It was a very long drive from home..........
I live in San Diego, CA. That thought was in my mind, as I turned onto School Street in Ramsey, NJ. I would drive past the John Y. Dater School to a point where the baseball field would become visible at the rear of the western side of the school property. The left field line adjoins Shuart Lane along the school’s northern, rear property line. At least, that was my mind’s eye recollection. It was that way many years ago.
The building had been a high school in an earlier time, which predated my own Ramsey High attendance. I attended the “new” high school on the other side of town. The School Street school is now an elementary school, just as it had already been in my day. Over fifty years ago, I played a minor part in a baseball game here that brought my childhood fantasies about a professional baseball career to a screeching halt. The game was possibly the beginning point of another youngster’s own major league career and what could have been the starting point for a third lad’s baseball career.
We (Ramsey) played Fair Lawn, NJ that day in a non-divisional ballgame at the former high school, rather than at our own high school’s ball field. Thus, we were both “visiting” teams for some long forgotten reason. I was in my junior year. I did not start the game. I pinch hit. Ramsey lost the game. I don’t remember the score.
Home runs are occasionally hit in high school ball games, but they usually are “leg” home runs. That is, the ball has gotten past a defensive outfielder and then rolls until it either stops or is chased down. By the time the ball is retrieved and returned to the infield, the batter has triumphantly circled the bases, running all the way at full speed. The home run that I witnessed on this ball field fifty years ago was so monumental, that I came back after all this time to make sure my eyes had neither deceived me at the time nor that my memory had deceived me since.
The opposing pitcher for Fair Lawn that day was Ron Perranoski, who would go on to a noteworthy 13 year major league career, mostly with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Among the sparse spectators that day was Willard Marshall, who had been an outfielder for the then New York Giants in the 1940s. Marshall was a northern New Jersey scout for the Giants. Also, in attendance was our own team’s Clem Heller, who was to hit the longest home run I ever saw a high school ballplayer hit. Finally, accompanying me today, in spirit, was Sir Isaac Newton. Newton didn’t care a fig about this game or baseball, but would be able to explain the event of the day.
I was pleasantly surprised, as I surveyed the present scene. The school was still there, but it had been extensively remodeled. The ball field was gone. It had been replaced by a blacktop parking lot. Happily, there were no impeding structures that had been built between the former location of home plate and where Clem’s blast had landed. The distance the ball traveled could still be reasonably approximated.
Ron Perranoski, as a high school senior, was probably already throwing the ball in excess of 90 mph at times, perhaps even consistently, which was why scouts were interested in him as a prospect. Clem was a tall, rangy left-handed batter, who normally would have been strike-out fodder for the left-handed Perranoski. There aren’t many high school ballplayers, who can get around on such a hard thrower, as was Perranoski. About mid-game, however, Clem did. In baseball parlance, he got “all of it” and even pulled a Perranoski fast ball slightly to right center. The high, soaring ball left our playing area, went over a secondary area of the school yard set aside for track and field activity, and cleared an 8 foot chain link fence, that ran around the schoolyard and along School Street. On its descent, the ball plummeted through some mature, curbside maple trees at about a 30 or 35 foot height. This was definitely no “leg” home run. It was truly out of the ballpark. Clem trotted around the bases in a major league trot. The team greeted him at home, but with a peculiar, subdued jubilation. I believe we were all somewhat stunned by the magnitude of Clem’s staggering clout.
Access to the location where Clem’s ball had left the playing area was still unimpeded by any modern structures and was still measurable, even these fifty years later. The distance the ball traveled was approximately 450 feet. Given that the ball had entered the maple trees at a height of 30-35 feet on its descent, the horsehide sphere conceivably could have traveled still some more horizontal distance. That would have made Clem’s clout somewhere between 450 and 475 ft. Some shot for a high schooler. Although Willard Marshall was there that day to scout Perranoski, I would guess he took, at least, passing notice of Clem.
High school pitchers throw fastballs generally in the mph range of the high 70s or low 80s. It is rare when a player can throw a major league fastball. Such a pitcher is regularly getting 14-15 strikeouts per game. There are only seven innings (21 outs) in a high school game. That means most of the opposition is striking out. High school players are just overwhelmed by such a fastball. However, Clem was equal to the task. Let us conjecture that Perranoski threw Clem a 90 mph fastball. Clem got the sweet part of his bat on the ball. In that instant of contact, he stopped the forward motion of the ball and brought it to zero mph. Then, the ball was repelled in the opposite direction. That, according to Newton, is only possible by exerting an equal and opposite force. Further, since Clem hit the ball squarely, there were no diminishing, angular effects on the change to its momentum. In other words, the ball’s change in momentum was maxed out. The force of the ball’s momentum is calculated as the mass of the ball times its velocity (mv). By stopping and reversing its direction perfectly, the net change of momentum is not one mv, but two. That is, mv minus (-(mv) or mv + (mv) = 2mv. Since the ball’s mass hadn’t changed, the velocity of the ball coming off Clem’s bat had essentially doubled to 180 mph. That is why it traveled so far. In batting practice, I had never seen anyone, including Clem, hit a ball that far. Batting practice pitches are not thrown at 90 mph.
What was my roll in the game? To say the least, it was less than inconsequential. Late in the game, I was called on to pinch hit. I also batted left-handed. Big league scout Marshall was looking on. My big moment. I did not envisage a clout, such as Clem’s. I knew that was beyond my capability. No, a screeching liner over second would do nicely. It was not to be. I was the aforementioned, proverbial fodder for Perranoski. I dug in trying to stop my knees from shaking. He wound up and fired it past me. “Strike one” hollered the umpire. I dug in still deeper. I was in trouble. This looked real serious. Perranoski delivered the next pitch. I took a mighty swing, but before I “broke my wrists” on the swing. I heard the thump of the ball in the catcher’s mitt. Strike two. It was embarrassing. The ball was by me before my swing was completed. Down to a strike. I stepped out of the batter’s box to get my act together. I put on my best facade of cool, calm, and collected. I tried to spit, like all ballplayers would in that situation. Inside, I was panicky. My mouth was bone dry. There was no saliva. Reluctantly, I stepped back in the box. Before I knew what was happening, Perranoski had wound up and blown another pitch by me. My bat remained motionless. “Strike three” bellowed the umpire. Geez, a major league dream reduced to smithereens on three pitches. One, two, three, just like that. And to be perfectly honest, I didn’t “see” any of the pitches. I tried to salvage my embarrassment, as I returned dejectedly to our bench. I turned to the umpire as I left the batter’s box and meekly complained, “The last pitch sounded a little low.” I pictured Willard Marshall drawing a line through my name in his scouting report.
With 20/20 retrospection, I very clearly see that my fantasized major league career could never have materialized. I had no major league skills, save arguably one. Defensively, and allowing for a little bit of self-aggrandizement, I got a major league “jump” on a fly ball. I had an uncanny sense of where to position myself to haul it in and make it look easy.
However, looking back on Clem’s home run, I realize that had I been defensively positioned and playing for Fair Lawn, I could not have caught Clem’s ball in spite of my vaunted “major league” jump. Clem’s blast went over the fence, just as a real home run is supposed to do. No fielder, including a major leaguer, could have caught it. Simply stated…..
It was a very long drive from home.
Copyright © 2007 by Frank Koerner