EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the last in a series of articles about the birth of Major League Baseball spring training in Hot Springs by baseball historian Bill Jenkinson, in conjunction with the inaugural Hot Springs Baseball Weekend Friday and Saturday.
Special to The Sentinel-Record
When the city of Hot Springs honors the 100th anniversary of baseball's first 500-foot home run, we should pause to consider exactly what that means. Just how far is 500 feet, and how difficult is it to hit a ball that far?
For a perspective on the first part of that question, we could stop at the nearest high school football field, and walk out to either of the goalposts. Then gaze at the other goalpost, and consider that it is 360 feet away. Next, add another 140 feet to that visual benchmark, and you will instantly understand that 500 feet is unnaturally far for any human being to hit a ball.
On the matter of the second part of the question, consider this: in the first 18 years of the 21st century, there has been a grand total of exactly one confirmed, official 500-foot home run in Major League Baseball. One! It was hit by Adam Dunn on Sept. 27, 2008, in Phoenix's Chase Field, and flew 504 feet. This is an era when ballplayers engage in sophisticated strength-training, use computer designed equipment, eat special diets, and seemingly always swing for distance. Collectively hitting only one homer to that rarified distance plateau tells us all we need to know about the degree of difficulty.
And let's be honest. We know that, during this same time, many Big Leaguers were using performance-enhancing drugs. So, when we say that Babe Ruth, a man born in the 19th century, slugged a ball over 500 feet during an exhibition game in Hot Springs during the spring of 1918, we are saying a lot. Here's how it happened:
Ruth first came to the Valley of the Vapors in March 1915 at the start of his formal rookie season with the Boston Red Sox. Of course, back then, Babe was a pitcher. He was instantly drawn to the energy and diversity of Hot Springs and was seen everywhere, walking the streets and seeing the sights when not playing baseball.
Contrary to popular belief, Ruth trained hard. It's true that the young Babe liked to party, but it is also true that he was a prodigiously hard worker on the field of play. Accordingly, when Ruth was in town, he had lots of fun, but he also worked as hard as any man could.
During those first three full seasons (1915-1917), Babe began each year in Hot Springs and won the imposing total of 65 games. He also performed heroically in Boston's 1916 World Series victory. During that same period, Babe slugged nine home runs. Everyone knew that he could hit, but there was no thought of moving the game's finest left-handed pitcher off the mound. However, the United States then entered the first world war.
When the Red Sox reported to Hot Springs for spring training in 1918, they had a diminished roster. Some of their players had switched uniforms (from baseball to military). Plus, veteran first baseman Dick Hoblitzel was late in arriving at camp. Into that personnel void stepped 23-year-old Babe Ruth, who played first base in Boston's initial exhibition game. That was the starting point for the most impactful position change in sports history.
On Sunday, March 17, 1918, at Whittington Park against the Brooklyn Dodgers, Ruth slugged two home runs. It was the second homer, hit off Norman Plitt in the fifth inning, which changed baseball history. It sailed far over the fence in deep right centerfield toward the Arkansas Alligator Farm.
Over the many intervening years, there has been considerable discussion and debate about the exact landing point of that drive. Sadly, the newspaper accounts (usually reliable primary sources) just don't provide enough detail to answer that question definitively. Hot Springs' own The Sentinel-Record reported in its Tuesday edition that this drive was the longest ever struck at Whittington Park. The Boston Evening Transcript and Boston Herald came to the same conclusion. However, none of those sources actually described where the ball landed.
The paper that gave the best account was the Boston Globe. It read:
" ... the other (homer #2) not only scaled the right-field barrier, but continued on to the alligator farm, the intrusion kicking up no end of commotion among the 'Gators.'"
That description fills our head with some humorous images, but, from a historical perspective, it falls short. In order to know for sure if the ball flew 500 feet, we need proof that it landed on the fly in the Alligator Farm. The Globe just doesn't offer that assurance. Based upon this single account, it's possible that the ball bounced into the farm.
Interestingly, the Boston Post reported that the ball was struck with such astonishing force that the rival Brooklynites "had to rise and cheer." Ballplayers of that era were hard-nosed guys and were not given to spontaneous praise for the deeds of their opponents. Their reaction, as documented by the Post, tells us that they were surely awed by what Ruth had just done.
In its next Saturday edition, which reviewed all the biggest news from the preceding week, the Post included a sketch that illustrated the direction of the St. Patrick's Day homer. It showed the ball flying directly toward the Alligator Farm in deep right centerfield.
