Chuck Stobbs, the former pitcher for the Washington Senators and other clubs, always wanted to forget the most significant moment of his 15-year major league career. Instead it followed him to his grave this month.
In his first start with the Senators on April 17, 1953, at the District's old Griffith Stadium, the left-hander fired a chest-high fastball at New York Yankees slugger Mickey Mantle in the fifth inning.
Bad mistake. Faster than one of today's teens could text message "OMG," the ball went over the distant bleachers in left-center field, ticking the edge of a National Bohemian beer sign before landing in a backyard several blocks beyond the ballyard.
The distance of this epic swat was officially, and possibly erroneously, estimated at 565 feet - the only blast to clear the bleachers in the stadium's 51-year existence and one of the longest in major league history.
Forever and a day, Stobbs would be remembered as Mantle's victim, obscuring his earlier achievements as a multisport star at Norfolk's Granby High School and whatever positives dotted an unfortunate major league career record of 107-130. When he died at 79 of throat cancer July 11 in Sarasota, Fla., the obituaries instantly recalled his pitch to Mantle and the disastrous result.
Unlike Ralph Branca, whose ninth-inning gopher ball to Bobby Thomson of the New York Giants cost the Brooklyn Dodgers the 1951 National League pennant playoff, Stobbs was unable to accept with equanimity his dubious role in a historic horsehide happening. Invited to describe the fateful moment during a local memorabilia show in 2001, Stobbs reacted with considerable heat.
"So the guy hit a home run? So what?" he growled. "I don't talk about it anymore. I get letters from people who include blank sheets of paper and want me to tell them about Mickey's homer. I just send them back blank. ... If you made a mistake on him, it was gone. But one season he was 2-for-22 against me, and nobody remembers that."
A personal note, if you please: I was there that afternoon, but for two reasons I couldn't tell of Mantle's feat. For one thing, I was playing hooky and sitting in those bleachers for a piddling 75 cents. For another, I didn't see the home run head for outer space.
Mantle swung, a loud CRACK! ensued, and the ball disappeared from view before I could turn around to watch. Not until later did I learn how far it had traveled - though the distance was merely a haphazard guess by Red Patterson, the Yankees' PR man, and longtime Washington sportswriter Morris Siegel, then employed by The Washington Post.
There weren't many other eyewitnesses. Two days earlier, Griffith Stadium had been filled to its capacity of 28,000 for the presidential opener. For the second game of the season, though, President Eisenhower and nearly everyone else stayed home or at work. The paid attendance was 4,206.
Two of the nation's premier publications disagreed over whether Mantle had delivered the longest home run in the history of Western civilization. A headline in the Post proclaimed, "Ruth Never Slugged A Baseball Farther." But another in the New York Times announced, "Mantle's Homer Surpassed Only by Mighty Ruth Wallops."
For his part, Nats owner Clark Griffith had no doubt. "Sure, that was the longest home run ever hit in the history of baseball," said the Old Fox, who, at 83, had been around the professional game since 1891.
Unfortunately, no visual evidence remains. The weekday afternoon game was not televised, and if it had been there would have been no videotape to record it.
Immediately after the home run had cleared the 55-foot-high bleachers, knocking a bit of black paint off the edge of the beer sign en route, Patterson went in search of the pummeled pellet. He found it in the yard of a man named Perry Cool, whose house on Oakdale Place was about 100 feet beyond the entrance to the bleachers.
A 10-year-old boy, Donald Dunaway, beat Patterson to the ball. The publicist paid Dunaway $5 and promised to send him three other balls autographed by all the Yankees.
A lousy fin? Imagine, if you dare, what that ball would be worth at a memorabilia show today. Fortunately, in this age of great greed, it is safely ensconced at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. - along, of course, with Mantle's plaque.
As for Chuck Stobbs, he will live only in memory as one of those who had the misfortune to be on the wrong side of baseball history.