In 1954, Cleveland's Indians stopped the active all-time record of five consecutive World Championships by winning the American League pennant from the Yankees. The way Cleveland did it must have shocked the baseball world at the time: by winning 111 games out of 154 with the Yankees winning 103—their highest total in that six-year span—and finishing eight big games behind the Indians – one game back for every 19 played. That was what it took to prevent ten consecutive Yankee pennants, once upon a time, for the Yanks won the next four too. In fact, it prevented 15 in 16 years, from 1949 thru 1964, and a one-team Major League, synchronous with Yogi Berra’s career.
In the 1954 Series opener, however, the Giants' Willie Mays ran down and apprehended a ball 460 feet from home, at the base of the center-field wall. Often called the greatest catch in World Series history, Mays wouldn't even rank it in his top five when asked what he thought of it. He said “I had it all the way.” The Indians' Luke Appling said "We knew he had it as soon as it was hit." This was an inverse (defensive) home run that announced a new athletic level in the eighth inning. Then for two days, Dusty Rhodes hit 230-foot pop-ups into the stands at an odd corner right on the shortest right-field line in history—the ledge taking up about one seat—and the Giants won all four games from a team they had placed, desperately lost, in history.
Mays had a sense of where he was, as some seers put it. So where was he? On a day when a 460-foot flyball was an out and 230-feet a home run, where did double distance lie? Rhodes' two were the only homers the Giants hit in that Series, and Mays' throw back to the infield did not hold the runners, as is commonly proclaimed. Considering that it took one of the greatest-looking plays in history to field that ball that Vic Wertz hit, was this field too deep for any but Mays to play?
There was a greatest defensive play with a bat, pulled off in the 1982 World Series, when Paul Molitor of the Milwaukee Brewers pulled a home run to left while falling backward to escape a pitch that had fooled him utterly. Caught it with his bat and threw it, really. Molitor's team lost, and the hitting miracle was forgotten, but in the moment, it widened all eyes and put both teams on red alert, in the first inning of the first game.
IN THE BIG INNING
In the beginning, the Egyptians played in the white shine off the original, limestone face of the Great Pyramid, to put some distance on this term "history." There are glyphs of a stick-and-ball game with pitcher, carved into the walls of the ruins at Karnak. Did we celebrate baseball's centennial in 1969 while the Fourth Millenium passed uncelebrated on August 8 at Memphis?
In the majority of recorded games, the winning team scored more runs in one inning than did the loser all day. Many teams have lost their defining game to a 4-run inning. Those have often come on one swing that drove in half the opposing lineup.
The players and fans give a full measure of devotion, but the game itself has only been half-measured by the statistical surveys which have attached themselves to The Pastime. You know how deep your team's center field wall sits (don't you?), but how far would sail a single to center? To know such a thing could reveal something. Let's run down some of the agate from the sports section of the apocrypha.
Clear away all records, averages and civilians from the face of the game, with the all-time standings thrown out while the great feats on and near the playing area are forgotten and you have: the field itself, with that good, geological quickness. Not even the field has rested inviolate in the long, capitalist interference with the pastoral site. The ball has been thrown onto the playing green colored orange. Man has made a mirror of the field by rounding the bases backward (Jimmy Piersall on the occasion of his 100th home run). The Cubs now play in the dark. The mesa at Crosley has been plowed under, and the founding site itself, the Elysian Field at Hoboken, now holds a coffee mill.
We saw the race between Houston's Bob Watson and Dave Concepcion of the Reds for the honor of scoring the one millionth run, won by Watson, who scored from second on another feller's triple as Concepcion, who had homered, raced madly against Watson's electronic image, beaten by about 90 feet, or a baseball mile.
GET A ROPE
The game has been inconstant on its face, moustache to raw and back. The first walls were ropes which moved as the spectators moved, those field hands who held the rope and ran around as the action dictated, just staying out of the fielder's way by a stride on all sides. From 1958, there is a photograph of a heavily-muscled hoodlum in a dark tee-shirt, holding the home-plate umpire to the ground and pounding his face over a ball-strike ruling. No one is helping. Players stand at their positions watching the infinite distancing of the umpire. In the stands, the hood's partner was picking wallets from the tree, enabled by the unusual distraction. There are usual ones.
