(UPDATE 1/3/15: Thanks to SABR member Adrian Fung, who sent me a story from the September 1988 Toronto Blue Jays program, “The Longest Throw, The Mighty Game” by Don Bell, that had additional information about Glen Gorbous’ record throw. I have now incorporated some of this material. I never would have found this without your help, Adrian, thank you.)
The earliest surviving record for the longest baseball throw was set by John Hatfield in baseball’s pre-professional era. Hatfield was born in 1847 and apparently began his baseball career in New York in 1865. In 1868 he went west to join Harry Wright’s Cincinnati Red Stockings, for whom he played left field. In his 1998 book, “Blackguards and Red Stockings,” William Ryczek wrote Johnny Hatfield “set a record by throwing a baseball 132 yards in an 1868 exhibition,” listing as his source the Henry Chadwick Scrapbooks. (For some reason, I’m guessing because they were also used to express the distances of running events in track competition, the early baseball throwing records are given in yards, even though every measurement on a baseball field is in feet.)
BaseballLibrary.com says Hatfield’s record throw came on July 9 during a field meet in Cincinnati and broke “his own record of 349 feet, done in 1865.” But the site does not list a source for that earlier record, nor does it include the event in its chronology of 1865.
Hatfield returned to New York after the 1868 season and thus was not a member of the first all-professional team, the 1869 Red Stockings. He rejoined the New York Mutuals, for whom he had played previously, and was with the team when it became part of the first professional league, the National Association, in 1871.
Hatfield is in the front row, second from the left, in this photo of the Mutuals. For some reason there has been some confusion about Hatfield’s first name. When his record was broken, a story in The New York Times referred to him as Tom Hatfield; both Bill James and Craig Wright have written about him as Jim Hatfield, and you sometimes see him referred to as Jack or Johnny. But his name was John Van Buskirk Hatfield, and he held the longest throw record for the rest of his life.
On October 15, 1872, Hatfield broke his own record when he threw a ball 400 feet 7-1/2 inches (or, as it was expressed at the time, 133 yards, 1 foot and 7-1/2 inches). It happened at the Mutuals’ home field, the Union Grounds in Brooklyn, on a day when the Mutuals were taking part in a three-team tournament involving the top professional teams, organized by William Cammeyer. The tournament had been going on for a week, and it didn’t look like gate receipts would be enough for Cammeyer to make the $4,000 he had put up in prize money. Ryczek describes what happened:
Cammeyer was showing signs of desperation, and the tournament was beginning to take on a carnival atmosphere. He put up $50 in prize money for a throwing contest. With selected players from the 3 teams [involved in the tournament] heaving the ball from center field to home plate, Johnny Hatfield broke his own record with a toss of more than 133 yards.
BaseballLibrary.com lists the six players who were involved in the contest (including Hall of Famers George Wright and Cap Anson) along with their distances and says Hatfield’s winning share of the prize money was $25.
Hatfield’s obituary in The Sporting Life in 1909 said about his record, “Hundreds of base ball players have tried to exceed that distance since, but there is no authentic record that any person has been successful and John Hatfield’s mark stands to this day.” There were, however, a number of reports that mentioned someone throwing a ball farther; what kept those from being recognized as records I cannot say.
For instance, this from a June 22, 1907, Sporting Life story touting the throwing ability of White Sox outfielder Pat Dougherty:
For a long time John Hatfield has held the record of 133 yards, 1 foot and 7-1/2 inches. Ed Crane, of New York, has an unofficial record of 135 yards [405 feet], made in 1884. Larry Twitchell is said to have beaten that by 2 feet, but no official record was ever made of it. Jimmy Ryan says that Crane threw the ball 139 yards [417 feet] at Pendleton, Ohio, but did not get an official mark for it.
UPDATE 1/5/15: Thanks to SABR member David McDonald, who alerted me to an item in the New York Times of October 18, 1884, below…
As you can see, this item makes it appear as if Crane had become the record holder…but in a few paragraphs we’ll encounter a Sporting Life story from 1890 saying Crane’s throw, despite being longer than Hatfield’s, was not recognized as the record. Hatfield continued to be the recognized record holder.
There is a claim that Hatfield’s record fell even earlier. An item in The Sporting News of April 6, 1992, about baseball skills contests the Stockton Ports of the California League were planning for that season, presents “baseball skills records certified by SABR.” The progression of the longest throw record it presents includes “1888 — Tony Mullane, Detroit Wolverines, 416 [feet] 7-3/4 [inches].” But Mullane was with Cincinnati, not Detroit, in 1888.
Court Michelson’s book, “Michelson’s Book of World Baseball Records,” also lists Mullane in the progression of the record, but puts it in 1881…which then makes sense because that was the year Mullane reached the major leagues with Detroit of the National League. But the book does not give a date for the record throw, as it does for the other five throws it lists in the progression of the record.
I have found only one other reference to Mullane making what would have been a record throw: in his obituary in The Sporting News issue of May 4, 1944. After leading with, “One of the few ambidextrous players in the majors…” the obituary later says:
Tony’s ambidexterity on the diamond was the result of a sore right arm that threatened to end his career, after he joined Detroit. The injury resulted from his efforts in a field meet, in which he was credited with throwing a ball 416 feet 7-3/4 inches.
