Swing away: The untold story of the first Home Run Derby
JUL 10, 2014 1:00p ET
By the summer of 1985, the baseball-loving people of Minnesota had completely fallen for their Twins, even though the franchise rarely gave them a compelling reason. The team hadn’t finished a season with a winning record since 1979 and had eclipsed 100 wins once, in 1965, the year it won its only American League pennant. That led to a seven-game World Series defeat at the hands of Sandy Koufax and the Los Angeles Dodgers. And yet, that disappointment had remained the Twins’ brightest moment in the baseball spotlight as they plodded through their 25th season since bolting the Beltway.
If there were any reason for optimism, it was that the All-Star Game was coming to Minneapolis for the first time in 20 years. The Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome, not even four years old and teeming with such distinct quirks as its Hefty bag outfield wall, was ready to shine. The game’s most powerful pitchers, strongest swingers and a few future Hall of Famers would position themselves around the asphalt-soft Astroturf as a national TV audience watched with anticipation. Baseball’s biggest summer day would play out under the dome.
Now, on the eve of the All-Star Game’s return to Minneapolis, let’s remember that the real history of those few days is in what happened the day before the ’85 Midsummer Classic. On a humid Monday afternoon, some 46,000 patrons paid $2 a pop to file inside the Metrodome and witness an event not seen before in baseball’s modern era: the game’s most prodigious sluggers belting out dingers, one by one, in an organized competition.
Major League Baseball dubbed it “the All-Star Home Run Contest,” but it was the birth of what we now call the Home Run Derby.
The event itself was publicized for some weeks before by the Twins’ enthusiastic marketing staff. Newspaper advertisements promised great sluggers such as Reggie Jackson and Mike Schmidt. All admission fees would go to local youth baseball leagues in need of funding. And you could ride the local bus for free if you showed the driver either your ticket or your glove. All that the contest needed to do was live up to the hype.
What resulted instead was a fortuitous confluence of events that added up to one of the most remarkable afternoons in baseball history. There was the soft-spoken 18-year-old center fielder who sent nearly every jaw in the Metrodome headed straight for the floor. Why did he throw his glove hand up high over the center field wall? Didn’t he remember the instructions? Had they even given him instructions? It was all a blur, and then there was cheering and one of the game’s best hitters throwing his arms up in exasperation at what had transpired.
The Twins’ 29-year-old marketing guy remembers that well. He was hunkered down in the third base dugout with half an eye on the Derby and his concentration on making sure this competition didn’t turn into some kind of debacle. With these big events, you never knew what could happen, especially when orchestrating a contest that had never been tried before.
But what anyone inside the Metrodome on July 15, 1985, likely recalls is when the 24-year-old Southern California hot shot prospect who was finally making good on his first-round draft status stepped up last to bat in front of the home fans. Back then, the Derby pitted American League versus National League hitters. The good guys were down by two, and all the bragging rights came down to a final sequence of swings.
The idea of the Home Run Derby certainly was not new, but this was the first time Major League Baseball had seen fit to bring back the contest that had once been made for TV in the early 1960s. And since its resurrection, the Home Run Derby has become the most TV-minded spectacle of baseball's calendar year. Everyone has a favorite memory by now: Mark McGwire making Fenway Park his personal sandbox, Josh Hamilton giving old Yankee Stadium a taste of the Babe’s days, or maybe Cuban defector Yoenis Cespedes flipping his bat into our hearts last year.
And yet, the first Home Run Derby never aired on television. Even MLB’s official archives, with their millions of hours of history, do not have the footage. The only known existing tape has long been buried in the morgue of a TV station in Minneapolis.
To see this remarkable day unfold, you had to be there.
Home Run Derby started out as a television show that started airing in syndication in April 1960. Filmed the previous December at Wrigley Field in Los Angeles — so chosen for its neutral outfield dimensions that didn’t favor right- or left-handed hitters — weekly episodes showcased the greatest sluggers of the era going head-to-head for a $2,000 check as well as bonuses for home run streaks of three or more. The two competitors would go nine “innings” with each man getting three “outs” per inning. Any ball put in play that was not a home run was an out. An actual MLB umpire, Art Passarella, who called nearly 1,700 games in his career, stood behind home plate and called any pitch taken down the middle an out. After every three outs, the batters switched turns. Whoever had the most homers after nine rotations was deemed the winner.