Photographers used to kneel within the killing range of a slung bat. The new ball yards now sprouting need rope "walls" and new ground rules. Let the fans live once more in the same neighborhoods as the icons, and stew beside them in traffic jams, late for third base. Legislate that, and the game will be all right. Brooklynized.
19 games of the 1910 season remain tied at the present hour. All scores from 1975 are in. Roger Maris and Babe Ruth homered over the same position they played. Surely, there is something there, some magnetite, or hematite. Today, a man with Ruth's body would be a designated batter, and Ruth would be the annual DHMVP.
"Terminal velocity" is 140 feet per second, but this is only 95.5 miles per hour. This measure must be wrong, if we accept the testimony of radar. And why not? A bat couldn't live without it, after all, so it must have some bearing on a ball.
"Terminal velocity" is defined as "through a fluid," so a machine has apparently flung a baseball 95.5 miles per hour sideways, underwater. Weapons Systems has apparently been applied to the game as a function of its numerology.
Bat speed through the strikezone is around 170 miles per hour — one of baseball's premier, unsung numbers. Johnny Bench has said that if the major leagues adopt the use of the aluminum bat, the new, improved line drives would lead, almost immediately, to the second, third and further on-field fatalities. Bench feels that the first baseman, third baseman and pitcher would be unable to react to the worst aluminum-based tangentential vectors. Lasers would probe the gaps, and the envelope would be, not just stretched, but opened. Some double plays would conclude before the slow man had taken three strides. Lasers would probe the stands themselves, and shields would be erected between field and grandstand. The problem would be: only glass can protect the spectator without distorting views of the field.
In 1976 at Riverfront Stadium, at a crossroads moment in a decisive game, Joe Morgan homered off a Dodger slantist in so manly a manner that the ball shattered the great sheet of plate glass protecting a luxury box, and the giant, resultant guillotine sliced a woman in half in the stands below. The silent reckoning in their midst must be an indelible memory to those fans who bought the correct tickets around her. How must Morgan have felt in his moment of triumph, because the home run was ruinous to Dodger pennant hopes, an arrogation of Red prerogative in the hall of the king, and yet the hero was the agent of chaos, the instrument of death itself. Normally, a player whose line shot has de-popcorned and un-dentured an elderly foe (Harvey Kuenn's double assault on such a one stands out) will be led into the stands to commisserate, but one doubts that Morgan was taken onto the killing floor, to apologize to a pool of blood and a bisected scorecard. Red reactions in the dugout would have been illuminating.
Beyond the fastball, Bench's rain-delay soliloquy also yielded up inside dope on the difficulty of hitting a fasterball as speed rises. Real problems attach to the feat at around 92 miles per hour. At about 95 miles per hour (note: "terminal velocity"), the hitter must make another, major adjustment, and each added mile per hour beyond that adds materially to the dilemma. Beyond 99 miles per hour, said Bench, hitting is guesswork, and an adventure. You would think a catcher could hit anything, though, since he catches it all. Wouldn't you?
Mike Schmidt said "An at-bat against Nolan Ryan is like no other." Will Clark homered off Ryan in his first major-league at-bat. Interesting test for the most arrogant rookie of his time.
By the by: Who's this guy Bench? "He's the best I've ever seen," said Yogi Berra, "and I go back to (Roy) Campanella." "He's the best I've ever seen," said Campanella, "and I go back to (Bill) Dickey." Indian war whoops in the heat of battle; throws down to first, Bench barely moving, had equal to or better than the velocity ofthe fastballs coming to the plate, which flashed to first as if they had ricocheted. Bench seemed to have a major league pitcher's velocity from a squatting position, using only the lower arm. Tony Perez did wonders to handle that artillery on pickoff plays.
