On the day before the 1985 All-Star Game at the Metrodome, baseball’s decision-makers took a chance. Peter Ueberroth, the commissioner then, had been brainstorming ways to trumpet the sport, and in prior years the annual All-Star workout day had been relatively ho-hum.
Instead of simply holding batting practice, officials dusted off an old concept from the 1960 TV series “Home Run Derby,” featuring sluggers like Hank Aaron, Willie Mays and Harmon Killebrew. That show had been so simple, so understated, and still so fun.
The 1985 Home Run Derby was a contest between the National League and American League, featuring five sluggers a side. The thought of televising it probably would have drawn laughs. Organizers invited the public and charged $2 admission. Nobody was sure who’d come, but the Monday crowd swelled to 46,000.
“We’ve had some dramatic home run derbies over the years,” said Laurel Prieb, who helped coordinate those All-Star events for the Twins. “But I make the case that ’85 was the most dramatic of all.”
The NL led 16-14 as the final hitter strolled to the plate — Twins right fielder Tom Brunansky. With Tom Kelly pitching, Brunansky took a while to find his groove, but he pulled three homers into the left field seats, giving the AL the win.
Suddenly, baseball had its answer to the NBA Slam Dunk Contest. The Home Run Derby has since taken on a life of its own, and there’s nothing understated about it. Now in its 30th year, the event arrives at Target Field on Monday night with a new four-round bracket format, 10 sluggers and Chris Berman’s repeated shouts of “Back! Back! Back! … Gone!”
It’s become nearly as popular as the All-Star Game itself. In 2008, when Josh Hamilton hit a record 28 home runs in the first round — only to be defeated later by Justin Morneau — more than 9.1 million viewers watched. For comparison, about 11 million viewers watched last year’s All-Star Game.
On Friday, the cheapest available ticket for the Home Run Derby on stubhub.com was $176, and that was for standing room only. There was nothing available in the bottom two levels of the left-field bleachers for less than $270.
“It’s turned into an unbelievably spectacular event,” Brunansky said.
The original TV series wasn’t spectacular, but that has been part of its enduring charm. After the 1959 season, the show’s producers invited 19 hitters to compete in one-on-one contests at Los Angeles’ Wrigley Field, the one-time home of the Pacific Coast League’s Hollywood Stars.
On each episode of “Home Run Derby,” the winning slugger received $2,000, the loser received $1,000, and the contestants could earn a $500 bonus for hitting three homers in a row. That wasn’t small change. Killebrew had made just $9,000 from the Washington Senators the previous year and worked in a men’s clothing store during the offseason to help pay his bills.
In the first episode, Mays opened an 8-2 lead over Mickey Mantle.
“It was in December,” Mays recalled this spring. “I had been home, not doing much. My hands were tender, from not swinging a bat in three months, and they started bleeding. I didn’t hit another home run, and Mick beat me [9-8].
“After that, I went and put resin on my hands, and pickle juice, to toughen them up. I beat your guys from Minnesota [eventual Twins Bob Allison, Killebrew and Jim Lemon]. About then, the sponsor came to me and said, ‘Willie, we’re running out of money. We can’t pay you what we’re supposed to.’ That didn’t sound too good to me. I wound up losing to [Gil Hodges].”
Aaron finished with the best record (6-1) and the most prize money — $13,500. The 26 episodes aired from January to July 1960. Mark Scott, who calmly interviewed the contestants between their at-bats, died of a heart attack that same summer at age 45. Rather than replace him, the producers canceled the show, but it lived on during rain delays for years and can still be found on iTunes.
“I remember watching ‘Home Run Derby’ with Killer and Hank Aaron and all those guys, and that was pretty fun as a kid, growing up,” Brunansky said. “But we’d never really done [home run contests] much. You’d have your rounds where you’d do it during batting practice, but the concept was relatively new [in 1985].”
Bruno boosts Derby
Brunansky’s heroics at the Metrodome, and the huge ovation, helped convince baseball officials to keep staging the event. It remained an AL vs. NL competition until 1996, when the focus moved to crowning an individual champion. That year in Philadelphia, Barry Bonds defeated Mark McGwire in the finals.
The 1998 Derby, at Colorado’s Coors Field, was the first to be televised live. Home runs were all the rage. The balls were juiced, and so were many of the contestants, but fans couldn’t look away.
Baseball cracked down on steroids, yet the jaw-dropping power displays continued. In 2005 at Detroit, Bobby Abreu hit a record 41 home runs in three rounds, including 24 in Round 1. Anyone who thought it was easy also saw Jason Bay take 10 swings in that same first round without once clearing the fence.
“It’s nerve-racking,” Brunansky said. “I felt uncomfortable [in the ’85 Derby] and had to take a couple pitches and just slow my breathing down a little bit. We don’t practice it. We take batting practice every day, of course, but for this there’s no hitting cage. You go up there, and it’s almost a naked feeling.”
Morneau watched in wonder at old Yankee Stadium when Hamilton put on his 2008 display. In the Home Run Derby, any swing that produces anything but a home run is an out, and after using eight of his 10 outs, Hamilton reeled off a string of 13 consecutive home runs. One traveled an estimated 518 feet.
“You dream about moments like that, playing Home Run Derby in your back yard, being your favorite player, pretending you’re on that stage” Hamilton said. “I’ll never forget it.”
But it was only one round. One serious challenge for Home Run Derby hitters is overcoming the long wait between their turns. Throw in the commercial breaks, and the event often lasts 2½ hours.
After smashing 28 homers in the first round, Hamilton, exhausted, managed just four in the second round. To that point, he had outhomered Morneau 32-17, but the scoreboard reverts to 0-0 for the final round, and Morneau won 5-3.
“It was just a magical night,” Morneau said. “To sit there and have a front-row seat to watch what [Hamilton] was doing. Obviously, I ended up winning, which was cool, but just to be a part of that whole thing, that was special.”
Hamilton was still the toast of New York City that night.
“We had a great competition, and [Morneau] was funny about it,” Hamilton said. “I saw him at the hotel later, and he was nice enough to let me hold the trophy.”
Morneau turned down an invitation to defend his title in 2009 and had concerns in those years that the event hurt his swing. Abreu’s production had dropped off considerably after his record-setting performance in 2005 — when he had 18 homers before the All-Star break and six the rest of the season.
David Ortiz swore off the Home Run Derby last decade, complaining that the long, drawn-out competition wore him out. But he entered again in 2010 and finally won the thing. Now 38, Ortiz said he’s too old to do it this year. He’s had as much fun over the years cheerleading from the side.
“I remember somebody said, ‘Dude, you look like a little kid when you see guys out there hitting homers,’ ” Ortiz said. “Yeah, but I know how hard it is. So when I see guys doing it, it still impresses me.”
The fans must be impressed, too, because they keep tuning in and keep paying top dollar for the tickets.
Staff writers Patrick Reusse and Phil Miller contributed to this story.