MLB Opening Day is just around the corner, which makes this as good a time as any to ask: Who hit the ball harder -- and farther -- than any other player in baseball history?
There's a book just out by Bill Jenkinson that purports to answer that very question, called "Baseball's Ultimate Power: Ranking the All-Time Greatest Distance Home Run Hitters." Jenkinson traces his interest in the subject to a day at Shibe Park in 1953, when, as a 6-year-old, he watched the Athletics play the Phillies in an exhibition game and asked his dad about the sluggers that each team was playing in left field: Who hit the ball farther, little Bill wanted to know, Gus Zernial or Del Ennis?
As far as I can tell, Jenkinson has spent more time than any human on the planet poring over home run stories on microfilm, visiting old home run sites and interviewing home run witnesses. He has spent decades verifying home run distances for dozens of baseball's most powerful hitters. And he must be a heck of an interviewer, because he thanks Dick Allen, Jose Canseco, Dave Kingman and Eddie Murray for their "warm and articulate insights" -- four men whom most baseball writers have found to be among the most difficult subjects in the game.
Jenkinson's all-time No. 1 home run hitter for distance is Babe Ruth. That's probably no surprise, but you might not guess who ranks second on his list. It's not Mickey Mantle or Frank Howard or Allen, all of whom cracked legendary dingers but rank third, fourth and fifth, respectively. To see No. 2 through No. 100, and to find out who ranks first among current players, you'll have to pick up a copy of Jenkinson's book.
Apart from his painstaking research, here's what I admire about Jenkinson's approach: He looks at the longest drive a batter hit, then his 10 longest drives, then his career home run total. Which means as long as a player showed tremendous power for any stretch of time, Jenkinson's lists capture him; it doesn't matter if you played in a pitcher's park or a low-scoring era, if you weren't a good hitter or player overall, if you didn't have a long career, or if you played in the Negro Leagues. Jimmy Wynn, Ron Kittle, Mule Suttles, Bo Jackson and Steve Bilko are all in Jenkinson's top 100, along with Ruth and Mantle and Allen.