You’re probably familiar with the final home run scene from the 1984 movie "The Natural." Roy Hobbs (played by Robert Redford) hits a home run off the light tower in rightfield and rounds the bases with sparks from the shattered light falling all around him as inspirational music plays.
Thirteen years earlier, in 1971, real life preceded reel life.
It was 50 years ago this month that Reggie Jackson — then No. 9 of the Oakland A’s, not No. 44 of the Yankees — hit a home run off the light tower at Detroit’s Tiger Stadium in the All-Star Game.
No sparks showered Jackson as he rounded the bases, but there were plenty of "oohs" and "ahhs" from the sellout crowd of 53,559. The wind was blowing out to rightfield at about 25 mph, but Jackson’s clout didn’t need much help.
"A tremendous smash!" Curt Gowdy said on the broadcast, which is available on YouTube.
Jackson, who was 25 years old and in his fifth big-league season, was a unique character even then in that he liked to watch his long home runs. That was not the norm among sluggers in 1971.
As the ball left his bat and headed for the light tower on the roof above Tiger Stadium’s second deck, Jackson dropped his bat and walked a few steps toward first base before jogging around the bases. He was a bit hobbled because he was playing through a hamstring injury.
It wasn’t the most important home run of Jackson’s career — he didn’t earn the nickname "Mr. October" because of a long home run in an exhibition game on July 13 — but it is one of the most memorable homers in All-Star Game history.
It was estimated (pre-Statcast days) to have gone 532 feet, though some say it would have gone more than 600 feet if the light tower hadn’t gotten in the way.
Jackson, who was a last-minute replacement for the injured Tony Oliva on the American League roster, came to the plate as a pinch hitter against future Yankees teammate Dock Ellis with the National League ahead 3-0 and a runner on first in the third inning.
"The count goes to one ball and two strikes and I step out of the batter’s box and all I can think of is Sal Bando saying, ‘Don’t strike out, don’t make us look bad,’ " Jackson told Newsday in 2018. "Dock Ellis hung a slider and I hit one into the dark of the night . . . I was just so surprised how far it had gone. I remember the ball came back down on the field and Willie Mays threw it into our dugout. I got it, took it home, gave it to my father.’’
Frank Robinson followed Jackson’s two-run shot with a two-run blast of his own off Ellis later in the third to give the American League the lead for good at 4-3.
Jackson was in all his glory after the game, according to an account in the Detroit Free Press.
"Do I get an extra charge outta hitting one like this? Sure," he told reporters as he ate some postgame pizza. "That might have been the longest one I ever hit. I couldn’t have hit it any further if I stood at second base and hit it with a fungo bat."
This was before the Home Run Derby became part of the All-Star Game festivities . . . and in most years nowadays eclipses the game itself in terms of interest and TV ratings, as it might again this week in Denver.
The 1971 All-Star Game was a home run derby within the game.
All of the runs in the American League’s 6-4 victory were scored via the long ball. All six home runs were hit by future Hall of Famers (Jackson, Robinson and Harmon Killebrew for the American League and Hank Aaron, Johnny Bench and Roberto Clemente for the National League).
Aaron’s was his first in an All-Star Game; he had only two overall even though he appeared in 24 Midsummer Classics. The other one came in 1972.
Clemente’s homer came in his last All-Star Game at-bat. Robinson became the first player to homer for both leagues in the All-Star Game.
Jackson’s is the one most remembered today, but it didn’t even win him the MVP award. That went to Robinson.
The players of that time — unlike the players of our time — really cared about who won the All-Star Game. There was no such thing as interleague play other than the World Series, and it was unique to see players from the two leagues face each other.
The players played to win. The best example of that came a year earlier when Pete Rose slammed into and injured American League catcher Ray Fosse to score the winning run for the National League. Players today are not allowed to run over the catcher in games that count, much less exhibition games.
Going into 1971, the National League had won eight Midsummer Classics in a row. Veteran American Leaguers were sure to let younger All-Stars know the game meant a lot.
The National League roster included 14 future Hall of Famers: Aaron, Bench, Clemente, Mays, Lou Brock, Steve Carlton, Ferguson Jenkins, Juan Marichal, Willie McCovey, Ron Santo, Tom Seaver, Willie Stargell, Joe Torre and manager Sparky Anderson.
The American League roster included 10 future Hall of Famers: Jackson, Killebrew, Frank Robinson, Luis Aparicio, Rod Carew, Al Kaline, Jim Palmer, Brooks Robinson, Carl Yastrzemski and manager Earl Weaver.
WHAT TO KNOW
Some other nuggets from the game:
- It took 2 hours, 5 minutes. Each team used four pitchers.
- The AL centerfielder (and No. 2 batter) was Bobby Murcer of the Yankees, who went 1-for-3. In the third, Murcer hit a pop fly to the left side of the infield that was grabbed by the wind and blown all the way to the first-base side, where it was caught by NL third baseman Joe Torre.
- Buddy Harrelson of the Mets was the NL’s starting shortstop. He went 0-for-2.
- Starting AL catcher Bill Freehan was replaced behind the plate in the eighth by 24-year-old Thurman Munson of the Yankees. Munson, in his first of his seven All-Star Game selections, did not have a plate appearance.
- Tom Seaver, the Mets’ ace, did not appear in the game.
- Because the Tigers were the host team, their manager was named as a coach on Earl Weaver’s staff and shared a dugout with Reggie Jackson. That would be Billy Martin, who was coaching first base as Jackson trotted to first after hitting his tremendous home run. After the game, Martin downplayed his future nemesis’ feat. “It didn’t knock the light tower down, did it?” he said, according to the Free Press account of the game. (It also said he was joking.)