TCS Daily

Long Shot

By Ralph Kinney Bennett - May 18, 2006 12:00 AM

You can shake a dozen glove men out of a tree, but the bat separates the men from the boys.
-- Dale Long

If you don't recognize the name of the guy who imparted that little bit of baseball wisdom, listen up. He was a journeyman among journeymen and it's been 50 years since he had his hour -- or, more precisely, his eleven days -- in which he set a Major League baseball record that rarely has been equaled and never surpassed.

When Kevin Mench of the Texas Rangers hit home runs in seven consecutive games earlier this spring (April 21-28), he got sportswriters buzzing a bit about Dale Long, who, one half century ago tomorrow, May 19, began his record-breaking eight-game streak of home runs.

The difference between Major League stars and those who are simply Major League players can be very great. For every star, there are hosts of "mere players" -- good enough to play the game at its top level and perhaps even make a career of it. Their skills and their capacity to endure, to persist and to perform are subtly, even deceptively, far beyond those of the truly outstanding high school and college athletes you may have known or seen. They may not star but they will not starve. And they will have their moments.

One such player was a strapping 6'4" left-handed first baseman named Richard Dale Long. He had labored long in the minor league vineyards before he finally caught on with the cellar-dwelling Pittsburgh Pirates in 1955. By that time he was 29 years old and had played ball for 15 teams in 11 different minor leagues.

That summer of '55 he exploited what would later be called "power alleys" in the breathtakingly long expanses of Pittsburgh's old Forbes Field, hitting 16 triples to tie Willie Mays for the National League lead. But Mays did something late that same summer that Long did not come close to matching. He hit home runs in six consecutive games, becoming the fifth member of an elite group of players to perform the record feat.

Dale Long would never be as well known as Willie Mays, but the next season, in the spring of 1956, he would match Mays' home run streak, and more. I remember it vividly, if for no other reason than that, as a Pittsburgh Pirate fan in those days, there was not a lot to cheer about.

It was a cool wet spring, typical of Western Pennsylvania. But it was a happy spring for me. I was finishing up ninth grade and looking forward to a summer of fun. And, gee, the Pittsburgh Pirates were playing pretty good ball, after four miserable years in last place.

Following the Pirates in those days was something only a Pittsburgher could appreciate. Our fabled homerun slugger, Ralph Kiner, was gone, and while fans in most other Major League cities had names to conjure with -- Mays, Mantle, Robinson, Williams -- names that resonated across the nation on the sports pages, Pittsburgh fans made do with names that barely echoed across the coal mine-laced hills to the West Virginia and Ohio borders. It was four years too early for anyone but local fans to know or care about a brooding, wiry kid with a thick Spanish accent named Roberto Clemente, or Don Hoak, Bob Friend, Vernon Law, Bob Skinner and Bill Mazeroski.

The beloved old Pirates announcer Rosey Rowswell had died in 1955. But we loved his crusty-voiced successor, Bob Prince, calling the games. Prince, as had been Rowswell, was a resolute "homer" despite year after year of embarrassing cellar-crawling performances by the Bucs. But this spring he was really excited for a change. The Pirates were 12 and 12, playing some exciting ball and attracting fans to old Forbes Field.

On Saturday, May 19, the Pirates beat the Chicago Cubs 7-4. Dale Long hit a home run, his seventh of the year. He was batting .388 and causing a little buzz from the fans.

The following day, the hot Milwaukee Braves came into Pittsburgh. They were in first place and Pittsburgh's biggest crowd in five years, 32,326, came out for the Sunday double-header. A promising Pirate pitcher named Bob Friend was on the mound in the first game. Long helped him to a 6-5 win by smashing a three-run homer in the fifth inning.

I was 55 miles away, in the Ligonier Valley, mowing the lawn by the time the second game began. The window was open and I could hear Prince on Grandma's radio in the kitchen. The formidable Warren Spahn was on the mound for the Braves when the Pirates came up in the bottom of the first. I got busy mowing until I heard the roar of the crowd on the radio. I ran to the window. Long had greeted the ace Milwaukee hurler with a two-run homer. The Bucs went on to win the game 5-0.

After a Monday lay-off, the Pirates hosted the St. Louis Cardinals at Forbes. A pretty respectable crowd of 19,316 turned out. They were disappointed by a 6-3 loss. Long's homerun in a losing cause got little notice beyond Pittsburgh. He slammed it off Cardinal hurler Herm Wehmeier, a pitcher who was considered a "jinx" to the Pirates. It was a towering shot out over right field that hit a girder in the upper deck.

