Tomorrow night begins a new era of baseball in Atlanta. As the Braves prepare to play their first regular-season game at their new Cobb County home, many likely are taking time to recall the historic highlights of Atlanta baseball history. Everyone remembers the Braves’ amazing run in the 1990s, including their only World Series win while based in Atlanta (1995); Hank Aaron’s home runs (No. 715 in 1974 and No. 755 in 1976); and the first Waffle House in a major-league park (2013). What about the longest home run ever hit (1928)? That one, unsurprisingly, is a bit of a longer story, and it’s one that illuminates some fundamental questions about the way we measure one of the game’s most enduringly exciting events.
The modern age of professional baseball is defined, in significant part, by its deep accessibility to fans, to whom are available granular, even intimate data the likes of which approached the unimaginable even a few years ago. Technologies like Statcast promise to track and measure everything happening on (and sometimes off) the field, while truly advanced metrics like DRA endeavor to parse every in-game interaction and attribute outcome responsibility to relevant actors (e.g., pitchers, hitters, catchers, umpires) and factors (e.g., park, temperature).
At the touch of a screen on a device they already carry in their pockets, fans at a game can learn all sorts of information about a home run they just watched leave the field, including the speed, location and spin on the pitched ball coming in and the speed, distance and launch angle of the batted ball headed out.
For example, the longest home run in year one of the Statcast era traveled 495 feet off the bat of Kris Bryant at an angle of 33.23′ and a speed of 111.5 mph on a 95.31 mph 0-2 fastball by Rubby De La Rosa that was spinning at a rate of 2,231.23 rpm in the bottom of the fifth inning on Sept. 6, 2015, at Wrigley Field.
And Giancarlo Stanton struck back in the following season by converting an 88.89 nph first-pitch changeup from Chad Bettis into a Coors Field laser (18.26′ launch angle, 1,617 rpm) that landed in the seats 504 feet away.
While precision can generate confidence, we should pause before declaring Bryant’s blast (or Stanton’s Rocky Mountain liner) the longest homer ever. For one thing, there remain some documented reasons— omission of certain batted balls, park-to-park variances— to question the current degree of precision we ought to accord Statcast data. For another, this Mickey Mantle fan site says the Commerce Comet launched at least 10 home runs that went much farther than Bryant’s, including a 734-footer on May 22, 1963 at Yankee Stadium:
The question was never whether it was a home run or not. The question was whether this was going to be the first ball to be hit out of Yankee Stadium.
That it had the height and distance was obvious. But would it clear the façade, the decoration on the front side of the roof above the third deck in right-field? “I usually didn’t care how far the ball went so long as it was a home run. But this time I thought, ‘This ball could go out of Yankee Stadium!’”
Just as the ball was about to leave the park, it struck the façade mere inches from the top with such ferocity that it bounced all the way back to the infield. That it won the game was an afterthought. Mickey just missed making history. It was the closest a ball has ever come to going out of Yankee Stadium in a regular season game.
The question then became “How far would the ball have gone had the façade not prevented it from leaving the park?”
To answer that question, the attentive author turns our attention to the trigonometric dimension:
Using geometry, it is possible to calculate the distance with some accuracy. The principle [sic] variable is how high the ball would have gone. If we assume the ball was at its apex at the point where it struck the façade, using the Pythagorean Theorem (“In a right triangle, the square of the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides”) we can determine the distance from home plate to the point where the ball struck the façade. Then we can use calculus to calculate that the distance the ball would have traveled would have been 636 feet. However, there are a number of undetermined factors: wind velocity, spin on the ball, the speed of the pitch Mickey hit, and others. …
So how do we get 734 feet? In the example above, we assumed that the ball was at its apex when it struck the façade. However, observers were unanimous in their opinion that the ball was still rising when it hit the façade. How do we determine how high the ball would have gone? In fact, we cannot. From this point forward all numbers become guesses, estimates of how high we think the ball might have gone. A conservative estimate would be 20 feet. Those 20 feet make a major difference. They cause our calculation to go up almost 100 feet, to the 734 foot number listed above. Is 20 feet a fair estimate? Those present when the ball was hit feel that it would have gone at least that much higher, and many feel that the 20 foot number is far too low. It is all just a guess.”
