MICKEY MANTLE'S HISTORIC 1953 WASHINGTON, D.C. HOME RUN:
In the early 1980s, I met Mickey Mantle at the Claridge Hotel in Atlantic City to discuss his role as one of baseball’s greatest long-distance hitters. It was a memorable experience. After the customary introductory remarks, Mickey said: "You really should be talking to Frank Howard." Think about that. I was there to talk about Mantle’s legendary power, and the first thing that he mentioned was another player’s prowess. Talk about modesty!
Not surprisingly, the conversation quickly turned to Mickey’s historic home run over the left field bleachers at Washington’s Griffith Stadium on April 17, 1953. Although it had traditionally been reported as a 565-footer, I had some serious reservations about that reputed flight distance. Mantle acknowledged that he had hit the ball well, but added: "I hit about five or six balls a lot better." He went on to say that his drive had been lofted in a high trajectory which was aided by a strong tailwind.
The facts are that the ball soared over the bleachers in left centerfield at a linear distance of 460 feet from home plate. It then glanced off the side of an advertising sign at a point fifty-five feet above field level. Those bleachers had been constructed in 1924, and, during the intervening twenty-nine years, no game ball had ever cleared them. Realizing the unique nature of the event, Yankee publicist Red Patterson went in search of the ball. He found a neighborhood boy, whom he identified as ten-year-old Donald Dunaway. According to Patterson, young Donald found the ball in a yard across the street at 434 Oakdale Street. He then paced off the distance back to where the ball had exited the stadium. Returning to the press box, he combined his investigative findings with the official ballpark blueprints, eventually arriving at a distance of 565 feet.
However, for historians studying the phenomenon thirty years later, there was a glaring inconsistency. Despite reviewing ten different contemporary newspaper accounts, I found no specific assertions from Patterson that Dunaway had actually seen the ball land. The single most problematic issue in studying the history of ‘tape measure home runs" is distinguishing where a homer lands on the fly as opposed to where it bounces.
Accordingly, I contacted Red Patterson in 1984 at the offices of the California Angels where he was then employed. Upon explaining the nature of my call, Red rather bemusedly stated that he had never asked Dunaway if he had seen the ball land. When I next questioned Patterson about how he could know where the ball actually returned to field level, he readily stated that he couldn’t. Yet, in what seemed like a contradiction, Red added that he still believed that the ball had traveled 565 feet in the air.
When I subsequently discussed the matter with different physicists, they assured me that the ball could not have flown more than 515 feet even if it had not collided with the billboard. Over the years, I have personally estimated that memorable shot at 510 feet. There is nothing unusual about me or any other modern baseball historian downsizing the original flight estimates of the great home runs from the game’s past. For many years, until physics replaced simple arithmetic as the most important tool in the estimation process, all of us tended to overstate the distance of batted balls. The fact is that, once a ball reaches maximum altitude, it has already spent most of its velocity, and falls back to earth at a rapidly declining trajectory. Of course, that basic scientific truth applies to Mickey Mantle’s Griffith Stadium homer.
But there are other truths at work here as well. Without considering all of them, there is no proper understanding of the historical context of Mickey’s accomplishment. As stated, those Griffith Stadium bleachers were built in 1924. During the subsequent thirty-seven seasons that that they stood as a target for the strongest right-handed American League sluggers, they were topped only by Mickey Mantle. I regard Mantle as one of the top three distance hitters of all time, along with Babe Ruth and Jimmie Foxx. Ruth, of course, batted left-handed, but Foxx was a righty. He spent all his peak years in the American League, and played 153 games at Griffith Stadium. According to my personal records, that translates into 571 at-bats, all of which were from the right side of the plate.
Predictably, Jimmie blasted many prodigious homers at Griffith Stadium, but, despite occasionally coming close, none of them cleared the thirty-two row stand of left field bleachers. His single longest was probably the one that he landed near the top of those seats on April 29, 1934. Another of baseballs’ mightiest right-handed batsmen was the great Josh Gibson of the old Negro Leagues. He also played many games at Griffith Stadium, especially when starring with the Homestead Grays during World War II. Although I don’t have exact figures for Josh, he appeared at Griffith Stadium about as often as Foxx. Many years later, when I interviewed his renowned teammate, Buck Leonard, he stated that Gibson’s longest-ever homer in D.C. landed three-quarters of the way up the left field bleachers.
Harmon Killebrew is another of baseball’s ten mightiest hitters, and he batted exclusively from the right side during two full seasons (plus parts of five others) with Griffith Stadium as his home field. I estimate that Harmon logged over 600 at-bats while playing there. His longest shot to left field landed in the fourth row from the top on June 19, 1959. Some other Junior Circuit right-handed sluggers with considerable experience at Griffith Stadium were: Al Simmons, Hank Greenberg, Joe DiMaggio, Al Rosen, Gus Zernial, Roy Sievers, Jim Lemon and Rocky Colavito. There were many others, but they were the best at pounding the ball for great distances.
