Home Run Derby History – For Players and Fans

On July 18, 2022, Nationals all-star Juan Soto won the 37th annual Home Run Derby. The T-Mobile Home Run Derby is held on a July Monday of MLB All-Star Week every year, and the winning home run slugger takes home $1 million, a silver bat trophy, a diamond chain and league-wide notoriety.

Fans rise in their seats for every homer, but the first home run derby arose in the 1960s. Sportscaster Mark Scott hosted a weekly televised game-show-style “Home Run Derby,” which pitted two stars, like Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle, against one another. Scott granted each winner a (then stunning) $2,000. The All-Star Week tradition began in 1985 with a 46,000-strong crowd and $2 donation-based tickets. By 1993, as television technology progressed to highlight the furthest flying balls, ESPN televised the competition, making it a baseball-viewing tradition.

The Home Run Derby is a faceoff of the best home run hitters. Seeing the sheer power of these players is entertainment enough, yet every year, surprises, great victories, and pure fun make the Home Run Derby a fan favorite. 

There was 2019 when then rookies Pete Alonso and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. faced off in a triple tiebreaker ending in Alonso’s 23-22 final victory. Alonso won back-to-back titles in the 2019 and 2021 derbies (2020 was canceled), shattering records in first and third-round home run tallies and calling himself the “world’s best power hitter.” In 2005, America celebrated the globally uniting nature of baseball as eight sluggers represented their home countries to honor the Inaugural World Baseball Classic. Bobby Abreau took home the prize with a then-record 41 homers in three rounds (24 in the first round) for Venezuela. In the first televised derby in 1993, Ken Griffey Jr., a record three-time derby winner, was the first player to hit a warehouse across from Camden Yards, but Juan Gonzalez took first place. 

Every derby since 2015, when the MLB changed rules to increase audience engagement, eight contestants (seeded by regular season home runs) race against the clock. In round one, players face off in bracket pairs and get three minutes to hit as many home runs as possible (with a 30 seconds bonus for 440-foot-plus homers). Then, reduced to four competitors in single elimination and seeded by their round one performance, players compete for another three minutes. Finally, round two’s best two hitters face off in a two-minute fast-paced home-run fest. Each round is a new beginning, leading to constant suspense. 

Regardless of the chance to win notoriety and fame, players do not always want to participate in the derby tradition. Legends like Mike Trout and Aaron Judge have opted out of the competition. The competition, as Trout has put it, “looks exhausting,” considering the physical toll it takes to hit dozens of baseballs hundreds of feet in a few minutes. 

In 2018, the prize pool for the derby included around $525,000. In 2019, as part of a deal with the MLB Players Association, MLB raised the pool to $2.5 million, with $1 million allocated to the winner. The organization further incentivized “all-star” performance with increased payment for All-Star Week participation and victories. In 2019, current Yankee Joey Gallo discussed increasing incentives may improve the quality of play as it did in the NBA All-Stars, in which players “now… actually want to play.” 

The Home Run Derby is a dream for sluggers seeking big wins and sports bettors playing their luck. With the Supreme Court’s overturn of the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act in 2018 largely legalizing sports wagering, betting became a major business for gambling and media platforms during MLB All-Star Week. Many sports bettors with money on the line, heavily scrutinize the Home Run Derby Rules. When the pitch for Soto’s final (winning) 14th run was not released before time ran out, the 2022 derby (which drew more money than the All-Star Game in some pools) caused an uproar. With money on the line, fans were outraged. Yet Soto remained smiling, walking off Dodger’s Field saying “that was fun.” 

For Soto, the derby was not just another win, but possible fodder for trade deals. Shortly after reportedly turning down a $440,000 million, 15-year contract with the Nationals, Soto proved himself as one of baseball’s brightest young stars. While he said he “was not even thinking about” trade rumors, Soto’s hype grows daily, especially with his new iconic title of “derby winner”—as the second youngest derby winner, at 23 years and 266 days. For rookie runner-up, 21-year-old Mariner Julío Rodriguez, the derby meant much more than an ordinary win, but for a much different reason. Rodriguez took home $750,000, nearly doubling his 2022 season salary. With 83 runs over three rounds (compared to Soto’s 51), he too proved himself a young phenom.

Throughout its storied history, the Home Run Derby has been admired and feared by baseball fans and players alike. One may never know if it is for the fans or players, but every year, baseball lovers around the world wait for that Monday in July.

 

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