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

The announcement was piped into Bob Wolff’s broadcast booth by the public-address announcer. The next morning, Mickey Mantle and Donald Dunaway were front-page news in every sports section across the country. “The magnificent moppet of the Yankees today hit the longest home run in the history of baseball,” Joe Trimble declared in the New York Daily News.

Ordinary language could not contain him. A new term was coined: the tape-measure home run.

Mantle signed endorsement deals with Wheaties, Camels, Gem razors, Beech-Nut gum, and Louisville Slugger. There was a wardrobe of Mickey Mantle clothing—Esquire socks, Van Heusen shirts, Haggar slacks.

Stobbs was demoted to the bullpen at the end of May, having lost five of his first seven starts for the Senators. He’d be remembered for one pitch in a 15-year major-league career. Every April 17, a friend who worked at the concession stand behind home plate sent Stobbs a card. Sometimes he signed it “Mickey.” Thank you for what you did for me.

In 1953, Griffith Stadium was a white man’s palace on the edge of a black neighborhood called LeDroit Park—the logical place to look for Donald Dunaway.

No Donald Dunaways were in the 2006–08 DC phone book. In the 1954 directory, no Dunaways were at 343 Elm Street. Donald Dunaway wasn’t in DC public-school records for Lucretia Mott Elementary, the “colored” school attended by most LeDroit Park children. Nor was he enrolled at Garnet-Patterson Junior High.

The Hall of Fame and the Yankees’ front office had no updates in their files. Letters and newspaper clippings left in every mailbox on Elm Street and Oakdale Place elicited no reply. A private eye found no trace of Dunaway in Social Security death records or military service records. She suggested a deed search for 343 Elm Street—no Dunaway. Neither the current owner nor the one before had heard of the family.

The men who were gathered under the food tent at the annual LeDroit Park reunion had trouble placing the name. Dunaway? Yes, there was a Dunaway. No, there wasn’t. I thought Albert Taylor caught that ball.

Bobby Lane, the unofficial neighborhood historian, put an end to the discussion: “There ain’t no tape measure, and there ain’t no Dunaway.”

I engaged Brad Garrett, renowned former FBI special agent. Garrett spent nearly five years finding Mir Aimal Kansi, the perpetrator of the 1993 CIA murders, and obtained confessions from the DC sniper. But Dunaway eluded him. After consulting secure databases, he said: “This guy is harder to find than Kansi.”

LeDroit Park was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1974, but in summer 2007 its renaissance hadn’t reached Dunaway’s old block. Some houses had for rent signs spray-painted on plywood doors. A man at the end of the street said he knew Donald—they had gone to school together: “He passed away, but I don’t remember what year.”

Then a woman named Sandra Epps appeared on Oakdale Place, offering to make introductions. After two years of shoe leather, mailbox stuffing, and unanswered phone calls, doors opened. Miss Rosa Burroughs invited me into her parlor, across the street from the Dunaways. Miss Rosa knew the family. Donald was slight and had a light complexion. She’d seen him at the bus stop at 14th and P just the year before but didn’t know how to get in touch with him. Perhaps Miss Sarah would—she’d ask next time she saw her at bingo.

Six months later, Miss Sarah, who had been feeling poorly, returned to bingo. Oh, yes, she remembered Donald Dunaway and his sister, Maxine, the wife of Elder Walter McCollough, pastor at Bishop C.M. “Daddy” Grace’s United House of Prayer. The church provided a phone number.

One night, Maxine McCollough answered the phone. “Yes, he caught the ball,” she said. “But why don’t you ask my brother?”

“You couldn’t have been looking very hard,” Donald Dunaway said when he answered the phone in his apartment less than two miles from where he had found the ball.

Approaching his 70th birthday, he wasn’t in the best of health—he had been laid low by diabetes and arthritis. A gray-speckled beard failed to obscure his smile. But he did seem a bit stung to hear that the boys from the old neighborhood didn’t recollect him. “But they remembered Duckie, didn’t they?” he said, referring to his nickname.

Although Dunaway had been wheelchair-bound for most of a year, he agreed to take a trip back to his old stomping grounds. Walking with a cane, he shuffled to a waiting car.

“There,” he said when we reached Fifth and Oakdale. “Right there.”

His account of April 17, 1953, was different from the codified version. Sometimes he contradicted himself. But he was adamant and consistent about the big things. He didn’t see the ball land on the fly in the back yard of 434 Oakdale Place. And he never showed anyone where he had found it.

He was 14 years old—not ten, as Patterson had reported—a sixth-grader at Bundy Elementary, a school for hard cases.

“I was mischievous,” he said with a smile. He was a member of the LeDroit Park gang and wore the red and black colors. On April 17, he said, “I snuck out of school at recess and kept going.”


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