All in all, until Griffith Stadium was replaced by D.C. Stadium (later called RFK Stadium) in 1962, there were tens of thousands of plate appearances by exceptionally strong right-handed athletes. With only one exception, none resulted in a ball flying over the left field bleachers. To me, therefore, it doesn’t matter if Mickey Mantle’s drive on April 17, 1953 flew 565 feet or 565 inches. What matters is that it was one of a kind. Then recall that Mickey was a switch-hitter. He batted right-handed only about thirty-per-cent as often at Griffith Stadium as the other sluggers who have been discussed.
A few other facts should be kept in mind. Mickey Mantle also cleared Griffith Stadium’s left field bleachers on at least one other occasion. Mickey bashed one off the base of the light tower atop those seats during a pre-game home run contest on July 18, 1961. That was a drive of about 510 feet, which matches the distance of the subject game ball in 1953. But, neither of them was Mantle’s longest blow at Griffith Stadium. That distinction is reserved for the first home run of Mickey’s remarkable 1956 season. It similarly occurred on the calendar day of April 17, and flew far over the high center field wall. Ultimately, the ball landed on the house roof at 2014 Fifth Street before bounding across the roadway. It was an epic drive of some 530 feet.
Some perspective about distance hitting should be understood. In his long, record-breaking career, Barry Bonds never hit a Major League home run that flew 500 feet. His longest was 492 feet at altitude-enhanced Coors Field in Denver on August 27, 2002. For the record, Barry added a 491-footer back home in San Francisco just thirteen days later. Anyone venturing into the 500 foot range is in rarified territory. Other accomplished, contemporary sluggers, who have not reached the magical 500 foot plateau, are Jose Canseco, Ryan Howard, Albert Pujols, Prince Fielder, Frank Thomas, Alex Rodriguez and Ken Griffey, Jr.
Consider massive Frank Howard, the man that Mickey referenced at the start of our interview. He was reputed to have smacked a 562-footer at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh on May 25, 1960. When I interviewed Frank, who I rank fourth historically for distance, the discussion quickly turned to this specific blow. Asking him about the reported distance of 562 feet, Howard snorted: "That’s ridiculous!" Frank Howard doesn’t think that even the strongest Major League hitters, including himself, can hit a ball that far. In this instance, I agree with him. After researching his Pittsburgh masterpiece for many years, I estimated it at 520 feet.
In fact, it is common for me to lower the distances traditionally assigned to baseball’s longest home runs. That practice applies to every slugger from Babe Ruth to Mark McGwire. In the case of the Bambino, his mythic blast at Navin Field on June 8, 1926 seems most in need of downsizing. I have read accounts ranging from 601 feet to 626 feet. Having written a book about Ruth, I respect his abilities as much as anyone, but this one isn’t even close. I judge that shot to have flown 520 feet.
Then we have Dave Kingman’s wind-aided skyscraper at Chicago’s Wrigley Field on April 14, 1976. The Chicago Tribune assigned a distance of 600 feet, while the New York Times credited the shot at 630 feet. There were several witnesses who confirmed that the ball struck the third house beyond Waveland Avenue. Accordingly, this drive was actually measured, and its total distance has reliably been established at 540 feet. That marks Kingman’s blow as one of the ten longest in the annals of his sport.
It ranks up there with Mickey Mantle’s line drive off the right field roof façade at Yankee Stadium on May 22, 1963. That was the drive that Mickey always identified as the longest of his distinguished career. It too has often been over-estimated, but I similarly rate it at 540 feet. I also regard it as the single longest drive in the hallowed history of Yankee Stadium. And where does Mantle’s 1953 Griffith Stadium homer fit into the context of tape measure history?
That depends on what you value. If you enjoy the romance of long home runs, this shot remains at the top of the list. It is still the one that I am questioned about most often. Mickey’s drive has entered into the imagination of America’s sports psyche, and I believe that it will remain there regardless of how it is dissected or analyzed. Why is that? First, it flew the astounding distance of approximately 510 feet, and was the only ball ever to surpass a long-established distance plateau. Second and more importantly, it was launched by a man who is an iconic American hero.
Like Babe Ruth, despite his flaws, Mantle is rightfully beloved by everyone who genuinely cares about baseball. He overcame terrible adversity to play eighteen years in the Major Leagues, and did it with modesty, grace and humor. When you consider his unique blend of power and speed, he ranks as the preeminent athlete in the history of his sport. How could we not cherish what Mickey Mantle did in the nation’s capitol on that memorable spring afternoon in 1953?