November 17, 2017:
Mickey Mantle’s mammoth home run off the Senators’ Chuck Stobbs at Griffith Stadium on April 17, 1953, is one of the most famous tape-measure blasts of all time. In fact, most sources credit this homer with creating the “tape-measure’’ phrase, although obviously no tape measure was used to calculate the distance. (Mantle was later photographed with Yankees’ publicity director Arthur “Red” Patterson holding a huge prop tape measure.)
The home run, Mantle’s first of 1953, has been listed in the Guinness Book of records as the longest documented blast. It was commemorated with a card in the Topps 1961 baseball set. The front of the card featured an aerial view of cavernous Griffith Stadium in Washington and showed the purported flight of the ball.
The home run is widely credited with having traveled 565 feet. That distance was determined by Patterson, who left the Griffith Stadium press box to try to find the ball after it cleared the wall behind the left-field stands.
Mantle was the only player ever to hit a ball out of Griffith Stadium over the left-field wall. Philip J. Lowry in Green Cathedrals (2006, Walker & Co.) wrote that Josh Gibson did it twice when the Homestead Grays played at the stadium, although there does not seem to be any reliable eyewitness account. Author Brad Snyder in Beyond the Shadow of the Senators (2003, McGraw Hill) wrote that accounts of the Gibson blasts are dubious.
Patterson, according to his own and published accounts, found a youngster who said he had retrieved the ball from the yard of the house of Perry L. Cool at 434 Oakdale beyond the left-field wall. Some writers call it Oakdale Place, others call it Oakdale Lane and still others call it Oakdale Street, which is what Lowry calls it in his book. Jane Leavy refers to it as Oakdale Place in her exhaustive article on the homer in the November 2010 Washingtonian magazine and later in her 2011 biography of Mantle, The Last Boy (Harper Perennial).
How Patterson determined the ball traveled 565 feet is uncertain. Sports writer Allen Barra has written that Patterson originally said it went 563 feet. Some contemporary newspaper accounts, though, reported it as 562; others at 565 feet. Baseball historian Bill Jenkinson, the foremost authority on the longest home runs, has called the 565-feet distance pure myth, although he told Barra he would not argue with anyone who said the ball went at least 500 feet. In his book Baseball’s Ultimate Power (2009, Lyons Press), Jenkinson settles on an estimate of 510 feet.
While he was alive, Patterson sometimes conceded that the 565-feet distance included how far the ball rolled, although he did not explain how it could have rolled behind the house where Patterson said it was found. Speaking to Jenkinson in 1984, Patterson insisted the ball traveled 565 in the air.
A physics professor’s conclusion
In 2010, Alan M. Nathan, physics professor emeritus at the University of Illinois, posted on the university’s website a detailed analysis of the home run, based on the undisputed facts and a bit of his educated conjecture (http://baseball.physics.illinois.edu/Krannert-v3.pdf). Professor Nathan postulates that Mantle’s blast hit the roof of a two-story building on Fifth Street and bounced onto the yard of a house behind it, where a young man retrieved the ball. Nathan concludes that the ball traveled a minimum of 538 feet +/- 2 feet, aided considerably by the wind.
What is not in dispute is that Mantle’s home run grazed the beer advertisement atop the high wall behind the left-field bleachers and left the stadium. Most accounts give the height of the wall as 55 feet. Others says the National Bohemian sign rose another 15 feet. The left-field fence, according to the dimensions for 1953 listed in Lowry’s book, was 408 feet from home plate, although Louis Effrat of the New York Times reported in the next day’s paper that the distance to the fence was 391 feet at the foul line. Leavy wrote that it was 405 feet. Sports writer Bob Addie of the Washington Times Herald reported that the distance from the fence to the back wall was 66 feet; Effrat said it was 69 feet. (Effrat also reported that the wall was 50 feet high.) Despite the disagreement over the fence distance, all accounts agree that the back wall was 460 feet from home plate.
Patterson said he paid a youngster named Donald Dunaway for the ball. The amount was reported differently over the years – from 75 cents to $10. Barra wrote that Patterson had settled on $5 when he recounted the story in later years.
Leavy tried to track down Dunaway, even enlisting the help of a former FBI agent before she finally came across a man who said he was the boy who found the Mantle home run ball. Dunaway knew enough about what happened to convince Leavy he was indeed the person from whom Patterson bought the ball. The story Dunaway told was far different from Patterson’s account.
Patterson had said the boy who found the ball was about 10 years old. Dunaway told Leavy he was 14 at the time. Dunaway said he never showed anyone that day where he found the ball, but he told Leavy it was not at 434 Oakdale Place. He took the ball to an usher, who brought him inside the stadium where he met the man to whom he sold the ball. Dunaway told Leavy he was paid $100 — quite a sum in 1953 — for it and was promised another ball autographed by Mantle.
Jeff Passon of Yahoo Sports, writing in 2008 on the 55th anniversary of the homer, reported that Patterson’s payment to the boy was just $1 and two autographed balls.
The Billy Martin myth
Another widely reported story about the home run, before Retrosheet made the box score easy to find, is that Billy Martin was on third base when Mantle came up. Although it was evident when the ball left the bat that it would be out of the park, this version had Martin jokingly going back to tag up. Mantle, running around the bases with his head down as was his custom, supposedly had to be held up by third base coach Frank Crosetti to keep from passing Martin. The story isn’t true. Martin had popped out to lead off the inning.
There were two outs, with the Yankees leading 2-1, when Mantle came up in the top of the fifth. In fact, the only base runner was Yogi Berra, who came up right before Mantle with nobody on base and walked. Mantle took the first pitch for a ball before connecting on what he later said was either a fastball or slider, belt-high.
The Yankees won the game, 7-3. Later in the same game, Mantle bunted for a base hit.
Mantle used a bat borrowed from teammate Loren Babe to hit this historic homer. The bat reportedly weighed 33 ounces in some accounts and 34 ounces in others.
The paid crowd that day was 4,206, but Leavy wrote that the game was “Patrol Boy Day,” with about 3,000 school safety patrols having been admitted free to upper-deck seats.
The wind was blowing out to left field — at 20 miles per hour with gust up to 40 miles an hour during the game. “Maybe the wind did help him,” Senators’ owner Clark Griffith himself said about Mantle’s blast, “but that wind has been blowing off and on for 51 years out here and nobody else ever put one over that fence.’”
By all accounts, this was Mantle’s longest home run batting right-handed. According to a list compiled by Lewis Early, Mantle hit six others estimated to have gone farther, all batting left-handed. Mantle’s blast was the first of 29 homers he hit at Griffith Stadium through 1961, when the expansion Senators played there in its final season.
The ball was put on display in Yankee Stadium, but on Memorial Day 1953 it was stolen. A week later, three boys who said they had gotten it from two teenagers, brought it back. In June 1953, the ball and bat were sent to the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y., where they remain today.