Monday, July 11, 2005

Blast from the past still amazes

Jackson's 1971 homer at Tiger Stadium is among the most famous in the game's history.

By Lynn Henning / The Detroit News

Visions remain. Tingles are still felt. Debates linger 34 years after the mammoth home run Reggie Jackson hit at Tiger Stadium during the 1971 All-Star Game. Some say it was the sight of a baseball rocketing on its high rise toward the heavens they most remember about a home run possibly unlike any struck during baseball's modern era. Others insist it was the sound of Jackson's 35-inch bat mashing Dock Ellis' hanging slider -- a concussive blast more like a detonation -- that initially awed 53,000 fans on a hot evening in July.

Still others wonder just how far the ball would have gone had it not crashed into a transformer at the base of Tiger Stadium's right-center-field light tower, some 95 feet above the ground, 400 feet from the plate. Either way, it remains the most electrifying moment from one of baseball's best All-Star Games.

On a night when six Hall of Fame-bound players homered, it was Jackson, the game's most dynamic -- and daring -- personality, who walloped a home run that appeared to be from another realm of baseball's tape-measure blasts.

"It has to be very close to the hardest-hit ball I've ever seen," said Al Kaline, a Tigers Hall of Famer who was on the American League roster and in the dugout when Jackson came to bat in the third inning that evening as a pinch hitter for starting pitcher Vida Blue.

"The only one I can think that might have compared was Frank Howard's homer over the left-field roof (1968 at Tiger Stadium). It was like Reggie's, more of a line drive."

Kaline testifies to two significant aspects of Jackson's blast: sound and trajectory.

"It was still going up when it hit the light tower," Kaline said. "And the ring off the bat was devastating. It was a noise you don't hear often -- almost like an aluminum bat. There was a sound when he hit it, even in a noisy ballpark, that was unbelievable."

Jackson doesn't disagree.

"I knew it was way, way out," he said a couple of weeks ago, speaking via telephone from Yankee Stadium, where he is a special adviser to the Yankees. "It was hot, really hot, that night. I hit the ball high, and I remember that the wind was blowing out (to right field)."

Jackson hit a handful of 500-foot blasts during his Minor League and Major League career. He has thoughts on how far that home run might have journeyed had it not bored like a rocket into the transformer.

"I always thought it was 550 or more," said Jackson, who had never known of the Wayne State research in the 1970s that estimated the blast at 650 feet. "That's pretty awesome, pretty unbelievable. I'll let the experts play with that one."

Jackson says the only ball he ever hit on a par with his Tiger Stadium blast was one at old Metropolitan Stadium in Minnesota. He drove it over the right-field scoreboard -- a home run that almost assuredly reached 500 feet, although it was never measured conclusively.

He hit two other monsters: one during a Class A game in Bakersfield, Calif., and another at a Double-A game in Birmingham, Ala. Each cleared the stands and streets. But he agrees, if he had to pick one epic homer from his prodigious past (21 seasons, 563 career home runs), it was the Tiger Stadium blast.

Chilling moment
Dan Ewald, then a Detroit News sportswriter and later public relations director for the Tigers, worked during the '70s with Wayne State professors on calculating how far Jackson's ball might have traveled had it not been intercepted by that transformer.

A couple of dozen hitters drove baseballs over Tiger Stadium's right-field roof after it was double-decked in 1938. Four -- Harmon Killebrew, Frank Howard, Cecil Fielder and Mark McGwire -- hit home runs over the more distant left-field edifice.

But there remains a consensus that no one hit a ball like Jackson.
The right-center field light tower sat atop one of the more distant spots in Tiger Stadium, between the 370-foot and 415-foot markers, and well away from the shorter right-field roof area cleared by most batters who drove balls out of Tiger Stadium.

"The sound, the crack, was just chilling," Ewald said. "That part I'll never forget. Killebrew, Howard, Cecil -- I'm not taking anything away from them, but none compares with the one Reggie hit.