Not surprisingly, there is a substantial amount of oral history attached to the event. Some of it tells us that the ball landed deep inside the Alligator Farm, possibly in the more distant of the two circular pools. Perhaps it did.
Acting on that assumption, the distance was measured at 573 feet in 2011 as surveyed by B&F Engineering. Since the farm hasn't moved, and by using reliable modern technology to locate the original position of home plate, that measurement is accurate. The question, therefore, is whether or not we can rely on the oral history about the precise landing spot. Maybe we can't, but there is much more to this story.
The Red Sox and Dodgers played again at Whittington Park one week after Ruth had initially shocked everyone with his tremendous display of nearly superhuman power. On this occasion (March 24), Hoblitzel was back with the Sox, and Babe was in right field. Facing Al Mamaux in the third inning with the bases loaded, Ruth blasted a ball nearly in the same direction as he had done seven days earlier. Against all logical expectations, this drive flew even farther.
There are many surviving eyewitness accounts to this epic drive, but the two that provide the most detail are from the Boston Globe and Boston Post. In part, the Globe said this:
Every ballplayer in the park said was the longest drive they had ever seen ...soaring over the street and a wide duck pond, finally finding a resting place in the Ozark Hills. Had Ruth made the drive in Boston it might have cleared the bleachers in right center."
For its part, the Post had this to say:
"Before the echo of the crash had died away the horsehide had dropped somewhere in the vicinity of South Hot Springs. ... The sphere cleared the fence by about 200 feet and dropped in the pond beside the Alligator Farm, while the spectators yelled with amazement. ... "
Let's take a closer look at those two descriptions. The article in the Boston Globe was written by a highly respected journalist named Edward Martin. He made two crucial assertions in his account. He claimed that the ball actually cleared the so-called duck pond adjacent to the Alligator Farm. We know where that pond was situated; the ball would have needed to fly well over 500 feet to surmount it. He also stated that the ball "might have cleared" the right centerfield bleacher seats at Boston's Fenway Park.
Although somewhat re-configured in 1934, those bleachers are essentially the same size and in the same place in 2018 as they were back in 1918. In all that time, nobody has come realistically close to clearing them with a batted ball. Ruth belted one in 1926 that landed about 20 feet short, and Ted Williams came within about 40 feet in 1946 (after that structure had been slightly enlarged). It would take a shot of nearly 600 feet to actually hit a ball completely over those historic bleachers. Accordingly, Martin's account is highly relevant in any discussion of a player reaching the prohibitive 500-foot barrier.
Regarding the content of the Boston Post article, it was also written by one of baseball's most respected observers. His name was Paul Shannon, and, after working at his craft for four decades, he was never known to have engaged in reckless hyperbole. He observed the ball to have landed in the duck pond, as opposed to Martin who concluded that it had flown over the pond. Shannon also estimated that the drive had cleared the outfield fence by "about 200 feet." Since the fence in deep right centerfield was situated approximately 400 feet from home plate, Shannon's insights are dramatic.
None of the other newspapers which reported on the game contradicted either the Globe or the Post. They simply didn't provide the same measure of specificity. However, they did include the consensus conclusion that this March 24 homer was the longest ever struck at Whittington Park. Considering the magnitude of Babe's March 17 blow, that is significant in itself.
Unluckily, The Sentinel Record, which at the time did not publish on Mondays, didn't include a so-called follow-up article about this event in its Tuesday edition.
The data clearly shows us, therefore, that Babe Ruth hit a 500-foot home run in Hot Springs on March 24, 1918. But how do we know for sure that no one had hit one that far before him? First, we must consider that there was no cork center inside the ball used in Major League Baseball until 1911. Without that added flight capability, it is almost certain that no human being, including The Babe, could have hit a ball so far.
Second, every home run recorded by each of that era's strongest hitters has been carefully researched, and none of them have 500 foot credentials.
There certainly were immensely strong batsmen before Ruth came along. Two muscular, left-handed behemoths come to mind first. Roger Connor and Dan Brouthers stood 6-foot-3 and 6-foot-2 respectively, and weighed about 230 powerful pounds in their heyday. Neither appeared to have an ounce of fat on their imposing frames. They both pounded the ball mercilessly during their long and successful careers throughout the 1880s and 1890s. Yet, neither came close to launching a ball 500 feet through the air.
Roger blasted one close to 440 feet at the original Polo Grounds in New York on Sept. 11, 1886. Big Dan crushed one at Baltimore's Union Park on June 16, 1894, that sailed about the same distance. Then, in a spring training contest at Raleigh's Athletic Park the following year (April 3, 1895), Brouthers bombed a ball into a nearby cemetery. Some observers regarded that drive as a 450-footer.