But again, there was no date for the field meet or even a site. Mullane had played for an amateur team in Akron that year before joining Detroit in late July.
Neither the New York Times nor Chicago Daily News obituaries available on Frank Russo’s The Deadball Era website mentions Mullane ever holding the long throw record, nor does it show up in any of the other biographical material I have found on Mullane. And none of the attempts to break Hatfield’s throwing record that I have read have made any mention of Mullane.
However, SABR member Dennis VanLangen tells me the Lethbridge (Alberta) Herald of June 26, 1939, said Mullane threw a ball 416 feet at Oil City, Pennsylvania, on July 4, 1879. Mullane was playing with a semi-pro team in Oil City at the time, where one of his teammates was another future major league pitcher, Guy Hecker. I’m trying to track down someone in Oil City who could tell me if any record of this throw survives there.
The Sporting Life of June 28, 1890, said, “Ed Crane is credited with a throw of 135 yds. 1 ft. 1/2 in. [406 feet 1/2 inch], but it was made at a competition that could not give him a record. He holds the record for the longest throw of a cricket ball, 128 yds. 11 in. [384 feet 11 inches].”
That note about Crane came in a story that was headlined:
Here’s how that story read:
A dispatch from Buffalo last Tuesday brought the startling announcement that a long distance base ball record — that of long distance throwing — had at last been broken. The dispatch in question read as follows:
BUFFALO, June 24. — Harry Vaughn, the New York Players’ Club catcher, beat the record for long distance base ball throwing at the Buffalo Club’s ground yesterday. In a contest with [Orator] Jim O’Rourke for $25 he threw the sheepskin sphere [!] 134 yds. 2-1/2 in. [402 feet 2-1/2 inches]
Tim Keefe lost $5 on O’Rourke’s throw against Harry Vaughn. He bet that O’Rourke would beat Vaughn five yards. The orator’s throw was the most accurate, but Vaughn’s was the longest. It was carefully measured, and registered 134 yds. 2-1/2 in. . . .
This is an astonishing performance if correctly reported, as for many years the mark set up by Hatfield has been shot at by many of the best long-distance throwers in the profession, including Vaughn, who is at last said to have succeeded in overtopping Hatfield’s great throw. Full particulars as to the conditions under which the record was made have not yet come to hand, however, and until then judgment must be suspended. The circumstances under which the trial took place may be such as to invalidate the performance as a record, just as happened with Crane’s throws in St. Louis and Cincinnati.
I haven’t learned what the circumstances turned out to be, but apparently Vaughn’s throw was not recognized as the record, for whatever reason.
Another claim at breaking the record was chronicled in the Sporting Life of October 22, 1898, this one involving future Hall of Famer Honus Wagner, then in his first full season in the majors:
This took place in a “programme of athletic events” on October 16, staged as a “Louisville Base Ball Club benefit” that was attended by 4,000 people.
…third baseman Wagner, of the Louisville Club, made a wonderful throw, the measurers of the distance announcing that it was 134 yards 1 foot 8 inches [403 feet 8 inches], thus beating Hatfield’s throw by one yard and one-half inches. The throw was a high one.
The report said, “The starting line was far out in the right-field corner, near the fence, and the 133-yard line was near the grand stand, about ten feet behind the plate.” Several players tried to break the record before Wagner, and Wagner himself made two throws that came up short but was encouraged to try again.
With a tremendous effort “Hans” started the ball again, and it sailed up in the sky almost lost to sight.
Finally it started falling, and the crowd along the line scattered as it hit the turf just four feet and ten inches past the record line — a distance of 134 yards, one foot and eight inches. The silence was broken by a chorus of yells that could be heard as far off as Cave Hill. When Will Douglas, the well-known sporting writer, George Decker and another gentleman who acted as judges, took the exact measurements and gave out the figures old “Hans” who, meanwhile, had come in from the field, was surrounded by his admiring friends and fellow-players and nearly had his hands wrung off. It will be many a day before such another tremendous throw will be made or anything like it.
Each of the players received $60.40 from the benefit game, but it doesn’t appear any particular prize was given for the longest throw. Again, why this was not recognized as the record, I haven’t determined.
Before we prepare to leave John Hatfield behind, I should point out that a note in the Sporting Life of January 9, 1904, said Hatfield was a “prosperous bookmaker” who was suing his actress wife for divorce on grounds of desertion.
Hatfield’s record finally fell, officially, the year after his death to a man named Sheldon Lejeune, who is listed as Larry LeJeune on Baseball-Reference.com but apparently was rarely known as Larry, and every instance of his last name in print that I’ve seen has had a lower case j. (UPDATE 7/16/13: I got a message via Facebook a few days ago from Bill Pappas: “Sheldon Lejeune was my great uncle. He used the name Larry because the family looked down on sports as a career.”)
