A Long Week of Homers: Stunning Dale Long Achievement Detailed — Homer by Homer

This article was written by Francis Kinlaw

This article was published in the Road Trips: SABR Convention Journal Articles


This article was originally published in “Baseball in Pittsburgh,” the 1995 SABR convention journal.

 

Dale Long, who appeared in over 1,000 major league games and tagged 132 big league home runs, is one of a select number of former Pittsburgh Pirates whose name elicits immediate recognition from those familiar with baseball’s rich heritage. When he slammed home runs in eight consecutive games in May of 1956, the first baseman secured a special place in baseball history by establishing a remarkable record while facing intense pressure and unfavorable circumstances.

Until 1955, Long’s career had been marked by a trail of frustrating and sometimes embarrassing experiences. After entering professional baseball in 1944, the fellow who came to be known to his Pittsburgh teammates as “The Big Guy” bounced all over the baseball horizon, playing for 15 teams in 11 leagues.

During that 11-year period, he was the property of six different major league organizations. But while the left-handed slugger had moved around the minors enough to be termed a “journeyman,” he had by no means been mediocre. He had been the home run champion of two minor leagues, as well as the Most Valuable Player in the Pacific Coast League after his 35 homers and 135 RBI helped bring the Hollywood Stars a pennant in 1953. When Long finally landed in Pittsburgh in 1955, he immediately became an offensive star with 16 homers, 79 RBI, and a .291 batting average.

He might have reached the fences more often had he not played so many of his 131 games in expansive Forbes Field. But the existence of that park’s deep power alleys did enable him to rip 13 triples—enough to tie Willie Mays for the National League lead in that category. (Those three-baggers did not result from Long’s speed or daring base running: the 6’4”, 215-pounder did not steal a single base during the 1955 season!) Despite his contributions, however, the Pirates were mired in an era of futility, finishing in last place for the fourth consecutive year and deep in the National League’s second division for the ninth time in 10 seasons since the end of World War II.

Both the career of the 30-year-old Long and the fortunes of the Pirates seemed to gain new life in the first month of the 1956 season, with Long’s name often appearing in headlines above accounts of Pittsburgh victories. Exhibiting “high school enthusiasm,” the young Pittsburgh club carried a respectable 12- 12 record into a game with the Cubs on Saturday, May 19. Long, who was hitting .388 with six home runs and 18 RBI, had not been the only productive Pittsburgh player. Shortstop Dick Groat, outfielders Frank Thomas and Gene Freese, and catcher Hank Foiles were also enjoying early success. Pitchers Bob Friend, Vernon Law, and Ron Kline were impressive as they assumed most of the mound duties.

On May 19, the most exciting week of the Pirate season—and of Dale Long’s career—began in Forbes Field. Pittsburgh held a 5-3 lead in the bottom of the eighth inning when Long, who had already registered two RBI with a double, homered off left hander Jim Davis with one man on. After a mild Chicago rally was subdued in the ninth, the Bucs celebrated their 7-4 victory and advancement into fifth place, only three games behind the league-leading Milwaukee Braves.

The Pirates had an excellent opportunity to gain ground on the Braves the next day in a doubleheader with Milwaukee at Forbes Field. Brave right hander Ray Crone carried a 1-0 lead into the bottom of the fifth inning of the opener. But Long uncorked a three-run blast into the upper deck in right field to key a six-run uprising that carried the Pirates to victory. The crowd of 32,346— the largest gathering in Forbes Field in five years—was to derive additional joy from the nightcap of the twin bill.

With Roberto Clemente on base in the bottom of the first inning, Long jumped on an offering from high-kicking southpaw Warren Spahn and promptly put the Pirates ahead by two runs. Long also singled across a pair of runs in the seventh inning, but Ron Kline hardly needed the insurance as he checked the Braves until a 5-0 Pittsburgh win was in the books.

