Cooperstown Confidential: Mark Scott and the Home Run Derby

Mark Scott had no trouble getting big stars like Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays on Home Run Derby.

Mark Scott had no trouble getting big stars like Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays on Home Run Derby.

For fans of a certain age, this bit of timeline information will be difficult to swallow, but it is no less true. It has now been 55 years since a simple show named Home Run Derby aired on network television.

It might also be difficult to believe, but the show, which has become a cult classic over the last half-century, lasted exactly one season and all of 26 episodes. That’s it. The show almost certainly would have aired longer but for an unforeseen tragedy.

On Jan. 9, 1960, Home Run Derby made its debut on nationally syndicated television. The half-hour program pitted two star sluggers of the era against each other in a basic competition to see who could hit more home runs against the equivalent of batting practice pitching. In a nine-inning format, the two hitters took turns trying to hit home runs before they registered three “outs” in the inning. An out was recorded each time a batter swung and produced something other than a home run. (The umpire could also call an out if the batter failed to swing at a pitch in the strike zone.) The player who hit more total home runs over the nine innings won the contest, earning the right to come back to participate in another program.

The Derby became synonymous with a young broadcaster named Mark Scott, who had experience as a baseball radio announcer. During the 1950s, Scott had served as the play-by-play voice of the Hollywood Stars, an extremely popular team in the Pacific Coast League. But when the Brooklyn Dodgers moved their franchise to Los Angeles after the 1957 season, the Stars were forced to dismantle, leaving Scott to concentrate on his role as the sports director of a local radio station. He also found some work hosting a new television show called Meet the Dodgers, but did not serve as one of the team’s regular announcers on either TV or radio.

Scott also happened to have connections to Hollywood. In addition to his announcing work with the Stars and local radio, he had appeared as an actor in a number of 1950s films, particularly those of the shlock science fiction variety. His credits included the wonderfully named Killers From Space and The 30-Foot Bride of Candy Rock. At times, he simply portrayed announcers, but he also played more substantial characters. He also appeared in a number of television shows, including three guest spots in Jack Webb’s popular Dragnet series.

Thanks to his film work, Scott became good friends with a man named Lou Breslow, a veteran writer, director, and producer who had worked with a number of iconic comedy teams, including Abbott and Costello, the Marx Brothers and the Three Stooges. It was Breslow who came up with the initial idea for Home Run Derby. He approached Scott to tell him about his concept and ask him to serve as the narrator of the show.

Scott liked the idea and agreed to become involved. Home Run Derby didn’t have much appeal to the three major networks, but it did intrigue a company called Ziv Productions, which specialized in developing syndicated programs. By 1959, Scott and Breslow had successfully pitched the idea to Ziv. Now that the legwork had been done, Scott could concentrate on securing players and serving as the show’s host and narrator.

While Scott’s connections to Hollywood were good, his connections within baseball were even more substantial. His ability to attract big-name stars helped the show immensely. The list of Home Run Derby participants read like a who’s who of early 1960s baseball. No fewer than nine future Hall of Famers took part in the show, including Hank Aaron (the future home run king) and a roll call of royalty that included Ernie Banks, Al Kaline, Harmon Killebrew, Mickey Mantle, Eddie Mathews, Willie Mays, Frank Robinson and Duke Snider.

Other well-known stars of the day who took part in the Derby included Bob Allison, Ken Boyer, Bob Cerv, Rocky Colavito, Gil Hodges, Wally Post, Gus Triandos and Dick Stuart, known as “Dr. Strangeglove.” (The Derby was made for a defensively challenged first baseman like Stuart, since no gloves or mitts were required in a contest centered on home run hitting.) Only a few of the leading power hitters from 1959, like Joe Adcock and Orlando Cepeda, eluded the grasp of Scott and Home Run Derby.

Scott made sure to present the show in a consistent format. Each derby took place at Los Angeles’ Wrigley Field, a smaller version of Wrigley Field in Chicago. This Wrigley made perfect sense because of its proximity to Hollywood. As Scott noted, Wrigley Field had fairly symmetrical dimensions, making it fair for both right-handed and left-handed hitters. The distance of 345 feet to each of the power gaps made it both fair and conducive to home run hitting. Righty batters had a slight disadvantage because Wrigley’s left field wall was a few feet higher than the left field wall, but the difference was negligible and none of the participants complained.