St. Louis legend Stan Musial said it was the longest ball he had ever seen hit at Forbes Field. But in the press the next day the talk was of another hot ballplayer in the American League -- Mickey Mantle. Big league old-timer Frank "Home Run" Baker had predicted that the Oklahoma wonder would beat Babe Ruth's 60 homerun record for the season. Mantle already had hit 16 homers and was 10 games ahead of Ruth's record pace.

The next night, Wednesday, May 23, the Pirates beat the Cards 6-0 and Long tagged pitcher Lindy McDaniel with a shot that sailed over the Forbes wall at the 436 foot marker. It was five homers in five games. Sports writers began to notice. As the Pirates took a day off to travel to Philadelphia for a series with the Phillies, the statisticians began rummaging through their books.

Five players had hit homers in six consecutive games -- Ken Williams with the St. Louis Browns in 1922; George Kelly with the New York Giants in 1924; Lou Gehrig of the Yankees in 1931; Walker Cooper of the Giants in 1947, and Mays in 1955. (Some record books indicate that Don Hurst of the Philadelphia Phillies performed the feat in 1929 and that the homers in the six games were the only hits he got. Can anyone clear this up?)

On May 25, a Friday night, the Pirates faced Philly ace Curt Simmons at Connie Mack Stadium (the old Shibe Park -- renamed in 1953). I walked over to the Rustic Inn, a dairy bar and teen hangout near our home, to play the pinball machines that evening. Mr. Walker had a radio plugged in behind the counter and was listening to the game -- an unusual occurrence. The Pirates were down 3-2 in the fifth inning when Long came up with a man on. He whacked one out and tied the record. I remember being disappointed that the Philadelphia crowd didn't cheer more. But the Pirates went on to win 8-5.

Now the sports writers were paying attention. Smiling and gracious and a little bit stunned at what was happening, Long duly held up six fingers for photographers and in one case, posed with seven bats on his shoulder, indicating what it would take to break the record. It had been quite a week.

On Saturday, May 26, the Bucs faced the Phillies again. On the mound was a pitcher named Stu Miller, who had been traded from the St. Louis Cardinals. "Stutterball Stu" served Long a pitch in the first inning that he hit with a force that made the crowd gasp. The ball shot in what seemed a straight line out over right field, where Connie Mack had erected his infamous 32-foot-high "Spite Fence." Long's ball got about 31 feet of it, caroming back to the field for a double.

Twice more, Long caused the crowd to roar in anticipation before Philly fielders snared a line drive and ran down a fly. In the eighth inning a Philly reliever named Ben Flowers tried a knuckleball on Long. The Buc first baseman seemed to be waiting for it. This time the Spite Fence wasn't high enough. Nor the light tower behind it. The ball soared over both, reaching a house on 20th Street. Even the Philly crowd had to roar in tribute.

Lots of Pittsburghers made plans to race down the Pennsylvania Turnpike to Philadelphia to be there for the double-header the following day. I remember sitting in church on Sunday morning thinking of two things -- that Dale Long might hit two homers that afternoon and that Monday would be the last day of school. Life was good.

There must have been a fated home field symmetry to Dale Long's march into the record books. The Sunday double-header was rained out. The Pirates headed home to face the Brooklyn Dodgers on Monday night. The ball from Long's towering Saturday homer had been retrieved. The United Press reported:

"Even if Dale Long is never tapped for baseball's Hall of Fame, his latest accomplishment has been recorded in the game's shrine at Cooperstown, N.Y. The ball the Pirate first baseman hit over the right field wall of Connie Mack Stadium in Philadelphia Saturday has been sent to the Hall of Fame as a souvenir of a new major league record."

Pirate General Manager Joe L. Brown announced that Long would receive a new contract and a $2500 raise. It brought his yearly salary up to $16,500.

That Monday night, May 28, 1956, is etched in my memory. School had ended that day, Daylight Savings Time was in full bloom and ancient ritual demanded that even though it was a cloudy and relatively cool day, we boys of Rector, Pa., should go swimming until dark at Devil's Hole, our favorite "deep spot" in the rushing mountain creek a mile above our house. But what about the big game?

Did I say life was good? Our family had recently acquired a then-new and exciting piece of technology -- a transistor portable radio. It was a teal-colored plastic Philco, about the size of a big dictionary, with a convenient gold handle on top.

