Remembering Frank Robinson's historic, outside-the-park home run, 50 years later

On May 8, 1966, Frank Robinson became the first (and only) player to hit a home run out of Memorial Stadium.

The pitcher, Cleveland's Luis Tiant, peered in for the sign and delivered a fastball, low and inside. Frank Robinson swung from the heels. The crowd of 49,516 rose as one to watch as the ball soared over the left-field wall — and kept climbing. It cleared the football press box, 50 rows of bleachers and a 12-foot TV camera stand sitting at the top of Memorial Stadium before it disappeared.

The place exploded. On May 8, 1966, in his 19th game as an Oriole, Robinson had done the unthinkable, becoming the first (and only) player to hit a home run out of the ballpark. As he rounded the bases with that gingerly gait, the crowd — then the largest ever to see an Orioles game — gave him a standing ovation. The applause lasted a full minute, until Robinson had touched his cap five times. Or was it six?

"I have hit balls as hard, but it would be difficult to say that I have hit any harder," he said afterward. "I was a little embarrassed [by the ovation]; it hit the soft spot."

Half a century later, Robinson called it a seminal moment in his baseball career. Hearing the cheering, "I felt like I really belonged in Baltimore," the Hall of Fame slugger told The Baltimore Sun in December.

The 50th anniversary of the feat will be commemorated in a community event Sunday not far from where the ball landed.

Robinson's historic 1966 home run affected others, too. Outside the park that Sunday afternoon, two youths passed by. Fifteen-year-old Mike Sparaco and his buddy Bill Wheatley, 14, were returning home to Waverly in a sullen mood.

"We'd gone to meet two girls at a miniature golf course on Hillen Road, but they never showed," Sparaco recalled. Crossing a parking lot outside the stadium, they heard a roar, looked up and saw fans pointing at them from the top row of the bleachers.

"We thought, 'What's going on?'" said Sparaco, now 65, of northeast Baltimore. "Bill said, 'Maybe somebody hit one out.' I said, 'Great, maybe we'll get a new baseball and play with it.' The first car I looked under was a white Cadillac and there was the ball, right in the middle. No sooner had I crawled under to get it than all these people came running over. A guy with a transistor radio shouted, 'Frank Robinson just hit that!'"

The ball had traveled 451 feet on the fly before rolling to a stop 540 feet from home plate.

Ushered into the stadium, the boys hoped to lean over the Orioles dugout and present the ball to Robinson. Some fans thought otherwise. Sparaco said: "One man stood up from his seat and offered $50 for it. His wife said, 'Sit down, Harry.'"

Instead, they met with Harry Dalton, the Orioles general manager who took them to the press box. There, the public address announcer introduced the two ninth-graders to the crowd, who gave them a standing ovation.

"I couldn't believe it," Sparaco said. "Five minutes earlier, I'd been a nobody. Now we were doing an interview on a Cleveland radio station. After the game, we visited the Orioles locker room. Reporters swarmed us. We shook hands with every Oriole, from Luis Aparicio to Boog Powell. They all signed a ball and a program. Then we jumped up on a training table, gave the ball to Frank Robinson and had our picture taken with him. The Orioles gave us both season passes, we said our goodbyes and that was it."

Not quite. Walking home, Sparaco was met by neighbors shouting, "We saw you on TV!" On Monday, at Woodbourne Junior High, he and Wheatley were celebrities.

"I was flabbergasted. It's hard to deal with all that," Sparaco said. "Relatives called from all over the country. I delivered papers for the Baltimore News American and that afternoon, when I opened my bundle, our picture was on the front page."

Wheatley has since died, but Sparaco, a semiretired bricklayer, can recall every detail of that afternoon on 33rd Street 50 years ago.

"Every once in a while, someone will come up to me and want to talk about it," he said. "That was my 15 minutes of fame."

Robinson's home run, in the first inning of an 8-3 victory during the second game of a doubleheader, was more remarkable having come off an Indians pitcher (Tiant) who had thrown three consecutive shutouts to start his season. The feat so moved the city that a sports booster club sought to commemorate the blast. A week later, in a pregame ceremony, an orange flag with black lettering was raised at the spot where the ball left the park. "HERE" is all it said.

The flag flew until the end of 1991 — the Orioles' last at Memorial Stadium — when it was won by a fan in a club-sponsored giveaway during the penultimate game of the season.

"I still have it," said Les Kelly, 57, of Fort Worth, Texas. A retired Marine, he keeps the flag folded in a Ziploc bag, with a certificate of authenticity, in the bottom of a foot locker that accompanied him during tours in Okinawa, Japan, and Hawaii.

It's only by chance that he's the owner of the HERE flag, Kelly said. Stationed at Quantico, Va., in 1991, after serving in Operation Desert Storm, he'd driven to Baltimore with his wife and two sons Oct. 5 to visit the National Aquarium — or so he thought.

"They surprised me and said we were going to the Orioles-Detroit game for my birthday," said Kelly, who's from Michigan. "But we didn't have tickets and the game was sold out. Then a guy walked over and said, 'I'll sell you four tickets for $12.' They were upper deck but we took them."

Next thing Kelly knew, his seat had been selected and he'd won a prize.

"When [the Orioles] told me what it was, everybody swarmed around me, wanting to buy the flag," he said. "What are the odds of all that happening? Frank Robinson signed it 'Best Wishes' and shook our hands. One guy offered $1,000 for it, on the spot. The Babe Ruth Museum asked to display it, but I kept it."

The HERE flag has been at Kelly's side ever since, except during his deployment to Iraq in 2005.

"I've been thinking about it lately," he said, but not because it's the golden anniversary of Robinson's home run. "Antiques Roadshow," the PBS television series, goes to Fort Worth in July, and Kelly hopes to have his keepsake appraised.

On Sunday, Baltimore will stage its own celebration. At 1 p.m., Mark Melonas, a neighborhood activist, will raise a replica of the flag atop a 16-foot pole on the chain link fence in the left-field corner of the YMCA ballfield where Memorial Stadium once stood. Youngsters can also compete in Major League Baseball-sponsored Pitch Hit & Run contests, whiffle ball games and a home run derby (ages 14-18).

"We'll hang the flag and give a quick history lesson on Robinson and what it meant for blue-collar Baltimore to embrace a hero who had darker skin than many of them," said Melonas, a furniture maker. "After the arrest last year of Freddie Gray, and people having a poor opinion of the city, the metaphor of HERE is an interesting one, overlaid on that history. We're still an amazing town, and this neighborhood is surprisingly diverse."

At 40, Melonas wasn't alive when Robinson played for the Orioles. But praise from his father, Jim Melonas, is good enough for him.

"Mention Robinson and dad gets a funny look in his eye," Mark Melonas said. "'There are players,' he'll say, 'and then there's Frank.'"

mike.klingaman@baltsun.com

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