As any regular reader of this blog knows, I often enjoy reliving my childhood. Recently, I did so again while watching Home Run Derby, a TV show that originally aired in 1959-60. When I was growing up, my family got ESPN Classic, and this budding sports nut couldn’t get enough of watching the historic moments that cycled endlessly on the channel. Reruns of Home Run Derby aired in the mornings, and I parked myself in front of the TV to watch with fascination. It was one of my first exposures to baseball history, and great fun to watch. When I saw that the show had gone onto DVD, I had to score myself a copy.
The basic format of Home Run Derby mirrored a typical baseball game in many ways. Two hitters would compete against each other to hit the most home runs in nine innings. Just like a typical game, a hitter would get three outs per inning. Any ball not hit out of the park for a home run was an out. A swing and a miss was also an out. Further increasing the challenge was the fact that the contestants had to swing at any strike. If you let a pitch go by that was in the strike zone, that was also an out. I happen to think that rule was kind of harsh, but at least it kept the game moving, right?
The games were played on supposedly neutral turf, Wrigley Field in Los Angeles, which for the majority of its life was host to a team called the Los Angeles Angels, which played in the Pacific Coast League. The PCL was the only professional baseball league in the region before major league teams started moving out west, after which it eventually became a minor league affiliate of MLB. Unlike similar contests of today, Home Run Derby games were played to an empty park. I can easily see how this might have made the contests a little dull, but fortunately, the show had a secret weapon up its sleeve.
Mark Scott, the affable host who had been an announcer for another PCL team, the Hollywood Stars. He’d also had some minor roles in TV shows. Scott was in many ways the epitome of the 50’s Everyman… a clean-cut guy in a jacket and tie that looked like he’d been pulled out from behind a picket fence. But his friendly demeanor and jokes lent some levity to the proceedings. He would also interview the player that was not up to bat in every inning, asking them a range of questions about their playing styles, what ballparks they liked to hit in, and even sometimes asking them to analyze the tendencies of their opponents. The interviews lent a casual, “shootin’ the breeze” feel to the contests, which I think is one of the best things about watching baseball. It’s a way to sit back, relax, and while away an afternoon in a world where everybody’s rushing to the next thing all the time.
The best part, though, was the players. While Home Run Derby featured some players who were stars at the time but whose achievements aren’t as well-known now, such as Wally Post and Dick Stuart, many of the players on the show would go on to become legends. You could see hints of this on the show. For instance, the biggest winner on the show was Hank Aaron, who would go on to become baseball’s career home run leader until Barry Bonds surpassed him in 2006. Mickey Mantle hit many towering shots on the show, which when accompanied by Scott’s breathless calls such as, “He sent it into orbit!” were a joy to watch. Willie Mays, Harmon Killebrew, Ernie Banks, Al Kaline, Frank Robinson, Eddie Mathews, and Duke Snider, in addition to the above sluggers, all went on to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame after appearing on the show. Seeing these hitters in their prime in a golden age of baseball was incredible. The show also had its dramatic moments, with two extra-inning contests and a few dramatic rallies. One contest even featured a hitter widening his lead with five home runs in an inning, only to see his opponent do the very same thing in his half of the inning!
Sadly, Scott died of a heart attack shortly after the first season of the show wrapped in 1960. Rather than find a replacement for him, the show’s creators scuttled it, and it ended after only 26 episodes. Home Run Derby did help spawn the annual contest of the same name that has been played during MLB’s All-Star festivities since 1985. But I would recommend it to any baseball fan or student of the game, as it showcases the timelessness of the players and the game in a pure, unadulterated way that is rarely seen today.