Someone has caught a ball thrown from the top of the Washington Monument, right?
Right, Gabby Street, who was Walter Johnson's catcher at the time and later managed and broadcast in the majors, took his mitt out there one afternoon in August of 1906 and caught one, a drop of 555 feet. The escapade has been memorialized in such baseball compendiums as "Great Moments," "Great Thrills," etc.
But no one has ever caught one from a moving airplane, right? Wrong. The feat was accomplished 38 years later and the man who did it lives in Falls Church. The height? 555 feet, or as close to it as the Civil Air Patrol pilot flying a PT-17 could manage at the precise moment of the drop.
Leonard Burton, a manufacturer's representative, caught the air-to-ground missile as part of a promotional stunt at a field day in Birmingham, Ala., sponsored by a large pipe and valve corporation for which he worked at the time. It was Stockham Valve and the name is important because the company was big enough to have a weekly in-house publication in which Burton's feat became permanent record.
A lot of people have thought of catching a ball from the air ever since the Wright brother flew their pusher-type craft over the Capital almost 75 years ago. Wilbert Robinson, the storied "Uncle Robbie" who got seven hits with the Baltimore Orioles in one game in 1892, a record he still shares with Rennie Stennett of the Pirates, tried to get his name into the book with a catch from a plane at the time he was managing the Brooklyn Dodgers before World War I.
Robinson was a catcher and he figured he and his trusty mitt could handle the situation. The stunt was cooked up as publicity for a new hotel in Daytona Beach, Fla. Ruth Law, the famed aviatrix, was hired to fly the plane.
The plan was that she would drop one to Uncle Robbie, who would be standing in the middle of the ball park. Casey Stengel, one of Robinson's players, wanted to go along to drop the ball, but Law said there wasn't room for anyone but the pilot. Stengel then offered to sit on a chair on the wing but that offer was turned down.
Robinson went to his grave insisting that Stengel had somehow managed to get aboard because the ball he tried to catch turned out to be a grapefruit, and hit him in the chest. When it burst, Robinson screamed that he was dead. Later he screamed what he would do to Stengel when he caught him.
Years later, Law confessed to having been the culprit: "They were supposed to deliver a ball to me the hotel, but when it got time to take off no one had showed up from the ball club. You know the Dodgers. I asked around and one of my mechanics in the crew asked, 'How about a grapefruit.' He had one along in his lunchbox.
"I took it and when I got over the ball park I let it go, never figuring it would come even close. When I heard it had hit the manager, I stayed away from the park for the rest of the spring."
Burton's catch was made in a parking lot adjoining a ball field in Birmingham. The date was June 15, 1946 and it was the highlight of a program that included a game between Stockham and McCord Lumber. The pilot was the superintendent of the company's foundry, and the FAA had given its okay.
The game wasn't a typical picnic competition. Some pretty fair ball players have come out of the semipros in that area. Stockham sent Lum Harris up along with Hugh East, a pitcher with the Giants for a few seasons.
Burton recounted he had played Class AA ball with New Orleans in the Southern Association in 1939. The experience sticks in his mind because he hit .309 as a rookie outfielder. Another rookie outfielder hit an identical figure and he and Bob Lemon shared the $50 rookie prize for the season.
Burton came back from World War II and resumed his job with Stockham. He remembered his biggest day as a "pretty one, with lots of blue sky." The other fellows with catcher's mitts lined up with him in a kind of triangle. The plan came over and dropped the first of three balls the pilot was carrying. One of the fellows went for it and missed.
"I told them I'd try the next one, and when the plane came back I had look at the ball coming down all the way. In the last 50 feet it kind of swooped the way a knuckle ball does and I had to run and get it in the webbing of my glove. But I held on to it."