BALTIMORE (Published May 8, 1991) — “Here” reads the simple message in black letters on an orange flag that flutters behind the left-field bleachers, marking the spot where a Frank Robinson home run 25 years ago Wednesday left Memorial Stadium.
Hitters have stepped to the plate more than 220,000 times in 2,965 regular-season and postseason games at the fated ballpark, and no other batter — not Harmon Killebrew, Frank Howard or Mickey Mantle — can say they hit a fair ball out of the Orioles’ home park.
And with fewer than 80 major league games left this season at the 33rd Street stadium before the Orioles move to new digs near downtown, Robinson is on the verge of standing alone in this accomplishment.
The “Here” flag was raised on its staff 11 days after Robinson’s home run off Cleveland pitcher Luis Tiant in the second game of a doubleheader sweep of the Indians.
The ball had traveled 451 feet where it left the park and rolled another 89 feet before coming to rest under a car in the west parking lot, 540 feet from home plate. Two teenage boys found the ball, affording them their 15 minutes of fame.
“I had no idea it went out of the ballpark until I got back to the dugout,” said Robinson a quarter of a century later and now a Hall of Famer and manager of the Orioles. “The guys on the bench said the ball had gone out of the ballpark, but I thought they were pulling my leg.”
Tiant, 50, recalled from his home in Canton, Mass., that he threw Robinson a sinking fastball.
“You don’t think I’d forget that,” he said. “I saw the ball sinking OK. He was just so great. No matter what you threw, he hit it.”
On May 8, 1966, Mother’s Day, there was no score with one out in the first inning and Luis Aparicio was on first with a leadoff single. Robinson, a 30-year-old righthanded hitter, stepped into the batter’s box before 49,516 fans, the largest crowd to attend a game at Memorial Stadium at the time.
This was Robinson’s first season in the American League after the Orioles’ landmark trade with Cincinnati, in which Baltimore sent to the Reds pitchers Milt Pappas and Jack Baldschun and outfielder Dick Simpson.
Robinson was getting his first look at Tiant, who was 3-0 with three shutouts.
In the next day’s Baltimore Sun, reporter Jim Elliot described the fate of Tiant’s first pitch to Robinson:
“The ball appeared on its way out the moment it left Robinson’s bat, soaring high and deep down the left-field line, clearing the corner of the football press box and a 12-foot television camera stand sitting at the top of the bleachers.”
Among those in the stands was James Bready, an Oriole historian who wrote the book “The Home Team.”
“It was the mother of all home runs,” said Bready, now 72 and retired after 40 years as an editorial writer for the Sun, who had taken his wife and mother-in-law to the doubleheader in honor of Mother’s Day.
Because “the final few feet of the arc was blacked out by the overhang of the upper deck,” Bready said, “you had to tell (it left the park) by the way the crowd reacted. It was a spreading realization.”
Once word was announced on the public address system, “Everybody was ecstatic,” Bready said.
While Robinson could not recall 25 years later who was on base when he hit the home run, he said the standing ovation he received when he took his position in right field the next inning ‘is what I remember most.’
He told reporters after the game he was “a little embarrassed” by the response. As the crowd roared, Robinson shuffled his feet and repeatedly brought his right hand to his cap.
“It was a great thing for the fans to do that,” Robinson said back then. “It hit the soft spot. I had never received an applause like that.”
Following the game, Robinson met the boys who found the ball — Mike Sparaco, 15, and Bill Wheatley, 14.
“It all happened so quick,” Sparaco told the Sun in an article that appeared along with a picture of him, Robinson and Wheatley all holding the ball. “We were walking in the parking lot when the ball came over the top of the stands. I heard the crowd roar, looked up, and the crowd looking over the top pointed to where the ball had bounced. It was under the fifth car down there.”
Moments later, people started offering Sparaco money for the ball. “One fan offered me $5,” he said. “Another made it $10, and then I almost took $20, but the man’s wife gave him a dirty look. I didn’t know what to do.”
At first, the Orioles couldn’t coax the youngster into surrendering the souvenir with an offer of $10, an autographed ball, a visit with Robinson and two season tickets for the bleachers.
Today, Sparaco still lives in Baltimore. The 40-year-old bricklayer said he finally gave in and turned the ball over to an Orioles front office official, who gave it to Robinson, for a season’s pass and autographed balls and yearbooks “because everyone was handling it and getting it dirty.”
A newspaper boy for the Baltimore News-American, Sparaco remembered what a thrill it was the next day to be “throwing my picture up on people’s porches.”
Tape-measure home runs were nothing new to Robinson. When he was with Cincinnati he hit one shot off Bob Gibson of St. Louis that went 503 feet on the fly and landed on an expressway embankment behind center field at Crosley Field.
“I have hit balls as hard,” he said of the muscle-bound blast off Tiant. “But it would be difficult to say that I’ve hit any harder.”
That homer came off baseball’s hottest pitcher and at a pivotal time. The sweep of the Indians tied the two teams for first place at 15-4, jarring the city into the realization that the 1966 Orioles were a special team and the newly acquired Robinson a special player.
The Orioles went on to comfortably win the pennant and Robinson was named the league’s Most Valuable Player. He won the Triple Crown by leading the league in average (. 316), home runs (49) and runs batted in (122).
In the World Series, the Orioles swept the formidable Los Angeles Dodgers and Robinson was named the fall classic’s MVP.
“Frank Robinson’s home run got drowned out over the season by the accomplishments of the team,” said Bready, the Orioles historian.
The inspiration for the ‘Here’ flag came from another long-distance home run 72 years and 4 days earlier at Union Park in Baltimore.
On May 4, 1894, lefthanded slugger Dan Brouthers, playing for the Orioles of the National League, hit only the second ball over the fence at Union Park. Brouthers’ blast carried 365 feet over the fence and sailed another 60 feet on the fly. As the story goes, the ball rolled 1, 300 more feet down a street before a police officer found the ball and returned it to the Orioles.
Legend aside, a cross was painted on the right-center field fence along with the word “Here” denoting the point of the ball’s departure in an era when home runs were uncommon.
The NL Orioles disbanded in 1899. Brouthers, born 108 years to the day before Robinson’s classic clout, died in 1932 and entered the Hall of Fame in 1945. Still, his feat lives on through Robinson’s one-of-a-kind home run.