Baseball's best thrill

July 09, 2002|By James H. Bready

HERE'S TO the home run that never goes over the fence. It could happen at tonight's Major League Baseball All-Star Game in Milwaukee.

Here's to the inside-the-park homer (IPH), which is the most exciting play in baseball - more so than the three-base hit or the triple play - because the climax is longer a-building. Here's to a play that, in all likelihood, you in the skyboxes and you in the bleachers have never seen.

Oriole Park at Camden Yards has been open a decade. If you were there the evening of Aug. 22, 1993, and watching, you did behold an IPH, but have perhaps put it, as a non-Oriole feat, out of mind. Wallace Davis, known as Butch, who hit it, was a Texas Ranger. In 800-plus home games so far, no Camden Yards Oriole has hit an IPH.

Things went better during the 48 earlier pennant seasons at Memorial Stadium. Of at least 11 IPHs there, 10 were hit by Oriole batters - most recently by Phil Bradley on June 8, 1990. In 1974, Al Bumbry hit one - Al, who in youth had been a babysitter for the infant Bradley.

This is the hit that crosses up the outfielder, who, after finally picking up the ball, then throws to the wrong infielder even as the runner pounds on toward third, where his base coach motions him ever onward toward a home plate confrontation with the enemy catcher.

The heyday of the IPH was from the 1880s to the mid 1920s. Sam Crawford, a Detroit outfielder, pulled it off 51 times; Ty Cobb, 46. Did Babe Ruth ever hit an IPH? In 1927, one of his prodigious 60 homers was inside the park. Ruth, who wasn't always stout, altogether hit 10. As for Henry Aaron, Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds, Cal Ripken Jr., four times zero is zero. And Ted Williams? One day in 1946, as if to prove he could, he did it.

Even members of the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) concede that it takes patience researching this pale statistic. The standard box score didn't differentiate among homers. (It still never records the failed attempt - the runner who should have settled for a triple. Or the messy fielding that maybe should've been ruled an error.)

L. Robert Davids of Washington, the baseball scholar who in 1971 founded SABR, counted IPHs (plus the other choice rarity, steals at home) down to his death last winter. In 1996, David Vincent and Bob McConnell of SABR published the 1,311-page Home Run Encyclopedia. It records an overlooked Oriole wonder.

Several baseball record books have quietly stopped listing events before 1991. It's an offense against culture and folklore because some of the game's finest deeds, and most handsome moments, occurred then.

Willie Keeler - there are Baltimoreans today who don't recognize his name - at 5 feet 4 1/2 inches and 140 pounds, with storybook coordination - was a hero unto small men then and still.

William Henry Keeler (born O'Kelleher), the son of a Brooklyn trolley motorman, played right field for the champion Orioles of 1894-95-96. He could throw, hit - and run like blue blazes. It was, to be sure, an age of doctored pitching, of run-at-a-time baseball. And most of Keeler's slew of batting records were those of a place hitter, hands high on the bat, angling singles through the infield. Yet during his 19 years in the majors, Willie Keeler also hit home runs: 33 of them. Three cleared the fence; 30 were inside the park.

So far this year, there have been seven IPHs - four in the National League, three in the American.

Today in Milwaukee, will some batter, having hit a long, fair, bounce-around ball, then turn into an Olympic sprinter? Well, the All-Star Game has been around since 1933, and all its home runs have been the out-of-here version. Stay skeptical.

James H. Bready, a retired Evening Sun editorial writer, is the author of Baseball in Baltimore: The First 100 Years (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998).

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