By Jeremy Markovich
Thirteen years ago, I asked Mike Schmidt if a legend about him was true. He told me no.
This is what happens when you don't take no for an answer.
I first heard the legend when I was a student at Ohio University in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Back then, Bobcat athletics were lukewarm at best. The basketball team was only good enough to win a game or two at the MAC Tournament. The football team had one first-team All-American during that time: Dave Zastudil. The punter.
That's probably why I got sucked into a story about a home run hit by Mike Schmidt -- pre-Hall of Fame, pre-Phillie, pre-mustache Mike Schmidt. It was a scrap of information from a mostly un-Googleable era: a herculean feat of strength from the greatest Ohio University athlete of all time. Over time, the scrap became legend, and the feat became folklore, even though it didn't seem to be backed by any actual evidence. It persisted because it couldn't easily be proven wrong. When Schmidt told me it didn't happen, I believed him. At first.
Recently, I found the truth. I was finally satisfied. But not for long.
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A 500-foot home run is historic. Babe Ruth hit one in 1926. So did Mickey Mantle in 1953. So did a handful of others.
But most home runs don't travel as far as we think. Despite written claims of massive blasts traveling 600 feet or more, no hard evidence has ever been found. We have Statcast™ now, so measuring big blasts is more prevalent, but nobody in the Major Leagues broke the 500-foot mark last season. In fact, according to Baseball Almanac, there has only been a single confirmed home run of more than 500 feet over the past 30-plus years:
For perspective, consider the computerized measuring system implemented by IBM in most major league cities in 1982. By 1995, the sponsorship had changed, but the program had been expanded to include every big league ballpark. During those years, only one drive of 500 feet was confirmed by this system. Cecil Fielder of the Detroit Tigers is credited with powering a ball 502 feet in the air over the left-field bleachers at Milwaukee's County Stadium on September 14, 1991.
Then there's Schmidt. Before Ohio University ripped up old Trautwein Field in 1997, Grover Center, the three-story former basketball gymnasium, sat beyond its left field fence, roughly 430 feet from where home plate used to be.
The legend was that Schmidt hit a home run off the roof in the late 60s or early 70s.
This was the Athens, Ohio equivalent of knocking a ball on to the roof of the old Tiger Stadium, or hitting a house on the other side of Waveland Avenue. A Grover Center home run isn't just long, it's historic. The distance always depended on the storyteller. Some said 460. Some 480. Some (gasp) 500. Sure, hitting a ball to a point that high and that far away feels like an impossible feat for a college kid (with a wooden bat no less). But it seemed possible for a guy who had a history of doing the impossible.
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When he was young, a pro baseball career seemed unattainable for Schmidt. He was a power hitter who struck out at lot and hit .250 at Fairview High in Dayton, Ohio. By the time he graduated, he'd had operations on both knees. Some Division III schools showed some interest, but nobody offered Schmidt a scholarship. He enrolled at Ohio University in 1967 to get a degree in architecture, tried out for the Bobcats' baseball team and made the squad as a backup shortstop.
In 1968, Schmidt won the starting job, and began slugging, giving up switch-hitting for a right handed stance that allowed him to make better contact and hit 27 home runs during his college career. With Schmidt, Ohio won three straight MAC championships and made an appearance in the College World Series in 1970, finishing fourth. In 1971, the Phillies drafted him, then made him the starting third baseman two years later: It was a position he didn't give up for 18 seasons, all with the same team. Schmidt hit 548 home runs, averaging 37 a year. He retired in 1989 a legend, and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1995.
But way before that, the origin story of the Grover Center home run began. It was passed down, word-of-mouth, year after year in Athens. As Schmidt's fame grew, so did the rumor. If it showed up in print or on television, it's hard to find a record of it. Even today, the legend isn't easily found online, but it still shows up from time to time. In 2013, Ohio Today magazine asked alumni about their favorite sports memories, and two of them said it was Schmidt, knocking a baseball off the roof. Even a YouTube commenter, among the most cynical and vile of the Internet commentariat, was awestruck:
I was lucky to see his very last HR in a Bobcat uniform. This was when the ball field was immediately south of Grover Center. He launched one high and deep to left that landed in the middle of the Grover Center roof. Awesome doesn't begin to describe a shot like that.
I first heard about the home run when I was a young journalism major at the University. Upperclassmen in the student TV station's sports department told me. They'd heard it from people who had already graduated. I was content to repeat the legend of the 500-footer to the new kids when I became a senior. By then, it felt real. It had to be. Among the mediocrity of Ohio University sports, this was the only story that seemed to bring us up to a higher plane. I never bothered to find out if it was actually true.
And then, one day, I met Schmidt.
* * *
In 2002, Bob Wren, who never had a losing season during his 24 years as Ohio's baseball coach, died. On a sunny day, I sat at the baseball stadium named for him in Athens as a gaggle of his former ballplayers assembled in the stands for his memorial service. I was back in Athens a week after graduating, covering the event for the local NBC station.
Suddenly, he appeared. Schmidt, clean-shaven, wearing a suit.
I put a microphone in his face. I asked him about playing for Wren, about Ohio University, about his life pre- and post-baseball. And then I asked him about bouncing a home run off the roof of Grover Center.