Following a day off, Long launched his 10th home run of the season—and the fourth of his streak—against the St. Louis Cardinals on Tuesday night, May 22. With the Pirates trailing 3-1 and no one on base in the bottom of the sixth inning. Long connected with a delivery from right hander Herm Wehmeier so solidly that the ball ricocheted off a girder in the second tier of Forbes Field’s right-field stands. Stan Musial, a veteran of 14 National League seasons, commented that he had never seen a ball hit so far in Pittsburgh. For the Bucs, however, the home run was the highlight of the evening, as the Cardinals handed the local team its lone defeat of this incredible week.

Long performed another Mickey Mantle imitation the next night, depositing a seventh-inning pitch by Card Lindy McDaniel over the 436-foot marker in right-center field. The tape-measure shot was reportedly the first batted ball to clear that distant spot in Forbes Field’s 47 years. The home run produced the final run in a 6-0 Pirate victory, but it possessed a drama of its own. Not only was the wallop compared to the 714th of Babe Ruth’s career— which flew over the right-field roof in 1935—but Long tagged this one in his fourth (and last) at-bat of the evening.

This smash, despite its relative in significance in the context of the game, brought loud cheers from the crowd of 19,917. For the second consecutive evening, attendance in Forbes Field was greater than it had been for any night game in four years, since June 6, 1952. Attention was focusing on the streak. Long later admitted that he was affected by the changing environment, saying that he had been “feeling loose” until he extended his home-run streak to five games with the homer off McDaniel.

Two days later, Long went deep against left hander Curt Simmons in Philadelphia. The Pirates trailed the Phillies 3-2 in the fifth inning, and had Lee Walls aboard after drawing a base on balls, when Long rifled the blow that propelled Pittsburgh to an 8-5 triumph.

By homering in six straight contests, Long equaled a major league mark which had been reached by five men (Ken Williams in 1922, Long George Kelly in 1924, Lou Gehrig in 1931, Walker Cooper in 1947 and Willie Mays in 1955). But celebrity status came with a price. Long, a former semipro football star who had wandered for years through the baseball desert, would recall afterward that the hustle and bustle around him became a distraction after he had tied the existing record. Subtle pressure was applied, for example, when photographers asked Long to pose during the following day’s batting practice with seven of his 35-inch, 34-ounce bats “just in case he hit a homer in a seventh consecutive game.”

And he tried to do exactly that by aiming for the fences of Connie Mack Stadium with every swing of the bat on Saturday afternoon, May 26. The suspense was almost lifted in the first inning when Long faced right hander Stu Miller and belted a drive that struck a spot less than one foot below the top of the 32-foot right-field wall. He was forced to settle for a double. He then hit a high fly to center field in the third inning, and lined sharply to right in the fifth.

Long had one more opportunity to keep his streak alive. With the bases empty and the Pirates holding a 4-2 lead in the eighth inning, he came to the plate to face right hander Ben Flowers. The count progressed to two balls and two strikes, the latter resulting when Long took two big swings but missed. (“He looked terrible!” said Pittsburgh manager Bobby Bragan.) Then, suddenly, came the record-breaker, as Long timed a knuckleball perfectly and knocked it over the light tower in right field and onto the porch of a neighboring house. Long’s excited teammates bolted from their first-base dugout as soon as the ball was hit, mobbed him as he crossed home plate, and carried him to the dugout to the sound of applause from the sparse gathering of 4,614 Philadelphia fans. Frank Thomas, the next batter, then capped the celebration and ended the day’s scoring by racking a home run into the upper deck behind left field.

Rain caused postponement of a scheduled Sunday doubleheader against the Phillies, but the Sabbath brought no rest for baseball’s latest sensation. Deals were negotiated with companies on both sides of the health spectrum: Long endorsed not only a bakery and a dairy, but also a brewery and Viceroy cigarettes. A “Dale Long T-shirt” was rushed onto the market and an appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show was arranged. And, with much fanfare. Pirates General Manager Joe L. Brown increased Long’s salary from $13,500 to $15,700. All of these developments were unprecedented for a man who had struggled, as broadcaster Bob Prince once noted, “to get his name in a box score.”

