Every time Darryl Strawberry, Jos'e Canseco, or some other modern strong-boy hits one of those tremendous shots that has the fans ooh-ing and ah-ing in the stands, the tape measure quickly makes its appearance in the press box - at least figuratively. And there's always a lot of story-swapping about other long balls even as the writers try to estimate the distance of the latest one. This fascination with ``tape measure home runs'' is well known, of course, but its origin perhaps less so. The man to credit is Arthur (Red) Patterson, who invented the concept, popularized it, and expanded his career because of it.
There had been isolated instances of famous long balls before then, but it was in 1952 that Patterson put a name to the phenomenon. Red (now a consultant with the California Angels) was publicity director of the New York Yankees, and was in the press box one night when Mickey Mantle hit a tremendous late-inning home run. Most objects that travel as far as that ball did have a flight attendant aboard.
Patterson, his sense of theater twanging like the strings of an electric guitar, set off on foot in the gloaming to find where the ball had landed. Never had anyone pursued anything with so much vigor since Stanley sought Livingston.
When Red returned to Yankee Stadium, he had in tow a small boy who swore that he had seen the ball land in the backyard of the tenement where he lived. Television's ``60 Minutes'' couldn't have done it better. This was living testimony to the wagon-tongue arms of the powerful Mick. Who could possibly contradict the eyewitness account of a small boy at a time like this? Indeed what sportswriter faced with a rapidly approaching deadline and a thirst for the unusual would even try?
Besides, Patterson had measured the distance from the spot where the ball landed. Not being in the habit of carrying a tape-measure in his pocket, Red had to improvise. He simply retraced his steps until he arrived back at home plate, moving left or right only when forced to by a few misplaced US mail boxes and city hydrants.
When Patterson announced a figure of 565 feet, everybody simply assumed that if a ruler had been placed the length of Red's shoes it would have fit perfectly.
Actually, though, estimating the length of a home runs goes back in baseball lore at least as far as June 8, 1926, when Babe Ruth blasted a pitch that is said to have traveled close to 656 feet. The Yankees were playing in Detroit that day, and Ruth unloaded on a ball that cleared the right field fence, put a pockmark in the hot, sticky pavement of Plum Street, and bounced several times before stopping nearly two blocks away.
A more recent shot still vividly remembered by those who were there was the one Pittsburgh's Willie Stargell blasted out of Dodger Stadium, the only player ever to do so. The date was August 5, 1969, the pitcher was Alan Foster, and once again Patterson, who had moved from the Yankees to the Dodgers, was involved. Red, using a formula that took into consideration the height of the pavilion in right field, the arc of the ball, and the temperature that day in the LaBrea tar pits, Red put the distance at 506 feet, 6 inches. If the six inches were added to lend credibility, it probably worked.
Although no one has yet hit a fair ball out of Yankee Stadium, Mantle came close. On May 22, 1963, Mickey tore into a pitch thrown by Kansas City's Bill Fischer. According to observers, the ball was still climbing when it hit the upper part stadium. Estimates are that the ball, had its flight not been interrupted, would have traveled between 550 and 625 feet.
My favorite home run story concerns the old Boston Braves, who played their home games at National League Field, where a railroad yard was located just beyond the outfield fence. If the game was dull, fans sitting even midway up in the stands could always watch the freight cars being shifted from one siding to another.
In one game in the 1940s a Boston batter (his name has long since been forgotten) hit a home run into the railroad yard. The ball landed in the contents of a moving coal car - and was eventually plucked out by a railroad worker in Providence, R.I., 44 miles away.
Even the redoubtable Mr. Patterson might have had trouble improving on that one!