Three weeks ago, on a mild Monday morning in Lowell, Massachusetts, a group of people entered LeLacheur Park, home of the Lowell Spinners. Their goal? To set a world record.

Zack Hample is a well-known name among a certain population of baseball fans. Most famous for "ballhawking" – those guys who go to baseball games with a singular focus of catching as many baseballs as possible, be they home run ball, batting practice ball, or whatever – Hample has collected nearly 6,100 baseballs from major league stadiums. In 2011 alone, he collected 1,157 baseballs from all 30 stadiums. He has written three books about baseball as well. Hample also holds world records in a number of classic video games and plays Scrabble competitively on occasion. Obviously, when Hample sets his mind on something, he goes all out.

On July 2, Hample's mind was set on establishing a world record for catching a baseball dropped from the greatest height. Hample was planning on catching a baseball dropped from a helicopter hovering 1,000 feet overhead, but that would only happen if the weather cooperated. He and the crew would build up to the milestone number by dropping baseballs from various heights.

There are some great write-ups of the event posted elsewhere. Benjamin Hill, Minor League Baseball's intrepid reporter and a must-read, wrote about the event for both and his blog, while Hample detailed the entire morning (with many, many pictures) at his own blog. The Lowell Sun also covered it.

In the end, the wind prevented any attempts at a 1,000-foot catch. Hample settled for one world record and one amazing resume highlight. The record was for catching a softball dropped from the greatest height (312 feet, besting the previous record of 200 feet). On the baseball front, Hample's 762-foot catch was impressive but not quite enough to beat the accepted record of 800-feet, set by Gabby Hartnett in 1930.

There were some intriguing lessons learned from Hample's attempt:

  • A baseball isn't too hard to spot from hundreds of feet away, provided you see it right away. If it gets lost in a cloud at the time of release, good luck.
  • Baseballs dropped from 500+ feet will bounce 30- or 40-feet in the air if they hit the infield dirt.
  • Baseballs dropped from 500+ feet will murder your lawn if they hit grass, embedding themselves two-or-three inches deep into the sod. (The pictures of the groundskeeper and his damaged sod in Hample's blog are terrific.)
  • The terminal velocity of a baseball is 95 mph. This is, in all likelihood, faster than any baseball you have ever caught since the ball is actually going 95 mph at the time of impact. Pitch speed is measured today 50 feet from the plate and is said to drop up to 10 mph on its way to the plate.
  • The wind can have a profound effect on the ball at the time of release. The event was called off when a ball dropped above the infield was pushed over the centerfield wall during its descent by a wind blowing 30 mph at the helicopter's height.
  • Zack Hample will do almost anything to catch a baseball.

Hample plans on making another attempt at the 1,000-foot drop in the future. In the meanwhile, here's video of him making his 762-foot catch:

It's harder than it looks.

Thank you for reading

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How could you possibly make it through this article, Larry, without telling the story of Uncle Robbie, Casey Stengel and the grapefruit? I thought surely this was going to be warmup for a re-telling of that one. (So if terminal velocity for a baseball is 95 mph, what is it for a grapefruit?)
Sadly, I don't think I know that story. I guess I'll just have to go look it up...
It's a funny story from the early days of the game. Furthermore, unlike many such stories, it's true, and documented. I'll leave the rest to you, but it's really worth looking up.