Thanks to the rise of digital television and the explosion of new digital channels looking for cheap content to broadcast, I got to see my first episode of the classic syndicated TV show Home Run Derby which originally aired in 1960. The episode I watched had the San Francisco Giants’ Willie Mays beating out the Washington Senators’ Bobby Allison, before the franchise’s move to Minnesota.
It’s well known that this TV show was the inspiration for the Home Run Derby that plays a part of the All-Star Break. However, the original show had slightly different rules. Any batting practice pitch thrown for a strike that was not hit out of the ballpark was counted as an out, and the hitters took turns hitting with three “outs” constituting a half inning.
19 of the era’s best sluggers appeared on the show, nine of them future Hall of Famers (you can find a listing in the wikipedia article I link to above). The most successful participants, not surprisingly, were Hank Aaron (6-1), Mickey Mantle (4-1) and Willie Mays (3-2).
The players were paid for their appearances with winners receiving $2,000 an episode and losers getting a $1,000. Players also got $500 bonuses for their third home run in a row and for their fourth home run and received $1,000 for their fifth consecutive home run and for each consecutive home run after that. Since Ted Williams, who was finishing up his career in 1959-1960, never appeared on the show, it’s safe to say that none of the participants was then earning more than $90,000 a year, if that, so the money was a very nice supplement to their regular salaries.
Jackie Jensen was the only player in the show’s history to hit five consecutive home runs, so even though he lost the series’ final episode 13-10 to Mickie Mantle, he actually made more money for that episode ($3,000 to $2,500 for Mantle, who hit three in a row during the episode.) Hank Aaron earned the most money on the show ($13,500) with Mantle the only other player to earn a cool $10,000.
The show was filmed at Wrigley Park in Los Angeles, the former home of the Los Angeles Angels of the Pacific Coast League, who moved out of L.A. when the Dodgers came to town in 1958, and the soon-to-be home (1961) of the Los Angeles Angels of the American League. Special rules were adopted to make the home run dimensions roughly equal for right-handed and left-handed hitters.
The wikipedia article linked to above is not clear on just how popular the show was, although I would expect that it was popular, given the brisk pace of the show, and what was then the novel opportunity to see the games great sluggers compete head-to-head to see who could hit the most batting practice fastballs out of the yard. However, the show lasted only 26 episodes over approximately early January to early July 1960, because the show’s host Mark Scott died of a heart attack a week after the the last episode of the first season aired, and the producers decided to discontinue the show, rather than find a new announcer.