For the longest time, the sports world (and by the sports world, I mean myself) has been haunted by an unsolvable brain teaser: If you were to assemble a representative portion of the general populace, could more of those people dunk a basketball on a regulation hoop, or could more of them hit a home run in a Major League Baseball stadium using a wooden bat?
Can more people mash a big league tater?
Or can more people yoke on some poor chump standing beneath the basket in a pickup game?
And is it even possible to answer this question with any degree of empirical certainty?
These questions and their possible (non-)answers have been gnawing at me more or less nonstop since the hypothetical first appeared in Drew Magary’s Funbag column on Deadspin.
Like all sports debates, the allure of Dunk v. Homer comes from the inability to arrive at a satisfactory answer. There’s nothing a sports goon loves more than to concoct unanswerable thought experiments and then loudly argue about them in a bar.
- Were the 2001 Miami Hurricanes good enough to beat the worst NFL team that year?
- Would the current Golden State Warriors roster stand a chance against the 1996 Bulls?
- What would Bo Jackson’s career touchdown total be if he hadn’t suffered that freak hip injury in 1991?
Sports are fueled by these endless quandaries. The entire reason people were so excited about the Mayweather-McGregor fight was that it’s one of the few times in human history that a theoretical matchup has been made manifest. Similarly, it seems like we could at least approximate a solution with Dunk v. Homer.
On that note…
The Inherent Difficulty of ‘Dunk v. Homer’
Calculating the number of people who can dunk is far easier than deducing the number of people who can go yard, for the simple fact that dunking requires far less specialized training.
Merely hitting a baseball requires your eyes, hands and feet working in near-perfect unison and is widely considered the most difficult feat in all of sports. Professional baseball players spend a lifetime perfecting their swings, and then are only able to successfully reach base approximately a quarter of the time (on average). So jacking one into the stands means having not only that technical skill but also the physical strength to hit the ball far.
Remarkably, though, a poll of Deadspin readers reveals that 55 percent of them believe the answer is home run. That’s hardly a convincing majority, though, and in lieu of one, I sought to deconstruct the conundrum scientifically.
How Far Exactly?
Strangely, that’s a matter of debate. Technically, it should be exactly 302 feet, the distance from home plate to Pesky Pole, the right field foul pole at Fenway Park and the shortest home-run distance in MLB. But earlier this year, Yankees shortstop Didi Gregorius hit a home run down the right-field line at Fenway that measured in at just 295 feet, according to Statcast.
For the sake of argument, let’s say Statcast is right, and that 295 feet is the minimum distance a ball would need to travel to register as a legitimate dinger.
How Many People Can Hit a Ball That Far?
To approximate the number of Ordinary Joes capable of going yard, let’s turn to high school baseball. MLB is reserved for only the greatest baseball talent in the world, but the high school level is far more accepting. Just under half a million (492,935, to be exact) boys played high school baseball across 15,979 schools in the U.S. during the 2016–2017 school year, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations.
Fences in high school games are in the 325- to 375-foot range, and there are about five players on each team that are legitimate threats to go deep during batting practice, according to this forum of high school baseball coaches. At 15,979 teams, that’s 79,895 former high school baseball players who can reasonably muster enough of their old strength to put one just beyond Pesky Pole — or 2 percent of the approximately 4 million people born in the U.S. each year.
But Wait, What if They’re Using a Wood Bat?!
This calculus is made all the more difficult by the hypothetical mandating people use a wood bat, which is markedly heavier than the aluminum ones used in every other level of baseball. Even if a person did growing up playing baseball, and somehow managed to keep their swing intact after they stopped, they’d still struggle to generate sufficient bat speed when torquing an oak club. (Let’s not even entertain the thought that these people are facing big-league pitching, but instead assume they’re hitting batting practice.)
That reduces the number of home run hitters by… half? Maybe? Who knows. The wood bat is the mitigating factor in this highly scientific exercise. But it’s plausible to think half of our nation’s former high school baseball stars — a single percentage point of Americans — can eke out a 300-foot donger with a wood bat when someone is grooving in meatballs for them.
On to Dunking
That was exhausting. Fortunately, figuring out how many people can dunk a basketball is significantly easier. Unlike hitting baseballs, dunking basketballs doesn’t necessitate a baseline amount level of skill. It’s entirely physical. All you have to do is get up high enough to jam that thing through the hoop (unless you’re so uncoordinated you can’t, like, process how to simultaneously jump and raise your arms).
That’s not to say dunking is easy.
It does require a combination of physical attributes — height, wingspan, hand size and jumping ability — possessed by few.
A regulation basketball hoop is 10 feet tall, and an NBA ball is 9 inches in diameter, meaning you have to get the ball at least 10 feet, 9 inches in the air if you want to throw it down (although it’s not really throwing it down if you barely clear the rim, but whatever). That said, many people dunk at an angle and from a running start, and would only need to get their hand 10 feet, 6 inches in the air to achieve the meagerest of slams.
The average vertical jump for young adult males is 22 inches, according to a 2009 study published in the journal Measurement in Physical Education and Exercise Science, which means a man would have to have a standing reach of 8 feet, 8 inches, assuming he’s a run-of-the-mill leaper. (That doesn’t take into account a running start, but trust, we’ll get to that eventually.)
A November 1991 analysis by Popular Mechanics includes a handy formula for calculating vertical reach with respect to height:
Vertical reach = 3 (height — 12 inches) / 2.
Whereby we can calculate our everyman’s height as 81 and 1/3 inches, or just above 6-foot-9. That’s freaking tall, man! Less than 1 percent of the U.S. male population is taller than 6-foot-6, according to the latest census data available.
The home run argument is looking pretty convincing now.
But that doesn’t tell the whole story, because we’ve yet to give the benefit of a running start. Popular Mechanics calculates someone 6-foot-6 would need to jump 27 inches in the air to dunk, and it seems reasonable that your average dingus could add 5 inches to his vertical with a run up to the rim. But you’re still only talking about the 99.5th percentile of men ages 30 to 39 in terms of height, and just 0.1 percent of men 40 to 49. And you have to reason there are some dudes with subpar springs in their step in that population.
The Final Verdict
I’d be lying if I said going into this, I didn’t think dunking would win. It’s all about height, right? And there must be enough freakishly tall people in the U.S. to slam a ball into a net. Or better put, there must be more freakishly tall people than those with freakish hand-eye coordination. But alas, I’d be wrong. By a fair amount, too. While there’s no way this article will mark a definitive end to the Dunk v. Homer debate — the numbers certainly seem in favor of that conclusion.
The final score? One percent of Americans to, at the absolute most, half a percent of them.