Kiner's launch 58 years ago unforgettable

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Tom Hennen figures he'll talk for about 20 minutes in the presentation that's scheduled for Saturday at the History Center, 20 minutes that seem plainly inadequate when you consider he has waited 58 years for this moment.

It was 58 years ago tomorrow, April 22, 1950, to be precise (and this story is really all about precision and its bumbler of a sibling, imprecision) that Hennen and some buddies watched Ralph Kiner launch one of his 369 career homers out of Forbes Field.

"It was a Saturday, the second game of the first homestand that year, against Cincinnati," Hennen said yesterday as he adjusted his hearing aid, a common pastime of 89-year-olds. "We always sat in the bleachers but it was so crowded that day we went all the way to the top row.

"That was fortuitous."

From the top row of the bleachers that faced the left-field foul line, Hennen had an unobstructed view of Schenley Park, and was in fact closer to Schenley Park than he was to Kiner as the great Pirates slugger stood in against the not terribly crafty lefty Kent Peterson.

The fastball Kiner crushed cleared the left-field scoreboard by 50 feet, according to newspaper accounts of the day, and Hennen followed its entire flight to where it bounced ("10 or 15 feet into the air") on a sidewalk adjacent to a grove of trees.

"People turned to look at each other; we were astonished," Hennen said. "We were babbling."

Kiner, make no mistake, had that effect on people. My uncle used to tell this story about sitting along the third-base line in Wrigley Field when Kiner roped one toward the left-field wall. "By the time we turned our heads to see where the ball was," he'd say. "The ball was coming back out of the ivy."

Uh-huh. Need another beer Charlie?

Hennen's story is the undisputed truth, of course, but it's not unlike 100,000 others in the ready memories of baseball fans of his age and intellect. It's not something you present to the SABR folks (the Society for American Baseball Research) this coming Saturday, unless ... Well, let's just say that Hennen has seen enough baseball and read enough baseball history, from microfilm to blogs, that he's not at all uncomfortable with the suspicion that the ball Kiner hit that day 58 years ago before his naked eyes is the longest homer ever.

Ever.

"It could be," he says. "That's what we're doing Saturday. I've written it and re-written it. Now it's all written up, finally. My friend Joe Norden helped me. He'll be explaining the trajectory."

From the moment Kiner's clout kissed the sidewalk that day, Hennen figured he was one of the few people who'd seen its entire arc, and eventually resolved to pace it off one day to measure it precisely.

"Then they tore the place down and I thought, 'Oh, there goes my story.' But then last August I saw in the paper where someone had written a book about Forbes Field. There on page 123 I found a picture I'd been looking for for 57 years."

An aerial shot taken from behind the right-field wall shows the sidewalk, the grove, and most of Oakland, providing enough visual relativism for Hennen and Norden to have calculated a flight path of 570 feet.

"That's conservatively," Norden said. "I'm an educator who just likes baseball and I just helped Tom with some of the physics. We've got some power point slides to show, but I'll be turning this over to Tom. He's the star of the show. I'll just talk briefly about the myth-making associated with some of these homers."

In baseball's vast and imperfect literature, the most recognized measurement in this discussion is 565 feet, which is often transposed into 656 feet, but in either case, Mickey Mantle owns it. That homer in Washington April 17, 1953, has since been discredited and more precisely reported at 510 or 506 feet. Dave Kingman's 630 foot rocket beyond Waveland Avenue in Chicago in 1976 has since been accepted as more like 530 feet. Most of Babe Ruth's monster shots -- and Ruth hit more of these than anyone -- are often awash in hyperbole and predate reliable measurements.

Even as advanced trigonometry can determine the precise arcs necessary to quantify these distances, the discussion of the game's most prodigious bolts remains maddeningly imprecise. Just as surely as you can find someone who'll tell you that Josh Gibson once hit a ball out of Yankee Stadium (which the new testament tells us no one ever has), you can find a physicist who'll tell you a home run of more than 475 feet is simply beyond human capacity.

Academics once estimated Reggie Jackson's shot off a Tiger Stadium light tower in the 1971 All-Star Game would have traveled 630 feet unimpeded, but even that missile off Dock Ellis is sometimes attributed to a misapplied cotangent. Or something.

But what Kiner gave Hennen that day is larger than any of this. This Saturday, just like that one 58 years ago, Tom Hennen's going to be talking baseball. He'll tell this story and maybe raise some gooseflesh on his arms in his 90th year. That's what long, long homers are for.


Gene Collier can be reached at gcollier@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1283.


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