Pennant Porch and Great American

Before we get into the remarkable — and painful — dinger-dinged pitching season for the Cincinnati Reds, we should talk for a good while about Pennant Porch and the 1964 Kansas City Athletics. We should always take time, every now and again, to talk about Pennant Porch.

No team had ever given up 200 home runs in a season before 1964. The closest had been … the 1962 Kansas City Athletics, who gave up 199. Well, the Kansas City Athletics did love to give up the the long ball. The 1956 Athletics still hold the record for most homers allowed to one team … you can guess the team. That was the year Mickey Mantle won the triple crown, and he hit nine of his 52 homers against the A’s. Even more impressively, Hank Bauer hit 10 of his 26 homers against the A’s, and Yogi Berra hit nine of his 30 homers against the A’s. All in all, the Yankees hit an astonishing 56 home runs in 22 games against Kansas City.

Well, Athletics owner Charlie Finley thought he knew the real secret to the Yankees success.

For Charlie, it all came down to the dimensions at Yankee Stadium.

It is unclear how exactly this loony idea came into Finley’s head. Finley would tell people he picked it up from the manager of the 1964 A’s — former Yankee star pitcher Eddie Lopat — but to be fair to Lopat he publicly repudiated the idea over and over. Anyway, crazy ideas floated into Finley’s head all the time, some of them semi-fun (brightly colored uniforms, fun nicknames like “Catfish” Hunter and “Blue Moon” Odom, bonuses to players growing mustaches, hiring a young MC Hammer to hang around the Oakland A’s) and some of them semi-crazy (orange baseballs, a poison pen award to his least favorite sportswriters, a mascot mule called “Charley O,” etc.).

Finley’s first big idea as an owner was to win the 1964 pennant by making Kansas City Municipal Stadium the exact dimensions of Yankee Stadium. He expounded:

“To me, getting caught playing baseball in Yankee Stadium is like getting caught in a crap game with loaded dice,” he said.

“I am convinced (the dimensions of Yankee Stadium) is the answer to the great success of the Yankees,” he said.

“It is almost inconceivable how (MLB and the American League) have continuously permitted the New York Yankees to completely dominate the American League by allowing them to play in Yankee Stadium with such grossly unfair advantages,” he said.

What a cuckoo bird. The guy really thought that the New York Yankees of Stengel and Mantle and DiMaggio and Ford and the rest won because of their stadium dimensions.

Yes, Yankee Stadium back then was oddly shaped. It was 301 feet directly down the left field line and 296 down the right field line. The right field fence rather gradually moved out, but the left field wall jutted so that the wall in straightaway left was 402 feet away, and in left-center it was 457 feet. This made it BRUTAL on right-handed hitters and helps explain why Joe DiMaggio only once hit 40 homers in a season. DiMaggio hit 20-plus homers on the road four times, but never hit 20 homers in a season at Yankee Stadium in a season.

Still, Finley was absolutely sure that the short dimensions down the line — particularly down the right-field line — made the Yankees all but invincible at home. Why? They could just homer opponents to oblivion. “Psychologically, teams going into Yankee Stadium are beaten before they start,” he said. “They win two out of every three games they play there because each year they hit more home runs.” He then recited a bunch of statistics so specific, they HAD to be true. They were not.

It is interesting that one statistic that Finley did not mention was that the Yankees, more or less every year, hit MORE HOME RUNS ON THE ROAD THAN AT HOME. In the decade leading up to Pennant Porch, the Yankees hit 950 homers on the road against 830 at Yankee Stadium.

But we cannot get too caught up in Finley’s madness. The point is that he believed Yankee Stadium dimensions were the key to winning and so, naturally, he wanted his own home ballpark in Kansas City to mirror those dimensions. “I feel,” Finley said, “that in revamping my ballpark to go along with the Yankees, I will be, for the first time, able to compete with them on an equal basis. … I’m out to win at Kansas City. If it means copying Yankee tactics, that’s not beneath my dignity.”

There really wasn’t much beneath Charlie Finley’s dignity. Unfortunately for Finley, it turned out that retrofitting Municipal Stadium to exact Yankee Stadium measurements was (1) Against the rules of baseball; (2) Physically impossible and (3) Stupid. None of these stopped him, though. No, Finley was not allowed to have a wall closer than 325 feet to home play, but he was convinced that the rule would allow him to build “Pennant Porch,” a small bleacher area in right field for fans to sit in. The front of Pennant Porch, by coincidence, was 44 inches high (same height as wall at Yankee Stadium) and 296 feet from home plate (same distance as Yankee Stadium). just like Yankee Stadium.

Finley believed that by the pure wording on the rulebook, he was allowed to build Pennant Porch (“I can’t operate on intent,” he said). Baseball disagreed. They made him tear the thing down and rebuild it so that the wall was no closer than 325 feet. Finley fumed but he did it.

He then threw a classic fit. He changed the name to “Half Pennant Porch.” He had his grounds crew mow the grass so that it aligned perfectly with Yankee Stadium dimensions — that way fans would know any ball that went over the grass would have been a home run at that other park. Bill James recalls that, for a while, when the ball went over the grass, Finley would have the public address announcer say, “That would have been a home run at Yankee Stadium.”