Scott also hired a regular stable of hands to run the proceedings at the ballpark. Former major leaguer Tom Saffell, who had played for the Stars while Scott served as their broadcaster, did all the pitching to both participants. Major league umpire Art Passarella, who would later become an accomplished actor, served as the home plate arbiter. The catcher was John Van Ornum, who was in the midst of a minor league playing career.

With the logistics in place, 19 different players appeared on the program, vying for prize money. Each winner received a check for $2,000, a significant pay day at a time when arbitration and free agency were still a decade and a half away. The loser of each competition received $1,000. If a batter managed to hit three consecutive home runs, he received a bonus check of $500. Aaron earned the most money of all the players, picking up $13,500. Aaron won six consecutive derbies before finally being beaten by Wally Post, slugging outfielder for the Cincinnati Reds.

Rather than being run as a strict single-elimination tournament, the derby often allowed players to come back after they had lost match-ups. Eight players—Allison, Banks, Colavito, Jackie Jensen, Killebrew, Jim Lemon, Mantle and Mays— made returns to the show despite losing earlier derbies.

As much as the competition of hitting home runs served as the primary theme of the show, Scott needed to sustain the half-hour program with a capable level of narration and description. He did just that. Dressed in a suit and tie, Scott looked like baseball’s equivalent to The Twilight Zone’s Rod Serling, but without an ever-present cigarette in his hand. Unlike Serling, Scott didn’t just appear at the beginning of the program. Instead, he provided a constant flow of Derby play-by-by while sitting at a desk in the dugout. (The desk looked odd in the dugout, but somehow Scott made the unusual backdrop work.)

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Scott developed several catch phrases during the taping of the shows. His most famous assessment was this convenient one-liner: “It’s a home run or nothing here on Home Run Derby.” In contrast to Serling’s serious, straitlaced tones, Scott was upbeat and playful in his narration—the perfect tone for a light-hearted show.

As Scott described the exploits of one hitter who was taking his swings, he engaged the other participant in friendly banter. The conversations between Scott and the players were often filled with corny dialogue and a stream of clichés. As Rocky Colavito once said in response to a question from Scott, “I hit home runs in bunches—like bananas.” Such cornball responses provided a humorous, down-home backdrop to a serious but polite competition. In today’s world, it likely would not have passed muster, but the audience of the early 1960s loved it.

Scott also made sure to avoid controversy. In fact, he sometimes tried to defuse potential conflict. When Dick Stuart, a player known for being boastful and outspoken with the media, appeared on the show, Scott did his best to alleviate any tension with his guest. As Scott declared to Stuart a few minutes into the show, “It’s enlightening for people to see you here and see that you’re like any other ballplayer—you like your base hits, but you’re not a braggart.” This was not hard-hitting journalism, but it did put Scott’s guests at ease.

Like all the episodes, the Stuart show was filmed in December of 1959. Home Run Derby then appeared weekly in syndication, beginning in January and ending in early July. The first season of the Derby wrapped up with an episode that aired on July 2, when Mantle won his second contest over Jackie Jensen of the Boston Red Sox. No one knew at the time that it would mark the final appearance of Home Run Derby.

Only 11 days later, Scott, who appeared to be in good health at age 45, suffered a massive and fatal heart attack. The producers considered what to do. After first contemplating a replacement for Scott, they chose not to replace him, instead cancelling the show outright.

And so, after a seemingly successful six-month run, Home Run Derby came to an end. Yet, it still endures. Home Run Derby served as the inspiration for the annual home run contest now featured at the All-Star Game. Just as significantly, all 26 episodes of the show survive to this day. In the late 1980s, ESPN re-aired every one of the episodes, exposing the program to a new generation of followers. Even as a repeat, Home Run Derby proved a hit with fans, who were captivated by the quality of the film, the name value of the sluggers, and the simplicity of the format. In 2007, MGM Entertainment made all the episodes available in a DVD package.

