The greatest hitting performance I ever saw, courtesy of Jim Rice
I love baseball stories. I love telling them and I love hearing other people’s stories – of great moments, great players or just funny events. Over the next few months, while we wait for baseball to start up again, I’ll drop in a few stories just for entertainment sake. Feel free to add any fun stories of your own in the comments.
I’ve attended a lot of Major League games over the past four decades and have seen many great hitters, including quite a few Hall of Famers, and some great hitting performances. But the greatest hitting performance I ever saw didn’t happen during the game. It came during batting practice.
Batting practice, naturally, allows players to show off their big bats so it’s not unusual to see some bombs launched. I’ve seen quite a few of those, but nothing like I saw from Jim Rice in his final six swings of BP before a game against the White Sox in 1977.
Rice was already a great hitter by 1977
Rice had enjoyed a terrific rookie season in 1975, overshadowed only by teammate Fred Lynn’s MVP and Rookie of the Year season. In 1978, of course, Rice enjoyed his outstanding MVP season. That year he had 213 hits, 15 triples, 46 homers, 139 RBIs and scored 121 runs. His average line was .315/.379/.600.
But he also had a tremendous season in 1977. He would lead the league in homers with 39 and finish second in RBIs with 114. More important, his power was already legendary.
By the time my brother and I, along with a few friends, ventured to Comiskey Park in Chicago on July 16, 1977, Rice had already belted 23 homers (in 1976 only six American League players hit 23 or more homers for the entire season and Graig Nettles led the league with 32).
Old Comiskey Park was huge
Old Comiskey Park was a gigantic field. The measurements down the foul lines were 349 feet, the power alleys were 382 and, in 1977, the centerfield wall was 445 feet from home. Not only that, the wall stood about 12 feet high. Not an easy park to hit homers.
That said, it was possible to hit a ball completely out of the stadium. Just a month earlier I had seen Richie Zisk do that against the Yankees and, if I remember correctly, it was the 18th time in the stadium’s history. I think Lou Gehrig did it twice, and others on that list were players like Mickey Mantle, Babe Ruth, Ted Williams and Jimmie Foxx.
Rice starts his awesome power display
As usual, that night we arrived at the park early enough to watch batting practice. Fortunately, that meant we got to see Rice take his cuts. It was his final six swings that had our jaws hanging open in disbelief. Here were the first five of those swings:
Swing 1 – Ball crushed over the leftfield roof, completely out of the park.
Swing 2 – Ball crushed over the leftfield roof, completely out of the park.
Swing 3 – Ball crushed over the leftfield roof, completely out of the park.
Swing 4 – Ball crushed over the leftfield roof, completely out of the park.
Swing 5 – Ball crushed over the leftfield roof, completely out of the park.
Yes, Rice hit five balls in a row completely out of the park – not just homers, not just into the upper deck but completely out of the park. I’ve never seen anyone else do that even once in batting practice, let alone five times in a row.
Saving the best for last
But, believe it or not, that wasn’t even the most impressive part of that batting practice. Swing 6, his final one in that BP, still stuns me.
On that final swing, Rice smashed a line drive to dead centerfield. A frozen rope. The kind that usually scoots to the wall for extra bases if hit in the alleys.
Except this ball didn’t dip down and scoot to the wall. It kept carrying and carrying and carrying until it collided with the wall at the 445-foot mark, still about 10 feet off the ground. It hit so solidly that we could hear it in our seats along the third base line. I’m sure if the wall hadn’t been there the ball would have traveled at least 500 feet. That would be a 500-foot line drive. If I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes, I wouldn’t have believed it possible to hit a ball like that.
Hard to top that performance
In the game itself, Rice’s performance was unmemorable, a single and a walk in four plate appearances. Butch Hobson hit the only homer of the game. (Side note: This game also had one of the most bizarre plays I’ve ever seen, which I’ll write about at another time.)
Nowadays I seldom arrive at games in time to see much of batting practice, usually the final swings of the subs. I’m sure there have been other impressive batting practice performances. But I doubt there have been many, if any, others more impressive than the six swings I saw Jim Rice take in 1977.