Green: Detroit played host to biggest blasts by brightest stars, Reggie and Ted

Detroit News
By Jerry Green |  Special to The Detroit News

Detroit —  The struck baseball whooshed through the night —  a white missile blurred in the darkening sky above the ballpark. This stark scene has remained fixed in my memory for a half-century now. The baseball crashed into the light tower on the roof of the ballpark, above right field.

And Reggie Jackson trotted around the bases, preening, typical Reggie, oozing ego.

He had upstaged all of Baseball. Again!

Only once in major-league history has there been a comparable moment, a scene quite similar.

Thirty years to the week before Reggie’s blast, a young Boston outfielder —  with a swashbuckler’s ego of his own —  stood in the same ballpark in the bottom of the ninth. He and his teammates were on the brink of defeat. Then this Kid swung and the baseball was propelled off the facing upper right-field seats.

And Ted Williams, clapping his hands in joy —  and self-adulation —  trotted majestically around the bases.

He had upstaged Baseball.

Two home runs in two All-Star Games. Two home runs by two magnificent athletes. The two most historic home runs struck in all of the 91 previous All-Star Games.

Both —  Reggie’s and Ted’s —  struck here in Detroit in our precious Briggs/Tiger Stadium.

Reggie, in 1971; Ted, in 1941.

Both —  I guess —  with the stars aligned, MLB has a commemoration All-Star Game in 2021.

But hold the Roman candles.

Hark back to 1951 —  70 years ago —  six home runs in the All-Star Game at Briggs Stadium.

The baseball muckamucks broke the All-Star Game sequence in honor of the 250th anniversary of Detroit’s founding to play the game in Briggs Stadium. Ty Cobb threw out first pitch. A moment of silence was held. Harry Heilmann had died the day before.

The All-Stars of the two leagues turned Briggs Stadium into bombardment zone. The athletes hit six home runs in that game 70 years ago including Bob Elliott, Gil Hodges, Ralph Kiner and two Tigers, Vic Wertz and George Kell.

But the barrage started with a home run by another epic All-Star, Stan Musial.

Musial’s home-run trot was a lesson in style and dignity.

The All-Star Game was designed to be a show, and Reggie Jackson played baseball with showmanship. Reggie was a pinch-hitter for Vida Blue, his Oakland teammate, when he faced Dock Ellis 50 years ago. His home-run ball ricocheted off the transformer of the light tower and fell below. Otherwise, it would have been over the roof and across Trumbull and into Brooks Lumber Yard.

In the aftermath, he spoke to Newsday, a reliable Long Island, N.Y., tabloid.

“I smoked it, didn’t I?” Jackson proclaimed.

“The game is a show, man, and I gave them a show. It will be a while before anybody kisses that transformer again.”

It was a Detroit night for home runs —  and a showcase for ballplayers headed to Cooperstown and the Baseball Hall of Fame. Henry Aaron, Johnny Bench, Frank Robinson, Harmon Killebrew and the great, great Roberto Clemente also homered in that All-Star Game.

But Jackson is the only homer that comes back to be now, a half-century later.

“It was the longest homer I ever hit,” Jackson told the postgame media rabble. It featured the American League’s 6-4 victory over Sparky Anderson’s National Leaguers. And it broke AL All-Star Game losing streak that had spanned from the early 1960s.

Ballgame dreams

Ted Williams’ showmanship was displayed in his hitting. He was considered —  by himself —  the greatest hitter in the history of baseball. At the All-Star break 80 years ago, his batting average was .405. There had been multiple .400 hitters before Williams. Ty Cobb, Rogers Hornsby, George Sisler, Tris Speaker, Bill Terry, Willie Keeler, Napoleon Lajoie, and Ed Delahanty among them dating into the 1800s. But Ted Williams remains the last big-league batter to reach the .400 milestone in the past 80 years; nobody since his .406 in 1941.

He described his home run off Claude Passeau — a walk-off homer in today’s terminology — in “my Turn At Bat,” thoughts by Ted personally, words by esteemed journalist John Underwood.

“It was the kind of thing a kid dreams about and imagines himself doing when playing those little playground games we used to do in San Diego. Halfway down to first, seeing the ball going out, I started leaping and jumping and clapping my hands, and I was just so happy I laughed out loud.”

Among the mob of victorious American Leaguers was Joe DiMaggio, who scored when Williams hit his historic home run.

Joe himself was creating some history of his own that July of 1941. He was in the midst of his 56-game hitting streak. It has never been matched, barely threatened.

More: Detroit’s (really) starry night: 50 years ago, 22 Hall of Famers came to play at Tiger Stadium

Another kid —  age 13 —  listening on the radio enjoyed the moment and then played some ball himself that afternoon. It was exciting and very special. And it would become personally memorable. But who figured it would be an enduring segment of sports history? Television was a technology of the future. And through the decades, footage of Williams’ home run at Briggs Stadium would be viewed countless times.

Always with chills, as I got to cover and watch the man as a journalist.

And absolutely, he was the greatest hitter of my lifetime.

Midsummer Classics

The All-Star Game originated as a sports editor’s vision in 1933, a special ballgame to highlight the Chicago World’s Fair. Arch Ward, of the Chicago Tribune, had planned it as a one-year event. But the baseball wizards back then, quickly decided to make it an annual midsummer ballgame pitting the top stars of the rival leagues. From Comiskey Park it went the next year to the Polo Grounds in upper Manhattan, New York City. It became a traveling roadshow. Municipal Stadium, Cleveland; Braves Field, Boston; and in its seventh year, Briggs Stadium — Ted Williams’ favorite ballpark.

Detroit has had four shots as the host city at Briggs/Tiger Stadium — 80 years ago, 70 years ago and 50 years ago. And once at Comerica Park, 16 years ago.

The show goes on in Denver, now so much more than just a ballgame with a result that means nearly nothing. It goes on in an era when goo and sticky baseballs and diminishing spin rates are the MLB story of the moment; with focus on Fernando Tatis Jr. and Shohei Ohtani.

It goes on symbolic of this new Major League Baseball — preceded by ESPN’s Home Run contest.

But it travels on with its most vivid memories of 91 All-Star Games — the home runs by Reggie and Ted. And the first home run of the first All-Star Game by the veteran, Babe Ruth.

Nobody ever checked the launch angles and exit velocities of the home runs by Reggie, Ted and the Babe.

Jerry Green is a retired Detroit News sports reporter.

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