Tall Tale

Washington Monument Host to Unusual Game of Catch

Posted April 20, 2005 at 3:00pm

Regular-season professional baseball was played in Washington, D.C., for the first time in more than 30 years last week. The sport’s return reminds some of exploits surrounding earlier Washington teams. Tim Wiles, director of research for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, recently wrote an article titled “Tall Tales: Catching Stories from the Washington Monument.”

The world’s tallest building was nearing completion in Washington, D.C., in 1884. Standing just over 555 feet tall, the Washington Monument eclipsed the Cologne Cathedral in Germany for the height crown. Even before it opened, ballplayers for both Washington and visiting clubs found it tantalizing. Opinions differed as to whether a human being could catch a baseball tossed from its 50-story height. Like Mount Everest, which had to be climbed “because it was there,” the monument inspired players to take up the challenge.

The first indisputable catch off the obelisk belongs to Washington catcher Gabby Street. Journalist Preston Gibson bet a large sum on whether the feat could be accomplished. On August 21, 1908, he climbed the monument and threw ball after ball to the street below — Gabby Street. Twelve or thirteen balls were missed in the brisk wind, with witnesses reporting that they bounced 50 feet on concrete, or dug themselves 3 inches into the ground on grass.

Street was wearing a glove, but no mask, helmet, or chest protector when he at last hauled down one of the balls. The sound of the ball hitting his glove was heard for several hundred yards, and the force nearly knocked him over. Navy ordnance experts estimated that the ball dropped at 135 feet per second, and exerted 117 foot-pounds of pressure. Street reported that it was difficult to see the ball until it was about halfway down, and that the ball “hit my mitt with terrific force … much greater than any pitched ball I have ever caught.” Indeed, that very afternoon, Street caught a lot more objects moving with impressive force, as the young Walter Johnson tossed a five-hitter.

Gibson inscribed the ball with date and details, and kept it in his Georgetown home. When his son, James McMillan Gibson, sold the home to former first lady Jacqueline Kennedy, the ball resurfaced and was donated to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Street achieved great notoriety for his 1908 catch, and relived it again in 1945. As part of a promotion to sell war bonds, he teamed with his rookie broadcast partner, a youngster named Harry Caray, to reenact the catch in St. Louis. Caray threw four balls from the roof of the 387-foot Civil Court Building, and the 63-year-old Street caught two of them. “Those were my greatest catches, greater than the Monument,” mused Street, 33 years after he became the first man to conquer the obelisk.

This story was excerpted with permission from the spring 2005 issue of Memories and Dreams. For more information on the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, or to become a Friends of the Hall of Fame member, please visit https://BaseballHallofFame.org or call (888) HALL-OF-FAME.

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