The show was produced, co-created, and hosted by Mark Scott, a middling actor, play-by-play announcer for the minor league Hollywood Stars and sports director of radio station KFWB. Scott, who also served as the one of the Dodgers’ original TV hosts when the team moved to Los Angeles, was unlike the bombastic play callers who would make their presence known on future Derby iterations. He was a smooth-talking throwback to the radio-dominated days of the 1930s and ’40s, a safe and straightforward guide. In hindsight, his boilerplate play-by-play was more representative of contemporary athlete clichés than the mellifluous flow of in-game announcing, but Mark Scott was never intended to be the show’s primary focus.
Home Run Derby featured 19 batters during its 26-episode run, and nearly half would be elected to the Hall of Fame: Hank Aaron (the most successful Derby hitter of all with a 6-1 record), Ernie Banks, Al Kaline, Harmon Killebrew, Mickey Mantle, Eddie Mathews, Willie Mays, Duke Snider and Frank Robinson all took their swings at faux Wrigley before entering Cooperstown. As one hitter sat with Scott and discussed his approach to hitting, the other swatted line drives down the line or bombs over the ivy-covered walls. To young baseball fans eager for knowledge, it was a weekly master’s class. For anyone awed by the sight of athletes sitting and chatting like regular people, it was proto-reality TV at its finest.
Alas, the show was canceled when Scott died of a sudden heart attack on July 13, 1960, a couple of months before the final episode of the first season aired. (Mickey Mantle defeated Jackie Jensen, 13-10.) The episodes, airing only sporadically after that, became a fascinating baseball time capsule. Although Home Run Derby had production value that made the series feel somewhat artificial — the way the camera would zoom in close on batters, shots that could only result from scripted takes — the show’s feel was still intimate and personal, perhaps because each episode was shot in an empty stadium. Watching Home Run Derby at home, you felt like an audience of one.
That’s how a young baseball fan named Laurel Prieb felt. Later in his 20s, as a marketing guy with the Minnesota Twins, he would often bring up those episodes with the three Twins veterans who’d competed: the great Harmon Killebrew (573 career homers), Jim Lemon (164), and Bob Allison (256). All three were technically still Washington Senators at the time of filming — the franchise was still a year away from relocation — but the Senators/Twins were the only MLB team that could boast three Derby representatives. “Oh, they had a whale of a time,” Prieb recalls. “They said it was a lot of fun.”
Prieb was already rising through the Twins organization — never mind that he would one day call Commissioner Bud Selig his father-in-law — when he was selected in the summer of 1984 as the team’s official All-Star Game Coordinator. That meant he would work closely with the league office in Manhattan to organize pretty much anything related to the All-Star Game and its pregame festivities. In those earliest planning meetings, a Home Run Derby was not on the table.
“The first Home Run Derby never aired on television. Even MLB’s official archives, with their millions of hours of history, do not have the footage. The only known existing tape has long been buried in the morgue of a TV station in Minneapolis. To see this remarkable day unfold, you had to be there.”
“We were pretty much following the template of what had been done before, but this was a new administration, with Commissioner (Peter) Ueberroth in his first year,” Prieb says. “So as we came closer to the event, I recall a general notion that we wanted to make the event different in various ways, and that’s how the Home Run Derby came into being.”
The exact originator of the idea is lost to the fuzzy recollections of history, but Prieb’s best guess is that William Murray, MLB’s longtime executive director of baseball operations, likely played a key role in its fruition. Regardless of what they would ultimately devise, the mandate from on high was to make the traditional “workout day” before the All-Star Game more fun and spiced up with a little bit of intrigue, if possible.
Prieb felt no small sense of pressure as the big day drew close. Excited though he was to organize a modern-day Derby in 1985, part of him wished it had happened 20 years earlier, the day before the 1965 All-Star Game at old Metropolitan Stadium in Minneapolis. The sight of Killebrew — then only 29 and having just came off four straight seasons of 45-plus home runs — belting bombs against Mays and Mantle and all the others in front of a rabid Twins crowd soaked in sunlight would’ve been, as he says, “magical.”
