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UPSTATE N.Y. SPORTS LORE: Fulton County’s Home Run Derby Connection

A collage of photos from the television show, Home Run Derby, is pictured. (Photo submitted)

The 91st Major League All-Star game was scheduled to take place at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, Calif., on July 14.

The annual exhibition game was established in 1933 and features the most popular players in the American League going up against their counterparts in the National League.

Unfortunately, due to COVID-19, the first half of the Major League Baseball season was put on hold, and the game was cancelled.

And as a warm-up to this historic exhibition game, the 35th Major League Baseball Home Run Derby was scheduled to take place the night before, on Monday July 13th. This is a batting competition which features the top power hitters from each league, battling to hit the most home runs. The event was sure to be a sell-out, with on-line ticket outlets offering tickets to the event ranging from $300 to over $6,000 per person to attend.

The tradition started in 1985 as a way to add to the All-Star experience for the fans. Cincinnati Red slugger Dave Parker out hit the competition from both leagues at Hubert H. Humphrey Field (Minnesota Twins) in Minneapolis, Minnesota, to win the inaugural contest. Since then, six future Hall of Famers have won the event, including, Andre Dawson, Ryne Sandberg, Frank Thomas, Vladimir Guerrero and Ken Griffey Jr., who won the contest three times. The event was nationally televised by ESPN in 1993 on a same-day delayed bases and the first live telecast was in 1998. The 2008 competition saw 9.1 million television viewers watch, making it the year’s most highly rated cable program. In 2019, players were enticed to enter the competition to compete for the chance to win a piece of a $2,500,000 purse. The event took place at Progress Field (Cleveland Indians) in Cleveland, Ohio, and New York Met rookie Pete Alonso won the contest, taking home the $1,000,000 first place prize.

Michael, left, and Mary Jane Dante, hold the Chuck Connors file at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. Mary Jane’s father, Mark Scott, hosted the television show, Home Run Derby. The Dantes were introiduced to one another by Connors. (Photo submitted)

The origins of this power hitting spectacle date back to 1960, when a television series called ‘Home Run Derby’ was produced and hosted by ZIV Television Programs. The series featured the top sluggers of Major League Baseball competing against each other in a nine-inning hitting contest to see who could hit more home runs. The show was aired nationally on syndication and on local TV stations. Twenty six episodes were filmed in December of 1959 at Wrigley Field in Los Angeles, California. This field was a smaller version of Wrigley Field in Chicago, and chosen because it was close to Hollywood and had fairly symmetrical dimensions, which made it equal to both right-handed and left-handed batters.

Rules

— Two Major League players batted for nine innings.

— A ball hit over the wall in fair territory was one point.

— Any ball not hit for a home run, or any pitch called for a strike by the home plate umpire was an out, with three outs ending a players half of the inning.

Michael, right, and Mary Jane Dante, center, pose for a photo with Mike Hauser, while holding a vintage Gloversville Glovers jersey. (Photo submitted)

— Ties were played out in extra innings.

The host of the show was Chicago native Mark Scott. Scott was an actor and broadcaster who first worked in baseball in Norfolk Virginia where he did play-by-play re-creation of Major League Baseball games and live minor league games in the Class B Piedmont League. There he met his future bride Dorothy, whom he married in 1950. While honeymooning in Havana Cuba, a chance encounter with J.G. Taylor Spink, the publisher of ‘The Sporting News’, led to him receiving contacts for a job as an announcer with the Hollywood Stars of the Pacific Coast League. The young couple moved to California and Scott became the play-by-play voice of the Hollywood Stars from 1952 through the 1957 season. When the Brooklyn Dodgers moved to Los Angeles for the 1958 season, the team was forced to relocate to Salt Lake City Utah, where they became the Salt Lake Bees. Scott remained in Los Angeles where he became the sports director at a Hollywood area radio station and hosted a television show called ‘Meet the Dodgers’, during their inaugural season in Los Angeles.

As an actor, he appeared in several 1950’s movies, including ‘Killers From Space’ (1954), ‘The 30-Foot Bride of Candy Rock’ (1959) and the 1956 Paul Newman film ‘Somebody Up There Likes Me’. In addition, he also appeared in several television shows, including three episodes of the ‘Dragnet’ series.

In 1959, Scott was approached by Lou Breslow, a local writer-director-producer, who he knew through his film work, about the idea for a show called ‘Home Run Derby’. Scott liked the idea and helped him create it. Using the contacts he established during his years as a baseball broadcaster, Scott began lining up the top power hitting names in professional baseball to appear on the show. The line-up of players included 9 future hall of famers and 10 other power hitting stars of the day. The future hall of famers included Hank Aaron, Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, Ernie Banks, Harmon Killebrew, Eddie Mathews, Al Kaline, Frank Robinson and Duke Snider. Other stars included Jackie Jensen, Rocky Colavito, Ken Boyer, Wally Post, Dick Stuart, Gus Triandos, Bob Cerv, Bob Allison, Gil Hodges and Jim Lemon.

To entice the players to appear on the show, the winner of each episode received a check for $2,000 and came back to compete in the next episode. The runner-up received a payment of $1,000. Any batter hitting three consecutive home runs received a bonus check of $500. A fourth home run was worth another $500, and any consecutive home runs beyond that were worth another $1,000 each.

While one player batted, the competing player sat with Scott, who served as the show’s host, and chatted about baseball. Scott asked them about the competition, their careers and to provide advice for the young aspiring viewers watching, while simultaneously commentating about the action at the plate.

Mantle hit the most home runs on the show, knocking out 44 and posted a record of 4-1. Aaron appeared the most times on the show and won the most contests with an overall record of 6-1. He also won the most money, earning a total of $13,500 during the 7 times he appeared. Keeping in perspective that Aaron had earned $35,000 during the 1959 season, the earnings on the show represented a significant income supplement for each of the players who appeared.

