What was the Coolest Home Run in Baseball History?

Baseball historian David Fleitz loves to archive some of the oddest corners of our favorite game. Like former ballplayers who have managed to live beyond ten decades, or walk-off grand slam home runs (homers with the bases full in the home half of the last frame that immediately end a game with victory for the home club). Fleitz’s on-line “Baseball Page” devotes special sections to cataloging these “Ultimate Grand Slams” and “Centenarian Ballplayers” as touchstones of the author’s research into truly arcane aspects of diamond trivia. And Fleitz is not alone in his fascination with walk-off homers (he lists 27 that have apparently occurred in the majors and are of “ultimate” category since they happened with the home team trailing by exactly three tallies).

With this swing in the tenth inning on March 1, 2012 Granma's Urmanis Guerra hit what may have been "baseball's coolest homer."

On “The Hardball Times” website Chris Jaffee has written more than one post discussing his candidate for baseball’s “coolest home run” ever hit. Jaffee’s rather substantial choice is a July 25, 1956 blast by Roberto Clemente (aged 21 at the time – ironically, given his famous number “21”) that was in fact an inside-the-park walk off. Clemente’s blow with the bases full in the bottom of the ninth erased a 3-run deficit and handed Pittsburgh a wild 9-8 victory over the always-suffering Chicago Cubs.

Now it would seemingly be difficult to top something quite as odd as Clemente’s grand slam that ended a game but never actually left the playing field. At least it would be hard to top if the only baseball one had was the somewhat narrow universe of the professional North American “major” leagues. But that is what happens when one is stricken with what I like to think of as a brand of “SABR disease” – a provincial view of baseball history that circumscribes and delineates the interests of so many SABR (Society for American Baseball Research) writers and commentators. Jaffee doesn’t called Clemente’s rare blast “the coolest big league homer” but “the coolest homer ever.” Fleitz’s list of “Ultimate Walk-Offs” in not truly a list drawn from baseball history but only a list culled from the history of two enterprises known as the American League and National League.

Somehow you miss so much fun when you discard the Japanese leagues, the various Caribbean winter leagues, the other Asian pro leagues, or even the baseball of top-level professional and amateur international tournament play. And especially when you forget about the modern-era Cuban League – above all, the recent editions of a Cuban National Series that has adopted a tradition-busting but nonetheless fascinating extra-inning tiebreaker scenario.

A short while back I offered a column  (“Schiller Rule Opens Door on Tough Trivia Questions” – March 15, 2012) devoted to some intriguing possibilities attached to this season’s first-ever no-hit and no-run game played under the new regulation. Just to refresh, Cuba now uses the Schiller Rule, named in honor of the IBAF President who molded the regulation for the Beijing Olympic Baseball Tournament. The rule (designed to shorten games during a tight tournament schedule) provides that in extra frames 1) both teams are gifted base runners at first and second to start each new inning, and 2) managers can restart their batting orders in the tenth frame at any point they choose. Some of the rare possibilities now generated are the following: A pitcher might now be able to toss a ten-inning perfect game (retire every batter he faces without permitting a single base runner) and yet entice two of those outs via a double play. Or the same pitcher could throw a perfect game and yet permit a run to score (winning the game, say, by a 2-1 score). Or perhaps better yet, a batter might record an RBI in a game where his team is the victim of a perfect game hurled by the opposing pitcher.

So now we come to the matter of odd, rare, unprecedented – “cool” if you will – game-ending grand slam home runs. Consider the follow piece of exotic trivia guaranteed to stump any big-league oriented fan and win a couple of frosty drinks at your favorite local pub. Question: How can a batter hit a walk-off extra-inning grand slam home run in a frame in which only three home-club batters came to the plate? Another question of related genus: How can an extra-inning walk-off grand slam occur when the opposing pitcher (or pitchers) in that inning only allow one batter to reach base? Stumped (at this point you shouldn’t be, if you have been following the details here)? Not only could it happen, it indeed already has happened – and of course it inevitably occurred about a month and a half ago in that most unorthodox, entertaining and intriguing of baseball venues – the Cuban League National Series.

With all the recent focus on the record-setting home runs being stroked this year by José Dariel Abreu and Alfredo Despaigne, few took much note of the unprecedented (and ultimately cool!) smash recorded on March 1, 2012 by Despaigne’s Granma teammate Urmanis “El Yogui” Guerra. Here in detail is the remarkable scenario.

The game between Havana Metropolitanos and Granma was being played in Bayamo’s quaint Martires de Barbados Stadium and was deadlocked at 2-2 after a regulation nine frames. With runners automatically positioned (by IBAF rule) on first and second in the top of the tenth, Metros was able to plate a pair and thus grab a 4-2 advantage. In the home half Granma manager Indalecio Alejandrez elected to station his leadoff batter and two-spot hitter on first and second and begin a hoped-for rally with league home run leader Alfredo Despaigne. At that point rather than walking Despaigne (and setting up a force at every base with a two-run lead) Metros skipper Luis Suarez opted for the risky strategy of pitching to Despaigne. It all turned out well enough when Despaigne lifted a lazy fly to center and the two runners stayed put. (This was not a bad tactic perhaps since cleanup hitter Yordanis Samón is currently the league base hits leader and a threat about equal to Despaigne). Suarez had dodge one bullet but wasn’t about to risk another and thus ordered pitcher Maikel Hidalgo to issue a free pass to Samón, loading the bases. Now there was indeed a force play set up at every corner and a double-play ball would end the game.

Up stepped the fate-blessed man of the hour, five-hole hitter Urmanis Guerra. One pitch from Hidalgo equaled a walk-off grand slam into the left-field bleachers. And there you have it, and all thanks to the invention of Harvey Schiller. Hidalgo (the inning’s only pitcher) faced exactly three batters, walked one of them, and yet yielded a grand slam.

Was Roberto Clemente’s inside the park job “the coolest home run ever” as Jaffee sees it? It was certainly one of the oddest. But for me it holds nothing in the way of oddity over the blow struck by Urmanis Guerra. The first-ever Schiller Rule tie-breaker walk-off homer. Wouldn’t you have loved to be there? That for me is truly the coolest home run ever.

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