Terminal Velocity Anomaly
The fastest pitcher ever seen around major league camps, as attested to by Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle and too many other hitters to dispute, was Steve Dalkowski, a creature from out of the Baltimore Oriole system of the 1950s and '60s. Williams said that, if Koufax threw 100 miles per hour, Dalkowski was throwing 120. “Fastest ever” Williams said. “I don’t ever want to face him again.” Dalkowski, a little man with thick-lensed glasses, "whipped the ball," he said of his own motion, with almost all the force generated by his elbow and wrist. The upper arm didn’t move much. He once struck out 24 batters in a nine-inning game, but also walked 28 in front of his no doubt fascinated pitching coach, and the overmatched fans. His is probably the greatest raw talent never to reach the major-league level. All those four and five-out innings, and frightful incidents at the plate made him expendable. Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey should have bought his contract. He was a lethal weapon, the loosest cannon ever to fire on the game. Inside Sports magazine did an article on Dalkowski in the 1980s entitled "Going Nowhere, FAST!" He moved up and down the West Coast picking fruit for years, once he lost 40 miles off his fastball. He’d be about 75 now, looking back on something maybe no one but him has ever seen. Talk about great matchups: Dalkowski on Ruth. The Babe, at least, would have understood.
Actually, Koufax had to take something off his own fastball to succeed in the major leagues, if such vaporous reaches of smoke can be imagined. The Dalkowski story is a Greek (Polish?) tragedy, of course, especially considering his alcoholism, and there is a portent in it: the physical limit to pitching prowess has not been represented in its ultimate dimensions on a major league field, though the ability already exists, and is out there: witness the story of Steve Dalkowski, like something from the Twilight Zone. "If it be not now, yet it will come." (Shakeskowski)
Josh Gibson may have been the hitting counterpart.
ON THE INFIELD
The mound was distanced from the plate in 1893 from 50 feet to 60 feet, 6 inches, the most radical change the game has ever seen. It was the equivalent of moving left and right-field walls in to 270 feet. All-time hitting records were trivialized, of course. (Why the extra 6 inches?) Consider Nolan Ryan at 15 paces. You might as well wear a blindfold. Oddly enough, the average distance from the plate to the backstop around the two leagues was for years also 60 feet. Yankee Stadium's back forty was 84 feet, Cincinnati's Riverfront was only 51, more to the hitter's liking, but robbing Bench of how many crucial, spectacularly athletic opportunities?
Was the mound moved to give the pitcher some chance to survive in the siege perilous of defensive positions? If third base is "the hot corner" at 90 feet, the mound must be the inferno itself at 60. Why isn’t first base called something heatful? It’s at 90 feet too, and has all those godawful short hops from short and third as well as the unfair high-powered mess off the left-handed bat.
From home to second in a straight line is 127 hot feet; same from first to third and vice versa. On stolen base attempts, subtracting the runner's usual, 12-foot lead, the catcher must throw 50 feet further than the runner must haul freight, giving the trespasser what amounts to a 62-foot, running jump. And almost every attempt is pretty much a dead heat. The paths and plays obviously conform to some theory.
A double-play ball hit to short travels about 110 feet, is thrown about 45 feet to second base, then 90 feet more to first. All this comes to 245 feet, and in that distance, the ball is hit once, thrown three times (including the pitch), and caught three times. Within this double play, there are seven plays. The ball changes direction, on average, every 54 feet and the whole thing takes about 3.5 seconds or it fails. That's why the crowd cheers.
The shortest hit is the "Baltimore chopper" off the front edge of home plate. This one can travel one inch forward if it goes 50 feet up and quivers and the runner leaves like his house is on fire.
The "clean" single to left sails approximately 175 feet. 75 feet past the leaping infielder, and 140 feet in front of the diving outfielder, average positions being about 100 and 315 feet, respectively. The single to right, not so clean, as right fielders have made this routine hit a very tough out by beating the runner with the throw to first. Ty Cobb did it more than any other outfielder. Carl Furillo did it professionally for Brooklyn, Roberto Clemente for Pittsburgh. It's not done anymore, or never discussed, perhaps due to this puritan aversion to "showing up" another man by making some extraordinary gesture against his tender, affluent sensibilities. Such "gravitas" is considered purest "major league" demeanor after the models of Joe D. and Lou G., forgetting the fairly successful image and career of Babe R., the maximum hot dog. The throw from short right to first is usually only 100 feet, after all, as against the 127-foot throw from third to first, done quite often in the course of fielding events.