Without the chance to rewrite history, Prieb was determined to help this new Home Run Derby pen some of its own. And to the extent the Derby became an unqualified lasting success ultimately lies with the roster and format MLB conceived: Five guys from each league competing against one another for team bragging rights. Each hitter gets one turn with five outs, with the leagues alternating batters, then each man goes again. Everybody gets 10 total outs, then the homers are added up to see which league wins.
It’s hard to say which side boasted the better squad. The Minneapolis-cheered American League roster had noted sluggers Boston’s Jim Rice, Baltimore’s Eddie Murray, Baltimore’s Cal Ripken Jr., Carlton Fisk of the White Sox and hometown favorite Tom Brunansky of the Twins. The National League featured St. Louis’ Jack Clark, the Cubs’ Ryne Sandberg, Atlanta’s Dale Murphy, San Diego’s Steve Garvey and Cincinnati’s mighty Dave Parker. In this era before interleague play, Parker’s Derby-high six home runs left Prieb and all Metrodome patrons in shock as Parker rocketed several balls high over the right field baggie and into the upper deck.
“Though not an original idea, this was really presented as the first and the best derby that had ever been done, with the greatest hitters that had ever been used,” Prieb recalls. “Indeed, that's what it was. The excitement was that this was the first time anyone had ever seen this.”
For Garvey, the ’85 Derby was a satisfying bookend to a remarkable career, especially where All-Star Games were concerned. His first selection came in 1974, even though his name was absent from voting ballots. Garvey became just the second write-in candidate ever elected to start an All-Star Game and then won the MVP award, both for that game and, later, for the National League that year. Entering 1985, Garvey had played in nine All-Star Games, and the National League had won each and every time. The game in Minneapolis would be the 10th and final such selection for one of the great hitters of the ’70s and ’80s.
Approached by someone from MLB that morning, Garvey didn’t hesitate. “I said, ‘Oh sure!’ I had done them before here and there and learned to how to be successful, and I thought this would be fun,” he says. “It didn’t take a long time to do. It wasn't made for TV. Now they get three hours of advertising out of it, but this had its own little energy. Even long outs at the warning track would bring a big response from the people. It was phenomenal.”
Prieb somewhat disputes the notion Garvey or anyone else would’ve been approached only on Derby day. “I’m sure Steve's recollection is what it is,” he says, “but he may have been a replacement for someone else. Obviously, you don't go into a Home Run Derby and ask the players the day of.” (Then again, about those newspaper ads that had teased both Reggie Jackson and Mike Schmidt as Derby participants? A tad presumptuous, as neither man was selected as an All-Star in ’85. Jackson’s streak of eight straight appearances was snapped; for Schmidt, it had been six in a row.)
Ripken also recalls being asked to do the Derby that morning and he, likewise, agreed without delay. “I do remember some hesitancy from some of the players, but I was excited about it,” he says. “I liked some of the contests that used to happen. In 1984, we had a relay-throwing contest in San Francisco. I liked those kinds of head-to-head skills competitions, so the Home Run Derby came up and I thought it was a cool event. I gladly accepted.”
As the Derby wound down, the two leagues slugging back and forth, Sandberg stepped in as the National League’s final contestant, looking to extend his team’s slim 16-14 lead. He cranked a long fly ball to left center field, and that’s when the first Home Run Derby produced its first unforgettable moment.
St. Cloud Apollo High School, about an hour's drive from the Twin Cities, had capped an incredible 1985 season by winning the Class AA state tournament, the first such title in school history, at Municipal Stadium in St. Paul. Head coach Mike Carr then heard from someone on his wife’s side of the family (who worked in the Twins front office) that his newly crowned state champs had been invited to come on down to the Metrodome and shag some balls during the Home Run Derby. It was the last time they’d suit up as a team.
The scene on the field that day was nothing like the current Derby, with dozens of Little Leaguers scurrying here and there. The Apollo St. Cloud players were the only ones on the field and took their usual positions as they would during any game. So for one hour, facing the best power hitters in baseball, the expansive Metrodome center field belonged not to future Hall of Famer and Twins icon Kirby Puckett but to 18-year-old Sean Moe, a 6-foot-1, 170-pound incoming freshman to the University of North Dakota.
