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Roberto Clemente's Scoreboard Scraper = Wrigley's Longest HR (as per Hornsby, Banks, Brickhouse, Bob Scheffing and Rich Buhrke)

Well over 500 feet. Straightaway center. No wind. No steroids. Vaguely ubiquitous. Virtually forgotten..... And the 'answer' to that Jeopardy clue? What are six attributes of Cape Clemente’s historic 1959 lunar launch (which, btw, was the first of at least five of RC's 26 career Wrigley HRs to escape the friendly confines altogether, the others coming on Apr 16, 1962; Jun 23, 1963; Aug 15, 1964; and Apr 15, 1969).

I was suddenly reminded of this enduringly obscure home run and its hopefully imminent resurrection—not to mention its rapidly approaching 57th anniversary—by Al Yellon’s recent review of George Castle’s new book Baseball’s Game Changers—specifically, the article’s featured image (circa 1960), its all-star-studded triangle comprised exclusively of Chicago baseball luminaries. At its apex, an initially mislabeled Nellie Fox—making a none too convincing Minnie Miñoso—rests upon a solid foundation of unmistakable Wrigley icons, Ernie Banks and Jack Brickhouse. Notwithstanding Mr. Yellon’s graciously acknowledged gaffe, it is the latter pair's presence that caught my eye.

Inside Looking Out

When it comes to Wrigley’s all-time distance-hitting pantheon, Banks and Brickhouse were two of Clemente’s staunchest advocates, and two of the most credible. Both were present at Wrigley Field on Sunday, May 17, 1959 to witness something they had never seen before and never would again—a batted ball exiting the stadium at straightaway center field, just to the left of the scoreboard. (The closest precedent appears to be Hank Sauer's home run on April 22, 1953, which, according to the Tribune, passed over the base of the diagonal fence to the left of the scoreboard.)

Even towards the end of their careers (in fact, in Brickhouse's case, after), both men would reaffirm this home run's longest-ever status. As for its actual distance (which, of course, they had no way of knowing), each evidently considered baseball's illustrious F-bomb a very safe guess-timate.

Banks, writing in the Chicago Tribune (7/6/69):

Some of you fans may remember the ball he knocked out of Wrigley a few seasons ago, just to the left field side of the scoreboard. That's the longest one I've seen hit there, and we all agreed it must have traveled more than 500 feet on its journey into Waveland Avenue.

Brickhouse, paraphrased and quoted, respectively, by Paul Sussman in Baseball Digest (June 1982) and the Trib's Ed Sherman (5/4/89):

In fact, Brickhouse stated Kingman's drive was not the longest ball he had ever seen. A 500-foot blast by the late Roberto Clemente remains the hardest hit ball Brickhouse has seen which was unaided by the wind.

Clemente's was the longest I ever saw at Wrigley; longer than Kingman's. That's the one I'll always remember.

Of course, had I seen Yellon's star-studded triangle back when Nellie was still Minnie, I would’ve offered as my ‘correction’ an even more illustrious eyewitness, then Cubs batting coach Rogers Hornsby, who—in concert with manager Bob Scheffing—told TSN's Les Biederman that Clemente’s home run was the longest he’d seen anywhere. (This from one who was present at Game 4 of the 1926 World Series to witness two absolute bombs off the bat of Babe Ruth, estimated at, respectively, 515 and 530 feet by researcher Bill Jenkinson.)

A Bomb Defused: From Historically Prodigious Blast to Coffee Table Trivia

Harkening back to my opening sentence, this home run has indeed achieved a certain ubiquity, but strictly in trivia question terms, as one half—or, in the more elaborate versions, one third—of the answer to the question, "has anyone ever hit the scoreboard at Wrigley Field." As for its tape-measure bona fides, despite the previously cited acclaim, this home run's stock has clearly plummeted; rarely is it even mentioned in the same breath with the best of Sosa, Kingman, or even Hill. One reason for this is self-evident; the other, less so, but perhaps even more damaging.