Lejeune thought he had broken Hatfield’s throwing record in 1907, when as a first-year minor leaguer he took part in the Cincinnati field day, known as “Bowler’s Day” (on September 10 according to BaseballLibrary.com, September 11 according to The Sporting Life). Here’s the story as told in the October 5, 1907, Sporting Life:
In the competition Lejeune was given credit for throwing only 133 yards 10 3/4 inches [399 feet 10-3/4 inches, less than two feet short of Hatfield’s record]. That the Chicago player [Lejeune was from Chicago] did set a new record is confirmed in the Cincinnati “Times-Star” by A.L. Brodbeck and Morris Longenecker, who were among the officials at the base ball field day. They have been doing some figuring since the event and have concluded that Lejeune’s throw surpassed Hatfield’s.
The next part of the clipping is damaged in the digital copy in the LA84 Foundation archives, so some of the details are lost, but “a faulty system of measuring” was blamed for the mismeasurement. Apparently it had to do with the gridiron that had been laid out on the field, Lejeune’s throw landed outside the gridiron…it goes on from there, I genuinely don’t understand the explanation. But fortunately for him, Lejeune wound up smashing the record three years later.
The Sporting Life of September 21, 1907, said the throws on Bowlers’ Day were made “across the wind from extreme right field toward Bleacherville in left” at the Palace of the Fans. Lejeune’s prize for winning was $100 and a gold medal.
Lejeune was 24 years old, a fourth-year minor leaguer playing for Evansville in the Central League, when he broke the mark at a field day in Cincinnati on October 9, 1910.
The field day involved members of the Cincinnati and Pittsburgh teams of the National League, but Lejeune was pitted in a “special match” against “Escar Fandree of Springfield,” about whom I have learned nothing else. (UPDATE 7/20/13: “Escar Fandree”‘s first name was probably Oscar, and his last name may have been spelled Faudree. It appears as both Fandree and Faudree in a very brief item in The Sporting Life of Sept. 24, 1910, under the headline, “A NEW RECORD? Allegation That an Amateur Has Surpassed Hatfield’s Throw.” That item said Fandree/Faudree, identified as “a draftsman by trade,” had thrown a ball 408 feet “at a picnic given on April 16 by the employees of the James Leffel Company, at Tecumseh Park.” Oscar F. also claimed to have thrown a ball 411 feet two years earlier.)
BaseballLibrary.com says Lejeune first broke the record with a throw of 401 feet 4-1/2 inches, then stretched it out to 426 feet 6-1/4 inches on his fourth throw. The account of the event in The Sporting Life said “city surveyors did the surveying, so the new records can not be questioned.”
(ADDED 7/20/13: Ken Smith, then a baseball writer for the New York Daily Mirror newspaper, wrote an article called “Baseball’s Greatest Arms” for Street and Smith’s 1955 Baseball Yearbook. There he wrote Lejeune’s first two throws on his record-breaking day were against the wind, after which the referee of the event gave him permission to throw “in the opposite direction with the benefit of a fair wind,” with the result being his two throws that broke Hatfield’s record. But the report on the event in The Sporting Life said, “Aside from a slight breeze, which just stirred the leaves on the trees, there was no wind blowing.”)
By the way, the other field day events that day were: beating out a bunt (time); fungo hitting (distance); circling the bases (time); catcher’s accurate throwing; pitcher’s control contest; outfielder’s accurate throwing; and 100-yard dash.
Lejeune’s obituary in The Sporting News in 1952 said the record was 426 feet 9-1/2 inches; the obituary has several other facts muddled, but I have seen the longer distance used in stories written while Lejeune was still alive, and every reference to Lejeune’s record written since his death says 426′ 9-1/2″ rather than 426′ 6-1/4″. I’ve not found a story that says the initially-reported distance was later officially revised upward; I don’t know why the longer distance became the one cited.
I haven’t made any attempt to do a thorough biography of Lejeune, but he seemed to have a life prone to unusual events. Just a cursory search turned up the following (dates are date of publication in The Sporting Life except as noted):
December 3, 1910: “Sheldon Lejeune, drafted by Brooklyn from Evansville, says he does not like the terms of the Brooklyn management, and that he will probably not play league ball next year. Lejeune now runs a saloon on Locust street, Evansville, Ind.”
April 1, 1911: (New York Times) In spring training with Brooklyn, Lejeune was injured when he was thrown from a car that collided with a street car in Knoxville, Tenn. Lejeune landed on his face on the pavement and suffered a badly bruised knee and cuts on his forehead
December 2, 1911: “Outfielder Sheldon Lejeune, holder of the world’s throwing record, last season with the Chattanooga team, proposed to retire from base ball. Lejeune was recently bequeathed a considerable estate in Belgium by a third cousin and, although it is at present in litigation, the outlook is that he will receive a considerable annuity from the estate which was left to himself, a brother and a sister.”
February 3, 1912: “Sheldon Lejeune, the former Brooklyn outfielder [six games in 1911] and holder of the world’s long-distance throwing record, underwent an operation at Chattanooga, Tenn., on January 27 for hernia. It was entirely successful. Lejeune injured himself a short time ago while bowling in a tournament.”
