Has there ever been a more earnest show than the original, black-and-white Home Run Derby?
Each week a pair of Major League Baseball stars battled it out in a nine-inning slugfest in an empty stadium, and they did it all for a winner's share of $2,000. Host Mark Scott made Mr. Rogers look cynical. The show, thankfully, was completely void of irony. The banter between Scott and each hitter contained more awkward silences than a blind date.
Yet it still manages to entertain today, primarily because the stars of 1960 are today's legends. Mantle, Mays, Aaron, Banks, Killebrew - they all competed during the show's brief run. Home Run Derby only appeared for one season. The weekly event took place in Wrigley Field - the LA one, the one no one really cared about. The rules were simple: the hitters played an actual nine-inning game, three outs per inning. Anything not over the fence was an out. And the batters had to get the lumber off their shoulders - any pitch in the strike zone they didn't swing at was an out. Today, during the upcoming Home Run Derby at the All-Star Game, you might see a hitter take five straight pitches down the middle, simply because he didn't think he could yank it 400 feet.
Not when Mark Scott was in charge.
The winner received his $2,000 and the loser a grand. If a guy slammed three straight homers, that was another check, for $500. Back then, that was real money for pros, cash that could be used for boozin' or bills. Mantle - who made $5,000 his rookie year - hauled in $60,000 in 1960.
And so here's Mickey Mantle vs. Willie Mays. Who was better? Not in real-life, in Home Run Derby? (It was put on youtube by a guy who filmed it off of his TV; so any awkward heavy breathing you hear is him, not Mays).
Mickey chooses to hit right-handed. According to him, most of his long homers come from that side. As Scott points out to Willie, Mays can only hit from one side (that's about as deep as the analysis goes on the show). Mays hits first and comes out firing, drilling four homers in the top of the first inning. He does this despite the fact producers apparently picked the worst time of day to hold a home run derby in Los Angeles. The pitcher is bathed in sunlight while the hitters stand in the shadows. During the early banter between Mantle and Scott, the Yankees slugger sounds tentative, almost scared, as if he needs some liquid courage before he can start bragging about tape-measure shots and being DiMaggio's heir in center field.
Throughout, Scott guides the proceedings with ease, throwing in an occasional corny joke while always speaking enthusiastically about the players' accomplishments. Scott sounds like a guy calling out Bingo numbers in a small-town Catholic church. A typical exchange goes, "He hit that a long ways, Mickey."
"Yes he did, Mark."
Simple. Maybe boring. But a lot less grating than hearing "back-back-back-back-back-back" for three hours.
Mays surged to a 8-2 lead after five innings, twice missing out on the $500 check when he failed to hit a third straight homer, a fact Scott reminded him with a certain amount of glee and pity. After another homerless inning, Mantle says it's getting embarrassing, and he's right. But after hitting four in the first inning, Mays slowed down and transformed into Willie Mays with the Mets. The Mick rallies. Three homers in the seventh. Two more in the eighth, including an opposite-field blast. Mays, meanwhile, goes homerless over the last four innings, setting the stage for Mantle's heroics in the bottom of the ninth. Somewhere, as Mantle hit the homer that gave him a 9-8 victory in the bottom of the ninth on Home Run Derby, a young Baby Boomer swooned and penned a poem about his idol.
Mickey picks up the winner's check.
Unfortunately, Home Run Derby only lasted the one season. Scott died from a heart attack in 1960 at the age of 45. Without the vocal leader, the show was canceled.
This Mays-Mantle showdown was the first episode. Mantle went on to beat Ernie Banks and Jackie Jensen, before losing to Harmon Killebrew. Fittingly, Hank Aaron ruled Home Run Derby, winning six straight times. According to Wikipedia, Jackie Jensen - who hit only 199 career homers - had the best single-game total, drilling 14 in a victory over Banks. Later in the series, Willie Mays returned and hit 13.
But he probably still regrets losing that first one to Mantle.