He smiled. "No," he said. "I never did that."
The legend, now tarnished, went on without me to stop it, since I was no longer on campus to correct people who spread the tale. But every once in a while, I'd still think of it. Memories get cloudy, don't they? And as the years went by, this idea started building in my head. What if Schmidt was wrong?
Last August, 12 years after I talked to Schmidt, I decided to reopen the case. By this time, my curiosity started bordering on obsession. I asked around and ended up with Schmidt's AOL email address (yes, he still had an AOL address). He agreed to respond to a few written questions, and after saying the usual stuff about the glory days of college to a fellow alum -- "classes were boring, weekends were great, best four years of my life " -- we got down to the business of home runs.
He thought he might have hit the side of Grover Center once or twice. The building was within reach. The roof? Not so sure. "These stories have grown over the years," he said. "Like any story … it takes on a life of its own."
If Schmidt actually did what people think he did, he didn't seem to care all that much. It's just one home run in a career defined by hundreds of them. They mean something in the aggregate. A single towering blast hit more than four decades ago is something that, to Schmidt, doesn't bear remembering. But the second time I talked to him, he didn't say he did it -- nor did he say it didn't happen. The legend was back in play.
* * *
In October 2014, Schmidt finally had his number 10 retired by the Ohio Bobcats. He came back to the Athens campus for the first time in more than a decade. He'd spent most of 2013 fighting stage 3 melanoma, and decided that getting back to his alma mater was more important to him than he'd realized. Schmidt came to town, spoke from a podium, and said the usual stuff. He loved Ohio University. He was honored. And so on.
Nobody asked him about the home run.
I had to find some concrete evidence. The biggest obstacle for me had been distance. I called a college buddy of mine, a fellow journalism major named Rob, who still lived in the area and agreed to dig up microfilm from the newspaper archives.
One Saturday, Rob started sending back messages and pictures as he searched. First the bad news: The reel from 1971 was missing. But the newspapers from Schmidt's sophomore and junior years were there. There was also a picture of The Athens Messenger from that April. The report said Schmidt hit two home runs in a home game against Kent. The second one, in the eighth inning, "ripped apart a window in Grover Center in the 8th."
That's all that was found from the season. Most of Schmidt's home runs in 1969 were on the road. There was nothing about a rooftop.
The name Phil Fuhrer kept popping up as the baseball reporter in the archives, so I immediately tracked him down in Wilmington, North Carolina, where he freelances for the Star News. "I can remember him bouncing one off the brick side of the Grover Center," Fuhrer said.
Still, no rooftop.
Phil told me to track down Joe Carbone, who was Schmidt's teammate at Ohio and went on to become head baseball coach there for 24 years, winning more games than Bob Wren did. As I looked up Joe's phone number, my friend Rob sent me an email with a picture from the April 3, 1970 edition of The Post, Ohio University's student newspaper.
And there it was.
"Just for added insurance," the story said, "Schmidt socked a tape measure homer of about 400 feet off the roof of Grover Center leading off the sixth."
My heart started beating quickly. I'd finally confirmed it. After more than 15 years of wondering, the legend was true. I'd finally figured it out.
I should have stopped there. Instead, I called Joe.
"I saw it. I witnessed it," he said. "It's true. He did [it].
"But so did Rich McKinney."
I'd never heard of McKinney. He was a great college player, Joe said. He was much more of an offensive threat and was actually Schmidt's predecessor at shortshop. After he graduated from Ohio, McKinney bounced around between the White Sox, Yankees and Athletics for seven seasons before retiring in 1977. He hit just 20 home runs in the Major Leagues.
Phil had mentioned McKinney's name too. "He certainly hit the roof of the Grover Center. I'm almost positive," he said. But what about Schmidt's home run? "I'm wondering if McKinney makes it less noteworthy."
And then there was another guy, Joe said. Mike Murphy. An All-American first baseman. Joe said he knocked a home run off of Bird Ice Arena, which was way out beyond center field and much farther away than Grover Center.
My heart, once thumping, began to sink.
"Here's the deal," Joe said, signaling more bad news ahead. "Trautwein Field was a lot closer at that time." At some point after Schmidt left, the university moved home plate further back. But at the time, Joe thinks a ball hit to the rooftop would have been a lot closer to 420 or 430 feet in distance. "When people start talking about 500 foot home runs, that's a moon shot," he said. Schmidt's home run? "That wasn't the case."
A few thoughts went through my head: I should have talked to Joe years ago. I'm a terrible journalist for not finding, let alone not even bothering to find the evidence myself for so long. The story was true. But the truth wasn't what I wanted it to be.
I emailed Schmidt again, telling him what we found. You did it, I said. But so did another guy. It was impressive. But it wasn't a 500 footer. At the very least, I thought, we both had some closure.
He never emailed back.
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Jeremy Markovich is a senior writer and editor at Our State magazine and was formerly a columnist at Charlotte magazine, a utility infielder at WCNC-TV and a raft guide at the U.S. National Whitewater Center. He lives in North Carolina with his wife, son and dog. Follow him on Twitter at @deftlyinane.