Single to center is 150 to 230 feet with no infielder beyond 130 feet and no outfielder closer than about 300 in normalcy. The throw home from there is about 250 feet, about twice the throw from third, thus twice the time to attempt the extra base.
Doubles generally have the distance, and/or get a little bit past outfielders, or force them to over-commit a bit beyond perfect balance, or to alter their path to prevent the deep, rolling ball. Many doubles are misjudged singles — errors, actually, though not scored as such unless the man comes too close to fielding the ball. Scoring on this point is one of baseball's weakest standards. It looks like an error, it acts like an error, it feels and seems like an error. We’ll call it a “double”. Sort of begs the question: “double what?” Pete Rose, probably more than any other player, forced this kind of error on fielder and scorer alike. Pete had a higher recognition of the opportunity to capitalize on a chance. His was a rare gift, to induce panic while hitting singles. The doubles record for one game was identical to the record for home runs in a game (4) for nine decades until 1989, when the Twins' Kirby Puckett hit five one night.
The triple is the rarest hit in baseball, and with two out and none on, the saddest. The odds against scoring then are five against one. A triple carries to the same parts of the park as a double, for about the same reasons, but events conspire to place these super-doubles as well as any bunt single. The problem is, the ball is loose over 300 feet from home plate. The record is three in one game by the Reds' Herm Winningham. Records for singles and walks are six each.
One of the recent Pythagoreans studying the game scoured baseball's nine decades for the regular-season statistic that had the surest correlation with victory in the World Series. Team triples is the harbinger.
The bunt can be a feat of bat control akin to target shooting at the Olympic level. The perfect bunt must go far enough to elude the catcher without going so far as to meet the onrushing pitcher, first baseman and/or third baseman. The pitcher, rushing down the center, cuts even this half-infield down to a 30-square-foot "spot" about 40 feet along the foul line or a pingpong tabletop 30 feet out from home. The spot’s shape is probably irregular: 5x6 feet, 3x10, 4x7½, and it probably “floats” from pitch to pitch. The drag bunt puts the onus on the catcher, who must throw through a space sporadically blocked by the runner, something like making this throw through a rotating automobile tire tree-swing. This was a special tool of the Yankees' Mickey Mantle, whose monstrous power forced the infield to play him deep to compensate for the unfairness, but whose speed to first was as extreme as his power. Mantle was timed in 2.9 for the 30-yard dash from home to first, hindered by his violent swing and ancient knees. (Before we ever heard of him, his doctor had recommended that one leg be amputated.) Combine this with The Mick’s ability to hit a ball 600 feet and you have perhaps the great talent in baseball history. Negro League legend Buck O'Neill said Mantle would have hit 50 homers and stolen 100 bases every year, if his knees had been healthy.
From home to second base, first to third or second to home is 60 yards by the path. To take the extra base, a runner has to run into the unknown to earn the designation "extra." Often, he has to turn his back on the ball at some point to achieve his impulse. This is one of the dramatic moments in any game, when the player may override the Cardinal Rule: "Keep your eye on the ball." (Why so much credit to the Cardinals?)
From first to home is a 90-yard touchdown run with two right-angle, left-hand turns thrown in. No one has ever scored from first on an infield hit without some mental error to cover his baserunning error. Judy Johnson is reputed to have done so in Negro League play.