While others take a more grounded view of Mantle’s May 22, 1963 power exhibition, it is undisputed that guesses and feeling comprise not-insignificant components of the life experience as we think we know it, and, therefore, of the baseball experience. Still, the Sirens’ duet beckons us to the unreachable coast of precision and confidence, and so we continue.
Video evidence helps, both as a means to an end and, often upon the conclusion that no modern means can deliver us, fully and safely, to that end, an end itself. TheSportster.com bills itself as “The World’s Most Entertaining Sports Site” (another claim for another day), and it counted down the 15 longest home runs in major league history in a list that includes, in the fifth position, a Dave Kingman shot reported at 530 feet. This home run has a few convenient attributes. It occurred at Wrigley, same as Bryant’s, and it went over the left field wall, also like Bryant’s. (It also happened on May 17, 1979, almost exactly 16 years after Mantle’s, and at a time of year the author assumed was unlikely to be too dissimilar in temperature from the early September date of Bryant’s, though some evidence suggests that might not have been the case.) The video can do a lot of work for us here. Compare Bryant’s, linked above, to Kingman’s, embedded here because it’s on YouTube and because you really can see the ball bouncing down the street outside the park:
We have neither geometry nor Statcast to support the 530-foot measurement for Kingman, but, if we can place any reliance on those two methods in other cases, surely we can trust the neighborhood kids off Waveland Avenue with their measuring tapes, right?
Of course, Bryant’s home run might’ve landed in a parcel zoned “residential,” rather than one zoned “bleacher creature,” if it wasn’t for that new video board installed early in the 2015 season, and that leads those of us not already there to the two essential and interrelated questions underpinning this entire matter: (1) What are we measuring?, and (2) How do we measure what we’re measuring? Sure, everything’s guesses and feelings, but it’s worth being a little more specific. Already mentioned are examples of answers to the second question: Statcast, geometry, anecdotal estimates. All of these are tools, and we can deploy them in isolation or combination. Deciding how to use them, though, requires an answer to the first question. Is the goal to measure the distance the ball actually traveled away from home plate or the distance it would have traveled but for some anti-long-ball impediment like a giant video board or the third seating deck in Yankee Stadium?
That question is a normative one. Should we be using our increasingly precise, if still flawed, tools to try to pinpoint the actual terminus of the ball’s flight path or its projected one? Should we regard sublime home runs as belonging to the Realm of Forms and accordingly disregard the shadow realm of publicly funded stadia, or should we content ourselves with what actually happened, the arguably imperfect result of a certainly imperfect world? Does Kingman deserve credit for those extra bounces, having landed his shot on the pavement instead of somebody’s yard? Wish there was a way to avoid the need to answer these questions?
Come with Babe Ruth to Atlanta.
Maybe it’s a crime against baseball that, in a story about home runs, it took this long to mention the name of Ruth, a man firmly attached to the very notion of the home run itself, but we have at least one more distance to travel, and it’s a distance measured not in feet, but in miles.
Ruth’s legacy stands tall in the lore of baseball history, and appropriately so, but its magnitude can obscure details about the game– many modern observers note that Ruth’s accomplishments, great as they were, came during an anticompetitive period of racial segregation in the sport– and about Ruth himself. For example, at least by modern standards, he didn’t strike out nearly as much as we might have thought, and while a famous trade ensures recollection of his eternal association with two teams, the Red Sox and Yankees, Ruth finished his major-league career with a third team, the Braves, that would make its way to Atlanta, by way of Milwaukee, 30 years after Ruth played his final major league season for them. The Braves arrived in Atlanta in 1966, but both Ruth and baseball had been there long before.
In 2017, Atlanta’s baseball community is embroiled in a rapid succession of playing venues that has local heads spinning (and at least one rolling). A century ago, though, there was little confusion in that regard, because all eyes were turned toward Ponce de Leon Ballpark, the one-time home of the Atlanta Crackers of the Class AA Southern Association and the Atlanta Black Crackers of the Negro Southern and American Leagues.
The park, located on land that now serves as a shopping center and is across from a large building recognizable to current Atlantans as the trendy Ponce City Market (and which originally was a Sears, Roebuck & Co. and later a local government office), also was situated adjacent to train tracks.
Railroads play an important role in Atlanta’s origin story and history, so it’s fitting that those tracks running next to Ponce de Leon Ballpark feature prominently in the story of the longest home run ever hit.
