Old Home Run Derby TV show brings memories of Mantle and other legends to life

Willie Mays, left, of the San Francisco Giants, Willie Mays, left, of the San Francisco Giants, and the Yankees' Mickey Mantle check over their lineups before the start of the All-Star Game at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx. (Oct. 12, 1958)

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The video evidence, in all its black-and-white glory, is there for the world to see on YouTube: a Home Run Derby from another time -- so long ago Cecil Fielder, the father of defending Derby champ Prince Fielder, was not yet born.

But the original Home Run Derby, shown in 26 syndicated installments in 1960, is as interesting for what has not changed as for what has.

First, the latter: Hall of Famers-to-be such as Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Duke Snider, Eddie Mathews, Ernie Banks and Harmon Killebrew competed for a "big money" prize of $2,000, with a $500 bonus for hitting three homers in a row -- and were excited to get it.

So that's different.

And the television production values are not what they have evolved into on ESPN, with host Mark Scott engaging players in mostly stilted banter at his desk as they watched their opponent take his swings.

The format, too, was different, arranged in one-on-one games spread over nine "innings."

But the competition remains essentially the same, although back then taking a called strike counted as an out. Swing after swing, the sluggers of the era took aim at the wall of Wrigley Field in Los Angeles with line drives, groundouts and pop-ups all counting for exactly the same: zilch.

As Scott often said, "It's a home run or nothing here on Home Run Derby." (Scott died of a heart attack at age 45 shortly after the series' one and only season.)

The modern Derby associated with All-Star Game festivities began in 1985 and was not televised live until 1998 on ESPN, which in 2003 and '04 also televised home run contests held before spring training in Las Vegas.

But the original retains its quirky charm, starting with Mantle's 9-8 victory over Mays in the series premiere.

A March, 1960, Sports Illustrated story about the new show reported that Mays ended up with blistered hands after a practice session, then said, "I don't care, this is fun."

Added Mantle (according to SI): "I've never tried harder, not even in the World Series."

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