Taking an extra base is equal in advance to a 30-yard gain in football, with similar impact. Big plays are decisive on all fields. Ironically, the outcome often revolves around a moment of indecision on someone’s part. Extra base attempts are one of the few plays when the runner and fielders have equal shots at the prize. Enos Slaughter’s 1946 World Series-winning run was the great extra base of the century. Babe Ruth caught stealing to end the 1926 Series was the great failed attempt. For Red Sox fans, here is a ray of ultra-violet: at the critical moment of the 1974 Series, with his Dodgers behind, Bill Buckner doubled in a late inning of a game his team had to have, to keep from going down 3 games to 1. The problem: Buckner kept going and was thrown out at third. He had already gotten himself into scoring position, but he was playing in a nightmare. We were just shapes on the periphery of Buckner’s dreams.
Stealing first: a new man with surprising speed will occasionally beat out a routine, sharp one-hopper to the second baseman, perhaps the surest out in baseball. The Reds' Ken Griffey did it against the Cubs in one of his first games, on his way to 38 infield hits in 1975. The umpire threw up the reflex, "out" call, then the more accurate "safe," then the confused "OUT!" verdict from a man sadder but wiser, dressed in black on a summer day, with physically superior beings shouting in his face.
Babe Ruth is said to have hit a pop-up so high over the Philadelphia A's "$100,000 infield" that A's manager Connie Mack, who had seen it all as it happened, waved his fielders out from under the ball rather than see a disoriented man hit in the face from whatever height it achieved. Guesstimates on that height considered its disappearance from sight straight up, and glimpses of its progress above the stadium's highest reaches, past which the ball sailed like a line drive.
Mack may actually have made such a move. He had his own way — and we are talking about Babe Ruth — The Natural — on this ball. This took place in the privacy of the 1920s, when the sky may have been a bit lower than it is now. Ruth wound up with an infield triple. Mariano Duncan when with the Dodgers, laid down several infield doubles, and promised an infield triple to his manager Tommy Lasagna (Jay Johnstone substituted Lasorda’s uniform shirt before a game, and T.La wore it out to exchange scorecards, bringing the whole house down).
AT THE WALL
Average distance to the outfield corners is 330 feet, and it is into these corners that the maximum power a hitter has is inclined to fire.
Longest distance to the corner was in Cleveland's Municipal Stadium, where the right-field line met the wall at 357 feet. The 1954 Series thus featured the deepest right- and center-field walls of all time, either league. The Polo Grounds was 510 feet to straightaway center field, and had the shortest distance to any wall ever, at 230 feet to the tiny corner in right.
The closest wall for grown-ups, before the implosion boom in the 1990s, is 302 feet to the right field (and pretty much on-field) seats in Fenway Park. The theory must be “If you build it short enough, He will return.”
The Polo Grounds' 510-foot center field wall was sized for polo: horses cover more ground. The deepest point was in a u-shaped recess where, possibly, the animals used to go for lavatory privacy. The Polo Grounds thus had a center field gap. There is not a single story left to us about any of the balls that were hit into this gap. The centerfield max after the Jints fled the Yankees and the Polo field collapsed was 440 feet in Detroit. What became of the idea of a center field gap? Pitchers used the recess like a tenth fielder. The huge expanse out there turned the high fastball down the middle from pitcher’s error into something of a weapon for the defense.
The nearest center-field wall was long the 400 feet in Cleveland, Texas and Oakland in the AL, Chicago and L.A. in the NL. Perhaps the Cleveland management was moved by the Wertz fatality there in 1954.
Tiger Stadium has a platform of seats in the right-center field upper deck that juts out over the field. Some high flies never make it to fielders waiting confidently at the wall below, the ball having cleared the wall above.
Cincinnati's Crosley Field had a ten-foot incline in left instead of a warning track. Fielders used it for leverage on throws to the infield. There should be more pictures of Mays and others playing and throwing on and off that incline.
Busch is the only ballpark where home plate faces in a direction other than East. Because it sits between late and early sunsets? Is it a masonic thing? An error on the construction company? In every organization, there is one person who understands the whole operation. This person must be located immediately!
