The big first baseman watched the curve ball break across the plate and knew he was out. He even started to leave the plate, and news reports recorded that he smiled when the umpire gave him a reprieve.
The assembled 5000 partisans at Clark Field on The University of Texas campus voiced their displeasure, some looking nervously at the short right field fence an inviting 300 feet away. The menacing figure in the batter’s box had a reputation as something of a slugger, and this was no time to give him a second chance, not after Texas had rallied to tie the game at 6-6 in the ninth inning. But at least the wind was blowing in….
On the mound the Texas pitcher grimly resolved to throw a fast ball past the hitter. It was a poor choice. The batter, who once had worn the uniform of Columbia University but now wore the better known pin stripes of another New York team, judged it perfectly and propelled what the Los Angeles Times was later to call “without a shadow of a doubt, the longest home run ever hit by man since the beginning of baseball.” Lou Gehrig’s bat, which only six months earlier had led the New York Yankees to a four game sweep of the 1928 World Series, had done it again, and the Yankees beat the Texas Longhorns, 8-6.
The ball Gehrig hit soared out of Clark Field over the center field fence, cut a triangle over a street intersection, and finally came to earth more than 600 feet away. Its landing site was halfway up a hill in the spacious front lawn of a fraternity house; legend has it that the ball was still going up when the hill got in the way.
The house and hill are gone now, bulldozed to provide landscaping for Lyndon Johnson’s library. Next year Clark Field itself will be fed to the unsentimental earth-movers to make room for a fine arts center, and with its demise will die not only the last link to The Home Run, but also the most singular athletic playing field in the State of Texas. The Astrodome? Anybody can build a domed stadium; all that takes is money, Clark Field took genius.
The modern ball park is built for symmetry, favoring neither lefthanded nor righthanded batters. This achieves a statistical perfection of sorts but eliminates one of the most appealing aspects of baseball: the living, breathing presence of the physical setting as a dominant factor in the game. All the electronic gadgetry of the Astrodome scoreboard is essentially irrelevant to what happens on the field. But the wall at Fenway Park, the weird rectangular dimensions of the old Polo Grounds with its Little League foul lines and endless center field, the concave right field wall at Ebbetts Field in Brooklyn, and the brick-like infield at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh—these were an integral part of the game; they changed the way the game on the field was played.
Clark Field is not a modern ball park. Symmetry plays no role in its dimensions, which extend 350 feet to the left field wall, 401 feet to deepest center, and angle sharply in to only 300 feet at the right field foul pole. The profile, deep in left and center, short in right, vaguely suggests Yankee Stadium, but there the comparison ends. Clark Field is different from any other baseball park in the world. Some are larger, some smaller; some seat more, some less; some have lights, some don’t—but all are flat. Clark Field is split-level. Other ball parks are divided into infield and outfield; Clark Field is divided into lowlands and uplands.
The dividing line is a 12-foot cliff which sits absurdly in the middle of the outfield. It begins in right center field, angles sharply across center field, and slopes gently down to the left field line where it tapers to little more than an incline. The plateau is 53 feet wide in straightaway center field, 60 feet wide at its widest point, a mere 18 feet wide in left center, and broadens out again to 31 feet at the foul line. Any ball hit on the cliff is in play, although when the collegiate district playoffs were held at Clark Field in 1970, this particular ground rule was a little more than the NCAA could take. Balls hit on the cliff were decreed to be automatic doubles, but Texas won the playoffs anyway.
No one knows exactly why the cliff was left there. Part of the slope was blasted away to provide rock which eventually served to build up the home plate and grandstand area. Perhaps it was too expensive to remove the rest of the cliff, or perhaps someone decided it was picturesque, but whatever the reason, the cliff has plagued visiting teams for 47 years. Texas outfielders are naturally more familiar with the terrain; they often scale the walls like lizards to hold enemy batters to doubles and triples, while Texas batters usually have time to circle the bases before opposing outfielders solve the mysteries of the cliff. A former Texas coach is said to have developed a practice routine of blindfolding his outfielders and timing their ascent to the plateau.
The cliff has contributed to some unusual baseball moments. Two years ago a Texas pitcher was working on a no-hitter late in the game when an opposing batter lofted a deep fly to left field. The Texas left fielder scurried up the slope, tapped his glove confidently, and watched helplessly from his perch as the ball fell just short of the incline on level ground.
Last year the cliff helped a Texas batter attain the dubious distinction of doubling into a double play. With men on first and second, he drove the ball to deep center. The runners stayed close to their bases, not knowing whether the ball would be caught. The enemy center fielder judged the rebound off the limestone perfectly, and