Details are spotty, but the consensus narrative appears to be that an offseason barnstorming tour brought Ruth to Atlanta and Ponce de Leon Ballpark for an exhibition game, possibly against the Crackers, in which Ruth struck the home run in question. Col. Bruce Hampton, Ret., the underground patron saint of modern Southern rock ‘n’ roll and a trusted informant on Atlanta history, relates the essential details of Ponce de Leon Ballpark in general and Ruth’s historic blast in particular:
Right beneath [the radio tower] is the bank where Babe Ruth hit a home run in 1928. The ball carried the bank, went to the railroad tracks, into the railroad car, and the ball traveled to Joplin, Missouri. Seven-hundred-and-fifty-two-mile home run, the longest home run ever hit.”
Aren’t you glad? Just like that, the Colonel has solved all of our home-run problems. Unimpeded flight path? Check. Readily measurable distance? Check. Precision leads to confidence, and I think we all can be confident that a home run measured in miles, rather than feet, is the longest home run ever hit. Ruthian indeed.
That’s not to say that there won’t be skeptics. For the 2016 Hardball Times Baseball Annual, David Kagan submitted a paper entitled “The Physics of the Longest Possible Homer.” Kagan, a professor in the physics department at Cal State Chico, concluded– in light of statistical probability based on historical data; the basic physical properties of batted balls (i.e., launch angle, velocity and spin); and the effects of external forces like wind– that home-run distance has an upper limit at “a bit over 500 feet in still air.” Kagan acknowledged that “a well-struck ball can gain an additional four feet or so for every mile per hour of wind speed, assuming the ball was hit in a direction to provide a tailwind,” though he speculates that modern stadium design and situation– ballparks today are taller, more enclosed, feature substantial video boards, and sometimes sit between larger surrounding buildings– serve to reduce significantly the in-park effects of wind on batted balls. Thus, he postulates, “the era of homers over 500 feet may have ended.” Giancarlo Stanton at mile-high altitude aside, the available data supports him thus far.
While regular readers of websites like this one probably support a reduction through technology and rational analysis of the human-error portions of baseball’s so-called “human element,” there’s a broader human element of the game that’s worth preserving and, in fact, that vitializes the development of that technology and that rational analysis; that made us collect worthless pieces of cardboard known as baseball cards; that compels us to attend games despite every reason not to; that puts meat on an arbitrary, if organized, activity’s bones and preserves it, such that that activity becomes a sport and a pastime enjoyed by generations. It’s the human element that really is a human mandate: that, despite all of the technology, analytical resources, and money pouring in, an inquiry into one of baseball’s most basic and essential questions comes down to people. In this special case, they are the historical giant of the game from a hundred years ago and a local shaman who preserved the story and, standing in the sacred space, recanted it for modern ears.
References & Resources
- Baseball Savant, Statcast
- Weather Underground
- Google Maps
- Alec Denton, TechGraphs, “Jason Pierre-Paul Didn’t Start the Fire: How Athletes Could Lose Control Over Their Health Data”
- Alec Denton, Aldland, “The Moral Implications of Statcast”
- Brad Johnson and Daren Willman, The Hardball Times, “The Wondrous and Withering Weather”
- Nicolas Stellini, FanGraphs, “An Exploration of the Longest Home Run of 2016”
- Alec Denton, Aldland, “Catching Fire: Heading for the exit velocity”
- Jonathan Judge, Nick Wheatley-Schaller and Sean O’Rourke, Baseball Prospectus, “Prospectus Feature: The Need for Adjusted Exit Velocity”
- Lewis Early, TheMick.com, “Mickey Mantle’s 10 Longest Home Runs”
- William J. Jenkinson, Baseball Almanac/SABR’s The Home Run Encyclopedia, “Long Distance Home Runs”
- Nick Birnie, The Sportster, “Top 15 Longest Home Runs in MLB History”
- Alec Denton, Banished to the Pen, “The Historical George Herman Ruth”
- Alec Denton, Aldland, “The political costs of a new baseball stadium”
- Tim Darnell, New Georgia Encyclopedia, “Ponce de Leon Ballpark”
- Doug Boyle, The Urban Baboon, “Ponce De Leon Park”
- David Kagan, The Hardball Times Baseball Annual 2016, “The Physics of the Longest Possible Homer”