Space Needle History: Thursday at the Needle
Knute Berger, Writer-in-Residence
Today, I'm thinking of the Space Needle promotion that wasn't. It got national headlines, but it never happened. At least, not according to plan.
In the fall of 1961, a 19-year-old truck driver from Brooklyn, NY, Sal Durante, caught one of the most famous home runs baseballs in history: New York Yankee Roger Maris' record-breaking 61st homer. Seattle World's fair promoters jumped on the publicity and invited Durante to come to Century 21 to catch a ball dropped from the top of the Space Needle. If he caught it, he'd win $1,000.
The sports pages loved it. But something intervened: the laws of physics. It was estimated that a ball dropped from the Needle would be going about 130 miles per hour when it hit the ground. That's a bean ball that could kill somebody, including the guy trying to catch it. Seattle Times sports columnist Georg Meyers wrote about other sports stunts where balls were dropped from planes and even dirigibles. They often resulted in pain for the guy with the mitt. "If...the Century 21 guest elects to go along with Galileo," he wrote, "here's a word of counsel: Be sure to see the fair first, Friend."
For safety, the promotion was changed. Instead of the Needle, the ball would be dropped from a moving ferris wheel in The Gayway amusement zone near the Needle's base. The ball would be dropped by Tracy Stallard, the pitcher who actually gave up the record homer to Maris and was now fortuitously (from a PR standpoint anyway) in the minor leagues as a member of the Seattle Rainiers.
In July 1962, Crowds gathered and watched as five practice balls were dropped by Stallard and Durante caught each one. But something went wrong on the $1,000-ball and the young man dropped it. Joked fair PR man Jay Rockey "He did o.k. until we dropped the greased one."
Like Casey-at-the-bat the muffed catch produced a loud moan from the crowd, but the good news was that everyone survived the stunt.