By Glen Sparks
New York Yankee legend Mickey Mantle blasted a 1-0 pitch off the Washington Senators’ Chuck Stobbs on this date in 1953. The baseball flew out of Griffith Stadium in Washington, D.C., punished into the distance by one of the game’s mightiest swings.
We know the ball rocketed off the National Bohemian beer sign and kept going. But, did it really travel 565 feet, as some of have said, farther than any other home-run ball in history? Or, was it not even close? The debate goes on.
This is the story: The Mick, just 21 years old, stepped into the batter’s box with a 34-ounce Louisville Slugger that he had borrowed from teammate Loren Babe. The Yankee slugger, a switch-hitter, batted from the right side against Stobbs, a lefty.
Mantle nailed Stobbs’ second pitch. A ferocious breeze roared straight to left field as he connected. The ball kept going and going, taking a wild ride in a kicked-up jet stream. Players and fans lost sight of the ball it was hit so high. Mantle’s solo clout sailed over the left-field bleachers and out of the ballpark.
Arthur E. “Red” Patterson went to work. Patterson, a former sportswriter, had taken a job as the Yankees’ PR man. He ran after the ball. He found it in a yard at 434 Oakdale Place, the leather torn, suitably injured. A youngster named Donald Dunaway, playing hooky that afternoon, had retrieved the prize.
“I’ll give you a dollar for that ball, young man,” Patterson said, or something like that.
“Deal,” Dunaway decided. That was soda and candy money.
Patterson sprinted back to the press box. The game was still going on. Mantle had knocked Stobbs’ effort out of Griffith Stadium in just the fifth inning.
The home-run ball traveled 565 feet, Patterson said to the press corps. He explained it this way: The ball cleared the stadium at about the 391-foot mark. He then walked to the back of the bleachers, another 66 feet. So, 391 plus 66 equals 457. Then, he marked off 36 strides, at three feet a stride, to where the ball landed. That would be 108 feet. And, 457 plus 108 equals 565. First, Patterson said he used a tape measure to estimate the blast. Later, he said that wasn’t true.
The newspapers went with Patterson’s story. They snapped pictures of Mantle with the beaten ball. The Hall of Fame wanted both the bat and the ball. The Sporting News reported that when the ball rocketed over the stadium “the neighbors thought it was a flying saucer.”
But, in this age of precision, was Patterson’s measurement precise? The answer remains unclear.
Alan N. Nathan, a physics professor at the University of Illinois, wrote an article on the university’s web site in 2010 about the home run. He figures that the ball hit a building roof on Fifth Street and bounced into a nearby yard where Dunaway retrieved it. Nathan estimates that Mantle’s ball traveled about 538 feet, still a huge hit, albeit one helped considerably by the moment’s strong wind.
Nathan used a series of diagrams and possible trajectory angles of Mantle’s homer. He pointed out that the ball clanged off the Natty Bo sign, about 460 feet from home plate. (The exact measurements change according to the source.) Winds gusts reached 40 mph that afternoon in the nation’s capital. He, like everyone else, doesn’t know the exact wind speed, the batted-ball speed, the vertical-launch angle and the spin on the ball.
“The landing point of the ball depends on that vertical-launch angle, traveling farther for a line drive and less far for a pop fly,” Nathan writes. “The landing point is 578, 538, 517, and 504 ft for launch angles of 20o, 30o, 40o, and 50o, respectively.”
Then, Nathan goes a bit further, thanks to research from Jane Leavy, author of The Last Boy, a 2010 biography of Mantle. The ball was found behind a group of row houses that no longer exist but were about 512 feet from home plate. The row house roofs stood about 22 feet high. Using a few more calculations, Nathan gets his 538 feet figure, plus or minus just two feet.
Bill Jenkinson, an expert on long-distance home runs and who, along with physicist Robert Adair helped Nathan on his 2010 article, did his own research for a book called Baseball’s Ultimate Power: Ranking the All-Time Greatest Distance Home Run Hitters. He makes his estimate at 510 feet, again still a huge hit, but not a 565-foot one. He says the 565-foot estimate is just as much a piece of legend as stories of Big Foot and the Loch Ness monster. Jenkinson points out, for instance, that Patterson once said that he never asked Dunaway where the ball actually landed.
“Once a myth takes hold, it very rarely is completely withdrawn” Jenkinson said in a 2008 article on Yahoo Sports.
Not surprisingly, the web site Mickeymantle.com offers a different take. An article on the site puts “Mickey’s Historic Homer on Trial.” It quotes the great Yankee catcher Bill Dickey, among many others. “Ruth could hit a ball awful high and awful far,” Dickey said. “Mickey can hit it just as high and just as far.”
Mantle, the Yankees’ legendary No. 7, blasted 536 home runs in his career, plus 18 in 65 World Series games. He remains one of the game’s iconic figures, the blond-haired boy from little Commerce, Okla., who made his mark in the nation’s biggest city for the sport’s greatest team. A three-time MVP, he led his team to seven World Series titles. He was voted into the Hall of Fame in 1974, in his first year on the ballot.
He may have hit a ball 565 feet on this day in 1953. He may have fallen a bit short. In the story of Mickey Mantle, though, just as in the story of so many larger-than-life characters, the mix of truth and the legend remains just another part of the tale.