At the risk of stating the obvious, the witnesses cited thus far did all their witnessing inside Wrigley (as per every published eyewitness account prior to December 2015); in other words, they had no idea where the ball landed. Notwithstanding that considerable handicap, they had no hesitation in doling out superlative rankings and robust guess-timates, based solely on the ball’s trajectory and its unique—i.e. uniquely distant—point of departure from the stadium: straightaway centerfield.

Over the years, that jaw-droppingly singular point has all but disappeared amidst the prevailing confusion regarding Wrigley Field’s so-called ‘center field’ scoreboard: specifically, regarding the fact that said scoreboard is situated considerably right of center—so much so, in fact, that the left edge of this 75-foot-wide edifice is actually to the right of dead center (an easily ascertained but surprisingly esoteric fact that gets some welcome national reinforcement via the Wrigley Field portion of this 2013 article by Greg Rybarczyk, an article to which we shall return shortly). While I'd like to think this quirk is common knowledge to any true Cubs fan, it's also true that between the use of potentially misleading shorthand by those who do know (first and foremost, the simple act of calling this a 'center-field' scoreboard) and the predictably flawed conclusions drawn by those who don't, it's easy to see how such misconceptions arise and proliferate.

And so it is that, routinely, RC’s jaw-dropping jolt has seen its unprecedented center field departure retroactively re-routed to left center or beyond, thus robbing this only half-witnessed event (as we all then believed it to be) of its single most distinguishing characteristic—or, at least, of its most credible claim to tape-measure preeminence: precisely that which, lacking even a single Waveland eyeball, had placed Hornsby, Banks, Brickhouse and Scheffing so squarely in Clemente’s camp.

As one might imagine, this fallacy quickly found its way into secondary sources, muddying the water further still; witness the work of one serial chronicler of all things Chicago and of this well-respected home run researcher. In the latter case, the inadvertent redirect leads the author to dramatically—albeit unwittingly—alter the ball's trajectory as well (i.e. "so far over the left center field bleachers" [emphasis added]), simply for the purpose of providing a credible rationale for what—given the initial shift from center to left center—have suddenly become somewhat counterintuitive 500-foot guess-timates.

A more recent case in point is this related BCB post and its comment thread, wherein a bona fide Wrigley Field historian not only succumbs to this fallacy but compounds it (see comment # 10, "Clemente’s and Frobel’s home runs"); radically and authoritatively relocating Clemente's drive ("over the diagonal fence behind the left field bleachers" [emphasis added]), based seemingly on a typical bit of Wrigley shorthand employed in the article’s second featured quote (a retrospective eyewitness account written by blogger William Szczepanek)—specifically, "if it had been hit to center field," used in place of something less concise but more accurate. To his credit, having recently been apprised of this possible miscommunication, Szczepanek has since revised his article, leaving no doubt as to this home run's direction.

Conversely, here are three telling examples of eyewitnesses not subject to the Wrigley beat writer's dilemma, concluding with Clemente himself. Addressing a Pittsburgh audience, for whom Wrigley's scoreboard would not provide a ready frame of reference, they are free to simply tell us where the ball was hit.

Jack Hernon, in The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (5/18/59; p. 25):

The Bucs got a singleton [sic] in the eighth when Klu singled, Skinner walked and Groat singled, and a final run in the ninth when Clemente hit the ball out of the park in center field.

Les Biederman, in The Pittsburgh Press (7/7/61; p. 26):

Two years ago, Clemente hit a home run out of the park in center, close to the scoreboard, and natives in Chicago say they never saw it done before.

Roberto Clemente, speaking with Bill Nunn of The Pittsburgh Courier (6/25/60; reproduced on page 98 of the David Maraniss bio):

That remind me, I hit 565 foote hum-rum in Chicaga last year; the bol' disappear from centerfield, and Raj Hornsby tell me it longest drive he ever saw hit out of Wrigley.

Just how Clemente arrived at that figure is an interesting story in itself; more on that presently.

