The Shot Heard Round The Desert

"It hits the perfect part of the bat and you don't even feel it."
     Richie Sexson

One year ago today, on April 26th, Richie Sexson launched the longest home run in Diamondbacks franchise history. The 200th of his career was an estimated 503-foot shot, half-way up the Jumbotron in centre-right field at BOB, smacking off the neck on his own image. The ball broke several cells in the screen, which for a while were displayed in the rotunda next to the World Series trophy. When Sexson's name was announced before the next game's opening pitch, an arrow pointed to the dark spot and a message flashed onto the screen. "Hit me again," it said.

Let's crank back the clock and review what I wrote the next day, in my previous incarnation: "You could tell from the crack of the bat that it was gone, but it was only when it kept on going that you realised how hard it had been hit. They showed D'backs dugout footage, and it didn't take a lip-reader to tell what Steve Finley thought; but if Bono can say "F_ck" on national TV, I think this was equally pardonable..."

To mark the anniversary of this feat, I though I'd look into the question of the longest home-run ever hit. And after extensive research (involving literally minutes spent on Google), I can now announce my definitive conclusion. I don't know. In fact, I don't think anyone does, because of the problems of measuring such things. Few long bombs touch ground at the same level as home plate, which leads inevitably to having to estimate a distance based on how far the ball "would" have travelled.

Let's start with the record distance as given in the Guinness Book of World Records: "The longest measured home run in a major league game is 193 m (634 ft) by Mickey Mantle (USA) for the New York Yankees against the Detroit Tigers at Briggs Stadium, Detroit, Michigan, USA, on September 10, 1960."

However, this figure would seem highly questionable. There's a very nice article at Baseball Almanac on the topic, which, though dating from 1996, still makes a lot of valid points about the problems of estimating distance. With regard to the above alleged record, it says, "From interviews with the surviving source of the original data, it is readily apparent once again that the ball had bounced several times before it reached the estimated distance."

Mantle has another contender. On April 17, 1953, he hit a home run estimated at 565 ft, at Washington's Griffith Stadium off Senators pitcher Chuck Stobbs. While this is one of the first "tape measure" homers, it too seems to have been exaggerated in the telling. One story calls the homer, "as much a part of baseball lore as Babe Ruth's called shot in the 1932 World Series" but then says, "In truth, there is more hard evidence for Ruth's calling his shot than for Mantle's hitting a 565-foot home run."

A piece on Slate.com, gives another slant on the whole thing: "According to three physicists who have worked independently and have written extensively on the science of baseball, the human limit for hitting a baseball at sea level, under normal temperatures and with no wind, is somewhere between 450 feet and 470 feet."

This would seem to go against the frequent claims of 500 foot-plus home runs, and it's likely true to say that both clubs and players have a self-promoting interest in...erring on the long side when it comes to estimating distance, shall we say. "Chicks dig the long ball", as a MLB slogan once said. :-) The above article, in particular, looks at a home run estimated by the Seattle club at 538 feet, and comes up with a figure of 474 feet.

There has been at least one legitimate 500-ft shot though. In Fenway Park, there is a single red seat in right field among the green bleachers, about 2/3 of the way up - it marks the landing place of the longest home run hit by Ted Williams. It's 502 ft from home plate; it may not be the longest, but proves 500 ft+ is attainable in the right conditions.

For what it's worth, the only figure I could find for the longest home run in Japanese baseball history is 532 feet by Boomer Wells, but that figure is every bit as suspect as any American one, plus I've heard suggestions that Japanese baseballs are more tightly wound than American ones, so fly further. This, along with lower quality pitching, would certainly help explain how fringe MLB players like Alex Cabrera could go to Japan and suddenly hit 50 homers in a season.

As one final piece of data, the spot on the Jumbotron where Sexson's bomb landed is 413 feet from home plate, and 82 feet about the ground. According to Robert Adair, author of The Physics of Baseball, a rule of thumb is to add 2/3 of the height to the distance from home plate. This would makes Sexson's hit around 470 feet, but I leave it to the mathematically-inclined (Ryan?), to work out whether the 503-foot estimate distance is a legitimate one.

However, the most ominous quote on the event came from opposing manager Dusty Baker: "The people here are going to enjoy watching Richie Sexson all year long." Two games later, Sexson tore the muscle off his shoulder on a checked swing from hell: he was never the same again, and the Diamondbacks were on their way to one of the worst seasons in major-league history. But 111 losses or not, it might be some time until Sexson's launch is surpassed.

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