TAMPA, Fla. - On the 100th anniversary of Babe Ruth’s historic home run in Tampa, several scholars are asking if it ever went the 587 feet quoted on a billboard in the spot it supposedly landed, near the University of Tampa.
If you were one of 4,300 at Plant Field on April 4, 1919, at what is now UT, you would have seen Babe Ruth, his mammoth swing, and maybe the farthest homer ever hit.
"They were just astonished by how far it went,” said Babe Ruth scholar Jane Leavy.
Back in 1919, there was a racetrack near the Tampa Hotel with a ballfield in the middle.
"It went over the rail of the racetrack and just kept going,” Leavy said of Ruth’s legendary home run.
The right-fielder showed reporters where it landed. The Boston Globe then marched off 189 paces of slightly more than three feet. They called the homer a “boost” and said it was certainly more than 540 feet. Leavy says estimates range from 540 feet to 625 feet.
"Nobody had seen anything like this before,” said Leavy. “Babe Ruth was inventing and announcing power baseball with that swing."
Leavy says Ruth became symbolic of America itself.
"He basically invented what it was to be a modern celebrity. He was the epitome of Roaring '20s excess. He was America when America had all its clout and all its might," Leavy said.
He and other scholars believe the Babe’s Tampa homer is the perfect mix of history and hype. Home run cataloger Bill Jenkinson suggests the ball went 552 feet.
That figure is quoted in other articles of the day.
University of Illinois professor Alan Nathan says under optimal conditions, but without wind, the farthest a big-league homer can go is just under 500 feet. That requires the ball to be hit at an exit velocity of 120 miles per hour. That figure is well beyond most recorded today.
"Given a dispute between science and mythology, I am going to take the science,” said Nathan.
There are a few buts that help nurse the myth of the Bambino’s Tampa homer. Batters of today use a 34-ounce bat. Ruth used a 50-ounce bat.
"He had a modern sense of biomechanics,” offered Leavy. “He understood the principles of leverage and torque."
Also, the Department of the Interior shows the wind at about the time Ruth hit the blast was likely around 17 miles per hour. Jenkinson believes it was in a direction that would have helped extend Ruth’s distance.
"Far be it from me to break people's myths about the game,” Nathan added. “If that is what keeps them coming to the ballpark, by all means, keep coming to the ballpark."
The plaque was put up in 1981, setting in stone a homer whose myth was growing the moment it landed.
"Whether this is the longest homer he ever hit is not the important part,” said UT curator Lindsay Huban. “What is important is that he hit a monster home run, that he did it here in Tampa, and that this is part of our history."
If you measure with lasers or footsteps, Leavy says the distance isn’t as important as what the home run represents.
"When you can pinpoint it, then there's no room for imagination, for closing your eyes and trying to put yourself at that racetrack on April 4, 1919," Huban said.