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TV’s original ‘Home Run Derby’ relived

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When baseball fans cheer the raw power of the game's top hitters on the night before the annual All-Star Game, some will recall that the inspiration for all the hoopla was a modest half-hour TV show that first aired 59 years ago.

It was in early 1960 that TV's “Home Run Derby” first aired, sort of an early lead-in to the opening of a new baseball season. As part of the preview hype, a set of 20 baseball cards was produced picturing the collection of sluggers the show would feature. Today, those cards have gained a cult-like following and are among the hobby's scarcest.

American Motors, the show's sponsor, produced the cards which were handed out at the carmakers' dealerships across the country. Created in 1954, American Motors was then No. 4 behind the nation's Big 3 (General Motors, Ford and Chrysler), with Rambler its top car. Apparently, neither AMC's cars or its cards were overwhelmingly popular. That may be one reason why the “Home Run Derby” cards are so scarce today.

The cards are about postcard size (3 1/8”-by-5 1/4”) and are unnumbered with blank backs. The fronts feature black-and-white posed photos, most of which show players from about waist up. The pictured player's name and team are in two lines across the bottom. A black circle that promotes the show with a “See Home Run Derby on TV!” promo completes the simple, uncluttered format.

Mickey Mantle

The 19 players include nine future Hall of Famers (Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks, Al Kaline, Harmon Killebrew, Mickey Mantle, Eddie Mathews, Willie Mays, Frank Robinson and Duke Snider) plus 10 other sluggers of that era. All but three of the players are pictured holding a bat, either resting it on a shoulder or positioned at the start of a swing. The other three – Bob Allison, Jackie Jensen and Eddie Mathews – are attempting to hold a smile while posing for the camera.

Fifteen of the 16 teams that then comprised Major League Baseball were represented on the show and the cards. Only the Chicago White Sox aren't included, although the Pale Hose won the American League pennant in 1959. But the team hit few home runs despite its winning season (the team's homer leader was catcher Sherm Lollar with just 22). While the pennant-winning White Sox have no representative in the “Home Run Derby” lineup, the lowly Washington Senators (who finished in last place, 31 games behind Chicago) have three (Killebrew, Bob Allison and Jim Lemon).

The Dodgers, pennant winners in the National League, and the second-place Braves each have two players (Gil Hodges and Snider from Brooklyn and Aaron and Mathews from Milwaukee).

The other dozen teams sent one player each to hit homers: Banks (Cubs), Ken Boyer (Cardinals), Bob Cerv (Kansas City), Rocky Colavito (Indians), Jackie Jensen (Red Sox), Kaline (Tigers), Wally Post (Phillies), Dick Stuart (Pirates) and Gus Triandos (Orioles).

Hank Aaron

The home run totals for the 19 players would eventually reach 7,375 by the end of their careers. So the home run lineup was a powerful group, including three of the Top 10 homer hitters of all time (Aaron, 755; Mays, 680; and Frank Robinson, 586).

However, 10 of the 19 hitters never led his league in home runs for a season. And some pretty good hitters aren't included. In this group are Charlie Maxwell of the Tigers whose 31 tied him with Mantle for ninth place on MLB's 1959 homer list; Roy Sievers, with 37 homers; and Frank Thomas whose 35 deadlocked him with Jackie Jensen in sixth place.

Other sluggers not participating included Orlando Cepeda and Joe Adcock, plus, of course, legends named Ted Williams and Stan Musial, both near their end of great careers. Williams hit only 10 homers in 1959 but homered 29 times in 1960 to bring his career total to 521, including that dramatic last at-bat shot. Musial hit only 78 of his 475 career homers from 1959 to his finale in 1963.

If the “Home Run Derby” planners had had a better vision of future home runs they certainly would have included Roger Maris who hit 39 in 1960, then broke Babe Ruth's record with 61 in '61.

Price guides value a full set of the cards, in top condition, in the $3,000 range, but the few that have entered the secondary market sell above that. Sometimes, way above that, especially professionally graded cards.

As collectors would expect, the Mantle cards have the highest value, followed by Aaron and Mays, and the other Hall of Famers. However, sales of Mantle cards include one beauty in PSA-7 Ex-Mt condition that went for $28,880.

