Ah, yes, the Home Run Derby. It makes me hearken back to a time when
TVs only came in black and white. When baseball was pure. When salaries
were measured in thousands, not millions. And when sluggers were …
well, quite a bit smaller.
I love a puffed-up made-for-TV event just as much as the next guy, and mad props to properly puffed-up Brewers behemoth Prince Fielder for his victory in Monday’s Derby, a win that won $665,000 for the Boys and Girls Clubs of America.
But watching the monstrosity that is the current State Farm Home Run
Derby — gotta be sure to say the sponsor’s name — kind of made me yearn
for the days of the old-school Home Run Derby.
“The old Home Run Derby?” you say.
“Yes,” I respond. “The one that so clearly inspired the modern version.”
Or haven’t you heard of the miracle of then-modern television that was Home Run Derby? Oh, are you missing out.
It was a 1960 TV series filmed at the old Wrigley Field
in Los Angeles that pitted baseball’s top sluggers against each other
in nine-inning home run contests. Clean-cut and chipper host and
producer Mark Scott provided the play-by-play commentary as all-time greats like Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks, Harmon Killebrew, Al Kaline and longtime Red Sox outfielder Jackie Jensen
swung for the fences. Each hitter got three outs (either non-homers or
called strikes) per inning and the one with the most taters at the end
of nine innings was the winner.
The current Derby is hosted by Chris Berman. Clean-cut and chipper? Not quite.
And this year’s event featured such luminaries as Brandon Inge, who came through in St. Louis with a big goose egg, Carlos Pena, who’s hitting a stellar .228 on the season, and Nelson Cruz, who I’m betting you couldn’t have picked out of a lineup before Monday’s second-place showing.
And can you imagine an ump calling strikes during the current Derby? Albert Belle would have clocked him over the head with his bat.
Like other shows of the time, the original Home Run Derby was filmed in black and white, but the white-bread, Leave it to Beaver
style went far beyond that. In the old version, while one batter was
hitting, the other would hop into the announcer’s booth with Scott and
engage in small-talk:
“Golly, Hank … Ernie sure socked that one, huh?”
“You bet, Mark. Even though it didn’t make it over the fence, it would have gone for extra bases in a real game.”
“You’re right, Hank, but it’s a home run or nothing here on Home Run Derby.”
While the other sluggers hit Monday night, Albert Pujols and Ryan Howard could both be found taking extra cuts in an underground batting cage.
And can you imagine one-on-one conversations with the current
competitors? From what I could tell of Monday’s event, Fielder got
bleeped more than Kevin Youkilis on a four-strikeout day.
Or with our luck, the “analysis” would dissolve into trash talking:
“And that one is back, back, back, back, back, back, back, back … GONE! Wow, Prince … Albert sure spanked that one.”
“Pujols #@$^&*% stinks!”
(Berman is stunned and speechless. Guess there’s a first time for everything.)
The best part? The winner of each episode on the old Derby
was the proud recipient of a check (not one of those big checks … a
real, honest-to-goodness check) for $2,000! He was also invited back
for the following week’s episode against a different opponent. The
loser received a cool $1,000. They also received bonuses for
consecutive homers: $500 for three in a row, another $500 for a fourth
and an extra $1,000 for each shot beyond four.
For these modern day All-Stars, $2,000 is a nice afternoon’s tip for
the clubhouse boy. Or on the flip side, can you imagine the Mick
walking away with a check for $665,000? Hmmm, wonder who’s buyin’ at
the bar that night.
The modern Derby is littered with sponsors: Wasn’t it just a touch
over the top for each slugger to be brought a bottle of Gatorade and a
Gatorade-emblazoned towel to cool down at the end of each round? No
sillier, I suppose, than having a couple hundred kids scuttling around
the outfield trying — often unsuccessfully — to snag the non-homers. No
tackier, I suppose, than allowing each All-Star to bring his own BP
pitcher to St. Louis to help him feel more at home in the batter’s box.
The old Derby field was as bare as the desert vista in No Country for Old Men. There was only one pitcher.
Things were different back then. In baseball, in business and in life.
The death of Mark Scott from a heart attack at the age of 45 brought
Home Run Derby to an end after just 26 episodes. But its legacy will
live on forever.
Or has it already been ruined?