- The Washington Times - Monday, April 1, 2002

"And that ball is going, going, gone."
Yankees broadcaster Mel Allen
"There it goes, Mrs. Murphy."
Senators broadcaster Arch McDonald
"There's a long drive. It's gonna be, I believe. The Giants win the pennant. The Giants win the pennant. The Giants win the pennant. The Giants win the pennant."
Giants broadcaster Russ Hodges, Oct.3, 1951


Mel Allen, the "Voice of the Yankees" from 1939 to 1964, once said he developed his famous home run call to give himself an out (along with the quivering pitcher) if an outfielder leaned over the fence at the last moment and plucked a potential home run out of the stands.
Arch McDonald spent several decades thrilling Washington fans with his "Mrs. Murphy" call (her identity was never divulged). Unfortunately, his opportunities were limited because D.C.s Griffith Stadium confronted batters with a left-field fence that was 405 feet distant and a right-field wall topped by a 40-foot scoreboard.
And everyone who is old enough knows where he was when Bobby Thomson took Ralph Branca deep in the gathering gloom of an autumn in New York and the hysterical Hodges screamed out the most famous home run call in baseball history to immortalize the most famous home run in baseball history.
For more than 80 years, ever since Babe Ruth removed his toeplate and became a full-time slugger and legend for the New York Yankees in 1920, the home run has provided baseballs most dramatic moments.
In the nearly half-century before the Babe emerged unbidden from a Baltimore orphanage, the national pastime was dominated by pitching and the kind of "scientific" baseball best exemplified by Ty Cobb. To score a run for his Detroit Tigers, the Georgia Peach (lifetime batting average: .366) might beat out an infield hit, steal second and third, and score on somebody elses dribbler. And that run might stand up in an era when pitchers did all sorts of unspeakable things to a baseball that might remain in play, black and scuffed though it might be, for the rest of the game.
As we know, Ruth changed all that. In 1919, while still employed by the Boston Red Sox, he slammed 29 home runs to break a 35-year-old major league record. "Pshaw," old-timers said. "He was lucky. You cant keep hitting when you swing from the heels like that. Hell never hit 29 again."
The geezers were right. In 1920, newly wrapped in the soon-to-be-famous pinstripes of the New York Yankees, the Babe smote 54 homers. True, he had help. Trick deliveries like the spitball and emery ball were banned that season, and umpires were instructed to toss out balls that became discolored or lopsided. Plus, the right-field stands at New Yorks Polo Grounds, where the Yankees played then, were just 257 feet away practically on top of Ruth. But still …
When Ruth began bombing baseballs over barriers with regularity, and being paid commensurately, most other players with an ounce or two of muscle moved their hands to the bottom of the bat and commenced to swing as hard as they could. None was another Ruth, of course at least until Philadelphias Jimmie Foxx whacked 58 homers in 1932 and Detroits Hank Greenberg matched them in 1938. Yet the Bambinos slugging feats seemed carved in stone for the ages. His single-season record of 60 stood for 34 years, until Roger Maris went nuts in 1961. And Ruths total of 714 endured for 39 years after his retirement and 26 after his death, until Henry Aaron lasted long enough to erase it in 1974.
Aarons record of 755 dingers has hung up there for 28 years now though, even with Mark McGwire retired, it may not have too much longer to go. But Ruths once-hallowed mark of 60 in a season now seems practically quaint. After all, McGwire unloaded 70 in 1998, presumably leaving both Ruth and Maris spinning in their graves. Sammy Sosa has topped 60 in three of the last four seasons. And Barry Bonds knocked McGwires still-warm record to pieces with 73 last season.
What in the name of Connie Mack is going on? Has baseball gone totally dinger daffy? Some day soon, an overwrought TV broadcaster if you can imagine such a thing may yowl something like, "Holy cow, he won the game with a single."
Throughout the 20th century, memorable home runs dotted baseball's landscape. Thomson's might have been the biggest that evaluation probably depends on where you live and whom you love in matters of horsehide but true fans have no problem recalling the circumstances and results when Ruth hit his did-he-or-didn't-he? "called shot" or when Ted Williams, Bill Mazeroski, Carlton Fisk, Reggie Jackson, Bucky Dent and Joe Carter went deep at propitious junctures.
