Saturday, December 8, 2012

Wuthering Heights

A superficial glance through the Guiness Book of World Records should prove to anyone that some folks are willing to go to great lengths to carve a small niche in history. The game of baseball has witnessed some odd publicity stunts over the years. In 1894, Chicago Colts catcher Pops Schriver caught a ball dropped 555 feet from the top of the Washington Monument. Since then, the feat has been duplicated and ramped up several times.

To settle a bet, Washington Senators catcher Gabby Street attempted the same stunt in 1908. He missed in his first several tries then finally snared a ball to collect a wager of $500. Two years later, Bill Sullivan of the Chicago White Sox gained entry into the exclusive club, catching three baseballs in more than fifty attempts. He had passed on an offer to snag balls dropped from a low-flying airplane, commenting that he may as well try to catch a bullet. In 1915, Wilbert Robinson--fifty-two year-old manager of the Dodgers--agreed to turn the airplane trick after several of his players declined. At the last minute, however, a grapefruit was substituted. It allegedly hit Robinson in the chest and exploded, knocking him to the ground. Believing that he was covered in his own blood, the horrified Brooklyn skipper cried out for help as his players stood there howling with laughter (or so the story goes).

After the skyscaper boom of the 1920s/'30s, it was only a matter of time before someone upped the ante. In the interest of promoting civic growth, some Cleveland city officials arranged to have balls dropped from the Terminal Tower, which was at one time the tallest building between Chicago and New York at 708 feet. On August 20th, 1938, a crowd  of nearly ten thousand people turned out to see a platoon of major league catchers attempt a record catch. Assembled were Frankie Pytlak, Rollie Hemsley, Henry Helf, Wally Schang and Johnny Bassler. Indians rookie Ken Keltner climbed to the top of the tower and aimed for a circular target painted on the ground, which he later admitted he could barely see. Engineers estimated the speed of the baseballs to be around 138 miles per hour. Cleveland's third-stringer Helf was the first to make a catch. Three tries later, the Tribe's starting backstop (Pytlak) snagged one for himself. According to eyewitness accounts, missed balls bounced as high as six stories.

The following year, Joe Sprinz of the Pacific Coast League Seals couldn't leave well enough alone as he attempted to catch baseballs dropped from a blimp hovering 800 feet above Treasure Island in San Francisco. Sprinz's stunt was one of many offbeat attractions at the Golden Gate Exposition, which included an auto race track for monkeys. The blimp dumped four balls that missed the mark by a wide margin. On the fifth try, Sprinz got his glove in place but couldn't hang on as the force of the sphere severely fractured his jaw and knocked out several teeth. After that, players more or less stopped trying to raise the bar.

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