The longest home run recognized by the archive filberts was a 643-foot demonstration shot by Mantle, struck September 10, 1960 in Detroit. This went two football fields plus an end zone plus a four-yard gain, and would have been an acceptable 3-wood for a golfer. Normal home run distance is about 370 feet. This ball would have gone 133 feet beyond the deepest fence in major league history, the one at the Polo Grounds, which was reached first (Lou Brock and Hank Aaron were the only others to do it, and in consecutive games) by Joe Adcock of the Braves. Adcock also hit four homers in one game and set the 20th-century record of 18 total bases in a game. In another game, he hit his team's fourth consecutive homer in one inning to set the all-time record in that category. He was the man who beat Harvey Haddix' 12-inning perfect game with a home run in the 13th. Not happy with all that, he combined with Hank Aaron and Eddie Mathews for 94 homers a year over a nine-year span, second only to the Ruth-Gehrig-Lazzeri mark of 94.9.
Mantle's weapon had the range, even if he'd batted from the walkway behind the field-level seats. In the spring of 1951, the Yankees went on an exhibition game tour that eventually brought them to the University of Southern California. Mantle was new, only 19, and already bearing up under the greatest reputation an untested rookie ever had to go up against. People were calling him the next Ruth and the next Cobb, combined. He walked onto the USC field, strong Okie drawl announcing him, and the USC team would not accept this bashful serf as their master. There was some talk, though Mantle was probably quiet. (Teammate Tony Kubek was asked how Mantle handled the integration of the major leagues. He said “Mickey was Mickey. Always good to everyone.”) Early in this cruelly unequal contest, the USC boys had to react when Mantle hit a ball to right that cleared the fence, and then passed over the adjacent field and cleared the right field fence on that field too. No one but Mantle with his god-like footspeed could have run down such a shot, and if he had, he'd have been on it in about 7 seconds, time enough for a possible play at the plate!
It's not certain if every stadium has been cleared by a home run, but it is certain that Yankee Stadium's right-field roof is the place famed for being unreachable by humanity. Babe Ruth and Reggie Jackson took aim at it every other game and never scored. Josh Gibson is rumored to have hit one out during a Negro League game, but accounts of the game in the black press made no mention of it if it happened. Again it was Mantle who defined the limit, cheated of this golden distinction when his blast struck a new-installed, decorative facade, built onto the roof's front edge just in time to hold that ball in. Yogi Berra, who had seen the games for nearly 20 years, seen Mantle's best efforts and those of Maris and the great visitors, leaped from the dugout shouting "That's it!" when it was hit. Perhaps it is not allowable to perform such lese majeste over Ruth's very fielding position. Maris' hair fell out as he approached Ruth's record 60 homers, as if the mark was radioactive, or holy, baseball's Ark of the Covenant.
Someone once told The Mick he was the greatest hitter of his era, but Mickey averred “Me? Nah. Swung for the roof ever’ time. Ted Williams was the best hitter I ever saw."
Chinese home run: Only one ball has been hit out of a coliseum-style stadium like the ‘70s circles in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and St.Louis, where Cardinal reserve infielder Mike Laga lifted a flyball over the roof down the right-field line but foul. Laga received a standing ovation and a strike.
GROUND RULES: Fair or not?
Mike Schmidt hit a ball off the speaker over the Astrodome field, which is 117-feet up and 300-feet out. He was given a single, because the ball was ruled in play and returned sharply to second. A ball caught off the speaker would be an out and an outrage. Dave Kingman hit the ceiling of the domed stadium in Minneapolis and was also held to a single by the home folk. Barry would've been caught "looking" at first a lot if he'd played in the Homer Dome with its friendly ceiling.
There is no ground rule triple. A ball lost in the vines of Chicago's Wrigley Field can bring a tripler back to second if the fielder can make the umpires believe he cannot find the ball. Balls hit off the speakers and ceilings are obstructed balls, which should make ground-ruled hits of some kind, automatic things. In the cases above, the balls were headed elsewhere, and one could want a ground-rule triple awarded. After all, those deflected balls, if caught, would have amounted to ground rule outs, which also do not officially exist, simply because they are outside the king's writ. They are baseball's UFO. There is even a ground-rule home run, awarded if a fan reaches over the outfield wall and robs the leaping outfielder, as occurred in the American League playoffs in Milwaukee in 1982.