"I saw a lot hit over the right-field roof at Tiger Stadium, and I saw a lot hit at other parks, including the three Reggie hit at the '77 World Series. But I don't recall any at any ballpark that grabbed you and gripped you as that All-Star home run. From the standpoint of an individual feat, it's hard to measure it against anything else, because there is no comparison."

Ernie Harwell, the longtime Tigers announcer who broadcast thousands of baseball games during his more than 60 years behind a microphone, says anything said about Jackson's home run and its place in history is difficult to dispute.

"It was right near the top," said Harwell, who was in the broadcast booth that night in 1971. "My feeling was, it was hit so hard, you really couldn't make a judgment. Being stopped by that transformer prevented anyone from making the ultimate measurement.

"But that ball might still be going if (the transformer) hadn't been there, because it was still rising. It was just a gigantic blast."

'Don't strike out'
Quirks and anecdotes from Jackson's '71 All-Star Game appearance add a touch more improbability to his roof shot. Jackson, playing for the A's, wasn't supposed to be on the American League roster. He made the team only after Minnesota's Tony Oliva bowed out because of injury.

Jackson had also been in, for him, a two-season slump. It pretty much ended when Earl Weaver, the AL manager, called upon him to pinch-hit for Blue in the third with one man on and the American League trailing 2-0.

Pitching for the National League (and manager Sparky Anderson, then with Cincinnati) was Ellis, a Pirates right-hander. As he stepped to the plate, Jackson remembered a ribbing he had taken a couple of days earlier from a teammate in Oakland, Sal Bando: "Don't strike out and embarrass us."

Jackson also recalls using a different bat that night -- a custom-made, 35-inch bat ordered by a Rawlings representative. Ellis got two strikes on Jackson and had him in a familiar bind for a free-swinger such as himself. The strikeout Bando had jabbed him about was one pitch from happening.

"What I did was get out of the batter's box and choke up about an inch on that bat, just to guard the plate," Jackson said. "I just wanted to get a base hit and prolong the rally. Then Dock hung a mattress ball -- a slider -- and it was like hitting a golf shot on the sweet spot, like maybe the best shot of my life."

Jackson swung with typical force, a blurring sequence of motions that would finish with his body twisted, pretzel-like, at the swing's completion. Just before his follow-through contortions, the 35-inch Rawlings ash bat crashed into Ellis' high 80-mph slider. It sounded as if an artillery round went off.

Jackson saw every inch of the ball's flight path. It was one of his trademarks, stopping for a moment in the batter's box, bat in hand, watching the ball disappear before breaking into a loping home-run gait. What he saw that night in Detroit left him and the baseball world slack-jawed.

NBC cameras were so out-of-practice in filming a home run so mighty that they picked up little of the ball's flight. What you see 34 years later is the camera locked in on Tiger Stadium's outfield regions as the ball soars, out of picture, toward Detroit's evening sky.

Play-by-play announcer Curt Gowdy seemed in disbelief. His home-run call was surprisingly low-key as the ball sailed, on a line, higher and higher until it slammed into the roof fixture. The cameras catch only a glimpse of the ball bouncing back onto the field. The man who retrieved the ball and threw it toward the infield is another Jackson recollection.

"Willie Mays," he said, "my hero growing up."

Perfect timing
What no one, Jackson included, can explain is how a baseball could have been hit so qualitatively different from other home runs, even, perhaps, one as celebrated as Mickey Mantle's 565-foot shot that sailed out of Washington's Griffith Stadium in 1953.

"I don't know what it was about that particular home run," Kaline said, adding that Jackson's hitting situation made the blast even more incredible. "Reggie had two strikes on him. I know Reggie was a different animal from most of us, but I usually cut down my swing a little bit with two strikes. For him to hit the ball that hard and hit it that far with two strikes is even more amazing.

It's just perfect timing, perfect technique. He just caught the ball on the sweet spot, and he probably hit it on the stitches. I don't know the reason for it. Sometimes, I guess, it's just like golf. You swing, you hit it just right, and everything meshes, everything clicks"