Jim was 10 years old and at his first baseball game, the expansion Seattle Pilots vs. Howard’s Washington Senators. He never shook the moments after Howard’s first-inning swing. Then, two summers ago, while talking Pilots over beers, he and a friend realized they were both sitting in the center field bleachers that day. Jim, 62, suggested the ball flew straight out of the park. His friend estimated that it traveled more than 600 feet. So Jim decided to investigate.
He picked through newspaper accounts. He looked at old photos of Sick’s Stadium, now a Lowe’s. He scaled the distance to the center field fence, the space between the bleachers and the tall sign, the height of a ladder hanging off it — learning the gap between rungs is about one foot — to get a rough measurement.
Then he emailed me.
“I was hopeful you could put me in touch with Frank Howard,” Flinn wrote from his Seattle office, calling what he saw — or what he thinks he saw — one of the longest home runs ever.
“It’s a great story from the days before ESPN, and I can prove it all.”
But could he? How? In our first conversation and in all our conversations thereafter, that’s what I kept asking Flinn. He had measured the possible distance to a minimum 600 feet, using blown-up photos, a ruler and basic math (if the ball was rising above a 60-foot sign some 500 feet from the plate, then …). And he could recite the granular details, such as that the giveaway bat he held during the homer was branded with the name of Pilots outfielder Mike Hegan.
But without a video and with conflicting newspaper accounts, there was no way to fully discern the truth.
Still, Flinn disagreed. Or he disagreed enough to stand by his 10-year-old eyes and heart. He recognized that there isn’t a consensus on baseball’s longest home runs. In an exhibition in Tampa, way back in 1919, Babe Ruth reportedly drove a 587-foot homer in front of 43,000 fans. Mickey Mantle allegedly hit one 565 feet at Griffith Stadium in Washington on April 17, 1953. The farthest of the Statcast Era, which began in 2015, is a 505-foot blast for Nomar Mazara.
Eventually, the myths collide with quantifiable distance, with what can be discerned through algorithms and cameras that snap thousands of frames per second. That’s when fans sift through what is known and what’s not. That’s when they decide what matters more.
So here was Flinn, urging me to find Howard and others who were in Sick’s Stadium that afternoon. It was bat day. That’s how Jim and his brothers, Stephen and Dan, convinced their dad to take them. They would get a cheap toy, and their father would save money on gear for the playground. Everybody won.
Jim remembers that they were late and that Dan, the youngest, rode on his dad’s shoulders to avoid paying for a fifth ticket. But they did make it to their center field seats for the top of the first. Del Unser, the Senators’ leadoff hitter, lined out to shortstop. Ed Brinkman followed with a double, then Frank Howard walked to the plate. The box score, preserved by Baseball Reference, only lists what happened next as a homer off Gene Brabender to deep center field.
That’s the official record. The rest depends on who you ask.
Stephen Flinn, Jim’s brother who was 8 years old at the time: “The crack of the bat was so loud.”
Jim: “I remember just looking straight up at the ball, and it was probably 40 feet, 50 feet above my head.”
Norm Huletz, who was 33 and sitting behind home plate: “It just disappeared out of sight.”
Steve Whitaker, in left field for the Pilots: “Nobody moved when he hit it. It was one of those bombs.”
Jim’s friend Mike Eagle, who was 10 and in the center field bleachers: “If that ball had hit the scoreboard, it would have come back down into the stands. And I guarantee it did not come back into the stands.”
Whitaker: “It did clear everything.”
Stephen, through laughter: “And I can still see the Chevron sign it went over. There was a woman with a hula skirt or something. Kind of had this Hawaiian theme.”
Dick Bosman, a Senators starter who wasn’t pitching: “I don’t remember that one. Now I could have been in the clubhouse. Who knows?”
Jim Hannan, the Senators’ starting pitcher that day: “Truthfully, nothing registers.”
“I really couldn’t tell you whether it left the ballpark in dead-center field or whether it went in the upper part of the stands,” said Howard, now 85, his voice slow and gravelly, from his home in Northern Virginia. “It was so long ago.”
And that settled just about nothing.
The reporters didn’t help much, either. In the next morning’s Seattle Post-Intelligencer, the game story noted that Howard “drove the first pitch 420 feet into the centerfield stands.” The Seattle Times wrote that the home run went an “estimated 428 feet from home plate in the center field seats.” And in an account published across the country, the Associated Press reported: “The ball flew 426 feet into the right field bleachers, longest homer yet in the new American League team’s arena.”
“You know when you click one there’s a pretty good chance it’s going to go,” Howard recalled, adding that Brabender, who died in 1996, had a sharp sinker and hard slider. “But as to where it hit and where it ended up, I have no idea.”
