Catcher Beaned By Ball From Blimp

Classic Weird News From 1939

A Stunt That Shall Live In Infamy

goodyear blimp
Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images

The history of baseball is full of weird stunts that team managers have dreamed up to generate publicity and attract crowds.

Back in the early twentieth century, a popular stunt was the "ball-drop" contest. This involved dropping a baseball from a great height to see if a player could catch it. 

Quite a few of these ball drops occurred over the years. It was a fun event. People enjoyed the spectacle. But in 1939 someone got the idea of upping the ante by dropping a ball from the Goodyear blimp. What happened next is remembered as one of baseball's most infamous weird stunts.

The History Of Ball Drops

ball from monument
"Snapped just as Street caught the thirteenth ball.". via Washington Post - Aug 23, 1908

Ball-drop contests trace back to the late 19th Century when players began attempting to catch balls dropped from the top of the Washington Monument (555 feet high). The first such attempt is generally credited to William "Pop" Schriver in 1894, but no one succeeded in actually catching one of the balls until August 21, 1908, when Charley "Gabby" Street of the American League Washington Senators did so on his thirteenth try.

On August 20, 1938, Hank Helf and Frankie Pytlak of the Cleveland Indians broke Street's record, catching balls thrown from the top of Cleveland's Terminal Tower (758 feet high).

The next year the Golden Gate Exposition was being held on San Francisco's Treasure Island. It was a World's Fair celebrating, among other things, the recent completion of the Bay Bridge and Golden Gate Bridge.

As part of the festivities, players from the minor-league San Francisco Seals entertained the crowd by catching balls dropped from the top of the Tower of the Sun, which was the tallest structure on Treasure Island at 460-feet high.

This went so well that someone — either the Seals manager Lefty O'Doul or its PR man Walter Mails (no one can remember exactly who it was, and neither stepped forward later to take the blame) — suggested doing a ball drop from the Goodyear blimp that would be floating over an exhibition game several weeks later.

[Note: As it turned out, this wasn't the first ball-drop from the Goodyear blimp. On April 1, 1930 Gabby Hartnett of the Chicago Cubs had caught several balls dropped from the blimp as it hovered 800 feet over Wrigley Field, but his achievement wasn't widely publicized at the time and was consequently overlooked for many decades. So in 1939 the Seals were unaware of it. They consistently spoke of trying to break the 1938 Terminal Tower record.]

Ball Drops From Blimp

sprinz breaks jaw instead of record
via Oakland Tribune - Aug 4, 1939

The date of the Great Blimp Ball Drop was August 3, 1939. The player who got selected to catch the ball was starting catcher Joe Sprinz. 

Sprinz had played for three years in the major leagues, where he had an undistinguished career with a batting average of .170, before being sent back to the minors.

Sprinz himself wasn't sure why he got the honor of being the ball-drop catcher that day. In a later interview he said, "Maybe it was because that day was my [37th] birthday, or maybe it was because I was the only one crazy enough to try it. I don't know."

Contemporary sources agreed that the blimp was at a height of 800 feet high, although Sprinz would later recall that it was closer to 1000 feet high. 

The dropping of the balls commenced. The Captain of the Blimp, Arthur Sewell, threw a ball out the window, but it veered off course, falling into the stands, producing a bit of a scare among the crowd. An inauspicious beginning. 

A second ball came down straight, and Sprinz almost caught it. When he looked down he noticed it had buried deep in the ground. This fact, he confessed later, somewhat unnerved him. 

Two more balls followed. Both went uncaught.

Finally, Sewell threw a fifth ball. Sprinz circled beneath it, holding his glove above his head, following its progress as it approached the ground. It sped closer, closer, and then slammed into him.

The crowd saw Sprinz collapse onto the ground, clutching his face, writhing in pain. 

The stunt had obviously gone disastrously wrong.

Team officials quickly summoned an ambulance which rushed Sprinz to St. Joseph's Hospital for emergency treatment.

Aftermath

Beaned by blimp's baseball
via the Mattoon Journal Gazette - Aug 8, 1939

Sprinz's injuries were serious. The doctors initially worried that he had broken his neck, but it turned out he had "only" fractured his jaw in multiple places, knocked five teeth out, and severely lacerated his face. He was in the hospital for three months and would suffer from painful, recurring headaches for five years afterwards.

From his hospital bed, his face swathed in bandages, Sprinz told reporters what he thought had happened. He was pretty sure the ball had slammed into his catcher's mitt, driving the glove back with enormous force into his face. Although he later confessed, "I don't remember much about it, to tell you the truth. It's a little like a dream."

A San Francisco mathematician calculated that the ball must have been going 150 miles an hour when it struck Sprinz. However, this figure has been disputed. Astronomer Neil deGrasse Tyson more recently noted that, due to air resistance, the fastest speed a falling baseball would reach is around 95 mph. 

This isn't even as fast as the fastest pitch ever — 105.1 mph by Aroldis Chapman of the San Diego Padres on September 24, 2010 — which suggests that Sprinz definitely could have caught the ball. It certainly wasn't an impossible feat, as demonstrated by the fact that it had been done before (even though Sprinz wasn't aware of this). 

Sprinz returned to baseball in 1940 and played for two more years before retiring from the sport for good.

In 1970, the Guinness Book of World Records credited him for making the "World's Highest Catch." However, in a 1975 interview Sprinz admitted, "I never caught that thing," insisting that Guinness "got it all wrong... except the part about the ball breaking my jaw." By 1978 Guinness had removed the entry. [The actual credit, of course, should have gone to Hartnett for his 1930 catch.] 

Later Ball Drops

Following the blimp debacle, the president of the San Francisco Seals, Charles Graham, declared, "That is the end of that kind of stunt for my ball players."

However, it wasn't the end of ball-drop contests. Other teams and players carried on the tradition.

For instance, in August 1948 players with the minor-league Kingston Colonials tried to set a new altitude record by dropping a ball from a helicopter, but the helicopter developed motor problems and by the time these were fixed it had grown too dark. Players complained that they couldn't see the few balls that were thrown out from 500 feet. 

And in July 2013, baseball enthusiast/sportswriter Zack Hample caught a ball dropped from a helicopter hovering at approximately 1050 feet. This stands as the current record.

There was one important difference between these stunts and Sprinz's 1939 attempt. In the later stunts, the catchers took the sensible precaution of wearing protective gear on their head and chest.

References

• Demers, D. (Mar 25, 2014). "8 teeth sacrificed for the record." DrBicuspid.com. (accessed Feb 26, 2016).

• Orrock, Ray. (Jul 30, 1975). "There's Always a Catch." The Fremont Argus.