Then there was Mickey Mantle, whose early combination of speed and power made the baseball gods blink. One April day in 1953, left-hander Chuck Stobbs of the Senators attempted to throw a fastball past the 22-year-old switch-hitter at Griffith Stadium. Bad mistake. The ball soared over 50 or so rows of bleachers, ticked the edge of a beer sign atop them in left-center field and disappeared into the streets beyond. A couple of press box types who had not majored in math found the mashed sphere in somebody's yard, offered the homeowner a few bucks and estimated the clout's distance at 565 feet. It could have been 665, for that matter. No one will ever know.
A few years later, just to prove it was no accident, Mantle came within a few feet of becoming the first man to hit a ball out of Yankee Stadium (it struck the ornamental faade just below the right-field roof). The Mick was batting left-handed this time against another hapless Washington pitcher, Pedro Ramos, Perhaps the Senators were seeking greatness through association.
Because of too much scotch and too many injuries, Mantle never really threatened home run records; his single-season high was 54 the year that Maris hit 61. Nor did Williams, very likely second only to Ruth among the game's greatest hitters.
Teddy Ballgame was more than a home run hitter, as his lifetime batting average of .344 attests. Yet he well might have beaten Ruth's career mark had he not lost the equivalent of four full seasons serving as a Marine fighter pilot in World War II and Korea.
Oddly, by today's inflated standards, Williams never hit more than 43 in a season. Yet three of his remain among the most famous, two of them in All-Star Games. In 1941, at a time when the erstwhile Midsummer Classic still meant something in terms of league supremacy, Williams drove a pitch from Claude Passeau onto the roof of Detroit's Briggs Stadium with two out in the bottom of the ninth for a three-run swat that gave the American League a 7-5 victory. Ted, who really was The Kid in those days, laughed joyously and clapped his hands as he rounded the bases. Thus energized, he went on to bat .406 for the season.
Five years later, with the AL leading 9-0 in the eighth inning at his own Fenway Park, Williams measured the supposedly unhittable "eephus" blooper pitch tossed by Pittsburgh's Rip Sewell and smashed it far over the right-field wall for another three-run homer. This time Ted laughed uproariously on his trip around the bases.
But Williams saved his best for last home run No.521 on his final career at-bat, against Baltimore's Jack Fisher on Sept. 28, 1960. After Ted returned to the dugout, the fans begged him for several minutes to come out for a curtain call. Williams refused because, as John Updike surmised in a memorable New Yorker magazine piece, "gods do not answer letters."
It was baseball's best parting shot ever. Now, though, the home run is so common that it may be difficult to distinguish between the truly and briefly notable. Is there a bigger irony in baseball history than the fact that career line-drive hitter Brady Anderson somehow cranked out 50 homers for the Baltimore Orioles in 1996 a level unattained by such Hall of Famers as Williams, Aaron, Jackson, Stan Musial, Ernie Banks, Joe DiMaggio, Lou Gehrig, Rogers Hornsby, Harmon Killebrew, Mel Ott, Frank Robinson or Mike Schmidt?
In fact, hitting 50 used to be rare enough to earn big, fat headlines across the country. Before the unlamented Albert Belle did it for Cleveland in 1995, only Detroit's Cecil Fielder (51 in 1990) had topped the formerly magic mark since 1977. If you can remember the last National Leaguer to get 50 before McGwire, Sosa and Bonds, you rate high in the trivia/useless information department: Cincinnati's George Foster, with 52 in '77.
All sorts of explanations have been offered for the home run explosion, among them thinner bats, smaller ballparks, livelier balls and pitchers who lack control. Regardless, we may be approaching the point where homers, unless of the walk-off variety, will be greeted with a collective yawn as too much of a dandy thing.
Drawing comparisons between the dead-ball era and today tend to be ludicrous, but I can't resist. In 1906, the mighty Chicago Cubs won a regular-season record 116 games and hit a total of 20 home runs in 155 games. In the only Big Shoulders World Series ever, they lost in six mostly astonishing games to the "Hitless Wonders" White Sox, who hit seven in 154 games.
Want more? In 1924, when the ball had been pepped up and Ruth was entrancing millions, the Senators won their only World Series with 22 regular-season homers. Did anybody care that the Nats were Punchless-and-Judy hitters? They won, which is all that mattered.
Nobody would deny that home runs can be exciting, but they're hardly a big deal anymore. Maybe what the media and fans need to concentrate on is the infrequent triple. The ball rattles around the fence, the outfielder relays to the cut-off man, and the runner dives into third just ahead of the throw. Now that's exciting.


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