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Out of the Park
Comments () | Published November 2, 2010

The second pitch was a fastball or a slider, Stobbs said later—he couldn’t remember. Either way, it was over the plate.

As Stobbs went into his windup, a gust of wind blew through the open facade behind home plate. “Straight out to left field,” recalls Bill Abernathy, a patrol boy who was sitting with his father in the empty presidential box.

Sam Diaz, an observer at the Weather Bureau, would later report: “Between 3 and 4 pm, there were gusts up to 41 miles per hour in the direction of the bleachers at Griffith Stadium . . . the lightest gusts were at 20.”

The ball left Mantle’s bat at an estimated 113 miles per hour. Clark Griffith, the namesake and grandson of the Senators’ owner, was sitting in the family box behind the third-base dugout, having cut class at Sidwell Friends. “It went up and got caught in the jet stream,” he says. “It took on a life of its own.”

Roy Clark, the musical son of a Washington square-dance bandleader, was sitting with his father along the first-base line. The thwack of bat and ball stayed in his memory. “It just echoed in that ballpark,” Clark says. “Even before it was halfway to its destination, you knew that it was gone. Looked like it was in the air for five minutes.”

The ball kissed Mr. Boh’s cheek, clipping his mustache above the word “beer” as it headed toward Fifth Street. The visiting bullpen down the left-field line offered an unimpeded view.

“You’re waiting for it to come down, to go into the crowd,” said backup catcher and future Yankees manager Ralph Houk, who died this year. “The next thing it’s over the crowd and out of the stadium. There’s a moment of silence. Everybody is looking that way, even all the infielders on the opposing team and the left-fielder. He’s looking for it, and he can’t believe it went out.”

Mantle rounded the bases with his customary modesty, head down as he touched each bag. The ball was hit so high that he was at second base by the time it came down, second-baseman Wayne Terwilliger says.

It was Mantle’s first home run of the season, the first of 29 he would hit at Griffith Stadium. Returning to the dugout, he smiled in a way that acknowledged his debt to the wind.

Years later, after Roy Clark had become a renowned country singer and Mantle’s friend, Clark told him he had been at Griffith that day. “He looked like a kid on Christmas morning,” Clark recalls. “And then he said, ‘That wasn’t the hardest ball I ever hit.’ ”

In the press box, Arthur E. Patterson, the Yankees’ director of public relations, regarded the ball’s disappearing act as an opportunity.

Patterson was an old sportswriter who had spent 17 years at the New York Herald Tribune before making the transition from hack to flack, first for the Yankees, then for the Dodgers. He knew a good story even if he couldn’t see what happened—the left-field bleachers cut off the view from the press box.

“That one’s got to be measured!” Patterson said. Or so legend says. He dashed from the stadium on a gust of inspiration. “To his dismay, the baseball already landed when he arrived,” sportswriter Red Smith wrote years later, “so he picked out the spot where it might have come down.”

Some innings later, he returned to the stadium with a distended baseball and a story he would repeat in a variety of iterations until his death.

He arrived on Fifth Street to find, as Dan Daniel recounted in Sporting News, “a surprised and delighted Negro lad” named Donald Dunaway running down the street with a baseball. They entered into an arrangement—the boy, who lived around the corner at 343 Elm Street, would show him where the ball had landed in exchange for whatever money Patterson had in his pocket. The sum was variously reported as 75 cents, $1, $5, and $10. Once the deal was struck, Patterson testified, Dunaway led him to the back yard of 434 Oakdale Place, a two-story brick rowhouse.

Hustling back to the press box, Patterson reported that the ball had traveled 565 feet, making it the longest home run ever measured. None of the residents of the press box ventured out of the stadium to attempt to verify Patterson’s claim. Three days later, in a Washington Times-Herald column, Bob Addie took readers “behind the scenes to show you how these records are determined.”

“Here’s the dope,” Addie wrote, paraphrasing the ebullient PR man. “The fence is 55 feet high to the beer sign. I walked 66 feet from the 391 mark to the back where Mantle’s ball cleared the bleacher limit. That would be 457 feet. Now I paced off 36 strides, which means three feet a stride or 108 feet to where the ball eventually landed in the backyard on Oakdale Street. It’s a small backyard so the ball didn’t have a chance to bounce much. So add them all up and you get 565 feet.”

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Posted at 12:00 AM/ET, 11/02/2010 RSS | Print | Permalink | Comments () | Washingtonian.com Articles