45 MR. 733 An epic home run is only part of Gil Carter’s long life of baseball
50 RODEO RETURNS Our guide to competitors, events and hints for welcoming back the championship rodeo
Gil Carter takes the plate at the Jerry Robertson Field in the Shawnee County Parks and Recreation’s Bettis Family Sports Complex. Field access courtesy Shawnee County Parks and Recreation.
Spring ’ 13
Nov. 11, 1931 – born in Topeka, Kansas
Approximately 1947 – Begins playing ﬁrst organized competitive games as a left-ﬁelder with the Topeka Hornets, an intercity, mixed-race fast-pitch softball team that played its games at a city park in North Topeka
1948 – Begins ns playing baseball eball ffor or a high school team organized by Jack Alexander
119 9 – Joins Johnny Gates’ intercity 1949 b baseball a league. “We played all th these little country towns in Kansas,” says Carter. Carter also gets a job that allows him to take off for baseball games, running a jackhammer at a construction site near the Hotel Jayhawk.
1951 – Moves to Kansas City to play with Kansas City Giants, a semi-pro, allblack baseball team based at Paseo
MR 733 An epic home run is only part of Gil Carter’s long life of baseball
Sporting News. Twenty years later a retrospective piece appeared in Sports Illustrated. Finally, there was a nice article in the specialist baseball publication Elysian Fields Quarterly. But the home run was largely lost in the context of Class D ball and a player who, on paper, was assumed to be playing with a “baseball age” ﬁve years short of his own. Think about what would happen today, if we had a fan’s video shot of Carter’s blast leaving Montgomery Field, and a cell phone photo of the ball, near a peach, among the fallen leaves. The twittering and tweeting and all the other noises and pictures would instantly go viral. Carter would be assaulted with overwhelming publicity. He’d be called “The Carlsbad Bat.” John Mayberry used to swing the bat as though he was not just “going for the fences” in Royals Stadium, but aiming at I-70. Physicists say you can’t hit a baseball that far. Physicists also used to say it’s impossible to throw a curve ball. For over 50 years, Carter has lived with the knowledge that, for one moment certainly, and for a lot of other moments probably, he was as good Babe Ruth or Mickey Mantle, or any of them who did what all hitters dream of doing. And he still knows it.
Story and interview by James Carothers
Photography by Jason Dailey
1953 – Switched to a mixedrace, fast-pitch softball team in Springﬁeld, Missouri. Here, Carter is introduced to Tom Greenwade, who signs him with the New York Yankees and sends him to a minor league afﬁliate in Mount Kisco, New York
Some rare ballplayers—Willie Mays, Stan Musial, Derek Jeter, Albert Pujols—have long superlative careers at the major league level. A few more have a season—Mark “The Bird” Fidrych. Hundreds have only a cup of coffee in the big leagues. Most never get there. Gil Carter played against Hall of Famer Willie Stargell and Joe Torre, among others, but he never got to The Show. Topps never put him on a baseball card. Carter had a moment, however, when he made a permanent place for himself in the folklore of the game, hitting a home run so high, so far and so majestic that the baseball disappeared into the Carlsbad, New Mexico, night. They found the ball the next morning, in a backyard a long way away, among peach tree leaves and peaches. An aerial reconnaissance photograph of the ballpark and the backyard appeared in the local newspaper the next day tracing the ﬂight of the ball with the same dotted-line trajectory given to photos of long home runs by stars like Mickey Mantle and historic blows like Bobby Thomson’s “shot heard round the world.” Those measurements indicated a blast of 730-733 feet; ofﬁcially, conservatively, the team placed the hit at 650 feet. In fact, there is plausible evidence that Carter’s homer on August 11, 1959, went about twice as far Thomson’s 1951 blow that completed the Giants’ “Miracle of Coogan’s Bluff” in the 1951 National League pennant race. The path of a projectile is a parabola. It didn’t get much publicity then: The aerial photograph was followed a couple of weeks later by a brief note in The
1954 – Spends spring training at Mount Kisco, arriving just seven years after baseball was integrated and as one of the few blacks in the region, Carter says he encountered “lots of prejudice there.” After several incidents, he quits Mount Kisco and the team.
1954 – Arrives in Memphis, where he spends two weeks playing with the Memphis Mudhens in what had been a Negro League team that was now mostly all-black.