Lejeune’s Sporting News obituary in 1952 offered no information about what he wound up doing after his baseball career ended.
Like John Hatfield, Sheldon Lejeune died without seeing his record broken. And as was the case when Hatfield died, a new record holder emerged shortly after Lejeune’s death. But the new record didn’t earn a significant amount of attention — in fact, it doesn’t seem to have been even noticed until weeks later — and it lasted less than five months.
For a number of years the Helms Athletic Foundation of Los Angeles sponsored a field games competition for college baseball teams; I’m hoping to find more details about the history of the event. Events included throwing for distance, fungo hitting for distance, and circling the bases for speed. Apparently the participating teams competed on their own campuses and then submitted the results to the Helms office, after which the winners were announced.
On April 24, 1952 (three days after Lejeune’s death in Michigan), as part of this competition, University of Arizona shortstop Hugh McMullan threw a ball 427 feet 1/4-inch, breaking Lejeune’s then-41-year-old record. The first mention I have found of this feat came in a column by Arnott Duncan in the Arizona Republic newspaper of Phoenix on May 17; McMullan, referred to as “Mack McMullan” in the column (and nowhere else I have found), was a graduate of Phoenix’s North High School. Helms announced McMullan as the winner of the competition on July 9, saying he would win a “special award” for breaking the record and naming him as one of 12 U.S. players who would compete against an Australian team later that summer. (I have not found anything about the results of that competition.) McMullan’s feat does not seem to have attracted any significant national attention.
McMullan had a distinguished college baseball career, setting Arizona single-season and career records for stolen bases that would hold up for more than 20 years until they were broken by future major leaguer Dave Stegman. He switched to pitching in his second varsity season, 1953, and had the unusual distinction of leading the Wildcats in both ERA and stolen bases that year. In 1954 McMullan was the team’s co-leader in home runs and helped UA earn its first-ever College World Series berth. He went on to have a brief career as a minor league pitcher.
McMullan apparently still holds the longest throw record in two categories: longest throw by an amateur and longest throw by a college player. A Tucson (Ariz.) Daily Citizen story of May 27, 1952 says the previous amateur record had been set by Thomas Geegan of Sydney, Australia (425 feet 10 inches in 1948), and the previous collegiate record was set by Ray Tran of Saint Mary’s College in Moraga, Calif. (411 feet 6 inches in 1939; Tran went on to play more than 1,200 games in the minors)
(One of the previous winners of the college field games longest throw contest, in 1946, was University of Pennsylvania catcher Chuck Bednarik, who went on to be honored in both the Pro Football and College Football Halls of Fame. Bednarik’s throw of 403 feet 8-3/8 inches was described as “among the best six in baseball history.”)
When Hugh McMullan’s record was broken, wire service accounts didn’t even mention him as the record holder, instead saying the old record was Lejeune’s.
On September 7, 1952, 29-year-old Don Grate unleashed a throw of 434 feet 1 inch at Engel Stadium in Chattanooga, where Grate played for the Chattanooga Lookouts. Grate was an exceptional athlete whose story is very well told by Steven P. Gietschier on the website of the Greenfield Historical Society from his hometown of Greenfield, Ohio. (To the extent some information in this blog post differs from that site, I have sources to support the changes.)
A three-sport star in high school, Grate went to Ohio State to play basketball. He was team captain as a sophomore in 1943-44 (the first sophomore ever to be a Buckeye captain), was selected for the 1944 U.S. Olympic team (although the 1944 Olympics weren’t held due to the war), then returned to Columbus for his junior season. In both his seasons the Buckeyes reached the semifinals of the NCAA tournament (which in those days had only eight teams participating), and Grate made second team All-America as a forward both years.
Grate also played three seasons of baseball at OSU, and after his junior season in 1945 he signed with the Phillies. (Although he left school before earning his degree, he returned to Ohio State to take courses after the baseball seasons and earned a degree in education in 1949.)
His pro career got off to a rocky start; after signing he went straight to the big leagues and gave up six runs in one-and-a-third innings in his debut start July 6 against the Cubs. He would soon be sent to Utica of the Eastern League, where he posted a 2.23 ERA and struck out 87 men in 93 innings to help the Blue Sox win the pennant. (His manager at Utica was Eddie Sawyer, who would go on to manage the Phils to the 1950 National League championship, and his Blue Sox teammates included future “Whiz Kids” Richie Ashburn and Granny Hamner.)
Grate married an Ohio State classmate on September 1, and the next day Utica fans took up a collection for the newlyweds and gave them $281.37 (according to The Sporting News of September 13, 1945). In his final appearance of the season for Utica, he pitched 14-1/3 innings in a loss to Albany that knocked the Blue Sox out of the playoffs.
Grate returned to the Phillies late in the season and pitched in a total of four major league games in 1945, two of them starts. Sent back to the Utica for the full 1946 season, he went 14-8 for a team that finished 21 games under .500. He also pitched another eight innings for the Phillies and picked up his only major league victory, but Grate never returned to the big leagues. He thought his arm was never the same after a late-season injury.