We sat it on some rocks beside the swimming hole, volume turned to the max, listening to a rasping Bob Prince's play-by-play. The Dodgers had the superb Carl Erskine, who had recently pitched a no-hitter, on the mound. And even before he had to walk out to the hill, Duke Snider smashed a home run, knocking in Junior Gilliam for a two-run lead in the first.

We swam and horsed around, our lips turning blue from the ice cold water. We paused only when Long came to the plate, standing shivering in our dripping trunks around the radio. Long's first time up he grounded out to second. Back to the water. Then, in the fourth inning, Long was at the plate again. The count went to one and one. Erskine fired what he later described as "a good overhand curve. Low and away."

I wish I could say I heard the "crack of the bat." I didn't. Long had poled the ball into the lower deck in right center. The only thing I remember is the roar from that Philco portable. It overwhelmed the little speaker. The plastic grill on the radio vibrated. You couldn't hear the hoarse-voiced Prince, just the long roar that reverberated across the water of Devil's Hole and through the woods. I could hear someone whooping through the open window of a cottage just down stream.

At Forbes Field Bob Skinner tried to take his place in the batter's box. The noise was deafening. Erskine and the other Dodgers and the umpires stood patiently, looking around the park. Every time Skinner tried to step in and let the game continue the roar got louder. He'd step back out with a kind of a shrug and a grin.

Finally, and this was rare in those days, Dale Long stepped out of the dugout and doffed his hat to the delirious crowd. Branch Rickey, former general manager but now an "adviser" to the club said he had never seen anything like that during a game.

The Pirates went on to win 3-2. Long got his eighth home run in the record streak and Bob Friend got his eighth victory. We walked down the dirt road from Devil's Hole in the darkness fiddling with the Philco to hear snatches of the post-game banter. But the batteries were almost worn out. We made up a little chant. "How long can Long go on? How long can Long go on?"

Well, we learned how long the next night. Don Newcombe tamed Dale Long 0 for 4 at the plate, and hit a triple to help his own cause as the Dodgers won. A couple of weeks later, Long hurt his ankle with a fouled off pitch. He slumped and the Pirates, after a heady start, slumped too. They ended the season with 66 wins and 88 losses, in seventh place, 27 games out of first. At least they didn't repeat in the cellar. The Cubs finished eighth.

Long was traded to the Cubs the next year and ended his career with the Yankees. I had so forgotten about him that I remember my surprise when he showed up with the Yankees to bat against Pittsburgh in the seventh game of the famous 1960 World Series (he got a hit).

Long had two slender shafts of limelight fall on his shoulders. In 1957, he played a couple of innings as catcher (in one of the games he used his first base glove), marking the first appearance of a left-handed catcher in the majors since 1906. In 1959 he tied a record by hitting two back-to-back pinch home runs for the Cubs.

On May 4, 1980, Chicago White Sox first baseman Mike Squires caught the final inning of an 11-0 loss to the Brewers and became the first lefthander since Long to catch in a big league game.

On July 18, 1987, Don Mattingly of the Yankees tied Long's eight-game mark with a homer against Texas.

On July 28, 1993, Ken Griffey Jr., of Seattle, joined Long and Mattingly in the exclusive eight-game club.

Before Mench's assault, Barry Bonds hit homers in seven consecutive games in April 2004. Jim Thome of the Indians hit seven in June/July 2002.

Long became a minor league umpire after his retirement from the Yankees in 1963. He was liked by fellow players and he got to do what many men dream but never do -- play for a long time as a pro in the game he loved. Once, when playing in an old-timers game at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, Long again faced Carl Erskine on the mound. Erskine threw. Long homered.

Dale Long died of cancer in Palm Coast, Fla., January 27, 1991, having seen his record tied but not broken. He had come to know both sides of the old saw that the distance from obscurity to fame is much longer than the distance from fame to obscurity. But his name still shimmers in the flickering light of his one great feat. Each time a run like Mench's or Bonds' takes place I think of him and, frankly, I always hope the now thrice-shared record holds a little longer. And I think of the roar from that old Philco on a spring night half a century ago.

Ralph Kinney Bennett is a TCS Daily Contributing Editor.


1 Comment

What a wonderfully evocative story! An eight-year-old during the summer of 1955 in Philadelphia, I was an avid Phillies fan. (Talk about not having much to cheer about.) I might even have been at Connie Mack Stadium watching one of the games described by Ralph Kinney Bennett.

Thanks, Ralph, for a trip down memory lane!

Henry Miller

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