Monday, 1 July 2013

Over The Roof



 Tiger Stadium, Photo courtesy www.deskpicture.com

I like home runs in baseball. Who doesn’t? The longer, the better. I like the power. Leave me in awe.

When I was 10 years old, I bought the 1962 spring edition of the  Street & Street Baseball Yearbook. It cost me a whole 50 cents, my weekly allowance back then. On the cover was a great shot of Yankees Roger Maris with his bat held up in a batting pose. He, of course, had smashed his iconic 61 homers the year before to break Babe Ruth’s beloved record. So, he deserved to be on the cover. But it was one section inside that really caught my attention…photos of 5 different major league stadiums (all gone now), with  lines and arrows showing the longest homers hit in each park. Kansas City’s Municipal Stadium had a couple of massive shots by Harmon Killebrew and Mickey Mantle. St. Louis’ Busch Stadium showed the paths of Joe Adcock, Luke Easter, and Babe Ruth homers.  There was Candlestick Park in San Francisco with some Willie Mays and Willie McCovey belts. You could also see a Harmon Killebrew homer in Minnesota’s Metropolitan Stadium. Lastly, there was Tiger Stadium, or Briggs Stadium as it was named in the magazine when Ruth and Mantle hit two out, along with a Jim Gentile smash that hit the light tower in right field.

In 1976, I moved to Ontario with my wife, who is from Windsor. Over the course of 23 years, we would drive down to Detroit for a few dozen games at Tiger Stadium--on the corner of the  famous Michigan and Trumbull--before they closed it for good in 1999. Did I see one hit out? Yes and no. One hot summer day in 1991, my son and I arrived early at the park to catch batting practice. The Tigers were going to play the Minnesota Twins. Shortly after we arrived, lefty Twins first-baseman Kent Hrbek was in the cage. And he was in a groove, pulling the ball to right. One of the first tosses to him, he pounded the ball off the fence. He parked the next pitch into the lower deck. The next one, he hit deep into the upper deck. Then the very next one  went right out! Up and over the right-field roof. Only a few thousand were in the park to notice. But we all went WOW!  Even in batting practice it was impressive. So, that’s how it was done.

But…how many roof homers were there hit in actual games?  Between the years 1938-1999, 35 went out by 25 different ballplayers.

Baseball had been played on “The Corner” since 1896, first as the 8,000-seat capacity Bennett Park. In 1912, Tigers owner Frank Navin demolished the previous wood stands and had a new steel and concrete structure built that seated 23,000.  From 1912-1937, it was known as Navin Field. A second deck was installed between the foul lines in 1923 to increase the capacity to 30,000. In 1936, came the upper deck in right field that stretched to center field. By this time Walter Briggs took over the team and had the upper deck put in left field to make the park (now called Briggs Stadium) fully enclosed with two decks, bringing the capacity to 53,000. What made the stadium truly unique was the 10-foot overhang of the right-field corner upper deck over the playing field. The upper decks to left and right were 94 feet off the ground. The dimensions to the fences from left to right were 340-365-440-370 and 325 in the right corner. Now…we’re all set for the roof shots.

The first one was off the bat of Ted Williams on May 4, 1939, in Teddy Ballgame’s rookie season.  Twenty years old at the time, one MLB homer under his belt, and in only his ninth major league game, he found a Tigers Roxie Lawson pitch to his liking and sent a rocket over the 94-foot-high façade and onto the street. Ironically, only two days earlier in the same park, star first-baseman Lou Gehrig took himself out of the Yankees lineup to bring his 2,130 consecutive-game streak to an end.

Then for some strange reason, the fans had to wait another 17 years for the next blast when Mickey Mantle sent a Paul Foytack offering  over the right-field roof in 1956. Mantle seemed to like the even years because he hit 2 more to the approximate spots off Jim Bunning in 1958 and Paul Foytack again in 1960. In 1961, Tigers first-baseman Norm Cash put one over on June 11. He hit 3 more roof shots in 1962, in which 2 were only 2 days apart, both off LA Angels pitching. In August, Harmon Killebrew was the first player to clear the left-field roof (which was several feet farther away from home plate than right field), with a shot off Jim Bunning.  This left-field feat was duplicated only 3 other times up to the park’s closing, with Frank Howard, Cecil Fielder and Mark McGwire doing the herculean honors. When Fielder hit his on August 25, 1990, it was his second homer that day. McGuire, Jose Canseco and Alan Trammell also homered. It’s interesting to note that McGuire first MLB homer was hit in Tiger Stadium on August 25, 1986, sailing into the straightaway center-field bleachers, well over 440 feet away.

Besides Cash and Mantle, the other multiple roof-shot sluggers were all  Detroit Tigers.  Kirk Gibson with 3, and Jason Thompson, Tony Clark and Mickey Tettleton with 2 each. Thompson’s were a month apart in 1977, Clark’s were in 1996 and 1997, while Tettleton’s were in the same week in June 1991. It was always fun to watch any Tettleton homers whether roofers or not because his were screaming, rocket shots that left the park in a hurry. The kind of homers that left your neck with whiplash. I saw a lot of his homers at Tiger Stadium in the 1990s. I’m sure if his 2 roof shots were timed with a stopwatch, they probably reached the roof faster than all the others. Reggie Jackson, with the Angels in 1984, slugged one over, plus had a near miss when he hit the right-field light tower in the 1971 All-Star Game played in Detroit. And I have to mention that the final hit in the last game played at The Corner, Tigers Robert Fick hit a grand slam that banged off the top of the right-field roof and bounced back to the playing field. It was probably the most fitting way to close Tiger Stadium, that grand ol’ ball park.

If anyone cares to go to YouTube, you will find some of the mentioned roof shots. One of Gibson’s is there. So is the Fick smash and one of Fielder’s long homers that hit the left-field roof and bounced back. Like  Casey Stengel used to say, “You can look it up.”

Please do.

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