The original Home Run Derby retains its power

 
Updated 7/23/2022 7:39 PM

It sounds like an old-time Cubs fan's World Series dream -- Ernie Banks squaring off against Mickey Mantle at Wrigley Field.

In this case, however, the setting is the only partially ivy-clad Wrigley Field in Los Angeles, and the two stars are facing each other on the television program Home Run Derby.

 

Home Run Derby was a short-lived syndicated program filmed in the winter of 1959 and released in 1960 -- short-lived because the host, Mark Scott, died of a heart attack in July 1960, just days after the final episode aired.

The 26 episodes, shown locally on WGN, featured the leading sluggers of the day, including Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Mantle, Banks, Al Kaline, Eddie Mathews, Gil Hodges, Harmon Killebrew, Frank Robinson and Duke Snider.

The show had a basic premise that appealed to both die-hard and casual baseball fans.

Under the rules, it was "home run or nothing." The game pitted two sluggers against each other for nine innings, with the exception of a tie. For each half inning, a batter was given three "outs," meaning anything that wasn't a home run, although a batter didn't have to swing at a pitch out of the strike zone. The winner took home $2,000 and the chance to defend his title, the loser $1,000.

If a player hit three home runs in a row, he received a $500 bonus.

Wrigley Field, former home to the Los Angeles Angels of the Pacific Coast League (PCL), was chosen for its symmetrical dimensions, which favored neither American nor National League players. It also had hitter-friendly power gaps.

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Home Run Derby was one of several offerings from Ziv Television Programs, which also syndicated such shows as "Sea Hunt" with Lloyd Bridges and "Highway Patrol" with Broderick Crawford.

The show had major league talent behind the camera. The director, Benjamin Stoloff, had directed such stars as Spencer Tracy and Lucille Ball. His previous experience also included directing a series of instructional films starring Babe Ruth in the early 1930s.

The writer of the Ruth films was Lou Breslow, who just happened to be the producer of Home Run Derby. Breslow also wrote screenplays for Laurel and Hardy and Abbott and Costello.

Announcer Scott had been the play-by-play voice for the PCL's Hollywood Stars and had also played small roles in movies and such television shows as "Dragnet."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Scott also had a stint as a big-league announcer with the Cincinnati Reds, getting the job after former Cubs announcer Bert Wilson died of heart failure.

The umpire behind the plate was Art Passarella, who was one of the umpires during the Eddie Gaedel game. Passarella had been at the center of a controversial call at first base in the 1952 World Series.

Today the black-and-white episodes of Home Run Derby retain their Eisenhower-era charm. Prefiguring the 2020 season in a weird way, the stands are empty of fans, as Scott calls the action, while one of the hitters waiting for his turn at bat sits by his side exchanging repartee.

Scott's home run call of "Goodbye" anticipates future play-by-play announcer Gary Thorne, and he isn't shy about tossing around cliches like "That would be a home run in an elevator shaft" after Banks hits a popup in his contest with Mantle.

The relaxed banter gives the viewer a chance to get to know the players, who come off as self-effacing, good sports who appreciate each other's talents.

When Scott mentions that Hodges sees "just about enough" of Banks when the Cubs play the Dodgers, Hodges replies, "I certainly do. He's usually passing me at first base. He doesn't stop there too often."

They also take the competition seriously. In his faceoff against Mays, switch hitter Mantle chooses to hit from the right side because "most all of my real long home runs have been from the right side of the plate." He also wears a batting glove on his right hand to get a better grip.

Home Run Derby survives as a precious historical document, given the virtual nonexistence of baseball telecasts from that era.

Even though he is facing a batting practice pitcher, you still get to see Banks in his prime, coming off back-to-back MVP seasons.

And of course, when Scott asks him, "If you had your choice and could make a change, what ballpark in the National League would you prefer to hit in most regularly," Banks replies, "Wrigley Field Chicago. Wind blows out."

Banks had a record of 1-2 in Home Run Derby, earning $4,500, which may not sound like a lot today. But consider the fact that Banks' salary in 1966 was $55,000.

As a TV show, Home Run Derby only survived one season, but the concept has stood the test of time and is a staple of the all-star festivities.

Still, I would like to see baseball hold a retro version of Home Run Derby, with a similar nostalgic approach to the Field of Dreams game. It would be shot in black-and-white, the stands would be empty of fans and, following each turn at bat, the players would sit beside the announcer and shoot the breeze.

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