“I took only five warm-up pitches one day before Manager Ben Chapman waved me to the mound in the Polo Grounds in September,” Grate told Shirley Povich in an article that appeared in The Sporting News in 1952, “and something snapped in my arm on the first pitch I made.” (Yet, if Grate’s memory about the game being at the Polo Grounds is accurate, he went on to pitch five very effective innings, allowing just two hits and one run. The only one of the seven major league games he played in that was at the Polo Grounds was on September 28, 1946, his last major league appearance.)
Here’s the way Grate told the story more than 50 years later, in a 2006 story by Kevin Czerwinski on MinorLeagueBaseball.com: “I was a straight overhand pitcher but my manager, at one point, came out to the mound and told me to side-arm the next one. He said throw it like Ewell Blackwell did. So I did and something snapped in my shoulder.”
After the 1946 baseball season, Grate signed with Chicago of the new professional Basketball Association of America. He did not wind up playing with the Stags during the season, but he did play 11 games for the Indianapolis Kautskys (thanks for fixing that for me, Phil Lowry) of the National Basketball League in 1947-48. After he was released by Indianapolis in December he played for the Columbus Mariners (a member of the All-American Professional Basketball League, then in its only season of existence) and later took the Kautskys to court, saying he was still owed $3,161.49 under his contract. His pro basketball career concluded with two games for Sheboygan of the National Basketball Association (formed by the merger of the BAA and NBL) in 1949-50.
But baseball remained Grate’s primary sport. He opened the 1947 season at Memphis in the Southern Association, a step above Utica. He threw a 12-inning complete game to defeat Mobile, 3-2, in the season opener, but lost his next four games and went back to Utica for the rest of the season (and helped the Blue Sox win another pennant), then the Phils gave up on him and sold him to Louisville after the season. After that he spent some years bouncing around: Louisville and Milwaukee in 1948, Dallas and Milwaukee in 1949, Hartford (back in the Eastern League) in 1950.
After the 1950 season Grate took up high school teaching and coaching. He got a job at Brown High School in Kilbourne, Ohio, and a note in The Sporting News issue of January 3, 1951, said his basketball team was off to a 9-0 start with an average margin of victory of 17 points.
Grate was drafted from Hartford by Dallas after the 1950 season but refused to report and filed his voluntary retirement. He changed his mind when he was acquired by Chattanooga, and that move changed his baseball career. “Our hitting was so poor I thought I might help the club more if I played the outfield,” Grate told Povich in 1952. (Grate had played center field and shortstop when not pitching at Ohio State and was one of the team’s top hitters.) “I asked [manager] Jack Onslow for a chance to go out there.”
Grate’s recollection in that 1952 interview was that he hit inside-the-park homers his first two times up and was from then on an outfielder. I found a story in the Baton Rouge (La.) State-Times of July 11, 1951 mentioning Grate hit two inside-the-park homers the previous night in a 15-7 loss to Memphis. He finished the year with a .330 batting average in 221 at-bats, leaving the team just before the end of the season to start a new teaching and coaching job near Columbus.
Grate’s performance earned him a trip to spring training with the Washington Senators in 1952 (hence the story by Povich), but he was returned to Chattanooga after being “handicapped by a bone bruise that affected his batting grip,” according to The Sporting News.
It was a good season for the Lookouts, who won the Southern Association pennant for the first time in 13 years under 27-year-old manager Cal Ermer, who later managed the Minnesota Twins. Grate was a regular for the full season for the first time in his career and batted .295.
And on September 7, before the final game of the season, he made history at Joe Engel Stadium, throwing a ball 434 feet, 1 inch in a pregame exhibition. Here’s the way Grate told the story of that throw in 2006: “Our park in Chattanooga was 525 feet to center field. So, I got on the bank out there, took three steps and threw three balls. I finally threw one 434 feet. It hit on top of the dugout, bounced into the last row of the stands and into the parking lot.”
Notice the TSN account of the throw confirms the record toss hit the top of the dugout, but says he made 12 throws, although it does not mention which of the throws was the longest.
(By the way, both the Gietschier and Czerwinski articles describe some throwing feats earlier in 1952. Since the accounts vary and I haven’t found other sources, I’m not including them here, but click on the links if you want to know more.)
Grate was back in Ohio the following winter; according to an item in the February 4, 1953, Sporting News, he was coaching high school basketball in Westerville, Ohio. He returned to Chattanooga in 1953 and may have gotten into the restaurant business in addition to playing ball…at least that’s the impression I get from this note in the August 26, 1953, Sporting News: “Mrs. Don Grate, wife of the Chattanooga outfielder, has found a novel way to pick up pin money, taking a $5 bill out of the cash register of her husband’s steak house after every game in which Don goes hitless.”
I don’t think Mrs. G grabbed a whole lot of fivers that summer, as Don hit .295 again. And along the way he extended his throwing record, with a heave of 443 feet 3-1/2 inches before a doubleheader against Little Rock at Engel Stadium on August 23. Allan Morris, writing about the event in The Sporting News, said Grate got a running start, adding, “The record-smashing heave was the last of five throws made by Grate from the center-field flagpole toward home plate.” Grate went on to play both games of the doubleheader.
