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Dale Long

February 7, 2009

by William Szczepanek

Some players have historic careers that are remembered forever.  Others have historic occurrences that are remembered by few. Dale Long is one of the later.  His first full year in his Major League career began with the Pirates in 1955 as the oldest rookie on the youngest team ever in the majors. He was 29. While very old for a rookie he still showed much promise by hitting .291 with 16 home runs.

1956 #56 Dale LongHe later made news by being the first left-handed catcher since 1924 when he caught for the Cubs at a time when they ran out of catchers.  He also distinguished himself by hitting two pinch hit home runs in a row which tied the record.
 
After a long minor league career and 13 years in baseball, Dale could be satisfied with just making it as a major leaguer, but 1956 started out looking to be Dale Long’s year. For eight consecutive games in 1956, Dale Long’s bat had lightning in it.

He began the year in auspicious style by hitting two home runs off of Johnny Antonelli of the Giants. Dale continued to hit home runs and bat over .400.  He performed in the rarefied air of a superstar for weeks. But, this was only the beginning. On May 19, in Chicago he hit a home run off of Jim Davis of the Cubs.  He followed with home runs in a double header against the Braves with homers off of Ray Crone and Warren Spahn. After a day of rest he resumed his spree by hitting home runs off of Herm Wehmeier and Lindy McDaniel of the Cardinals. That gave him five homers in five consecutive games.  The record was six, held by five players, the last of whom to do the trick was Willie Mays.  Long tied the record with a home run off of Curt Simmons of the Phillies.

 Now, the pressure mounted on this player with no experience in the limelight. Long became anxious and was swinging as hard as he could at everything he saw. He faced Ben Flowers in his last at bat in the game.  He swung and missed strike one.  He swung and missed strike two. He was so tense he didn’t bother to step out of the box. The next pitch saw Long swing mightily.  He put it out of the park. Now, he was the star ― flashbulbs bursting as he moved about, television shows wanting interviews and the spectacular day extending into a long night.

On May 28th, a Monday night, the Pirates played the Dodgers at in front of 32, 221 home town fans. Long was batting .411. With the Pirates down 2 to 1 in the fourth, Long lashed a line drive home run off of Carl Erskine to tie the game.  The entire team met him at home plate.  The fans cheered and continued to cheer until long made a curtain call. The home run record was extended and has held up over time being tied by Don Mattingly and Ken Griffey Jr.  In those eight games Long went 15 for 31 with 19 RBIs and was six games ahead of Ruth’s pace.

 All good things must come to an end and Long entered a slump that he never came out of and he finished the season with a .263 batting average and 27 homers. But, isn’t it great when an average ballplayer can achieve the totally unexpected?

Postscript:

I was in Wrigley field on August 26, 1956 and saw Dale Long play against the Cubs in a doubleheader. He hit a double, but the highlight of the game was Ernie Banks returning from a hand injury.  It didn’t matter. The Cubs lost both games on their way to a last place finish, beaten by a youngster named Roberto Clemente.

You can check out Long's stats at Baseball-Reference.com.

 

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