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THE NUMBERS GAME

The Longest Home Run Ever
By Jerry Dorbin

Click. When the fat of the bat meets the nose of the ball in the sere night air of the desert Southwest, it doesn't go crunch, or crack, or thwack! It just goes click. It is a sound familiar to minor league baseball lovers, yet so arresting that when it is heard eyes are raised from hot dogs and squirming children. Paper cups are lowered, idle ninth-inning conversations cease in mid-sentence and heads snap back, picking up the flight of the ball. And on one memorable occasion in Carlsbad, New Mexico, more than forty years ago, eyes popped as they watched the longest home run of all time.

These were sophisticated fans, residents of a town which fielded teams for many years in organized baseball, yet they gasped in unison, then watched, stunned, as the tiny white dot disappeared into the darkness over a sixty-foot light pole at the 330-foot mark in left field, still rising. The hitter was outfielder Gil Carter of the Carlsbad Potashers of the Class D Sophomore League. A thousand fans were silent for three beats, then Carter circled the bases to gradually rising cheers.

The pitcher was Wayne Schaper of the Odessa, Texas, Dodgers. If he was less discomposed than the fans, it was because he started to turn, then, apparently having some notion what was happening behind him, turned away again. Schaper led 6–0, and had a no-hitter going into the seventh. He walked infielder Ben Brown, and Carter doubled off the center field wall to break up the no-no and the shutout. Shortstop Al Shaw singled off Schaper in the eighth, but died on base.

Carter, who always took "the full cut," as they say around the ball yards, came up again in the ninth with nobody on and one out. Schaper's first pitch to him was a belt-high fastball. Carter's grunt was louder than the sound of bat striking ball.

In the press box, public address announcer Bill West, the Western Union operator, and the official scorer, who was also the local newspaper's sports editor, were daydreaming away the innings. "Jeezus," one mumbled, and they glanced at each other. It was the athletic equivalent of witnessing a nuclear weapons test, but with less light and noise.

Odessa outfielders pivoted and took two quick steps toward the fence, almost instantly realized the futility, and stopped, staring into the lights.

The date was August 11, 1959. It was Carter's twenty-eighth homer, a new club and league record in the circuit's second season, with weeks yet to go. Carter was a 218-pound former boxer from Topeka. He'd been an all-star fullback in high school, but lived in Kansas City by the time the Chicago Cubs assigned him to the little resort and potash mining city on the Pecos River near the wondrous caverns which bear the town's name. It was said he'd won sixty-one of sixty-eight amateur and professional fights. He had the physique of a weightlifter. Carter's age was listed as twenty-three. The Sophomore League, as its name implied, was intended to take baseball players in their early years in the minors and groom them for advancement.

Aerial view of the trajectory that Gil Carter's mammoth blast followed on August 11, 1959, before touching down over 700 feet from home plate. Carlsbad Current-Argus, 1959

The Potashers boasted a couple of fine infielders, an ex-college catching star, and a ready, unflappable reliever named Jack Warner, who anticipated by a generation today's five-night-a-week, one-inning closers. The team took its name from the main product of the region. (Carlsbad high school teams are Cavemen.)

Several Sophomore League alumni had at least a cup of coffee in the bigs; Willie Stargell of Hobbs doing somewhat better than that. When players found themselves too far down the ladder at too mature an age, they sometimes tweaked their biographies. Major league personnel directors rarely wasted time on twenty-eighty-year-old rookies. Carter's teammates occasionally, quietly, joked that he might be a little older than the record showed. At Ping Wong's China Lantern that night, several members of the two teams sat together. The joking was lame or nonexistent; heads shook and the conversation was repetitive.

"Did you ever see such a . . ." "Did you ever see . . ." "Did you EVER see . . ."

You didn't and we didn't. Maybe we never will. Major league upper decks blocked some long shots; San Francisco Bay swallows others. But how strange the change from major to minor. Southeastern New Mexico is the geography which produced Joe Bauman's seventy-two-homer season for Roswell of the Longhorn League in 1954. That's still tops, all time. And

Bauman's season only went 138 games.

Don't call it a "myth" or a "claim." Era, youthful pitching, and the clear air of the three-thousand-foot elevation combined with the hitter himself to produce it. Carter's distance was as well documented as Bauman's total numbers. Carlsbad real estate and insurance agent C. F. (Charley) Montgomery was owner and general manager of the Potashers. Speculation about the length of the homer might have been wretched excess but for this detail: A homeowner found a baseball, the baseball, in her backyard the next day at the foot of a peach tree, surrounded by unripe peaches knocked from trees as the ball crashed through limbs and leaves, came down, and bounced. There were no other fallen peaches in the tract. Fences, clotheslines, trees and flowerbeds all interposed to limit an unusual roll. It was a quiet neighborhood. There was no reason to imagine anyone moving the ball, moving it farther in a direct line but not taking it. And this detail: Montgomery was the developer of the subdivision beyond the left field fence of Montgomery Field. He knew the exact width of streets and alleys. He knew the depth of each lot. He spread maps and plats on a conference table in an office at his agency.

The sports editor of the Carlsbad Current-Argus, who was the official scorer that night, was also a service-trained aerial photographer. He was flown over the field the next day and photographed the scene. Prints were laid out on Montgomery's desk. The monstrous stroke was measured and triangulated. Give-or-take a couple of inches, the ball was found seven hundred thirty feet from the vertex of home plate.

The Sporting News ran a story two weeks later. Sports Illustrated ran a story twenty-one years later. Each time, editors insisted on softening characterization of the hit as the longest home run of all time. The site where the professional stadium stood is now a complex of Little League, Babe Ruth, American Legion, and softball fields. Gil Carter's present whereabouts are unknown. Describing the distance as 650 feet, said the official scorer/sports editor who covered the game that night, was an attempt by him and the team to allow for deflection after impact, and an effort to keep the announcement believable. "We just wanted to be conservative," he remembered forty years later. "It would have been okay with me to call it a 730-foot home run."

—EFQ

JERRY DORBIN lives in Santa Fé, New Mexico, and writes light verse. His account of this event appeared in Sports Illustrated in 1980.

© 2001 Jerry Dorbin

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