By this time Chattanooga was home for the Grates; an item in the September 2, 1953, Sporting News said Grate had accepted a job as basketball coach at Notre Dame prep school in Chattanooga for the coming winter. And he spent the next two summers with the Lookouts, batting .301 in 1954 and .295 in 1955.
Grate was bumped up to Class AAA for the first time in seven years in 1956, going to the Senators’ affiliate at Louisville. Early in the season he was traded to American Association rival Minneapolis, and it was as a Miller than he would achieve his longest throw ever. But first there would be a challenge to his record.
Rocky Colavito established himself as one of the top power-hitting prospects in the minor leagues by hitting 96 home runs over three seasons, 1953-55. After getting a cup of coffee with Cleveland at the end of the 1955 season, he made the team out of spring training as a 22-year-old in 1956 and got a shot as the starting right fielder a week into the season.
It was an inauspicious start for the highly-touted rookie, who got only 5 hits in his first 43 at-bats. Things had to get better, and did, but Colavito didn’t pull his average above .200 until early June and was hitting .215 when the Indians decided to send him back to the minors, to San Diego, to get straightened out.
Colavito tore up the Pacific Coast League, batting .368 with 12 homers and 32 RBI in 35 games before going back to Cleveland in late July. He batted .295 the rest of the way, with 16 homers in 64 games, and went on to have an outstanding career.
But while Rocky’s bat was ablaze from the moment he reached the West Coast, his right arm received most of the attention. On June 26, the day after Colavito’s first game in San Diego, the front sports page of the San Diego Union featured a large picture of him, with new teammate Bob Usher alongside gazing admiringly (shown at right). “Just watching him throw makes my arm hurt,” Usher told Union sports editor Jack Murphy.
“Nobody in the majors has an arm as strong as Colavito’s,” said Padre catcher Joe Astroth told Murphy. (Astroth had spent the previous seven seasons in the big leagues.) “Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, Carl Furillo and Jimmy Piersall get the ball away quicker, but they can’t match Rocky for power.”
The next day a small item appeared on the Union’s front sports page, under the headline “COLAVITO EYES RECORD THROW,” announcing he would make the attempt that Sunday, July 1. Here’s part of the item:
Colavito, touted as the strongest throwing outfielder in baseball, will attempt to throw a ball 460 feet — the measured distance between the left and right-field foul poles.
On June 29 the Padres took out an ad in the Union sports section to hype the event. The headline was “KINER’S LINERS by Ralph Kiner.” Kiner had played with Cleveland in 1955; Colavito joined the team in September and made his first major league appearance in the game in which Kiner hit his last home run. Kiner retired as a player after the season to become general manager of the Padres.
Here’s part of what he had to say:
Great throwing arms are scarcer than Padre home runs, but I believe we have the greatest throwing arm in the history of baseball on our Padre club. The owner of this fantastic arm is Rocco (Rocky) Colavito. Rocky can’t explain why his arm is so much stronger than that of the average baseball player, and neither can anyone else in baseball. I do know that his arm is unquestionably the strongest I have ever seen, and I have had the pleasure of seeing the best in the world in recent years….I have never seen him lose a bet on his throwing ability.
The photo and cutline above appear in a book called “Baseball in San Diego: From the Padres to Petco.” The photo is a cropped version of one that dominated the front sports page of the San Diego Union on July 2, the day after Colavito’s record attempt. Here’s the way it was described in the Union (in an unsigned item that was no doubt written by Phil Collier, the Padres beat writer who wrote that day’s game story):
Hampered by a crosswind, Colavito made the first two throws from the left field foul pole to the right field foul pole, his longest effort going 415 feet 7 inches.
Moving behind home plate to take advantage of the faint breeze, the Cleveland optionee pegged his last three throws over the low center field barrier, 426 feet away.
The 435 foot 10 inch throw landed in the enclosure behind the fence and struck the scoreboard on the first bounce.
There was no reference in the Union to an unmeasurable throw landing on the batting cage, as mentioned in the book cutline above. Colavito hit a home run in each game of the Padres’ doubleheader against the San Francisco Seals that day; the throwing exhibition came before the games, not between games as the above cutline states.
But while Grate still held the record, he would extend it one more time: on August 27, 1956, his 33rd birthday, as part of the Millers’ appreciation night activities. (When I first posted this item I referred to “fan appreciation” night, but that’s not what it was. It was Millers Appreciation Night, with gifts given to each of the players…gifts I list in this post.)
The Millers were playing their first season outside of Minneapolis; their new home was the brand-new Metropolitan Stadium in suburban Bloomington, a ballpark that was built to try to lure a major league franchise, then was expanded when that effort attracted the Washington Senators to become the Minnesota Twins in 1961.
Grate’s throwing exhibition was just one of the attactions that night, according to the Minneapolis Tribune: “Gil Coan, with a 20-yard handicap, won his 80-yard race with a horse….Because of motor trouble, the helicopter did not drop the baseball from 600 feet to catcher Vern Rapp.”