The View from Waveland

All that, by way of a lengthy segue to the other connection between that image and this story: namely, the source of that image, and of the greatest—if not only—news flash regarding this home run in almost 57 years. Both come to us by way of Chicago-based writer George Castle. The photo, of course, figures prominently in Baseball's Game Changers; and even if Castle's contribution to this RC-Wrigley revelation is largely inadvertent, it remains both the quintessential game-changer and—at the very least—twofold:

  1. having provided, in 1998, the first published reference to an actual landing spot for Clemente's blast (and providing another, five years later);
  2. having recently referred this writer to a possible source of first-hand knowledge regarding said spot.

In essence (notwithstanding some crucial second-hand eyewitness testimony previously relayed by Clemente himself), Castle has called to the stand our key witness—one of the last remaining 1959-vintage Wrigley ballhawks, Rich Buhrke (aka Mr. Outside).

Not yet 13 years of age on that Sunday afternoon and scarcely one month into his own rookie season, Buhrke witnessed the ball exiting Wrigley above the diagonal fence just to the left of the scoreboard (i.e. to straightaway center field), then diagonally traversing the width of Waveland Avenue before landing near the northwest corner of Waveland and Sheffield.

It took a tremendous bounce when it hit right on the corner there. And I don't know whether it was Waveland yet or Sheffield or what, but I would say it was more right on the corner of Waveland and almost hit the curb and took this gigantic bounce—back in Dave Kingman's day, we used to call them King Kong bounces—and it took a gigantic bounce and landed near the sidewalk on the other side of Sheffield and went into the gas station.

The mere fact that this ball found its way into that gas station (located directly across Sheffield Ave, just off the northeast corner, which is itself directly behind the scoreboard and thus shielded from direct access by any batted ball), not to mention the fact that Buhrke was in position to see it do so (considering that he was still at least half a block away on Waveland Avenue when the ball landed), tells us that ball had to have been deflected considerably to the right. The one readily apparent way for that to occur, consistent with Buhrke's recollection, is that the ball indeed hit—or, to be precise, short-hopped—the curb on Waveland, somewhere near the northwest corner, the resulting up-and-over carom thus accounting not merely for redirecting the ball to the gas station, but also for that "King Kong bounce."

Regarding this ball’s unheard-of escape route from Wrigley, Buhrke echoes the incredulity of his in-stadium counterparts.

Of course, I never saw a ball land there before and I’ve never seen a ball land there since.

Regarding the wind factor, and/or lack of same, Buhrke echoes Brickhouse and elaborates.

Well, the wind probably played a part in the one Kingman at least, for sure. When the wind blows out at Wrigley Field, it blows out, there's no doubt about that. They do carry. But when Clemente hit his, it was late in the second game of a doubleheader [next-to-last at-bat, in fact]. As it gets later in the day, the wind dies down. If there is a wind at all, it dies down by then.

Mantle/Clemente, Rich Buhrke/Rybarczyk:
Long Ball, Small World

Following the initial interview with Buhrke, an unrelated 2013 article by ESPN HR Tracker’s Greg Rybarczyk helped connect the dots: in it, he projects landing spots for hypothetical home runs in five current ballparks, each of which would equal the reputed distance of Mickey Mantle’s famous Griffith Stadium shot—namely, 565 feet (precisely the distance paced off by Clemente for his Wrigley Field blast). For one of his hypotheticals, Rybarczyk chooses Wrigley Field, projecting a home run hit to straightaway center field, its designated landing spot—"the northwest corner of the intersection of Waveland and Sheffield Avenues"—corresponding very closely to that specified by Buhrke (and incidentally providing, for any who still need it, yet another reminder that in the context of Wrigley Field, "just to the left-field side of the scoreboard"—as per Banks—signifies not left field, nor left center, but rather straightaway center field).

