Pictou Advocate sports

Billy Werber and the church roof

Sports

Sixty-one years have whizzed by — almost a lifetime to many — since the Stellarton Albions played their ninth and final season in the legendary import-laden Halifax and District Baseball League.

It was long ago. We were in the early stages of black and white TV, computers and cell phones were unheard of, and the moon was still made of cheese.

After all that time, I’m still amazed by which achievement involving the Albions is mentioned to me the most.

Whether you’re old enough or not to have been around in those entertaining baseball summers, you probably think it was Stellarton’s three consecutive championships in 1951-53 that bring up the most queries. But it’s not.

The right years, yes — but the wrong subject.

Hardly a year passes that someone doesn’t mention the issue — wondering if it really happened or it was someone’s hallucination that grew real with time.

If you haven’t guessed, I’m talking about Billy Werber, the young star who patrolled the outfield for the Albions for the last two of those championship years. How he slammed a baseball out of the park, across the expanse of Acadia Avenue, hitting the lofty roof of Sharon St. John United Church.

What clouds the story somewhat, did Werber do it once or twice?

I brought up the time factor because Werber’s two years in Stellarton were now 65 and 66 years ago. It means you’d have to be close to your mid-70s to have been there when he displayed his power.

I saw him do it — but just once.

I was sitting in the larger grandstand, the one on the first base side of the diamond. I recall there were a few seconds of silence at first, obviously from disbelief. Before Werber made it around the bases; however, the spectators were on their feet cheering.

Ironically, it was the next year that my journalism career began in the broadcast booth, working as the official scorer and statistician alongside John (Brother) MacDonald, who did the play-by-play of the Stellarton games for CKEC.

But back to Werber.

It was a gigantic home run. That much cannot be disputed. How far did the ball travel? Precise measurements weren’t done in those times. But it must have been major league distance. We were left only with estimations.

But now, after all this time, a modern measuring device — one that’s becoming well known to golfers — puts a whole new light on Werber’s feat.

Before discussing his achievement, I should note some of the distances of home runs we’re seeing during major league games on television.

Take last week’s 19-4 victory by the Toronto Blue Jays against the Texas Rangers when the Jays hit four round-trippers.

Justin Smoak’s two-run homer to deep right field was confirmed at 376 feet. Randal Grichuk’s blow to deep left centre travelled 405 feet. Brandon Drury’s grand slam went 388 feet, matching Danny Jansen’s two-run blow to deep left.

Since then, I got an email from Tom Macdonald, who grew up in New Glasgow and helped his high school hockey team win three consecutive provincial championships. After receiving a commerce degree from Dalhousie University, he joined a bank, then Export Development Canada. He’s now retired in Ottawa.

Having read earlier references to Werber hitting the church in Stellarton, he says he wasn’t there when it happened, but “I certainly heard of them and, from my favourite spot on the hill in right field, often wondered how someone could hit a ball that far.”

What intrigued him?

“There was no mention made of how far a ball would have to travel to reach the roof and you got me thinking about the distance. So on my last trip home this summer, I headed to Albion Park with a golf range finder, stood at home plate and took some measurements.”

The results?

“Trees blocked readings from some parts of the roof but I got enough to make reasonably accurate extrapolations. Then, using major league baseball’s old method of determining how far a home run would have travelled, I reached several conclusions.”

His figures are interesting.

“At the very least, a high towering fly ball would have an estimated total carry of 435 feet if it hit the lower right corner of the roof. A drive to the middle of the roof would be 447 feet, and one to the lower left corner, 459 feet. If a ball was hit to the point one half of the distance between the bottom of the roof and the top, the distance would be 24 feet more — so a carry of 469, 471 and 483 from right to left.”/

Without getting into complicated calculations, Macdonald says, “these estimates may not be perfect, but no matter where Werber’s home runs landed, they had to be an impressive distance when you consider that only a small percentage of today’s Major Leaguers hit home runs over 450 feet.”

So it was quite a power show.

If you were to consider Werber’s background, that was a very talented player who came from North Carolina.

Werber, when he arrived in Stellarton in 1952, had just been named an All-American first baseman with Duke University. Following his two summers in Pictou County, he had a brief tenure in the majors.

One thing for sure – he was from good baseball stock, like super kids like Blue Jays youngsters Vlady Guerrero, Bo Bichette and Cavin Biggio.

Werber was also a “Junior,” carrying the name of his dad, Billy Werber, a major league star with the Cincinnati Reds in the 1930s.

There were a couple of interesting things about the senior Werber. He lived to be the last surviving teammate of Babe Ruth’s and, when he died in 2009, he was the oldest living former major leaguer — at the age of 100.

Yes, Billy Werber Jr. was a gifted player when he hit Sharon St. John’s roof.