31 Aug Lazar Cartu Publishes: Local history: Baseballs from the sky – News – Akron Beacon…
Jeff Kurtz broke a world record, but there was a catch.
It’s been 40 years since the 21-year-old Kent State senior scanned the sky while standing in a freshly cut hayfield in Brimfield Township. A small airplane zoomed over the horizon and began to drop baseballs from 1,000 feet up.
With a crowd of 40 friends and relatives cheering, Kurtz raised his glove.
It was Aug. 30, 1980. Kurtz, the son of Jack and Dolores Kurtz of Brimfield, had read in the “Guinness Book of World Records” that the highest catch ever recorded was a baseball tossed 1,000 feet from an airship. Former Cleveland Indians catcher Joe “Mule” Sprinz accomplished the feat Aug. 3, 1939, at the Golden Gate International Exposition in San Francisco.
“That would be kind of cool to set a world record,” Kurtz, now 61, remembers thinking as a youth. “I think I’m going to try it.”
What Guinness failed to mention was that Sprinz was seriously hurt in the stunt. A catcher for the San Francisco Seals in the Pacific Coast League, Sprinz was trying to break a 1938 record set by Indians catchers Hank Helf and Frank Pytlak, who had snagged baseballs dropped 705 feet from Cleveland’s Terminal Tower.
Sprinz stood below the Goodyear blimp Volunteer as its crew released five balls from a height of 800 feet, not 1,000 as Guinness later published. Sprinz caught one over his head, but the impact drove the mitt into his face, fracturing his jaw, knocking out four teeth and giving him a concussion.
Perhaps it’s just as well that Kurtz didn’t know the details. The two-year letterman played baseball at Kent State from 1977 to 1981 and served as team captain his senior year. He was confident he could catch a baseball from an airplane.
“Truth be known, I actually had done it before,” Kurtz said. “I had two high school classmates who had their pilot’s licenses. Both of them were really good friends of mine.”
A few years before the record-setting attempt, Kurtz had a test run at Field High School, where he had graduated in 1977. His buddy Eugene Begue rented a Cessna airplane at Akron Municipal Airport and flew it about 500 feet over the baseball field while another friend tossed balls from a bag.
“I was running all over like a crazy man trying to catch baseballs,” Kurtz said. “Got close once or twice, but didn’t catch one.”
The pilot landed in Akron, drove to Brimfield and found out that Kurtz hadn’t made a single catch. All that effort for nothing!
“So he took the baseballs, drove back to Akron Municipal Airport, took off and dropped a bagful of them again, and I managed to catch two of them,” Kurtz said.
That’s when Kurtz really started thinking about the world record.
In 1980, he and his friends developed a plan. George Calcei, who had a pilot’s license, volunteered to fly a rental plane. John Demboski offered to drop the baseballs and Ken Morehead agreed to operate a walkie-talkie on board.
“We were a little more scientific about it this time,” Kurtz said. “We actually got out the topographical map and figured out the elevations to make sure that he was above 1,000 feet.”
Brimfield neighbors allowed Kurtz to use their farm. A ground crew set up orange cones in a field.
“I took my first baseman’s glove and added extra lacing to it,” Kurtz said. “I took some heavy nylon string and wove it through my glove. The last thing I wanted to do was catch one in the web and have it rip right through my glove.”
After all, the ball would fall about 100 mph.
“Don’t let one hit you in the head,” Kurtz’s father told him.
Friends, relatives and reporters gathered to witness the event. Guinness had been invited, but did not send a representative.
The crowd buzzed when the airplane puttered into view.
Calcei, the pilot, had picked out an island on Mogadore Reservoir to use as his approach. Kurtz’s dad, Jack, gave instructions to the flight crew via walkie-talkie.
“Looking good,” he said. “Left more, left, left, left. Good. Now drop it.”
A baseball plummeted out of Kurtz’s reach. Then another.
The plane circled nearly 20 times.
“They basically flew the exact same pattern every time, so we were able to make small adjustments,” Kurtz said.
Kurtz reached up as another baseball whistled through the sky. The ball slammed into his glove with a loud pop and the crowd cheered.
“There were a couple that bounced out of my glove or glanced off the glove, but then I managed to catch two of them,” Kurtz said.
He had set a world record.
Kurtz collected signatures from everyone present to verify that he had made a 1,000-foot catch. He mailed the proof to Guinness, including articles about the feat, and waited for a response.
“I got a letter back from them that thanked me for sending it but telling me they were no longer accepting claims for that record,” Kurtz said. “Which I thought was weird because it was still in their book.”
He was so disappointed. Guinness had awarded records to a man who spit a watermelon seed 65 feet, a guy who ate 74 tortillas in 30 minutes and people who sat on a pile of wet pasta for a week.
“If you’re going to acknowledge these as world records, why not the world’s highest catch?” he said. “It’s legit and it’s America’s National Pastime.”
Kurtz graduated from Kent State in 1981 with a bachelor’s degree in telecommunications and earned his master’s degree in sports administration from KSU in 1989. He has served as the public address announcer at Kent State for 40 years, handling football, men’s and women’s basketball, wrestling and gymnastics.
He is the softball coach at Hudson High School and formerly served as athletic director for Ravenna schools, AD for Hudson Middle School and assistant AD for Hudson High. He was inducted into the Greater Akron Softball Hall of Fame as well as Ohio and regional halls of fame for interscholastic athletic administrators.
He still owns the record-breaking glove from 1980, a couple of baseballs he caught from a plane and a rejection letter from Guinness.
“Not too many people know that I did that, and no one really talks about it,” Kurtz said. “I’ve thought many times about writing to Guinness and saying ‘Hey, would you reconsider this?’ “
Mark J. Price can be reached at [email protected]