“Well, they never gave us any instructions,” Moe recalls. “It's like, OK, I'm in baseball mode. I'm going to catch anything that comes out my way. I just catch it, throw it in, and by the time I get back to my position, they're hitting it again. I was running around a lot more than I ever did during a game, that's for sure. I was in game mode and catching anything that came my way.”
So when Sandberg came up as the final batter for the National League, looking to extend a two-homer lead, Moe was completely in the zone. Exhausted but still exhilarated, he heard the ball crack off Sandberg’s bat and saw a flick of white fly up toward the Metrodome’s bubbly, contoured ceiling.
“I remember running back, and me being a center fielder, I always like to see the ball coming off the bat, so that's how I always position myself,” Moe says. “I was able to see it come off the bat fairly well, and I knew I had to back up. I was running back and then as the ball was coming down, what I remember is turning around and back-pedaling. As I reached up, I hit the fence at the same time.”
The fence in question was a smaller, 7-foot-high version of the monstrous plastic sheeting in right field. Had Sandberg’s ball landed only 20 more feet to the left, Moe would’ve had the benefit of a six-foot-high Plexiglas panel that extended up from the top of the wall. The moment would’ve stood as a worthy predecessor to Puckett’s famous wall-slam catch during the 1991 World Series.
But because Sandberg’s ball fell where it did, all Moe had to do was reach up with the proper timing and positioning. The ball came down right in front of the left-center bleachers that nearly came down to field level, but the two men sitting closest to the trajectory of Sandberg’s ball jumped to the side and out of the way, ensuring that Moe’s leap was both unobstructed and unchallenged.
With the wall ending at the height of Moe’s left shoulder, his right arm was fully extended above the fence. The ball would’ve cleared it by about 2 feet, but Moe came down with the biggest catch of his life.
“The gesture I remember seeing is (Ryne Sandberg) throwing his hands up in the air, like, 'Oh, what's this all about?' Yeah, he wasn't too happy.”
“The gesture I remember seeing is (Sandberg) throwing his hands up in the air, like, Oh, what's this all about?” Moe recalls. “Yeah, he wasn't too happy.”
“We all laughed,” says Garvey, who was still down on the field, having completed his Derby turn. “Oh, we got on him then.”
Detroit manager Sparky Anderson, in charge of the American League squad, was sitting cross-legged on the field and started clapping. The Yankees’ Rickey Henderson couldn’t stop himself from giggling. Boston’s Rice, sitting on his two knees a few feet away from the batter’s box, could only swing his head back and forth in disbelief. Johnny Bench, decked out in his brown suit and tie, sat in a chair nearby, trying to process what had happened.
All Sandberg could do was force a smile, awkwardly adjust his hat and wait for the din to die down. He was gracious enough with reporters afterward, especially in the wake of such an unscripted moment of consequence. “It was a great play,” he said. “He took one away from me. I thought it as funny as one of those used on the highlight films of the week.”
Prieb wasn’t entirely pleased to see Moe show up one of the game’s most popular players. He insists that the St. Cloud Apollo players were told not to do anything too above and beyond, but the moment quickly took on a life of its own.
“Perhaps he forgot or perhaps you just don't expect anybody to rob someone of a home run like that,” Prieb says. “But so he did. I have to give a lot of credit to Commissioner Ueberroth for having a good sense of humor about it and some good creative thought.” The next night, Moe was invited to sit on the field in front of Ueberroth’s private field-level box, not as a spectator but to “protect” the Commissioner from potential line drives headed in his direction.
But Moe’s catch, dramatic though it was, wasn’t a Derby-clinching moment in itself. The American League was still down by two when its final batter came to the plate. He was the local kid, a West Coast transplant who had cracked 19 home runs in the first half of the season. The entire Derby would depend on his next few swings. There have been myriad times in baseball history when a game hinged on a player hitting a home run, sure, but one man having to hit three? That had never been done.
The man they called “Bruno” came to bat.
Like any baseball-loving, Southern California kid of the 1970s, Tom Brunansky figured himself overwhelmingly fortunate to be selected by the California Angels in the first round of the 1978 amateur draft. But before he was 21, the 6-foot-4, power-hitting right fielder from Covina had been traded 1,500 miles northeast to the Minnesota Twins.
