There’s not much fun in reading the news these days. But I did find a bright spot this morning.
The Washington Post had an article today about a home run that Frank Howard hit in the Seattle Pilots home park in 1969. A 10-year-old kid named Jim Flinn was sitting in the cheap seats beyond center field and he watched Howard’s home run go out of the park, at least by his memory. That would have made it at least 600 feet, given the height of the wall encompassing Seattle’s Sick’s Stadium.
If Sick’s Stadium and the Seattle Pilots don’t ring true to your MLB fan ears, it’s because the Pilots only stayed a year in Seattle before moving on to Milwaukee to fill the vacancy left there when the Braves moved to Atlanta. They are best known for being the team Jim Bouton pitched for when he wrote Ball Four.
But here’s the thing. In the world both before and after StatCast, no one has managed to propel a baseball that far with a bat AND be able to produce credible witnesses and measurement. Except for young (now 62) Jim Flinn. He knows what he saw. And it provided him with the memory for a lifetime.
It reminded me of my own similar memory. I saw a home run that, for me, was every bit as memorable as that Frank Howard shot and maybe even a few feet farther in its travel.
In 1957, I was 13 years old and just beginning to be sold on baseball as “the beautiful game,” at least in my culture and in my life. I was an avid fan of the Buffs, the Houston entry in the AA Texas League. That summer my dad took me to a game between the Buffs and the loathsome Dallas Eagles. The Buffs were a St. Louis Cardinal farm team. The Eagles were affiliated with the New York Giants. And any team from New York got hisses and boos in Texas, even before the Mets existed.
It was a matchup against the Texas League’s two best teams. Matching up over the whole season, Dallas led the league by 5 games over the second place Buffs. But minor league ball determined league championships through a system called the Shaughnessy Playoffs. It was pretty much the same design the major leagues use now with the top four teams doing elimination rounds. Houston won the Shaughnessy playoff, and thus the Texas League crown, four games to three over the Eagles. But none of that matters to the memory I have of that season.
My memory is about a ball I saw going over the center field fence in Buff Stadium. Any ball going over that fence was impressive in that it was 440 feet from home plate (the legendary Polo Grounds was only 442). The right and left field fences were 12 feet high. They added another six feet to the 440 foot center field fence. It was rare to see a ball clear that center field fence. It saved money on baseballs, no small thing in the minors.
But that night the Eagles started a 19-year-old first baseman named Willie McCovey. I remember little else about that game but my memory is of seeing a ball he hit leaving the park over the center field wall on a straight line that was still rising when it disappeared into the darkness.
After he hit that home run, I noticed the crowd gasping even when he would swing and miss. His movement was like velvet and oh so powerful. Still a teenager, McCovey hit .281 for the Dallas Eagles that year with 11 home runs. That isn’t huge production for a double A ball player. But I saw one of those eleven home runs and it was unforgettable.
That was the only time I ever saw Willie McCovey play in person. And McCovey never made it to the New York Giants. By the time he made the Giants two years later, they had moved to San Francisco.
Twenty-nine years and 521 home runs later, in 1986 he was voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
I saw him hit one of the longest home runs ever hit in organized baseball. No video recorded it. There was no StatCast to give us accurate, scientific measures.
But, like Mr. Jim Flinn, I know what I saw. And I thank him for jogging my memory.