The Weight of the World
BROOKLYN – There was talk that the 1951 season would be Joe DiMaggio’s last with the Yankees. The prior campaign saw the great man lead the Yankees to their second straight title with 32 home runs, 122 runs batted in and a .301 average. However, age and injuries left him feeling that he was not playing at the high level he had expected of himself. With a throwing shoulder had become sore, as well as a swollen knee, the 37-year old legend was becoming just a regular ballplayer, one who privately announced his plans for retirement to the ball club on March 3.
Though the press in New York had heard rumblings of DiMaggio’s fate, the beginning of that spring the media buzz centered on a young switch-hitting prospect named Mickey Mantle. The 19-year old kid from Commerce, Oklahoma had been working out in the Yankees special rookie camp in Phoenix, which was designed to nourish the talents of young minor league players before the start of the exhibition season. Mantle had had a stellar season with the Class C Joplin Miners in 1950, winning the Most Valuable Player award for the Western League. As a shortstop, he had a hefty .383 batting average and 26 home runs, but also committed 55 errors. Initially, Manager Casey Stengel had planned on keeping him at that position – as well as having him play some third base. However, as camp got underway Mantle’s erratic infield play continued, and he was quickly moved to the outfield. It was not so much a move to find a better fit for the youngster, but to hopefully prevent Yankee General Manager George Weiss from sending him back down to the minors for another year to learn the intricacies of infield play. Stengel saw the raw potential in the boy, and being a former outfielder himself, he wanted to be a major part in Mickey’s tutelage – the neophyte was to develop properly. His relationship with Mantle was to be similar to that of John McGraw and Mel Ott’s in the late 1920s, where every fine point of the game was taught to Ott personally by his Giants manager. Though, to help Casey, Tommy Henrich was retained as a coach. The former Yankee star had been assigned the task of teaching the youngster the fundamentals of the position: the correct way to catch a ball, how to set one’s feet before making a long throw, and how to get rid of the ball quickly after a catch. At bat, conversely, Mantle was naturally prodigious.
He was capable of hitting the ball as far left-handed as Babe Ruth, and as far right-handed as Jimmie Foxx. Veteran players would watch Mantle during practice, hitting balls seemingly over buildings, and from both sides of the plate. Casey declared, “He has more speed than any slugger and more slug than any speedster – and nobody has ever had more of both of ‘em together.” The speed Casey spoke of was on display in Mantle’s very first day of the instructional camp, when he won each and every footrace with so much ease that coaches were convinced he was jumping the starting gun. The once measured reports on Mantle’s doings began to elevate in promise and hyperbole once that power and speed was put on display competitively. He was touted as a “Rookie of Eons,” “Magnificent Mantle,” “Commerce Comet,” “One-Man Platoon,” and “The Future of Baseball.” To the press, DiMaggio was being replaced before he even left.
With Yankee spring training attendance higher than it had ever been, the shy Mantle began to shrink into an introverted shell of himself. With his hometown having a population of around 2,000 people, the overflow crowds and media attention were overwhelming him. Monosyllabic with reporters, he felt alienated with the western twang in his voice. Additionally, though he praised the youngster’s abilities to the press, Joe DiMaggio rarely gave him anything but the cold shoulder. While DiMaggio’s aloofness was a foundation of his mystique, Mickey’s was out of shyness, out of fear. And most of all, it was failure that Mantle feared.
It seemed like he was groomed to be a baseball player from the beginning, with his father naming him ‘Mickey’ after his hero, the great Philadelphia catcher Mickey Cochrane. The first baseball cap he would ever own was ordered for him six months before he was born, and finding a baseball placed in the newborn’s crib was commonplace. Being a semi-pro ballplayer himself, Elvin ‘Mutt’ Mantle’s ambition to succeed in the sport himself was soon focused on his son. Everyday, after coming home from the lead and zinc mines in which he worked, Mantle’s father would practice with the young boy. At 4 PM, no matter what he was doing, Mickey would be found outside of his house, hitting balls against the metal siding of a shed on their property. Thrown pitches from both his father and grandfather, Mickey was taught to be a switch-hitter. Mutt felt that managers would return to baseball specialization, just as they had practiced during the deadball era. His father recognized his son’s talent early on, and being a former ballplayer, he knew the discipline needed to harvest it. In his eyes, Mickey was to be the greatest ballplayer who ever lived. Under that immense pressure to please his father, though Mantle excelled in baseball, basketball and football, he wet his bed until the age of 16.