From the get-go, Brunansky was a fan favorite, socking 80 homers in his first three seasons with the Twins, all before he turned 25. Along with players like Puckett, Kent Hrbek, and Gary Gaetti, Bruno was part of a core group trying to rekindle the spirit of those free-swinging, Killebrew-led Twins teams of the mid-’60s. But the results still weren’t quite there — it would be two more years before Minnesota would win its first World Series, in 1987 over St. Louis — and Brunansky was the best the Twins had that first half of 1985, so he was their lone representative in the All-Star Game festivities.
Of course, as the “home” team, the American League batted last in the Derby, and MLB slated Brunansky as the final hitter in the order. So after Sandberg’s long fly ball made Moe insta-famous and with the American League facing down a two-dinger deficit, Bruno knew what he had to do.
“The thing that makes it so different is that the batting practice we do every day is with the screen and the cage, but when you take us out of that element and the batting cage is no longer there and you have a catcher behind you, all of a sudden you start changing the complexity of what we do,” Brunansky says. “Now, all of a sudden, you’re putting the emphasis on the home run. It's a show and your game thoughts start to come in, your competitive juices start to flow, and certainly no one wants to get shut out. They don’t want to be embarrassed out there.”
Brunansky, like Ripken, knew that some players had been hesitant about signing up for the Derby, concerned that the singular, repetitious nature of the competition would invariably screw up their swings. It’s an old, unproven taboo, the kind that superstitious athletes subscribe to while refusing to accept a more rational, fact-based explanation. Ripken certainly doesn’t give credence to such hokum — “If you do that every single day, then you're building a bad habit,” he says, “but in that short timeframe, it's not going to do anything” — and neither does Brunansky, especially since, for him, it really was just like his daily batting practice.
Throwing Bruno’s pitches was Twins coach and future two-time World Series-winning manager Tom Kelly, known to everyone as TK. Brunansky didn’t have to tell Kelly where he liked his pitches (down and in), so he was more concerned about what was behind him than in front. Not only did the Derby add the element of a catcher, but Kelly’s battery-mate on this day was Mike Casey, son of legendary Twins radio announcer Bob Casey. As Brunansky was trying to get his emotions under control, Casey would not stop yapping.
“He's sitting there talking to me, and that's not something you usually get during games,” Brunansky says. “I told TK I wanted to take a couple of pitches, so I could track them a bit, and Case is back there saying, ‘OK, Bruno, why don’t you take a couple.’ I almost kind of said, ‘OK, Case, I know what I'm doing here, buddy. I don't need to hear you.’ I didn't want to have to think about him.”
But Bruno took a few pitches to calm his nerves and crack! One homer to left field. Then another. He hadn’t yet recorded an out and the Derby was all tied up. Only now could he relax a little, knowing that victory was but a swing away.
The final ball of the Derby was a towering shot into the left-center field stands. Thanks to four homers each from Brunansky, Murray, Rice, and Carlton Fisk — Ripken contributed but a single dinger — and one amazing catch from a lanky high school center fielder still feeling rather sheepish from all the attention, the American League won the first-ever Home Run Derby, 17-16.
“Once I hit it, I knew it was out, and it was total relief,” Brunansky says. “It was stressful back then and I can't imagine the stress that these guys go through now.”
After Brunansky smacked the winning homer and surrounded by reporters, he didn’t even want to talk about himself.
“Where’s the kid that caught Sandberg’s ball?” he boomed. “I want to shake his hand! Kirby Puckett II.”
In 1988, three years after Brunansky’s historic home run, ESPN acquired the exclusive broadcast rights to the entire 26-episode run of Mark Scott’s Home Run Derby TV series. Though they often aired the series in the dead of night at 1:30 a.m., when only the most sleep-deprived baseball fans were awake, the response was so positive that Bristol ran the series again in the summer of 1989, this time at 6 p.m. It later became one of the most popular programs on the fledgling Classic Sports Network — now known as ESPN Classic.
Since 1990, ESPN has slowly become the modern Home Run Derby’s biggest champion, originally only airing highlights on tape delay or during special editions of SportsCenter. These days, it’s live and with all the pomp and celebration (not to mention distance analytics and multiple HD camera angles) one could possibly want, ensuring that no Sean Moe moment ever goes unseen again.
