For a week, that 50th homer was proving a bit too elusive for the Tigers' Cecil Fielder, who appeared doomed to coming up one short when the curtain came down on the regular season. And then he summoned his last-ditch theatrics, dispatching Nos. 50 and 51 over the fences at Yankee Stadium. A nice season-ending touch.
There is still a belief, though, that the suspense of the last month was a bit inflated, anyway, if based only in terms of a guy hitting 50 homers. At best it could be classed as a mini-feat. No big deal. It would gain Fielder no more than one-seventeenth of a piece of baseball history. That's how many times the 50-homer thing had been done before.
In such matters there was little attendant excitement unless some fellow had a bead on Babe Ruth's impregnable 60 that was supposedly moated against all attacks until Roger Maris got himself 61 and an asterisk for playing a 162-game season against Ruth's 154-game season.
But what Fielder had going for him, in addition to those shoulders, was the romance factor. He had exploded onto the home run scene, a most unlikely fellow to target 50 homers for himself. Toronto had given him a four-year tryout, disliked his .230 average in 1988 and dismissed him. The Red Sox passed him up as a free agent.
He did sign on with the Hanshin Tigers in 1989 and give them 31 home runs, but it was always asked: How good is Japanese pitching? The question itself contained the answer, and when the Tigers took their good gamble on him this spring it was seen as an act more of desperation than of prescience.
He had gotten stuck at 49 with seven games to go. That's how long his homer wheels were spinning at the finish. To get him a couple of extra times at bat, Sparky Anderson moved him up to second in the order, an unoriginal tactic. It could have been suspected that Fielder was trying too hard in the late stages. That is not unlikely. Of his failure to hit any homers in Anaheim, the only park he missed, he had said, "My family is out there and I guess I was trying too hard." But there was no slackening of effort on Wednesday.
Of his raw power there was no doubt. His weight zoomed to 235 pounds this year and he's swatted one over the left field structure at Tiger Stadium, the third player ever to do so. The others: Harmon Killebrew and Frank Howard of the then-alive Washington Senators.
That blast did sort of earn Fielder a place among the famous home run hitters. Notable, if not quite in the class of some of the more illustrious clouts. To cite a few, beginning with Ruth's celebrated called-shot homer off Charley Root of the Cubs in that World Series setting.
Of that swat, Bill Dickey in later years told me, "Why spoil a good myth?" Ruth wasn't pointing at the center field bleachers where the ball landed, he was pointing to Root, the nasty so-and-so, who had just quick-pitched him.
In home run lore, they'll long remember those three by Ted Williams: the one in the ninth inning that beat the National League all-stars in 1941, the first ever to reach the third deck in right field in Detroit; also his 1946 feat of becoming the first to drill Rip Sewell's blooper into the stands in another all-star game; and of course that day he bowed out at Fenway Park at 42, his last game for the Red Sox. A home run in his last-ever time at bat.
With them too belongs the only homer ever hit over the center field bleachers, out of Griffith Stadium. By Mickey Mantle off Chuck Stobbs. There was talk of a wind blowing that day, a moderate one, but Clark Griffith said, "That same wind has been blowing for a hundred years and nobody else ever hit one out of there."
Perhaps Cecil Fielder could have profited from a little coaching, by Hank Greenberg, for example. Greenberg hit 40 homers in 1937 and 58 in 1938 after umpire Bill McGowan counseled him to stop overswinging. "You don't have to hit 'em 20 rows up," he told Greenberg. "It counts just the same if it clears the fence by only this much," McGowan said, holding up his thumb and index finger an inch apart.
Ralph Kiner credits Greenberg for taking the same message to him when Hank joined the Pirates in 1947. "The year before I hit 23 homers," Kiner said, "and after listening to Hank the next season I hit 51."
And always, of course, there evolved the question of who drove the ball farthest. The Babe was unchallenged until the likes of Jimmie Foxx, Lou Gehrig and Greenberg and later Mantle and Williams came along, big swatters all. Did they compare to Ruth?
That question was settled to my satisfaction one day when Walter Johnson was asked whom he believed hit the ball farthest.
"All I can say," Johnson said, "is that those balls Ruth hit got smaller quicker than anybody else's." He was putting it briefly and also relieving the mind of any uncertainty.