1954 – Returns to Topeka where he works and plays ball with the Kansas City Giants
1957 – Marries Bettye Dillard, moves to Kansas City and is signed by Buck O’Neil to join the Cubs farm system
1958 – Attends spring training, for the Cubs and is assigned to their minor league team, the Carlsbad Potashers.
For the Record Gil Carter talks about his long home run, old-school weight training on an East Topeka farm and the kid who will beat his record I was born and raised right down the street here in East Topeka. Only thing we had to go to town for was sugar and ﬂour, we raised everything else. I walked behind a horse, plowing, making my own garden. My grandparents raised me. My grandfather and I, we cleaned up all the Dibble’s stores and everything the grocery store threw away. My grandmother canned all of that. I had to cut wood every day to go in the cook stove and the heating stove. I walked through the two cemeteries to go to East Topeka Junior High School. I weighed 180 pounds and played football for East Topeka Junior High—I run over them, I didn’t go around them. I started out playing softball with Topeka Hornets, that’s where I ﬁrst started playing ball—fast-pitch softball, Topeka Hornets. I played softball down in Springﬁeld, Missouri, and we beat the Springﬁeld Champions 2-1. That’s when Tom Greenwade signed me to the Yankees organization. They sent me to Mount Kisco, New York, and I run into a lot of stuff that I didn’t like and I quit and came home. That was the early ’50s. Tom Greenwade, bless his soul, he died quite a few years ago, but he was the one who signed me to the Yankees. And then I started playing baseball. It’s a whole lot different playing softball and baseball. The coordination is a whole lot different. You have to adjust yourself from softball to baseball. A guy named Johnny Gates started me playing baseball in Kansas City, Missouri, right there at Paseo Park. You know that turn when you come up Paseo, and make that left turn to get
1959 – Coming off an injury, Carter has a successful season, including the night of August 11, when he hits a home run that might or might not have been the longest home run in world history
on the interstate? Right there used to be the baseball park, and some apartments across the street. I was hitting that baseball in them apartments, knocking out windows in those apartments on the Paseo. That’s when Buck O’Neil signed me with the Cubs. I got signed in ’57, and I had 17 home runs in June. Then one night I slid into second base, waited too long to slide, and twisted my ankle and broke my ankle. In ’59, I went back to Carlsbad. On the night of the 733 home run, their pitcher, Wayne, had us shut out. When I came up, I hit a double off him. The next time up, he had us 6-1 because I drove someone in and that had made it 6-1. The next time I came up, Wayne tried to throw it by me. It was not quite letter-high. And that’s when I hit that home run against him. When I hit that ball—believe it or not, this is the honest-to-God truth—I could feel that bat when he give that much. It kinda bent. And I knew it was something special ’cause I sat there and I watched it for I guess about 10 seconds. It went over everything. Everything. Light towers and everything. Two blocks and the ballpark. I knew it was something special. That’s when I broke the record, the home run record. And I got six hundred and thirty three dollars in one-dollar bills that night. They hand you money through the screen when you hit home runs down there. I hit 39 home runs in Carlsbad. I made more money hitting home runs in Carlsbad than I did my salary. But I got released from the Cubs in 1961 and went to Wichita, lived there for 39 years,
and I was one of the ﬁrst blacks that drove a city bus in Wichita. Bernie Calkins owned the bus company. And he loved baseball. So he got a baseball team together called the Dreamliners. We beat everyone. In the state tournament, we lost our ﬁrst ballgame at North Platte, Nebraska. I’ll never forget it. We had to win seven straight ballgames. We won seven straight ballgames and played the nationals. We won that in ’62 and ’63. We had no problem in ’63. That’s when I hit a 430-foot home run off of Satchel Paige. I played with some guys in the Negro Leagues— believe this or not—I played with a guy, he was a pitcher and he’d pitch a ball game nine innings right-handed. At night, he’d pitch left-handed … and win. And I played against Satchel Paige one night and he called his outﬁeld in and told them to sit down on the inﬁeld. He was a showboat, but he could throw. He struck the side out. I played softball until I was 55 years old, that’s when slow-pitch softball was popular. We got $80 a game. We took second in nationals two years in a row in Jacksonville, Florida. The score would be 55-60, 65-70—everybody hit home runs. But we had a lead-off man, he could hit that softball anywhere he wanted to place it. The rest would hit the ball out of the ballpark. One guy, believe it or not, he had one of his arms cut off. Left-hand hitter, that guy could hit that ball a mile high and mile long. I didn’t come back home until my daddy died in 2000. October the 12th, 3:20 p.m. My dad come from church and walked in that door there and passed out. There was a coffee table sitting right there and he passed out and he hit
1960 – Assigned within the Cubs system to the “Rox,” a team in St. Cloud, Minnesota. The local fans were everything to Gil Carter that the fans in New York had not been. “I was the only black playing up there, and people treated me wonderfully,” says Gil Carter. “I didn’t want for anything. And that’s the ﬁrst time I saw that a white man could cut my hair.” Fans treated him to dinners or groceries and volunteered to baby-sit for him and his wife. The ballpark was less accommodating, but it was equally cruel to everyone. “I hit three balls out of that ballpark one time, and the wind blew them back in,” says Carter. “First one—blew back and I got a single. Second one—blew back, hit the ﬁelder coming back in and I got a double. Well, the third one—blew back and the ﬁelder caught.”
