The story behind 75-year-old Appling's home run

A once-in-a-lifetime moment

February 26th, 2020
Ben Marra / MLB.com

In the grand scheme of things, a 275-foot home run is nothing to get too worked up over. Usually, those are the kinds of things that middle infielders hit that die in outfielders' gloves -- unless they get a little help with a bounce off an outfielder's head.

But what about when a 75-year-old man does it? Yeah, that’s a little more impressive.

That's what happened when Hall of Famer Luke Appling homered against Warren Spahn in the 1982 Cracker Jack Old-Timers Classic. Even that sentence reads like a kind of fiction, like something that happened when you created custom historical rosters in a video game. Instead, it was real, with two teams of bona fide greats squaring off in RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C., on July 19, 1982. After a tweet showing off Appling's home run went viral earlier this year, we wanted to figure out just how this moment all came together.

The game was assembled by a fan vote and a selection committee, all done to help raise money for the Association of Professional Baseball Players of America.

Now, you may have thought it would be difficult to assemble this veritable Avengers of Baseball roster, but it turned out to be surprisingly easy. That’s thanks to Dick Cecil, who was at the time the vice president of the Atlanta Braves. Cecil had a hand in nearly every type of sporting event possible, including the Olympics, cricket, Grand Prix racing and as president of the NASL’s Atlanta Chiefs when they won the first professional trophy for Atlanta in 1968. But his big idea to put together the Old-Timers Game of all Old-Timers Games is one of his favorite things that stands out on his resume.

Dick Cecil in his office

Cracker Jack signed on to sponsor the event almost as soon as Cecil pitched them.

“Our presentation was 15 minutes long,” Cecil told Marty Appel. “They were aboard before we walked into the room. Most of the 15 minutes were spent talking about players to invite."

Normally Hall of Fame players are hard to get, but because this was for the APBPA, it was easy.

“I knew Dick, and he wanted to know if I wanted to play,” Brooks Robinson recently told MLB.com. “Of course we got paid -- I don’t know what it was -- it might have been five dollars. They wanted me to play and I said sure.”

Brooks Robinson in 1969

The actual total was $1,000 -- and that was for every player, regardless if they were a Hall of Famer like Robinson or Hank Aaron or simply a local favorite like ex-Senators outfielder Bob Allison. That was something the players liked, Cecil said, that everyone was on equal footing for the game. But there was another reason they might have loved it.

“Everybody got $1,000 plus transportation for two,” Cecil said in a conversation with MLB.com. “One of the great things players said was, ‘For the first time my wife was invited to come to an event.’” With families along for the trip, the players felt comfortable enough hanging out in the hospitality room until three or four in the morning while in town, just sharing stories.

Cecil also instituted some important changes to how Old-Timers games were usually played. Forget a two-inning affair, this one was five innings. He also wanted the games to be competitive, with teams actually trying to win and use strategy.

“I loved old-timers games,” Cecil said. “When I was with the Braves, we had them. The Yankees had them. Usually they were an event that doesn’t give the old guys much credit. It’s like the opening act of a big musical thing, something for people to walk into -- but this was for the players.”

With ESPN brought on as a broadcast partner, and the legendary Red Barber (the man on the mic for the Dodgers before Vin Scully), the atmosphere was electric. 30,000 fans showed up to see some of the greatest to ever step to the plate or toe the rubber … even if some players like Early Wynn looked more like Joe Pesci in “The Irishman” than All-Stars:

A shocking resemblance

Though rain threatened a postponement of the activity, Ernie Banks’ pre-game proclamation that, “we’re gonna play” came true. It didn’t take long for the most memorable home run hit outside a big league game to be sent out of the park.

Before Appling came up in the bottom half of the inning, there was already plenty going for the game. Hank Aaron knocked in a run and Phil Cavaretta hit the slowest infield single you'll likely ever see:

Then the bottom half came and the grandfatherly Appling stepped in to face Warren Spahn. Known for his bat-to-ball skills and his ability to draw a walk, Appling had only knocked out 45 home runs during his 20-year big league career. That had ended 32 years before when he was a spry 43 years of age.

So, naturally, after taking a first-pitch ball, Appling connected on a hanging offering from Spahn and knocked it out of the park. Cue up the silliest home run trot, with players chasing the doddering Appling around the bases.

They had to bring the stands down, so the fence was 275 or something like that,” Robinson said. “But that’s pretty damn good to hit one that far when you’re 75 years old,” he added with a laugh.

After the game, Appling flexed his biceps and lit a cigar in the clubhouse.

“I didn’t even look at it (the home run),” the shortstop told The Washington Post after the game. “I just didn’t want to run around the bases. I never feel old.”

That might be true. Cecil joked that, “It probably extended Luke’s lifetime another five years. He got more out of that and it made the game itself reasonably good. When he hit the home run it became a national and international event.”

Spahn wasn’t even trying to groove any pitches to give the fans something to cheer for. “I told Luke last night my strategy was to pitch around the young guys and get the old fogeys out,” Spahn said. “But he didn’t give me a chance.”

While Appling’s home run is what most stands out to fans today, there were plenty of other fun moments that night.

After flubbing a ball in the outfield, Hank Aaron made a running shoestring catch (though, surely, years before that wouldn’t have been nearly so difficult):

“It was a Major League catch,” Aaron said at the time. “We’re not playing to embarrass ourselves. We wanted to win. People are paying their money to see us.”

Jim Fregosi went deep and so did Bill Mazeroski. Maz’s didn’t end a World Series, but, perhaps quite fittingly for an Old-Timers Game, clanged off someone’s glove and into the crowd. The American League won behind an offensive explosion, 7-2.

"All these games we had, we had a lot of fun," Robinson recalled. "The crowd was enthusiastic, and they all wanted baseball back in Washington. Took them a while longer I guess, but it looks like it’s there to stay," he said with a laugh.

After six years in Washington, the event went to Buffalo for the next three. The city was trying to prove that Pilot Field -- now Sahlen Field -- was up to big league standards. While the city didn't become the next expansion city, it is home to the Triple-A Buffalo Bisons.

As for the game? "To be honest with you, I ran out of steam, and I think the game did, too," Cecil said. "It was definitely the right thing at the right time. I don’t think you could do it today. But at the time we did it, the whole nostalgia thing was just starting to kick off."

So, after 1990, the game packed up and called it a career. But it's left a pretty good legacy. After all, how many 75-year-olds have you seen hit dingers off Hall of Fame pitchers?