The All-Star Game’s return to Yankee Stadium in the ballpark’s final season has resurrected much of the lore of the House that Ruth Built.
Lou Gehrig’s retirement speech (“the luckiest man on the face of the earth”). Don Larsen’s perfect game in the 1956 World Series. Roger Maris’ 61st home run to break Babe Ruth’s record. All rank high among the great stories of this historic ballpark.
There is one story, though, that isn’t in the record books: a ball hit out of the cavernous stadium.
Mickey Mantle, it is said, came close with a blast off Washington Senators pitcher Pedro Ramos in May 1956. But officially no one ever hit one out.
Part of the legend of Yankee Stadium are the stories of not just one but two home runs that some say went out of the ballpark - tales with strong Washington connections.
The home runs were hit by two Washington baseball icons, Negro League great Josh Gibson of the Homestead Grays and former Washington Senators slugger Frank Howard. Those men will be honored next year, along with pitching great Walter Johnson, with statues outside Nationals Park.
We might never know whether their blasts left Yankee Stadium, but their stories should not die with the closing of the building.
Gibson is believed to have hit his in a Negro League World Series game in 1930 at Yankee Stadium between the Grays and the New York Lincoln Giants.
Eyewitnesses disagreed as to whether the ball left the park, according to Negro League historian John Holway.
“Fifty years later I talked to the only three eye-witnesses left alive, and they disagreed on just where the ball landed,” Holway wrote in his book, “Great Moments in Blackball History.”
“Grays third baseman Judy Johnson claimed that it went over the roof; however, both [Bill] Holland and [Larry] Brown, the latter with the best view in the house, said it flew off on a low line and banged against the back of the bullpen two feet from the top,” Holway wrote.
There also is debate over Howard’s blast against the Yankees in a 1970 game.
The day was overcast, and visibility was poor. Hondo hit a shot at twilight that seemed to disappear into the sky, and the debate began. The ball was ruled foul, but Yankees players like outfielder Roy White said it should have been fair and that it went out of the ballpark. The 6-foot-7, 250-pound Howard, as decent and unassuming a man as you will find in baseball, downplayed the notion that he hit a ball out of Yankee Stadium.
“As time goes on, memories seem to make those home runs go further and further,” he said, laughing.
Howard said White told him after the game he believed the shot to be a fair ball that left the park.
“I couldn’t tell,” Howard said. “A lot of people have claimed it left the ballpark. I doubt that. It would have had to travel about 700 feet for it to clear the roof. I don’t buy it. It’s beyond my imagination for a ball to go that far.”
It shouldn’t be.
If you ever saw Hondo hit one - or even if you just saw the three white seats high up in RFK Stadium that mark where some of his longest home runs landed - you know it doesn’t take much imagination at all to believe he could have knocked one out of Yankee Stadium.
As the years go by, with the House that Ruth Built just a memory, the tales of Gibson’s and Howard’s long balls at Yankee Stadium may fade.
But both men will be immortalized outside Nationals Park next year. Maybe somewhere on the plaque a sentence could note that both of these men hit home runs bigger than the House that Ruth Built - so the legend goes.
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