If you've been wondering about the 20 card in the set, you're wondering about the real key to the original “Home Run Derby” set. That 20 card pictures Mark Scott, the play-by-play broadcaster on the TV show and one of its creators. His card is likely the scarcest of all.

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Scott was a radio broadcaster, including a stint with the Hollywood Stars of the powerful Pacific Coast League. He teamed with Hollywood show biz vet Lou Breslow to form Homer Productions and, through that company, TV's “Home Run Derby.” Syndication and distribution were by Ziv Television Productions, which had a truly prodigious record of making successes out of movie shorts and related syndications.

Breslow used his show business know-how and Scott added his ever-expanding network within baseball to create the show. He was able to attract top players and also gathered the supporting “cast.”

He brought in former umpire turned actor named Art Passarella to be the home plate ump, charged with calling balls, strikes and outs. Passarella had umpired 1,668 big-league games, then turned to acting where his credits would include his role as Sergeant Sekulavich in four episodes of Karl Malden's TV hit “The Streets of San Francisco.” Only insiders knew that Sekulavich was Malden's real surname. The Derby had other umps, never credited by name, along the two foul lines.

Among the show's pitchers was Tom Saffell, a former Pirates outfielder who had flown 61 missions as a fighter pilot in World War II. His minor league career included time with the Hollywood Stars where he developed a relationship with Scott. Saffell batted just .238 in the big leagues but had a strong and accurate arm, perfect for the needs of “Home Run Derby,” which wanted basically a batting-practice-type pitcher. The show even rewarded Saffell with bonus money the more homers he served up.

The catcher was John VanOrnum, a player, manager, coach and scout during his long baseball career. He never made it to the majors as a player but was bullpen coach for the Giants in the early 1980s. The “Home Run Derby” job came early in his career, while he was playing in the Pacific Coast League.

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Some sources also credit Eddie Malone as a “Home Run Derby” catcher. He spent 16 seasons as a minor league catcher and parts of two seasons with the White Sox where he batted .257, slightly below his career mark of .268 in the minors. He, too, spent time with the Hollywood Stars.

The remainder of the TV crew included the production staff, plus a few extras brought on to shag flies in the outfield.

The setting was L.A.'s Wrigley Field, though that was never mentioned on the show. That venue was selected because its dimensions favored neither right-handed nor left-handed batters. (Only two of the show's sluggers hit left-handed, Snider and Mathews. The switch-hitting Mantle batted from the right side in the Derby because he hit longer homers from that side.)

Since 1985, the real-life home run contests have been connected to the All-Star Game. Pittsburgh's Dave Parker, a future Hall of Famer, won the first one. This power struggle is held during the mid-point of the major league season. The made-for-TV action was filmed – in 26 episodes - during the offseason in late 1959, during a three-week period in December, two episodes per day.

TV's original Derby was a head-to-head competition with a nine-inning format. Any pitch hit out of the park was a home run, but all other batted balls – fair or foul – were outs. It didn't matter whether the ball was a line drive that would have been a hit in a real game. If it stayed in the park it was an out. Each swing and miss was an out, and so was a pitch the batter let pass but was ruled a strike.

Gil Hodges

The prize money seems laughable by today's lofty salary standards. The winner of each nine-inning “game” got $2,000, and the loser $1,000. Three consecutive homers earned a $500 bonus. Same for four straight; another $500. Each consecutive homer after that brought an additional $1,000.

That was good money back then when baseball salaries were counted in thousands, not millions. Back then, TV's most popular game show, “What's My Line,” awarded just $5 for each “no” answer by the panelists with a $50 grand prize for the contestant getting 10 such responses. A new car cost about $3,000 and the gas that made it run was about 31 cents at the pump.

Scott's understated, ultra-calm style added to the show's charm of “Home Run Derby.” Dressed in suit and tie, he provided a play-by-play of what the batter was doing while also leading a running small-talk interview with the next batter awaiting his turn. At Mays' request, Scott lowered his voice to a level usually reserved for tennis or golf broadcasts. And he presented the players with real bank checks, not those over-sized non-negotiable prize symbols used in most presentations.

Shockingly, Scott passed away in July 1960 at just 45. As a result, a planned second season for his show was canceled. Though there would be no second season for “Home Run Derby,” there would eventually be a second showing. That came almost three decades later when ESPN purchased the rights and rebroadcast the Derby. It was so popular that it led ESPN to form its Classic affiliate.