Monday, December 6, 2010

340 Feet

  Back in the late 50's when I was growing up, there was a syndicated tv show called, "Home Run Derby" hosted by announcer Ray Scott and it was filmed at the old Wrigley Field in Los Angeles.  There would be a batting practice pitcher with a bucket of new baseballs and he'd lob them into the wheelhouses of guys like Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, Eddie Mathews, Harmon Killebrew, Frank Robinson, etc.  It would take these guys about 3 pitches to get their timing down to the slower pitching but when they found their range, they would start crushing balls halfway up the light towers and Scott would announce, "she's gone".  It would always be Mantle against Mays or Orlando Cepeda against Rocky Colavito (don't knock the Rock!) and while one guy was in their swinging, Scott would interview the other.  Me and my buddies really sucked it up as we had seen games at that stadium, in person, when the Los Angeles Angels played there in the Pacific Coast league about '55 and '56.  
  Anyway, I remember the fence in left center had a sign that said 340 which meant it was 340 feet to it and a pretty short porch for a major league slugger.  I think Mantle would hit 'em way over 100 feet over the wall and the baseballs would disappear into some old tract homes sometimes bouncing real high down the asphalt in sight, hit a car, "clunk!"(our favorite) or land on a roof.  Absolute nirvana for us, Pony Leaguers.
  In 1960, I was 14 and a pretty stout young athlete (5' 5", 130 lbs) and was always testing myself for strength, speed, quickness and athletic ability against guys my age and I was way past the any average curve.  I excelled against athletes my age so I started gunning for high school records, even past that, but never forgot that 340 sign at Wrigley Field.  I wondered if I could get into one good and drive it over that 12 foot brick fence.
  One night that summer at Pony League practice, I was taking my right-handed hacks against my coach, Bernie Fitzpatrick on a field at Izaak Walton junior high. There was this huge fenced-in orange grove that ran from the right field foul line all the way west  to the street but provided a "center field", too.
I was swinging an Adirondack. "Willie Mays", 33" wooden bat and really got into one to straight away center...and it sailed deep into the orange grove, a mammoth wallop.  I thought, "God, I really hit that a long way"...Nobody could believe it except probably cocky me.  I kept thinking to myself, "I wonder if it went over 340 feet and would have gone out of Wrigley Field!" and I knew I had to know immediately.
So, I ran home, got a ball of kite string and a nail and ran back to the field in anticipation...nailed down the string at home plate, ran towards center field unraveling the kite string as straight and hopped the chain-link fence where the white ball was plopped down in soft, recently plowed brown earth like a golf ball in sand trap.  I leaned down to the ball, snapped off the string and I had my measurement.
Almost frantic, I reeled it all in and made a bee-line for my house and the wooden yard stick in the garage.  There I unraveled it, length-wise or 3 feet around two nails in the ground, and kept count in my head...when I ran out of string, I had...116 lengths or 348 feet...I did it!!  I had major league power at 14!!  Not exactly scientific data collecting but it was good enough and very significant to me.  No one would believe how far I had jacked one but I knew...and even better thoughts to ponder, how far would I be able to hit one in high school?  That is another story but I will say this: When I was 18, I played on a Los Angeles Dodger Rookie baseball team and we played the Watts All-Stars in that same Wrigley Field with 340 sign in left-center.  I would be standing in the same batter's box where they filmed "Home Run Derby"...too cool.
Before the game, I was up at the plate, taking batting practice and cracking towering home runs far over that same 340 fence and thick LA smog, hitting houses, parked cars and watching some of the balls bouncing down the street so you could see them..."a way out there and she's gone!"  I can't tell you the feeling of power and accomplishment that came over me. A couple of other teammates were hanging around the cage, getting on me a little about hitting so many, so far out of the park and I just smiled and laughed and said, "Hell, I could've hit 'em out here when I was 14, boys!" 
And you know what, friends and neighbors?  I was pretty much right!


  1. You are a great story teller Mike. Loved it.

  2. Mike, I enjoyed this. You brought back a lot of memories of playing ball when I was a kid. You do a great job recalling the confidence you had and how important baseball was in those days.