Subsequent correspondence with Rybarczyk yielded a more specific estimate; a Wrigley Field 565-footer to dead center would land within a few feet of the tree seen on the right side of this image. Depending on just how close to the corner Clemente’s ball struck the curb (impossible to say with certainty because Buhrke had a poor angle while running towards the play and was still at least half a block away), the ball likely flew between 550 and 560 feet, and did so—as per Buhrke and Brickhouse—without help from the wind.

Bojanowski to the Rescue:
Not QUITE So Long a Ball, Yet Still a quite small world

Ooops! Well, before I dig myself an even deeper hole, I should note that Mr. Rybarczyk did caution me not to expect an unrealistic degree of precision from the followup estimate he provided. Moreover, as made clear in the article published by Mike Bojanowski in response to the original version of this post, a ball to dead center—e.g. Rybarczyk's hypothetical 565-footer—would've exited Wrigley a good 15 feet or so closer to the scoreboard than did Clemente's real-world blast, as per the only two eyewitness accounts offering any estimate as to that distance—i.e. from the aforementioned blogger, Bill Szczepanek (who informed me it exited at roughly the midpoint of the diagonal fence next to the scoreboard), and in a comment posted on December 30, 2008 at Baseball Think factory (see Comment #12) by one who witnessed the game on TV:

It seemed to me that if it was hit 20 feet toward center it would have hit near the bottom of the scoreboard.

Of the two alternate curb-seeking flight paths charted in Bojanowski's article, 536 feet to dead center and 522 feet just a bit to the left, it is clearly the latter which most closely conforms to these eyewitness accounts. Thus, 520 to 525 seems a fair guesstimate, which would put RC's scoreboard flyby on a par with Dave Kingman's 4/14/76 shot to Kenmore Avenue, but—as per the Chicago Tribune and ballhawk Ken Vangeloff—perhaps a few feet shy of DK's 5/17/79 encore and definitely behind Sosa's 6/24/03 536-footer.

OTOH, as Brickhouse and Buhrke would no doubt remind us, Clemente, unlike his successors, was aided by neither wind nor PEDs. Nor, I might add, did either in that Kenmore-pounding pair ever replicate those distances in this less user-friendly direction. On top of which, if ever a "Mr. Outside" should emerge for RC's Apr 15, 1969 near replica of its more famous predecessor (see Addenda), Clemente may yet again reclaim Wrigley's all-time, undisputed distance-hitting crown.

Acknowledgments:

This article draws heavily on material I've previously posted at Baseball Reference, regarding both this home run in particular and the larger issue regarding Clemente's enormous but intermittently displayed and enormously under-reported power. To cite all the individuals, living and dead, whose observations, whether retrospective or contemporaneous, have unwittingly contributed to that effort would instantly double the length of this already unwieldy post; but whoever follows the above link will find that information in abundance.

Once again, thanks to Chicago’s own George Castle for giving me the juiciest lead I’ve encountered in 15 years of Clemente-related research (leading, dare I say, to the biggest RC scoop of the 21st century), even as he did his utmost to temper my expectations. Thanks also to Greg Rybarczyk, for both his huge inadvertent assist and his very prompt and helpful follow-up. And to Mike Bojanowski for bringing me back to earth, and better still, helping bring this most under-exposed facet of Clemente's game to the attention of a much wider audience.

But most of all, thanks to Rich Buhrke, for giving so generously of his time, and for letting this Ahab finally glimpse his Moby Dick.

I only regret that those esteemed baseball men, Hornsby, Banks, Brickhouse and Scheffing, cannot be here today to see their judgment vindicated so resoundingly.

Addendum: News Flash #2!!

Don’t look now, but having just devoted umpteen paragraphs to the all-time Wrigley preeminence of RC’s 1959 bomb, I must now reluctantly report that there is newly emerging evidence that this seemingly unique feat may have been all but duplicated not quite one decade later. And who, you may ask, is threatening to undercut my ‘scoop of the century’? Who, indeed. Who else? Read it and weep. And this (comments #37 & 38). And this (comments #48 & 49).

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