Before The Home Run Derby, There Was… Home Run Derby
With each passing year, Major League Baseball tries its best to glue my eyes to their Mid-Summer Classic. They fail miserably.
For me at least, the MLB All-Star Game offers little thrill. I think the fault lies mainly in the nature of the sport itself. Baseball hinges on intensity. Full count pitches, last strike 9th innings, the sport is full of intense moments within the game. The higher the stakes, the more compelling the narrative becomes. Watching the best players in the game take a televised vacation isn’t exactly high stakes viewing. While the all-star games put on by the NHL & NBA are also televised vacations, the format of their respective games provides some semblance of drama, or at the very least the opportunity for the best players in the world to do awesome shit like this. Within the bounds of the game, baseball doesn't have an answer, to bounce pass alley-oops, which is why I normally forgo MLB's Tuesday night tradition. Like most casual mouth-breathing fans, when it comes to baseball, I only care about the dingers. The only day that matters to me is Derby Day.
MLB began hosting a Home Run Derby during their All-Star festivities back in 1985, so relatively speaking, it’s a recent invention for the game. Most of the cultural touchstones revolving around the derby are tied to 90’s legends like Ken Griffey Jr. or Barry Bonds and the rest of his merry band of roid monsters. But the roots of the derby go back much farther and are firmly planted in a place you might not suspect: Tinseltown.
In 1959, Hollywood producers Mark Scott and Lou Breslow were looking for a new idea, something that would be cheap to make, that would be eye-catching, and that would be easy to peddle to tv stations around the country. Their big idea? What if baseball’s best went head to head in a bash-off? And with that simple premise, Home Run Derby (the show) was born.
Production began after the end of the 1959 MLB season, with the titular derbys taking place at Wrigley Field (not that one) a year before the upstart Angels would take over the minor league ballpark. In each episode, the show would pit two sluggers against one another over nine “innings”. A homer counted as a run, and anything that wasn’t a homer (strike, grounder, etc.) counted as an out. A weekly prize of $2,000, and a chance to defend their title of home run king in the next episode went to whoever mashed the most taters in nine frames.
This format was great in theory, but in order to properly cash in on the potential, the show needed serious star power from the contestants. And did they ever get it.
The first-ever episode of Home Run Derby was a 9 - 8 slugfest between two guys you might have heard about, Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays. Though Mays hit four straight homers in his first at-bat, Mantle edged him out over the course of the derby. That was just day one. Mantle would go on to win twice more, beating Ernie Banks and alliterative gem Jackie Jenson before being unseated by Harmon Killebrew, A.K.A. the probable inspiration for the Major League Baseball logo.
The amount of legendary talent to waltz through Home Run Derby is dizzying. Hall of Famers like Frank Robinson, Eddie Matthews, and Al Kaline were joined by nearly there talents such as Gil Hodges, Wally Post, and Ken Boyer. And fittingly, the king of Home Run Derby, going 6-1 in his television career, was the eventual Home Run King, Hank Aaron.
Though the show only filmed for one season, most of the episodes were preserved. In the late 80’s Home Run Derby began to replay for a public who had grown to idolize these ballplayers as legends of the game. Playing on channels like Legends and ESPN Classic (where a wide-eyed Mini-Mason first took in the show) new generations of fans were introduced to the program. You can still find these episodes on Youtube. I highly recommend squeezing an episode into a lunch break the next time you’re bored.
It doesn’t seem like a coincidence that as Home Run Derby became a success forty years after its initial debut, the MLB Home Run Derby launched into the stratosphere. Years later, many of us still get a little too excited for the derby, as the likes of Pete Alonso, Giancarlo Stanton, and Shohei Ohtani attempt to vaporize baseballs. But it is entirely possible that none of this excitement might even be around if it wasn’t for a couple of TV producers and a group of elite thumpers with nothing better to do than to screw around in the winter sun of California.