As the Yanks broke camp in Phoenix and departed on a California road trip in mid March, the excitement over Mickey’s talent only grew. On March 17, he hit a mammoth home run over the centerfield bleacher fence in Los Angeles’ Wrigley Field – 412 feet from home plate. The next day, at Gilmore Stadium, Mantle wowed the crowd of 13,000 with his blinding speed, once eliciting a collective gasp from the spectators while running from first to third. On March 19, the New York Daily News claimed that he may be the “key to the pennant.” His power continued to shock and awe when he slammed a 400-foot homer over the rightfield wall at Seals Stadium – the same rightfield wall where the San Franciscan winds blew into the ballpark. Back in Los Angeles on March 26, Mickey hit another two, both of which were said to have traveled more than 500 feet. The Yankees’ spring training campaign continued into the first few weeks of April, with the team stopping in cities throughout the southeast, and Mickey continuing his stellar play.
On the morning of April 14, Mantle had arrived in New York that Saturday fresh off of a stop in Tulsa. At the behest of those who felt his 4-F status was unwarranted for such a seemingly healthy man, he had had his draft status reviewed for a second time in two years. As he was in 1949, Mantle was designated unfit to serve in the Army because of the infection he suffered from a few years prior, osteomyelitis. Though Mickey expressed his willingness to help in the war effort by fighting or playing ball for Uncle Sam, local papers took their shots at the young player, joking that he would not be going to Korea to kick people.
At Ebbets Field, the Yanks were scheduled to play the Brooklyn Dodgers in the second game of the annual interborough exhibition series. 8,782 chilled spectators greeted Mickey in his big-town debut, hoping to experience some of the excitement they had been reading about early that spring. Many of those same fans and writers had sworn that there had not been this level of publicity over a rookie since the great DiMaggio’s first year with the Yankees in 1936. With Mickey’s average at a hefty .387 clip, their sentiments were not exaggerated or unwarranted.
Manager Stengel had not planned on using Mantle that day, thinking he would be too exhausted from his early morning flight. The youngster approached Casey half an hour before game time and pleaded to be put into the lineup. During batting practice, the photographers swamped the visiting dugout, taking photos of Mantle by himself, then posing with a fatherly Stengel, and lastly, holding bats with Joe DiMaggio. When it was the rookie’s turn in the cage, he hit six balls into the stands, two of which reached the top deck. Casey was convinced that he could start, and placed Mantle in rightfield.
In his first at bat, facing the leftie Preacher Roe, he laced the first pitch over Pee Wee Reese’s head for a single. His next at bat, he reached base on a fielder’s choice. Then, in succession, he walked, fanned and struck out. Also, in the sixth inning, he threw Cal Abrams out at home, who attempted to score on Jackie Robinson’s single to right. Catcher Yogi Berra was waiting with ball in hand when Abrams arrived at the plate. The Yankees routed the Dodgers, 11 – 5.
All in all, it was not a bad showing for Mantle. His teammates stated that he could not miss making the big leagues, though they were unsure as to whether 1951 would be the season in which he broke through. The mindset of the Yankee front office was also up to conjecture. That same day, when they announced that the Kansas City contracts of both Tom Morgan and Gil McDougald were purchased, no mention of Mickey was made.
On the last game against Brooklyn that Sunday, Mantle was in the lineup once again. He went 4 for 4, one of those hits being a crushing home run over the 38-foot Schaefer scoreboard in rightfield. With spring training over, the numbers were officially in. Mantle had batted .402, had nine homers, and 31 RBIs.
By the time the club traveled to Washington, D.C. to play the Senators for the first game of the regular season, the nineteen year old was officially on the roster. His journey towards fulfilling his father’s dream had begun.