Home Run Derby: Power shows turn into drawing power

  • Article by: JOE CHRISTENSEN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 12, 2014 - 11:58 PM

Then-Twin Justin Morneau won the 2008 Home Run Derby at the old Yankee Stadium, and he’s back, from Colorado, for another swing at it this summer.

Photo: Associated Press file,

CameraStar Tribune photo galleries

Cameraview larger


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.

Low-key show

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].”

  • related content

  • Chart: Notable Home Run Derby moments

    Saturday July 12, 2014

    FIVE NOTABLE home run DERBY MOMENTS1990The Derby goes to Wrigley Field — what could possibly go wrong? Well, the wind...

  • Then-Twin Justin Morneau won the 2008 Home Run Derby at the old Yankee Stadium after watching Josh Hamilton smashed 28 in the first round before tiring.

  • get related content delivered to your inbox

  • manage my email subscriptions


Buffalo 12/28/14 12:00 PM
New England
Cleveland 12/28/14 12:00 PM
Dallas 12/28/14 12:00 PM
Indianapolis 12/28/14 12:00 PM
Jacksonville 12/28/14 12:00 PM
San Diego 12/28/14 12:00 PM
Kansas City
NY Jets 12/28/14 12:00 PM
Chicago 12/28/14 12:00 PM
Philadelphia 12/28/14 12:00 PM
NY Giants
New Orleans 12/28/14 12:00 PM
Tampa Bay
Carolina 12/28/14 3:25 PM
Detroit 12/28/14 3:25 PM
Green Bay
Oakland 12/28/14 3:25 PM
Arizona 12/28/14 3:25 PM
San Francisco
St. Louis 12/28/14 3:25 PM
Cincinnati 12/28/14 7:30 PM
Washington 102 FINAL
New York 91
Oklahoma City 114 FINAL
San Antonio 106
Cleveland 91 FINAL
Miami 101
LA Lakers 93 FINAL
Chicago 113
Golden State 34 2nd Qtr 5:02
LA Clippers 24
DePaul 69 FINAL
Loyola Marymount 72
Ohio 58 FINAL
Nebraska 71
Colorado 66 FINAL
Hawaii 69
George Washington 60 FINAL
Wichita State 54
Central Mich 48 FINAL
Western Ky 49
Fresno State 6 FINAL
Rice 30
Illinois 12/26/14 12:00 PM
Louisiana Tech
Rutgers 12/26/14 3:30 PM
North Carolina
NC State 12/26/14 7:00 PM
Cincinnati 12/27/14 12:00 PM
Virginia Tech
Duke 12/27/14 1:10 PM
(15) Arizona State
Miami-Florida 12/27/14 2:30 PM
So Carolina
Boston College 12/27/14 3:30 PM
Penn State
(25) Nebraska 12/27/14 7:00 PM
(24) USC
Texas A&M 12/29/14 1:00 PM
West Virginia
Oklahoma 12/29/14 4:30 PM
(18) Clemson
Arkansas 12/29/14 8:00 PM
Notre Dame 12/30/14 2:00 PM
(22) LSU
(13) Georgia 12/30/14 5:45 PM
(20) Louisville
Maryland 12/30/14 9:00 PM
(9) Ole Miss 12/31/14 11:30 AM
(6) TCU
(21) Boise State 12/31/14 3:00 PM
(12) Arizona
(8) Miss State 12/31/14 7:00 PM
(10) Georgia Tech
(19) Auburn 1/1/15 11:00 AM
(17) Wisconsin
(7) Michigan State 1/1/15 11:30 AM
(4) Baylor
(16) Missouri 1/1/15 12:00 PM
(2) Florida State 1/1/15 4:00 PM
(3) Oregon
(5) Ohio State 1/1/15 7:30 PM
(1) Alabama
Connect with twitterConnect with facebookConnect with Google+Connect with PinterestConnect with PinterestConnect with RssfeedConnect with email newsletters





question of the day

Poll: Do you like the Twins' offseason moves so far?

Weekly Question