glove. Unfortunately, it just fell short.

CONAN: Poetry sometimes does not arrive when we would like it to.

LEAVY: Would've been nice if the glove had caught it.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

PHIL: Yeah.

CONAN: Would've been an out.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHER)

PHIL: Thank you.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call. Here's an - a Twitter - a tweet we have from our colleague, Guy Raz. At DFW Airport in women's bathroom, huddled with my family and lots of people, tornado sirens going, surreal. That's another story that we should be keeping track of, the tornados that threw trucks around in Dallas like they were cards. This - another tweet. This one from Rob. I saw Sammy Sosa blast a 525-foot home run against the Brewers at Wrigley Field. It was awesome, violent and beautiful at the same time.

LEAVY: Yeah, but was the bat corked?

CONAN: That's another question. And indeed, we mentioned Mark McGwire too. A little juice might has been involved, yeah.

LEAVY: Something was juiced, yeah. I mean, that was a thing about Mantle. You know, this guy had honest muscles. And when those balls took off, it was because of beautiful leverage and exquisite balance and his ability to move his entire body and militate all the force in it forward in exactly the way that physics dictates a body must move. He didn't get any extra help. If he was juiced, it was not in that way.

CONAN: We did not hear, by the way, the calculations of the physicists on that 1963 home run. Where...

LEAVY: They're in the papers.

CONAN: Oh, they're in the papers.

LEAVY: They are. And if you want me to look them up right now, I'll do it.

CONAN: No, that's all right. That's all right. John's on the line, another caller from Washington.

JOHN: Hi. Opening day in 1960 or '61, my father took me to the game, Boston Red Sox-Washington Senators. Camilo Pascual pitching for the Senators, pitched a three-hitter. The Senators won 10-1, but that one run for the Red Sox was a Ted Williams shot that went over. And if you remember Griffith Stadium, dead center field was 438 feet. There is that 30-foot wall. It cleared the wall halfway up the flagpole that sits atop wall. And it wasn't one of these high things. It was one of those, you know, just a shot. And it had to go for another 100 feet after that. There's no way it could've just dropped after clearing that flagpole.

CONAN: Had to have been. Half a mile, at least, don't you figure?

JOHN: Oh, oh, at least, at least.

LEAVY: It went to where you live. It went to the eastern shore.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: John...

JOHN: I believe it's halfway down the left field line, and you could just watch the arc of that. It was unbelievable.

CONAN: John, thanks very much, and it gives us all the reason to head out again on opening day and maybe someone else will hit a shot that far.

JOHN: Sure.

CONAN: Jane, thank you so much for coming in to talk to us.

LEAVY: Always, Neal.

CONAN: Jane Leavy is the author of most recently "The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America's Childhood." She joined us here in Studio 3A. Tomorrow, David Brancaccio's cross-country mission to meet the robots eating our jobs. Join us for that. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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