By now, the Derby has lasted for so many years and seen so many participants come and go that its generational impact has started to compound. For instance, Garvey’s fondest Derby moment doesn’t concern the one in which he actually competed. He most remembers the 2008 contest at old Yankee Stadium when his son, Ryan, a high school junior from Southern California, was selected to shag balls in right field. (His fellow outfielders that night included sons of both Ripken and Hall of Famer Dave Winfield.)
As Hamilton was swatting balls all around the field, he knocked a screamer toward Ryan Garvey — more precisely, right at a 10-year-old kid standing a few feet in front of him. The younger Garvey raced up, reached in front, and snagged the ball that almost assuredly would’ve slammed into the kid’s face or chest.” He tossed the ball to the kid, who threw it back in toward the infield. But as Garvey jogged back to his position, he was mercilessly booed by the infamous right field Bleacher Creatures, who figured he had hogged the kid’s attention by “stealing” the ball away. Ryan Garvey looked in vain at the nearby umpire, who could only laugh.
“Son,” he said, “welcome to Yankee Stadium.”
It was only later on that Garvey told his son, who now plays Class A ball in the Colorado Rockies’ farm system, how those same fans chucked batteries at Reggie Smith and Rick Monday during the 1981 World Series. But for Garvey, the moment made him realize how the Derby had come full circle for him. “It was a charming little thrown-together event that became the scene for this monolithic made-for-TV event now,” he says. “But it was nice to be part of the first one and have it on my resume, so to speak.”
Ryne Sandberg, now the manager of the Philadelphia Phillies, went on to win a tough Home Run Derby at his home stadium of Wrigley Field in 1990. Five of eight participants were shut out, including Jose Canseco, Ken Griffey Jr. and Cecil Fielder, who hit 51 homers that year — and Sandberg’s paltry three was more than enough for the title.
If such a collectively poor showing had anyone thinking the Home Run Derby had run its course, Cal Ripken Jr. quashed that mindset the following year in Toronto. After hitting only one during the 1985 contest, Ripken belted an unprecedented 12 home runs at SkyDome and doubled Parker’s old Derby record.
What was the difference after six years?
“I wasn’t facing Tom Kelly!” Ripken says, affirming that one’s chances for Derby success often rely on who’s pitching. And beyond the mere hitting of home runs, Ripken would like to see the scope of pre-All-Star Game events broadened to something more like the National Hockey League’s annual SuperSkills contest.
“I'd like to see the fastest guys run around the bases, create things like that,” Ripken says. “What you're doing is risking injury for all these other things, but the NHL does this. I think there's value in some sort of skills competition, but the Home Run Derby is a skills competition so I’m happy to see it evolving. They're modifying it a bit this year, which is good, but everybody wants to see guys lean back and try to hit balls as far as they can.”
Indeed, the new format will pit players against one another in a bracket-style contest, with prolific sluggers in the opening round getting byes into the later stage, perhaps an attempt at avoiding a repeat of 2008, when Hamilton hit 28 home runs in the first round, failed to reach the semifinals and looked like he needed an oxygen mask afterward. And instead of the usual 10 outs, each batter will now get only seven, so perhaps the proceedings will move with a bit more haste than in years' past.
Ripken will be at this year’s Home Run Derby, but Moe, now 47, married with two kids, and still living in St. Cloud, where he works for the Benton County planning and zoning divisions, is going to sit this one out. It’s just not the same now that the Twins are back playing in an open-air stadium such as Target Field. But he’ll watch from home, maybe give a glance at the ball that his teammate saved for him after Moe pulled it back from over the wall and absent-mindedly threw it back to the infield, as he had a thousand times before in practice. This ball that made him a fleeting hero among Minnesotans still carries the red All-Star Game logo, though his son, Nathan, found it a few years back and now it’s dirty with grass stains and more than a little smudged. He’ll watch and remember what it was like to spend his final day of high school baseball roaming the Metrodome center field as if it were his own.
And maybe Moe will realize how no one in the history of the Home Run Derby can ever top his own experience. He would certainly welcome anyone to try, and at least now the entire baseball world can watch.