Please don't be fooled by the absence of formal weight-training for these 19th Century sluggers. Back then, there were significant lifestyle differences that forged tremendously strong musculatures. Many future MLB players started working long hours in factories or coal mines or on farms at very early ages, sometimes as much as 10 hours a day, six days a week. They were required to lift, push, or pull heavy burdens over and over again, and these repetitive functions of applied physical force had demonstratively positive results.
Buck Ewing, another 19th century long-distance hitter, offers an entertaining example. Born and raised in the Cincinnati area, Buck supported himself by working as a deliveryman for a local whiskey distillery. Why does that apply to our considerations? Here's why: Ewing made his deliveries of those wooden casks on his own. Besides handling the mules which pulled the wagon, he loaded and unloaded the product by himself. We don't know precisely how much those 42-gallon barrels weighed, but they were, approximately, 300 pounds.
Buck Ewing lifted those burdens hour after hour, day after day, six days a week, for several years as a young man. Despite weighing "only" 190 pounds, he was immensely powerful. On June 22, 1889, at Cleveland's League Park, Buck propelled a stupefying line drive so far over the left field fence that it landed in some rose bushes beside the second house removed from the park. Ewing is generally regarded as the finest all-around player from the 19th century.
For the record, Buck Ewing came to Hot Springs in the spring of 1892 when his sore right throwing arm threatened to end his career. By taking the baths, running the mountain trails, and undergoing electric impulse treatment to his arm, Ewing rehabilitated himself enough to remain in the game as an active player until 1897. Buck has his own plaque on the Historical Baseball Trail near the old Army-Navy Hospital in downtown Hot Springs
What about the years from 1911 and 1918? After the ball was enlivened, was there anyone else who was capable of whacking a baseball 500 feet? Not really. The most powerful batters during that time were Honus Wagner, Sam Crawford, and Gavy Cravath, but none of them ever came genuinely close to our proscribed distance threshold. Each hit many drives well over 400 feet, occasionally nearing the 450-foot mark, but that is a long way from our stated goal. By the way, each of those three guys also trained and played in Hot Springs at some point. Wagner and Crawford have their own plaques along the trail.
When we examine all the data, it is apparent that there is virtually no chance that anyone struck a baseball over 500 feet until Babe Ruth did the seemingly impossible on March 17 or March 24, 1918, at Whittington Park in Hot Springs.
On the matter of the plaque across from that old ballpark that currently stands adjacent to the Arkansas Alligator Farm, an explanation is in order. It reads that Babe Ruth hit a 573-foot home run at that location on March 17, 1918. I take responsibility for that assertion.
When my good friend, Steve Arrison, invited me to visit Hot Springs in March 2011, he did so after reading my 2007 book about Babe Ruth. Based upon what I had written, Steve, the CEO of Visit Hot Springs, engaged B&F Engineering to measure Ruth's St. Patrick's Day homer. That is where the 573-foot calculation originated.
From that first trip to the Valley, I became more and more involved in the study of Hot Springs history, culminating in my work with a team of other historians to assist Steve in the creation of the Historical Baseball Trail. It has been a labor of love. It has also been the springboard for additional research. Along the way, we have learned much more about the specific circumstances of Babe Ruth's two titanic home runs at Hot Springs in March of 1918. We now know that the longer of the two was hit on March 24, as opposed to the first drive from one week earlier. That is the drive (March 17) featured on the actual plaque. I am OK with that.
We are honoring the 100th anniversary of baseball's first 500-foot home run on March 24 because, based on the best available data, that is the one for which we have the most certainty. Yet, why change the plaque? The one hit on March 17 probably flew 500 feet, as well. It might not have traveled exactly 573 feet, but, then again, it might have. To me, a little mystery and uncertainty only adds to the overall intrigue for this captivating series of events.
Athletic power has always been a cherished and romanticized aspect of American culture. Babe Ruth's deeds in March 1918 at Hot Springs compare favorably with any act of physical prowess in our nation's history. That was the month and place in which a player first hit a baseball to a distance that had previously seemed beyond the capabilities of a mortal man. That's good enough for me. I can't wait to celebrate the occasion!
Bill Jenkinson, of Willow Grove, Pa., was one of the historians involved with the research and development of the Hot Springs Baseball Trail, along with Mike Dugan, Mark Blaeuer, Don Duren and Tim Reid. All of the baseball historians contributed to this article.Local on 03/24/2018