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].”