While all 26 episodes had been filmed in December of 1959, they aired in syndication each week from Jan. 9, 1960 through July 2, 1960 as half-hour television shows. The last episode featured Mickey Mantle picking up his fourth victory, with a win for the second time over Jackie Jensen.

Just 11 days after the final episode aired, Scott suffered a fatal heart attack on July 13, 1960 at the age of 45.

Despite the show having been a great success, the producers cancelled the series, as Scott had been the driving force behind the show.

The Home Run Derby television show would be resurrected in 1988 when ESPN acquired the rights to the 1960 show and started re-airing the original 26 episodes featuring Scott and many of the greatest power hitters who were now enshrined in the baseball hall of fame.

A new generation of baseball fans were introduced to the show and it became just as popular as it was back when it initially aired. At the time the episodes started rerunning, host Mark Scotts widow Dorothy took notice and contacted her daughter Mary Jane to tell her that the show would be on. Mary Jane, who was 8 years old when her father died, tuned-in and watched the show in amazement. According to Mary Jane, “I was 8 years old when my Dad died, and when I first watched Home Run Derby, there he was just as I remembered him. It was like the Twilight Zone. I just sat there and looked and listened. It was disturbing, but fabulous. Who could say they could see their Dad like that all those years later? It made my Mom and I so happy.” Shortly after watching that airing, Mary Jane reached out to a Los Angeles Times reporter who had written a story about the return of the show.

The reporter invited her to a meeting of the Southern California Sports Broadcasters Association. This group is a non-profit organization that serves as a networking forum for Southern California broadcasters. It was founded in 1958 by Tom Harmon, 1940 Heisman Trophy winner and father of actor Mark Harmon. Scott was a charter member of the association and assisted Harmon with creating a monthly luncheon to allow the members to network. They also established that each meeting would have a different sports theme. The theme of the first luncheon that Mary Jane attended was “Home Run Derby’. Mary Jane attended and realized that many of the members were professionals that knew and had worked with her father.

The organization was also open to those with an interest in the history of broadcasting, or sports in Southern California, so she started attending their luncheons each month, just like her father would have if he were still alive.

On July 26, 1990, the monthly meeting theme was going to be ‘Athletes to Actors’ and feature former athletes who had gone into the entertainment industry. Chuck Connors was set to be one of the athletes-turned-actors who was headlining the luncheon, along with Michael Dante and several other former players now in the entertainment business. Connors had played in the Major Leagues for the Brooklyn Dodgers and Chicago Cubs, before becoming a film and television actor. His most famous role was as Lucas McCain in the television series ‘The Rifleman.’

Connors and Scott had been close friends when Connors played his last season in professional baseball with the Los Angeles Angels of the Pacific Coast League in 1952 and was often a dinner guest at the Scott’s home.

According to Mary Jane, “my father and Chuck were very close, and Chuck actually looked up to my dad as a father figure. He initially helped Chuck make the transition over to the entertainment industry.

When my mom, Dorothy, heard that Connors was going to be in attendance, she made the effort to attend the event as well, as she had not spoken to him since my dad passed away 26 years earlier. At the luncheon, we all reconnected with Connors. While talking with the Connors, another baseball player turned actor named Michael Dante walked by and Chuck brought him into the conversation and introduced us.”

Dante, a top minor league prospect in the early 1950s, had played for the Canadian-American League Gloversville Glovers in 1951 under his birth name of Ralph Vitti. Ironically, Dante had also appeared in the film ‘Somebody Up There Likes Me’ with Scott back in 1956. According to Mary Jane, “during the conversation that ensued with Connors and Dante, Michael asked me for my phone number and we began dating. It was like my dad brought Michael and I together through Connors, and we were married two years later, on Sept. 26, 1992.”

In August of 2017, Michael and Mary Jane Dante were in upstate New York when Michael was inducted into the Fulton County Baseball & Sports Hall of Fame. The event took place at Parkhurst Field in Gloversville and honored Dante for his 1951 season with the Gloversville Glovers. As part of their trip to the area, they also received a key to the city of Gloversville and were honored in Cooperstown at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. They received a guided tour of the hall, which included access to the basement memorabilia archives and the Giamatti Research Center.

During the Giamatti Research Center tour, Bruce Markusen, manager of digital and outreach learning, surprised the couple with the Hall of Fame library files on both Mary Jane’s father, Mark Scott, and that of Chuck Connors, the person who brought them together at the July 1990 sports writer’s luncheon. Items from their area visit are on permanent display in the “History of Fulton County Baseball Exhibit” at the Fulton County Museum in Gloversville, as well as in the Parkhurst Field Museum.

Today, Dorothy Scott is 97 and resides in the Los Angeles area. Mary Jane and Michael Dante reside in the Palm Springs area and are still active with many appearances and projects, which include authoring several books (visit www.michaeldanteway.com).

All three represent a unique connection to Mark Scott and the iconic baseball program ‘Home Run Derby’. Scott and his iconic show continues to live on each year through the modern day version of ‘Home Run Derby’ played by the top Major League power hitters in the game as a warm-up to the Major League Baseball All-Star game each July.

Mike Hauser is the founder of the Fulton County Baseball & Sports Hall of Fame in Gloversville. If you have story ideas, old articles/photos or would like to nominate someone for the HOF, he can be reached through the organizations website at www.fchof.com, email; mhauser@frontiernet.net or call (518) 725-5565. If you enjoyed this story and want to learn more about other sports history topics, look for Hauser’s “Hometown Sports Heroes” series on www.amazon.com and search; ‘Mike Hauser Hometown Sports Heroes.’

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