Home Run

Edited by George Plimpton

A Harvest Original. New York: Harcourt Inc., 2001

The first home run in major league history was hit by Ross Barnes, Chicago White Stockings, May 2, 1876. Home Run is a collection of short stories, essays, and news reports having to do with "baseball’s most exciting moment".

The best discovery here for me was "Pafko at the Wall" by Don. It’s an engrossing mixture of fact and fiction – technically a novella -- built around Bobby Thomson’s 1951 homer. The story later re-appeared as the prologue to DeLillo’s novel Underworld. The story takes place in the stands at the Polo Grounds, and characters include Jackie Gleason, Frank Sinatra, and J. Edgar Hoover. But the best character is a kid who sneaks into the park to see the game.

Then there’s an oldie but goodie, John Updike’s "Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu" which has appeared in many anthologies and been quoted hundreds of times. That’s because it’s so well-written that you could use it to teach an English class. Updike describing the fans in attendance for Ted Williams’s last ballgame, 1960, a part of one paragraph:

The crowd looked less like a weekday ball park crowd than like the folks you might find in Yellowstone National Park, or emerging from automobiles at the top of scenic Mount Mansfield. There were a lot of competitively well-dressed couples of tourist age, and not a few babes in arms. A row of five seats in front of me was abruptly filled with a woman and four children, the youngest of them two years old, if that. Someday, presumably, he could tell his grandchildren that he saw Williams play. Along with those tots and second-honeymooners, there were Harvard freshmen, giving off that peculiar nervous glow created when a quantity of insouciance is saturated with insecurity; thick-necked army officers with brass on their shoulders and lead in their voices; pepperings of priests; perfumed bouquets of Roxbury Fabian fans; shiny salesmen from Albany and Fall River; and those gray, hoarse men – taxidrivers, slaughterers, and bartenders – who will continue to click through the turnstiles long after everyone else has deserted to television and tramporamas. There are two character studies of Babe Ruth: "His Majesty the King" by Paul Gallico, who covered Ruth’s career for the New York Daily News, and a chapter from Robert Creamer’s Babe: The Legend Comes to Life. For some reason, I remember exactly when and where I read Creamer’s debut excerpt in Sports Illustrated. (Café Creole, New Orleans, 1974). It was a damned exciting piece of writing, maybe because no one had written the real story of Babe Ruth before, the R-rated version, where you could picture him as a living breathing person. Both Gallico and Creamer struggle to get across how big this guy was. Gallico calls him "God Himself… in a camel’s hair coat." Creamer quotes Ruth, "I swing big, with everything I’ve got. I hit big or I miss big. I like to live as big as I can."

Roger Angell (yes, he’s here, too) asks Willie Mays to remember one of his 660 home runs. Willie thinks awhile and comes up with a blast he hit in the Astrodome off Claude Raymond, after fouling off 13 straight pitches. A 2-run job that tied the game in the ninth inning. "That was the only dramatic type of home run I ever hit." But there was also a Mays solo homer which ended a 15-inning duel between Juan Marichal & Warren Spahn, in 1963. Willie is the all-time leader with 22 extra-inning home runs (and Jack Clark is second!).

Angell, in his essay called "Homeric Tales", gets into talking about long homers, and he mentions one that I saw in person – Bo Jackson, off Oil Can Boyd at Fenway Park in 1988. "The ball left the yard just to the right of the center-field flagpole and struck close to the top of the wall there that runs well above the upper bleachers…" That part of the wall didn’t use to be there. In Jimmie Foxx’s and Mickey Mantle’s days, the ball was bouncing down the street outside the park. This home run is at the top of my personal list for most awesome blast ever witnessed. But wait, there’s more! Angell quotes Lou Gorman about another ball that Bo hit off Oil Can, the following spring. It went over the scoreboard in Baseball City. Our correspondent Karen Johnson remembers that one, and verified its magnificence.

George Plimpton, the editor of this anthology, took an informal poll and got this ranking for historic, dramatic home runs:
1. Bobby Thomson, off Ralph Branca, 1951 NL playoffs
2. Bill Mazeroski, off Ralph Terry, 1960 World Series
3. Kirk Gibson, off Dennis Eckersley, 1988 World Series
4. Henry Aaron, off Al Downing , to break Babe Ruth’s record
5. Babe Ruth, off Charlie Root, 1931 World Series, "called shot"

Paul Gallico, incidentally, claims that he personally witnessed Babe Ruth’s "called shot", while there are others who denied that he ever pointed. If that happened today – that is, if whatever really happened, happened – we would have 14 camera angles, in full wrap-around three dimensional splendor. We would be able to pick up Ruth’s gesture from the catcher-cam, and his words from the umpire’s microphone. We could use a telestrator to draw a line from the end of Ruth’s finger to a spot in the bleachers, and then superimpose the actual flight path of the baseball to ascertain exactly how closely the ball landed to Ruth’s indicated spot. And there would still be people who denied that he pointed. Some Chicago Bleacher Bum would retrieve the ball and sell it for $7.5 million to a private collector.

Review by David Nevard (2001)