When the monuments were first erected in Yankee Stadium's center field, they were on the field of play, and were occasionally hit by batted balls. There is a picture of Mantle climbing between them to get at a loose ball, perhaps demonstrating his pique to the powers who had made a graveyard of his stomping ground.
And always: the prospect of the line shot off the umpire in short right to determine the World's Championship in a worst nightmare for us all.
MAYS IN 1920
The only on-field fatality in history took place in the batter's box. With the pennant in the balance one September 7th inning, a Yankee pitcher named Carl Mays, renowned for his fastballs at the face and a thoroughly disliked man, knocked the left eye out of the socket of Indian shortstop Ray Chapman, who took two halting steps toward first before giving up the game. To this day Mays cannot win election into Cooperstown's blessed temple, though his record surpasses those of ten others who are in, including Don Drysdale, who might easily have met the same fate. The pitch cost everlasting baseball life, fittingly, though the players on the field claimed that Mays had thrown a curveball. And though he visited the hospital that night, when he won his next start 10-0, he went down in infamy with the public. Perhaps there was talk from the players to their neighbors. Ruth was in right field at the time, history always following him around.
A PITCHER'S BEST PITCH
A number of players have thrown the game ball completely out of various stadiums across time. Pitchers make up the majority here, usually in a fit of rage upon being relieved in the 8th inning of a no-hitter, or in some other strategic slough where men must not venture, but should be left to their devices once within. One player actually threw out the ball, left the field and the park in his uniform and retired. He is well-known to this day, though not for his departure. His name, unfortunately, is with the ball, for purposes of this study.
There have been semi-official throwing contests before games, and there are legends from the deepest reaches of the largest parks, but there is photographic proof of the Pirates' Roberto Clemente throwing a strike home on a line 20 feet high with a "457-ft." sign a few feet behind him. A 455-foot throw for the man who led the league a record five times in outfield assists. Note that the ball has been hit 175 feet further (Mantle's blast) than it has been thrown. Clemente would have enjoyed Cobb's baserunning. From afar!
THE UNWRITTEN RULES
There are no published distances or records for foul balls. For baseball, only 90 degrees of the world lie in fair territory. There is a need for a history of terra incognita.
There is a form of baseball that has no foul territory: cricket. Half their fielders play defense as if in a mirror, a learned skill we baseball players perhaps cannot imagine.
Further: On some field, at some time — surely! — an umpire has made a reflex catch of a line drive right at him. "The Ump's Decision" lies forgotten in the morgue of a defunct newspaper.
All-time record anomaly: Ted Williams doesn't hold any major (career or season) hitting records. He’s tied with Rogers Hornsby at two Triple Crowns, but that is an arbitrary category, sort of drawn out of a hat. Before Ruth, the home run total was a peripheral thing. Runs are now considered more important than RBIs. And wouldn’t you rather lead in slugging than batting average?
The Truth About Johnson: Despite his professed fear of killing a batter with his flaming fastball, Walter Johnson often led his league in hit-batsmen, and held the all-time record there in the same period when a batter was killed. Speed without mercy helped him to 116 shutouts, the record.
Origin Anomaly: Years after baseball was codified by Alexander Cartwright, who primarily only described a game he found others playing, the family of Union general Abner Doubleday commandeered the distinction of "founder" as well for their golden boy. Doubleday may actually have given the order for the first shot of the Civil War at Fort Sumter instead. Cobb's grandfather was Treasurer to the Confederacy.
BASEBALL'S FORBIDDEN GROUND
The foul ball has played an important role in baseball history. How important? What percentage of baseball's history has been made up of foul balls? The figure might be surprising. 75% of the surface is foul ground. Are 75% of struck balls foul? Why does the subject have no scholars, no records, no mention in the stats of season and career? Pitching's equivalent, the base on balls, is logged as carefully as home runs. The foul ball awaits its Bill James. Tendency to foul straight back might reveal the secret truth of the game. We can’t know.
