In grade school my favorite sport was baseball. I had dreams of growing into a tall, powerful pitcher.
That never happened.
In middle school I started to turn more toward basketball and football because there was more action to keep my attention-deficit disorder at bay (although we didn’t have a name for it back then).
Still, one of the things I always loved about baseball was how people obsessed over numbers and tracked just about everything, even decades before ESPN. You can argue quality of players or even equipment from one generation to the next, but you can go to www.baseball-reference.com and compare raw numbers of all kinds of things — like how often Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron hit a home run, or how often Ty Cobb or Rickey Henderson stole a base.
Unfortunately, one question that can’t be answered by these websites is one that tends to fascinate fans: What is the longest ball ever hit in a baseball game?
And that is a pretty good question. People love to know interesting facts, especially when things go to extremes. I have no idea just how big North Carolina is, but I know that Texas is the biggest state in the contiguous 48 states, and Alaska is the biggest of them all. I know Mount Everest is the largest mountain in the world.
I can tell you Barry Bonds holds the career home run record, Nolan Ryan the career strikeout mark, and Pete Rose the career hits record. Cy Young won the most games as a pitcher.
According to Baseball Almanac, the first tape-measure homer of note came in 1915 when Babe Ruth was a rookie for the Red Sox.
In St. Louis, the Babe hit a ball over the bleacher in right field. It also crossed Grand Boulevard and hit the sidewalk on the far side. That shot was estimated at 470 feet. Thus the craze began.
When we see some muscular guy slam a baseball well over the fence, it is reasonable to us to think, “Is that the hardest hit homer ever?”
There are several problems that have come up to prevent us from having a definitive answer to the distance record.
One of them is not knowing exactly where some of the longest drives have landed.
When I was a kid, I read a biography of Mickey Mantle, which included a line that he once hit a home run 565 feet. I as a kid, of course, assumed this was fact. Many years later I would learn that this distance was measured from home plate to the spot where a neighborhood kid found the ball — after it had bounced and rolled. So how far did it really travel in the air? 500 feet? Baseball Almanac is guessing 510.
Of course there is also the All-American love of the tall tale. Anyone who has heard fishing stories knows exactly what I’m talking about.
“You weren’t there? Oh man, I’m telling ya, it’s the longest ball ever hit. It musta went 600 feet.”
The third issue with comparing distances is physics/mathematics. I know, I know — I can hear the groans now. I’m not going to pull out Pythagorean theorem on you.
Consider this, when you see a quarterback heave a long pass downfield, if the spiral is tight, the ball has this beautiful arch. This parabola curve means the same distance it takes to reach its peak is the same distance it takes to come down.
For Cam Newton to throw a 60-yard bomb, the ball reaches its peak near the 30-yard mark (not exactly 30 yards because of wind resistance, but maybe 32-34 yards).
If we take this same idea and apply it to homers, we get some whacky numbers.
For example, Wrigley Field is in the middle of Chicago. For many years, it was possible to hit a ball over the fence in left field and into a neighbor’s yard.
If a homer reaches its peak height as it goes over the fence 300 feet from home plate, then the ball will come down around 600 feet away, right?
Batted baseballs do NOT travel like this.
Anybody watch our local long drive competitor, Justin Young, compete on TV in the world championships?
The TV camera crews have so many cameras watching the flight of the ball that they can track it from the club to the ground. Then a graph of the ball flight is shown on TV.
If a golf ball travels 450 yards, the ball doesn’t reach its peak at 225 yards. The ball reaches its peak at 300 yards or farther.
There is back spin on the ball that helps keep it aloft. Once the momentum dies down, the ball drops rather quickly. The similar thing happens with baseballs — though not as exaggerated because of the lack of dimples on the surface.
About the best confirmed distance I can find is Dave Kingman hitting a wind-aided shot at Wrigley that didn’t just land in the yard of a neighbor, but struck a house 530 feet away.
One drive we’ll never know about came in 1974 with Mike Schmidt at Houston. The young slugger (who would go on to win the first of his eight home run titles) crushed a ball to straightaway center.
Reports said that the center fielder never even turned to pursue the ball. He knew this one was gone by a long margin.
The ball was still blasting upward like a space shuttle from Cape Canaveral when it hit resistance — a loudspeaker mounted to the underside of the Astrodome. The speaker was 300 feet from home plate and 117 feet in the air, and the ball was still accelerating upward.
Schmidt might have challenged Kingman’s mark, but instead the ball dropped straight to the ground.
It was one of the hardest hit balls in all of MLB history, and Schmidt wound up on first with a single.
Jeff is the news editor and can be reached at 415-4692.