1961 – After an injury, Carter is released from the Cubs farm system
1961 – Moves to Wichita and joins the Dreamliners, a fast-pitch, semi-professional softball team in the Dumont NBC League
TOPEKA BASEBALL LEGENDS 1962-1963 – Plays with the Dreamliners and wins the league’s championship
KEN BERRY*# Major League Baseball player from 1960s-1970s; All-Star and two-time Golden Glove winner; listed as the second-ranked athlete by the Topeka Capital-Journal in its 2011 list of top 100 athletes in history of Shawnee County
MARK ELLIOTT# Minor league baseball player with Dodgers in late 1970s
DUFF “SIR RICHARD” COOLEY# Late 1800s-early 1900s outﬁelder who gave up his position on Detroit Tigers to Ty Cobb
KEN JOHNSON* Star pitcher for Phillies in 1950 when they reached World Series
AARON CROW# First-round MLB draft pick and current pitcher for Kansas City Royals ELWOOD “BINGO” DEMOSS*# Early 1900s baseball prodigy; played with Topeka Giants and 20 seasons in the Negro Leagues LEE DODSON Late 1940s-early 1950s pitcher for the Topeka Owls and Yankees minor league teams; honored with namesake baseball ﬁeld at Hummer Sports Complex for years of volunteer coaching and service to Topeka baseball programs
1964 – Team ownership switches and changes name to Davis-Moore baseball team; at age 33, this is Carter’s last year of professional ball
ART GRIGGS* Early 1900s player with St. Louis Browns and other teams; .966 lifetime ﬁelding average
“TOPEKA JACK” JOHNSON* Former boxer and Negro Leagues manager in the 1920s
1964 – Returns to slow-pitch softball in Wichita; his team, the Truckers, take second place in national slowpitch league
1968 – Retires from Truckers
JERRY ROBERTSON Pitcher who played for Expos and Tigers in 1969-1970; honored with namesake ﬁeld at Bettis Family Sports Complex for his career and leadership in Topeka civic organizations
JIM MORRIS* Topeka Owls player and pitcher for Boeing Bombers NBC division when they won national titles in 1954 and 1955
GENE ROGERS* Shortstop for Boeing Bombers 1954 and 1955 NBC championship teams
CARROLL “DINK” MOTHELL*# Topeka Giants versatile utility player who joined Kansas City Monarchs in 1920
JERAD HEAD# Currently a minor league player with Detroit Tigers LON KRUGER# Minor league player with St. Louis Cardinals organization and college basketball coach
DUDLEY “TULLIE” MCADOO* Star with Topeka Giants in early 1900s and powerhitting ﬁrst baseman for Negro League teams, including Kansas City Monarchs
LOREN PACKARD* 1940s Topeka Owls standout who played ﬁrst base for Boeing Bombers in 1954 and 1955 NBC championships
1969 – Plays in amateur city leagues
1991 – Fully retires from work as a bus driver with the city after a work injury.
Sources: Kansas Baseball Hall of Fame, Topeka Capital-Journal and Shawnee County Parks and Recreation * Inducted into the Kansas Baseball Hall of Fame # Ranked in the top 50 athletes of Topeka CapitalJournal’s 2011 list of “Top 100 Athletes in Shawnee County History”
JOHN TETUAN# Colorado Rockies minor league pitcher and manager of Topeka Golden Giants MIKE TORREZ*# Eighteen-year career in Major League Baseball from mid-1960s, including pitching two games for Yankees in 1977 World Series; listed as the topranked athlete by the Topeka Capital-Journal in its 2011 list of top 100 athletes in history of Shawnee County
2000Returns to Topeka after his father dies in October
2000 – Begins working for Topeka YMCA’s youth sports program
2000- Begins volunteering to speak at local public schools—French Middle School, Indian Hills and Landon—urging students to stay in school and avoid drugs. He continues these appearances to the present.