In the original Bill James Historical Abstract we find a latent awareness of the semi-demilitarized zone: Roy Thomas once fouled off 22 pitches. John McGraw and Willie Keeler were both known for their abilty to foul off pitches at will. Why then couldn’t they hit fair balls at will? Were they doctoring the pitch count?
Three-fourths of the (360 degree) field lies in foul ground. Foul territory is, to fair ground, as the oceans are to the land. Plays made there figure in the outcome of games and seasons.
Laga’s foul ball on 9/15/87 vs. New York was the only ball, fair or foul, ever hit out of Busch Stadium — it went out on the first base side about 2/3 of the way down the line.
Despite all the hype surrounding the catches made by Willie Mays in the 1954 World Series and Jim Edmonds more recently, going straight back and leaping all out, the unforgettable catch from the last century is on the way to being forgotten. This was the over-the-shoulder, bare-handed grab of a fly in full stride in foul ground going into the left field wall made by Kevin Mitchell in his MVP year of 1989 against San Diego. Gary Sheffield recently called it the best play he'd ever seen. Mays looked the ball into his glove in 1954. Mitchell appeared to be using psychic tracking ability. He never looked back. Of course, he knew something was gaining on him. He had no need to look.
In the great Game 7 of the 1991 Series between Atlanta and Minnesota in the Metrodome, Minnesota won, 1-0 in ten innings. However, David Justice of Atlanta hit a towering shot into the stands in the 7th inning, which would have changed the outcome of the entire baseball season. The foul pole in the Metrodome (right field) did not extend to the roof, however, and the ball was ruled foul. replays were from bad angles, but the ball appeared to go directly over the pole, in which case, a fraction of an inch to the fair side would have resulted in a ricochet that proved it was a home run. ESPN Classic refers to the play in a general way, but made a decision to edit the moment from its documentary. Why? Because it was a mere foul? Because they have an angle that proves it fair? How many fouls like that have there been in big games alone?
The drama of a 'loud foul' is lost to history, but in the moment, it has dramatic value like few other plays. Knees buckle. Body english screams. Local cults form around the memory of these non-plays. In 1926, the Yankees’ Tony Lazzeri hit a very loud foul line drive with the bases loaded and two out in the 7th inning of the 7th game, with his team trailing the Cardinals. He struck out on the next pitch, and that foul seems to be the only one with historical standing. The fan’s interference catch in Wrigley Field in 2003 may now be the biggest foul ever.
Still waiting for the diving stab that initiates the triple play that saves the World's Championship, or the leaping catch above the wall or all-out in the gap to save all. A throw might conceivably achieve this distinction. A Cuban championship was once decided by rejection of an appeal for a quadruple-play ruling. The triple play had to suffice, and cost the season. (From Tom Boswell's How Life Imitates the World Series, p.89) With the bases loaded and none out, with the game tied in the bottom of the 9th, a spectacular catch in deep right led to the runners being doubled up at second and tripled up at first, but the runner on third tagged and scored before the third out was registered. Since the final out was not a force play, the run counted, but there was an appeal that the runner left third too soon. One umpire did rule for a fourth out, but he was overruled, and the chance remains, though this is good enough for a small planet.
Play on, players. The Play is coming. “We interrupt this routine game to bring you the greatest moment in baseball history.”
INSTANT REPLAY WITH THE PENNANT ON THE LINE
The 1908 Indians lost the AL pennant by .5 of a game. The Tigers weren't made to replay a rainout and met Chicago for the pennant on the last day, the Indians within a half-game and hopeless. The loser (the White Sox) fell to third place behind poor Cleveland, the three teams finishing within one game. That non-rule is now corrected, too late, though a similar dereliction cost the Reds the same thing in 1981, the best record in baseball not even qualifying them for either half of the split-season. The Cardinals were also refused with the game's second-best mark that year. The Heartland was jobbed.
That same season, the NL finished in a tie and a tie game was replayed for the pennant. 1908 was thus as close as any race in NL history as well. Perhaps 1908 was the best season in the history of the game, in the first blush of a nation's love for its pastime.
We just can’t tell from this distance.