More than 10,000 people were on hand to see Grate throw a ball 445 feet 1 inch, throwing from the center field fence toward home plate. The account at left that appeared in The Sporting News was written by Minneapolis sportswriter Halsey Hall, who had served as emcee for the night’s festivities. “Grate made five throws before cracking his old record…A gate in the wire center field fence was opened to give him running space. The fence is 405 feet from the plate. Grate took a six-step run each time. His record throw landed in the gof bag of trick shot expert Chuck Lewis which rested on the ground just in front of the box seats.”
Here’s how Grate recalled it in 2006: “The ball I threw in Minnesota hit on the backstop [behind home plate] so they just measured to the backstop, which was 445-1. The ball should have gone further, and that ball should go into the record books.” That could jibe with the description written by Hall, if the golf bag was in front of the backstop and the ball went into the bag above ground level, but the throw was measured only to the bag, Grate would have been cheated out of a little extra distance the ball would have covered before hitting the ground. I wish Hall’s description had been a little more specific, but the golf bag situation wasn’t even mentioned in the following morning’s Tribune (although Chuck Lewis did get a mention).
(Above headline and photo from the Minneapolis Tribune…I know the image quality isn’t great, but it’s scanned from a microfilm photocopy.)
Grate’s record was toppled the following year by Glen Gorbous, a 27-year-old outfielder who was playing in the same league as Grate with the Omaha Cardinals of the American Association. Gorbous grew up playing baseball and hockey in Drumheller, Alberta, northeast of Calgary. He moved to Vulcan, about 100 miles south, at age 16 when his father opened a furniture store there. Gorbous developed his arm strength at a young age; in a 1988 interview, he credited “this solitary thing I used to do, usually when there was nobody to play catch with. I would throw old baseballs, heavy and scuffed with the seams ripped off, up in the air for hours and catch them when they came down — higher and higher each time. They almost seemed to get lost in the clouds. I just forgot about everything else.”
After graduating from high school in 1948, Gorbous went to a Dodger tryout camp in Calgary and earned a contract for the following season. He topped the .300 mark in four of his first five minor league seasons, then after hitting .283 with 16 homers at Fort Worth in 1954 he was drafted by the Reds and made the major league team the next year.
His major league career was not long or terribly successful. Traded to Philadelphia at the end of April 1955, he hit .237 in 91 games with the Phillies. He played only a handful of major league games in the next two years before the Phils traded him to St. Louis in 1957. The Cardinals assigned him to Omaha, where he played for Johnny Keane. Gorbous still couldn’t get his bat going, and by late summer Keane was working to teach him how to pitch, as Gorbous thought that might be his best chance of getting back to the majors.
Gorbous didn’t mind showing off his throwing arm. From Don Bell’s 1988 story in the Toronto Blue Jays program:
As a prank and to amuse his teammates, Gorbous says he used to take aim at the Omaha ballpark’s distant floodlights and knock out the bulbs. “It was costing a fortune to replace the lights. So management came up with a scheme which, they hoped, would bring some people into the park and provide a constructive outlet for this uncontrollable urge I had to grab a baseball and — pling! — throw it at just about anything….
“I didn’t give it much thought at first. But when the sum of $200 was mentioned for a few minutes’ work, I became convinced it was a wonderful idea and I’d give it a shot.”
Exactly when the team settled on the idea of having Gorbous try to break Grate’s throwing record is unknown; the first mention of it in the Omaha World-Herald was on August 1, in advance of the attempt that night before the Cardinals’ game against Louisville at Omaha’s Memorial Stadium (later known as Rosenblatt Stadium). But apparently Gorbous had enough advance notice to prepare himself. From the 1988 story:
He went into training, warming up with the catchers before each game…He began thinking about the techniques of throwing for distance. He would hold the ball over the top with fingers on the cross-seams to create a vacuum when it was released. A teammate, Whitey Ries, had thrown a javelin in high school and advised him to take a good run, rear back and throw with an overhand motion as if he was throwing a javelin or spear.
Several elements of the account of Gorbous’ record throw in the 1988 story differ from what was reported at the time in the Omaha newspaper (shown at left); given a choice between memories 30 years after the fact and a contemporaneous account, I’ll go with the newspaper. But both accounts agree that Gorbous was allowed a running start on his throws and that it took a few tries before he broke the record. In 1988 Gorbous said he got advice from Ries after his initial attempts fell short, with Ries telling him to throw the ball higher; after all, Gorbous didn’t need to get the ball to its destination as fast as possible to throw out a baserunner, he was trying to throw it as far as possible. And on his fourth try, Gorbous broke Grate’s record by nine inches, with a throw measured at 445 feet 10 inches. No one has had a throw measured that long since; in fact, I have not found evidence that anyone has ever formally tried.
Gorbous’ record seems to have gotten no national attention. I have not been able to find any reference to the record even in The Sporting News at the time, although it was mentioned in a small write-up in TSN’s 1958 Baseball Guide. “It was something which I just did and then forgot about,” Gorbous said in 1988. “It didn’t seem important at the time. If I remember correctly, I collected the 200 bucks and blew it buying the boys a few rounds of beer after the game.”