2008 – Joins Topeka organization “Success” to provide activities for seniors and youth
47 4 7
THE GIL CARTER CORRESPONDENCE Describing the distance as 650 feet, said the ofﬁcial scorer/sports editor who covered the game that night, was … an effort to keep the announcement believable. “We just wanted to be conservative,” he remembered forty years later. “It would have been okay with me to call it a 730-foot home run.” —Jerry Dorbin, Elysian Fields Quarterly
Before he takes his insulin, the man who hit the really long home run responds in longhand to another patient fan: “Thank you so much for writing, Mr. Bonds.
Gil Carter, with friends and family in Topeka
his head on that coffee table and busted his spine. My daddy was 90 when he died. The doctor come up to me and said to me, he said: “Mr. Carter, there’s nothing we can do, he’s badly.” You know what really got to me? The nurse even cried. Everybody knew my father. He was a mild-mannered man, and everyone loved him. Now I work with these kids. One of the things that bothers me about young hitters—and I’m talking about major leaguers that I see on TV now—is that the ones that try to pull everything, including the outside pitch. When I ﬁrst started out, I had a problem with curve balls. But see, when I was playing sandlot ball around here, them country boys didn’t know nothing about no curve ball. They just threw the ball in there and said: “Hit it, or miss it!” But then they come up with that curve ball and I had to get used to hitting that curve ball. But a lot of guys don’t know nowadays, a guy throw - Gil Carter a curve ball and let it hang, it’s going out of the ball park. Well, these kids coming up nowadays, they’ve got to be careful. They’re trying to make it too fast. They got to stop letting someone inﬂuence them by taking these damn drugs, ’cause eventually they catch up with them. If you want to play a game and you’re honest about it, play it like it’s supposed to be played. Play it to your potential. If you can’t play it, get the hell on out of it. See, when I was playing it was a whole lot of fun. But now it’s about the dollar. When I talk to the different schools, I tell the kids if you can play anything—keep your ass in school. They can’t take that away from you. It’s just that simple. I work with these kids now. I got six or seven godkids that I work with now, but one kid, he’s gonna be a ball player. He’s dedicated. He’s serious. And he loves school. I said: “That’s number one, son. Don’t let nothing deter you from going to school. Not ever. Don’t let nobody let you stop going to school.” And this year he said to me: “I’m going to beat your home-run record.” And I said: “I hope you do, son.”
“It went over everything. Everything. Light towers and everything.”
Yes, I remember almost everything, the nighthawk silhouettes, the inﬁeld chatter, the ball becoming huge, the hitchless swing, the lone voice swallowing its last no batter, slack faces lifted to the ﬁrmament — and by the ball I hope you know I mean the one that hadn’t ﬁnished its ascent the last time it was seen, which isn’t necessarily the one beside me as I write. It wasn’t hard in ’59 to ﬁnd a fresh home run in any big New Mexican backyard.
Home run: what a spectacular misnomer. You can’t go home again, jiggity-jog. If forced to choose a name I’d favor homer, less for Odysseus than for his dog. What can I truly say about this ball? It’s horsehide, twine, and yarn from Costa Rica hugging a hunk of cork from Portugal. On its slow odyssey to East Topeka my homer would’ve been the shortest leg. I saw the seams that night, the sutured leather, and realized this was the only egg horses and men had ever put together, and that I should reopen it, should try to beat it back into the cosmic batter from which we’re conjured. Chickens long to ﬂy, but if an egg can long it longs to shatter. Of course I couldn’t do it. Once again I took the full cut and it simply ﬂew. I’d love to tell you how that felt, but then I wouldn’t be the only one who knew.”
[This interview was condensed and edited from a conversation for Topeka
Magazine between Gil Carter and James Carothers, a professor of English at the
Eric McHenry is an award-winning poet whose work has
University of Kansas and specialist on baseball literature and history.]
appeared in The New Republic and the Harvard Review. A native Topekan, he teaches at Washburn University.