Howard was a four-time all-star with the Senators and has a statue outside Nationals Park. He hit 382 career homers, and his teammates and opponents can still see many of them, soaring into orbit, as if the 6-foot-7, 255-pound Howard was able to shrink stadiums with his bat. Bosman, once Howard’s roommate, mentioned one blast Howard clocked off Tommy John at RFK Stadium in 1966, then another off Mickey Lolich that sailed clear out of Tiger Stadium in 1968. Hannan, the Senators’ starter, spent seven whole minutes recalling Howard homers in great specifics yet didn’t remember a moonshot in Seattle. Then Darold Knowles, a Senators reliever in 1969, quickly returned a call, saying, “I always have time for Frank.”
But Knowles was in Japan on May 11, serving in the Vietnam War, throwing three bullpens a week to a fellow soldier. He wasn’t at Sick’s Stadium. Jim Gosger, though, was there playing center field in one of his 39 games with the Pilots. He would have had a perfect view of Howard’s first-inning homer, a blast right over his head.
“It wasn’t a normal home run, Jess,” Gosger, 78, said from his home in Port Huron, Mich. After dozens of conversations, here was the answer that confirmed Flinn’s memory. “Oh, god. I remember like it was yesterday. . . . Diego Segui was pitching, and the ball was hit so hard to left-center field. I took one step, and the ball was in the stands.”
Yes, he was describing a home run Howard hit that sunny Mother’s Day. But it was the wrong one. I let him tell me how quickly it left the park; how Gosger told Segui he was lucky it wasn’t straight up the middle; how, if it had been, Segui would have had to peel himself off the mound and deal with a killer bruise. Then I asked Gosger about the first-inning homer off Brabender again.
“No, I don’t recall that one,” he said, knocking the question aside. “But I do remember the one he hit to left-center. My god.”
This was supposed to be about a single home run in Seattle. But it became about a war, a hit in vintage Washington, another in Detroit, the wrong homer on the right day. Memory is perspective. And memories lead to more memories, too.
Bosman told a story from 1971, from the Senators’ last night in D.C., when Howard cracked and teared up at their usual table at Fran O’Brien’s bar in Annapolis. Howard, allergic to self praise, admitted that his favorite homer was off Whitey Ford in Game 4 of the 1963 World Series. Because Jim Flinn was awed that afternoon — in the perfect place, at the perfect moment, at the perfect age — he found something indelible and, indirectly, helped others do the same.
“Things get a little bit exaggerated as time goes on, maybe,” Bosman offered. “But not in all cases. I don’t mean that at all about this home run. Honestly, there’s a lot of guys that are not here anymore. . . . So those memories, those stories, legends, whatever you want to call them, how are they going to be perpetuated unless they get written about?”
“When you see something special, it has an impact,” said Stephen Flinn, Jim’s brother. “And I can’t think of any other image from my childhood that really stands out in that way.”
That line — “when you see something special, it has an impact” — made me think back to my first baseball game, when the Phillies faced the San Francisco Giants at Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia. It was Aug. 27, 2000. I was 6, and in my earliest recollections of that day, I told myself it ended with Bobby Abreu hitting a walk-off, inside-the-park home run. But in the 20 years since, I often doubted that that was true. It seemed unrealistic. It felt too neat.
Part of me was content to never know. But unlike Jim, I had a simple way to fact-check the past. I clicked through Baseball Reference and found the game. The box score showed Abreu’s inside-the-park homer in the bottom of the 10th inning. I searched for a video to make sure it wasn’t a mistake, then found a grainy clip of Abreu rocking a fastball off the center fielder’s glove, of him sprinting around third, of him sliding into home while the crowd jumped and screamed.
“I had to know.” That’s what Jim repeated when asked why he emailed, why he collected every scrap of that day, why he felt the need to reconstruct a play from 52 years ago, a homer against a one-off team that left for Milwaukee after that season.
So after I tried to match his effort, jogging the memories of a half-dozen players, some fans, then sifting through the papers and photos myself, the last call was to him.
Did he feel any closer to knowing? Did he wish I never poked holes in his favorite childhood memory? Or was the point of all this that the memory would always outweigh the truth, whatever the truth is?
“I thought maybe one of the Senators would remember. But I’m glad there’s at least one guy from the Pilots who did,” Jim said. “Was he playing center or left?”
“He was in left,” I told him again. “The center fielder didn’t remember the home run.”
“Hm … yeah … well …” Jim continued, taking long pauses to consider that. “I know what I saw.”