In Robert K. Adair’s classic book “The Physics of Baseball,” he estimated Gorbous “must have thrown the ball with an initial velocity of 115 mph” in setting the record. Adair wrote that estimate was based on the assumption that “he threw on a hot day with a 5-mph following breeze at the Omaha altitude of 1040 feet.” I haven’t checked on the Omaha weather that night (remind me to do that); the World-Herald story says the wind was only 3 mph, meaning Adair’s estimate could be low. (UPDATE 1/3/15: Okay, I finally checked on this…and it was indeed a very hot day. According to the weather statistics in the next day’s Omaha World-Herald, the August 1 high temperature was 98, four degrees short of the record for the date, and the relative humidity at 6 p.m., about two hours before Gorbous’ throw, was 42 percent; the World-Herald game story described the night as “horribly muggy.”)
Omaha is at an altitude about 200 feet higher than Bloomington, Minnesota, where Grate’s longest throw occurred. I’m no scientist, so I can’t do the calculations, but the difference means Grate’s throw, although nine inches shorter, may have been the more impressive feat. (For that matter, Colavito’s throw at sea level, in a ballpark on the shore of San Diego Bay, may have been even more impressive.)
Gorbous did not play in the game the night of his record throw. “Oh, my arm hurt,” he said in 1988, “Next morning I couldn’t even comb my hair.” But four days later Gorbous made his Omaha pitching debut, throwing four innings in relief against Charleston (W.Va.), allowing just two hits and one run (which scored on a wild pitch). Six days after that he was used in relief again, going two innings against Wichita, but that would be his last appearance on the mound.
The item in the Omaha paper about Gorbous’ record throw that is included above said Gorbous and Grate would “stage a contest” when Grate’s Minneapolis club visited Omaha in September. But that didn’t happen. “The proposed throwing contest…is a dead issue,” according to an item in the World-Herald on September 6, the day the series between the two teams began. “Neither outfielder was enthusiastic about it.”
Gorbous played in Spokane in 1958. Jack Sheehan, later a columnist for the Las Vegas Sun, attended the Indians’ home opener and wrote about it in a 2007 column.
Before the game started, a Spokane outfielder named Glen Gorbous performed an astonishing feat. He threw a baseball from home plate over the center field wall, 410 feet away. It took him three tries. On the first two, the throws fell just short and bounced off the Pete’s Perma-Mulch sign.
But on the third, as he was going through a motion like a coiled shot-putter under attack by killer bees, Gorbous gave a grunt that carried all the way to our seats in the right-field bleachers. The ball exploded from his hand and hung suspended in the air for hours. With it hung every boyhood dream I’d ever had. Then, finally, it disappeared over the fence. The crowd erupted in a huge ovation. I didn’t stand up; I would have been a small pine in a forest, but I couldn’t have been more awestruck had I witnessed a spaceship land on second base.
Alas, Gorbous needed arm surgery that summer and retired the following spring. He went into the furniture business with his father in Calgary; later he worked for a company that supplied portable housing and catering for remote areas in the field for an oil and gas-exploration company. His son-in-law, Michel Petit, was a first-round pick in the 1982 National Hockey League draft and went on to play parts of 16 seasons in the league.
Gorbous died in 1990, about a month after undergoing open-heart surgery, at age 59. His throwing record has stood longer than any previous one.
The Toronto Globe and Mail had a story on Gorbous’ record throw in 1984, and the newspaper had a follow-up story on September 15:
“I couldn’t even hit one that far,” said Jay manager Bobby Cox. He recalled a pitcher, Bob Arrighi, a teammate with Reno Silver Sox in 1960, who once threw a baseball from home plate over the scoreboard in Modesto, Calif. “We had a bet on and it cost me $50,” Cox said. “And that was back when I didn’t have it.” Arrighi hurt his arm the next season and never made the majors.
Jesse Barfield, who has the best throwing arm among the Jays, recalls throwing a ball over the centre-field fence in Dunedin, Fla., where he played in 1978. “The ball must have gone at least 400 feet.”
As for Don Grate…he played one more season after his record toss, batting .296 at Minneapolis in 1957 and setting career highs in home runs and triples. But when the Giants didn’t offer him a major league contract in 1958, he decided to retire from baseball. Grate earned a master’s degree and continued teaching. He moved to Miami in 1963, retired from teaching in 1988, and passed away in 2014 at age 91 (SABR member Nick Diunte has more about his life here).
In 2006, the 50th anniversary of his longest throw in Minnesota, the Florida Marlins invited him to throw out the first pitch before their game against Milwaukee.
Okay, so the caption on the MinorLeagueBaseball.com site put Grate’s longest throw in 1959 instead of 1956. It figures, since so many facts surrounding the longest throw records seem to have been slightly off through the years.
(The Ohio State University athletics department provided me with the basketball photos of Don Grate in this post. I received valuable assistance from librarians at the Hennepin County Library in Minneapolis and the University of Nebraska at Omaha. The California State Library in Sacramento has microfilm of the San Diego Union. The 1984 Globe and Mail article I found using Lexis/Nexis through the University of California, Davis library. Other sources I used can be found online.)