It was cornball and clichéd, and it probably would never be made in today’s world of hip, cool television. But 55 years later, the simple show that Mark Scott made famous lives on.


Bruce Markusen has authored seven baseball books, including biographies of Roberto Clemente, Orlando Cepeda and Ted Williams, and A Baseball Dynasty: Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s, which was awarded SABR's Seymour Medal.
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87 Cards
Guest
87 Cards

Bruce, this was a very through article on “Home Run Derby”. The summarized statistics caught my reading ear. Did you watch all of the episodes and tally the results before composing this history?

I tip my Cardinal hat to you if you did—I find home runs tedious–I would, however, DVR a show called “Triple Derby” or “9-3 Putout Derby”.

Dennis Bedard
Guest
Dennis Bedard

Fascinating stuff. I wonder if Shell’s Wonderful World of Gold was not patterned after Home Run Derby. Same concept.

Dennis Bedard
Guest
Dennis Bedard

Sorry. That’s Golf.

Carl
Guest
Carl

My 8 year old picked up a 2-pack DVD at the library and both her and my 10year old son just loved it. Wrist hitters vs. arm hitters – great stuff. Plus, while even kids that age know of Mantle, Mays, Banks and Aaron, was great to see lesser-known stars like Jensen, Colavito, and Boyer.

Would actually prefer the format used to replace the current format.

Matty
Guest
Matty

Great remembrance – I loved that show. Thank you.

As a long time coach, I used one of the cliche/catch phrases routinely when kid popped up: “Just another out here on Home Run Derby!”

Marc Schneider
Guest
Marc Schneider

I had probably seen the show sometime when I was little but the first time I remember seeing it as an adult was in 1989 in a hotel in Schenectedy, NY. I love the show; I much prefer it to the overhyped Home Run Derby at the All-Star game. I love the minimalism; it’s so fifties. And, of course, the money meant something even to guys like Mays and Mantle.

Saul Wisnia
Guest
Great piece, Bruce. Having been born in 1967 I first caught Home Run Derby in its 1989 re-airing, but instantly fell in love. The dialogue was so corny it was fun and endearing, and it was very cool as a budding baseball historian and writer to see so many great ballplayers of yesteryear up close. I never knew the show was canceled because of Mark Scott’s death until just now — very sad. One question: if a network didn’t pick up Home Run Derby in ’59, where did it air — and was it popular during its initial run? While… Read more »
Philip
Guest
Philip
I remember the local UHF stations airing the re-runs in 70s/80s. Of course at that pre-internet time it was virtually impossible to learn how many episodes ran, who were all the players involved and even why and when the show ended. It’s hard to figure why the producers cancelled the show since it not only was popular but, as tragic as Scott’s death was, in Los Angeles there were two fine baseball announcers either of whom could have taken over: Vin Scully and Jerry Doggett. A few other sluggers of the era who didn’t participate: The Senators’ Roy Sievers (who… Read more »
Marc Schneider
Guest
Marc Schneider

My guess is that, while the show was popular, it wasn’t the kind of big hit that stations are looking for and, without anyone really willing to do the hard work, they probably figured it wasn’t worth the effort.

Michael Bacon
Guest
Michael Bacon

Thank you! This is a wonderful, and informative article. I was nine years of age when it aired and watched every episode as it usually aired on Saturday afternoon before Ol’ Diz and Pee Wee broadcast the Game of the Week. played baseball because of the show. I also became a huge fan of The Mick because of it, even though I was not supposed to like anything “yankee” because I was born “Southern, by the grace of God.”

Jim Hammitt
Guest
Jim Hammitt

Just finished watching episodes one and two of Home Run Derby and my eyes are misting over. This show brings back wonderful memories of an eleven year old Little Leaguer from Akron who grew up trying to swing a bat like Rocky Colovito. I think the show aired on Sunday mornings on a Cleveland station in 1960. Did not know Mark Scott had passed away so soon after the first and only season. I feel a second season would have been difficult due to Mark Scott’s baseball connections. He was the show. RIP