They apparently stopped doing that shortly after the Minnesota Twins hit four consecutive home runs to beat the Athletics on May 2, 1964. That was the same day Northern Dancer won the Kentucky Derby and Finley was in Louisville to see the race. He called his publicity director Jim Schaaf for some play-by-play when the game went into extra innings and when Schaaf told him that the Twins (Tony Oliva, Bob Allison, Jimmie Hall, Harmon Killebrew) hit four homers in a row. Finley ranted, “That’s impossible I don’t believe it!”

“Just wait ’til you read the morning paper,” Schaaf said calmly.

Finley would learn to believe it. Though he did not get to bring the right and left field fences in to Yankee Stadium measurements, he did move in the fences all around the field. He built a new wire fence in centerfield in front of the old 420-foot fence, apparently forgetting that Yankee Stadium had a cavernous centerfield. He also acquired 30-year-old sluggers Jim Gentile and Rocky Colavito. His A’s were going to slug their way to the pennant! And, like magic, the A’s home runs skyrocketed! They had hit only 95 homers in 1963. They hit 165 homers in 1964. Win win!

Except — and this was a valuable baseball lesson for Finley — the other team gets to hit too. And the A’s pitchers allowed an insane 132 home runs at home. How ridiculous was that? The three best teams in the league (the Yankees, Orioles and White Sox) did not allow 132 home runs TOTAL, home and road. It was a home run free-for-all in Kansas City. The A’s pitchers smashed the major league record by allowing 220 home runs for the season. Orlando Pena became just the second American League pitcher to allow 40 homers in a season. A 20-year-old rookie named Aurelio Monteagudo somehow managed to give up 11 home runs in 33 innings.

Another rookie, Jack Aker, made his major league debut at Finley’s retrofitted Municipal Stadium and the first batter he faced, Jimmie Hall, homered into Pennant Porch. An inning later, Don Mincher homered. A shell-shocked Aker did not have to pitch at Municipal Stadium again for three or so weeks. When he did, the first batter he faced, Ron Hansen, homered. After he gave up another homer, he was sent down to the Finley-free safety of the minor league world.

When the season ended — and the A’s had lost 105 games — there was a touching little story in The Sporting News titled “Battered A’s Hurlers Hope Finley Moves Fences Back.”

The A’s record of 220 homers allowed lasted 23 years before getting broken by the 1987 Orioles (226). The Orioles record has been broken 10 times since, most prominently by the 1996 Tigers who allowed a preposterous 241 home runs. That was a magnificent record, a team record. Twenty-seven different Tigers pitchers gave up a home run that year — and only one of them (Felipe Lira) allowed more than 25. It was the record of Mike Christopher (12 homers in 30 innings) and Todd Van Poppel (11 homers in 36 innings) and Mike Walker (10 homers in 27 innings). It did not seem beatable.

And then: This year’s Cincinnati Reds. For context: These Reds do play in a homer-heavy ballpark; it annually ranks just behind Coors Field for home runs, and it might be an even BETTER home run park for lefties than Coors. So that hurts. We also are playing in what is probably the biggest home run season in baseball history. It doesn’t FEEL like that, doesn’t feel quite like the Selig Era when it comes to home runs but that’s because there are no outliers, no McGwires or Sosas or Bonds. Nobody will hit 60 homers this year. Nobody will even hit 50. But EVERYONE will hit 20. Baseball will almost certainly set a record for most players with 20-plus homers in a season. There are already 99. The record is 103.

All of which is to say: The stars were aligned for a team to give up more home runs than any team in baseball history. And it’s the Cincinnati Reds. They broke the record with two weeks to spare. Like with the 1996 Tigers, it has been a team effort — 29 different pitchers have allowed a home run. But Brandon Finnegan and Dan Straily have led the way. Finnegan is in his first full year as a Major League starter and it’s fair to say he has struggled with command — he leads the National League in both walks (84) and homers allowed (29). He came to the majors rather famously, just out of college, as a reliever for the pennant-chasing Kansas City Royals. He was fun to watch and had some success by throwing as he could which is exactly what the Royals asked him to do.

He was a left-handed martyr.

Chucking is easy, young man.

Pitching is harder.

Meanwhile, Straily is a fastball, slider, change-up pitcher who cannot get away with mistakes over the middle of the plate. He has made at least 28 of those.

The Reds have had 15 different pitchers start games this year. All of them have contributed mightily to this record. Joe Moscot gave up 10 homers in 21 innings. Rookie Tim Melville somehow gave up five homers in nine innings. Out of the pen, Layne Somsen became the first player from Yankton, South Dakota to make it into a Major League Baseball game. In his first outing, he retired the Phillies on seven pitches. In his second, he gave up homers to Yan Gomes and Marlon Byrd.

The Reds staff has had a lot of injuries this year … but this is obviously a team that is drifting. The reason I love the Pennant Porch story so much is because it mocks the very idea of quick fixes and secret plans. Baseball success — and life success — comes through diligence and patience and getting up from the depths again and again. If you are a Reds fan and you see Cincinnati try to build its way back up through small moves and smart draft picks and intense player development and smart hires, then you can hope.

If you see them talk about moving the fences back at Great American Ballpark, look out.

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