When the Pirates returned to Forbes Field on the evening of May 28 to begin a series with the Brooklyn Dodgers, they were greeted by an enthusiastic throng of 32,221. Long was challenged by Carl Erskine, a pitcher with a splendid overhand curve ball, and the veteran hurler ruled in the initial confrontation by enticing Long—who was again batting third—to ground out.

But after the Dodgers had taken a 2-1 lead, Long led off the bottom of the fourth inning by stroking one of Erskine’s notorious low curves into the lower right-field stands, just above the 375 marker. Bob Prince called the scene his “most significant moment in broadcasting.” The cheers from the crowd had begun when Long stepped into the batter’s box to hit, and ended several minutes later when he reluctantly popped out of the dugout to doff his cap and wave. (While commonplace today, such a response was extraordinary at the time; Branch Rickey said that Long’s curtain call was the first one he had ever observed on a baseball field.) The game itself came to a halt as home plate umpire Lee Ballanfant called for a pause until the volume of noise lessened.

Though Long fanned in his last two plate appearances of the evening, the Pirates pushed one more run across for a 3-2 win. The local favorites had closed to within a single game of first place and continued to amaze nearly every so-called expert.

But the exhausting week was taking its toll on the team’s offensive leader. Though he needed rest to prepare for another game with the Dodgers the next afternoon (May 29), Long was unable to sleep until 2:30 a.m.. Less than two hours later he was awakened by a telephone solicitation to appear on The Today Show that very morning. At 7:00 a.m. he lumbered out of bed and headed to a Pittsburgh studio for the television interview. Then he ate breakfast and drove to Forbes Field to face hard-throwing Don Newcombe, who would win 27 games during the season and receive both the National League Most Valuable Player Award and the major leagues’ first Cy Young Award.

As Long kept his appointment with Newcombe, Senator James H. Duff of Pennsylvania was calling the attention of Congress to the eight-game streak. Unfortunately, at the ballpark, the Pirates and their star were experiencing an afternoon which did not match the sunny sky overhead. As the Dodgers rolled to a 10-1 victory, Long struck out on five pitches in the opening frame, flew to deep center in the third, and popped out in the sixth and eighth innings.

He did quicken the hearts of the 11,935 paying customers with his third-inning smash—Duke Snider was forced to make a running catch just in front of the ivy-covered outfield wall. But Forbes Field’s unforgiving dimensions and an undeniable fatigue factor combined to bring the streak to an end. Long would contend that newspaper reporters were mistaken when they wrote after the game that Newcombe had overpowered him. Long said that he was simply too tired to get his bat around on a fireballer of Newk’s quality.

In the eight games in which he had homered. Long had produced 19 runs and hit at a .500 clip (15 for 30). But just two weeks after the binge, Long fouled consecutive pitches off the same ankle, and his success hit the skids. The publicity of his streak had been so great that he received more votes for a position on the National League All-Star team than any other player. But he was in the midst of a deep slump when the game took place. After hitting 14 homers in the Pirates’ first 33 games, Long tagged only 13 more over the remainder of the season.

The Pirates’ fortunes followed suit. In second place with a proud 19-13 record on the last day of Long’s streak, the club fell off the ledge and landed in seventh place with a 66-88 tally, a full 27 games short of the pennant.

Why was Long’s streak so fascinating to baseball fans in 1956, and why is it still remembered fondly 39 years later? First and foremost, the pressure Long encountered and mastered demands appreciation. Second, the big first sacker was an appealing character because he was not a major star of whom great achievement was expected. Third, though the Pirates were planting the first seeds of their 1960 world championship, Long’s team was so identified with failure that a popular movie of the period, Angels in the Outfield, had exploited the club’s futility. And finally, the streak is noteworthy because Long victimized three of baseball’s best pitchers (Spahn, Simmons and Erskine) during the memorable week.

By the time Don Mattingly and Ken Griffey Jr. matched Long’s feat, both those well-known players had tasted success and had appeared on the covers of numerous magazines. The relatively obscure Long, in contrast, had sparked the imagination of fans and gained much of his fame in only a few days. When Dale Long died of cancer in January of 1991, a large measure of that fame endured, and it will as long as baseball’s great stories are told.

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