Saturday, April 17, 2021

This Day in Yankee History (Much-Heralded Mantle Gets Hit in Big-League Debut)

Apr. 17, 1951—So anxious about his hype as the successor-in-waiting to Joe DiMaggio as centerfielder for the New York Yankees that he couldn't sleep the night before his major-league debut, Mickey Mantle got his first of 2,414 career hits, contributing to the team’s 5-0 season opener victory over the rival Boston Red Sox.

Yankee veterans and fans alike were curious to see the 19-year-old rookie. His output that day, a single in four at-bats, gave only the slightest indication of the exhilarating combination of power and speed that led the Oklahoma native to be nicknamed “The Commerce Comet.”

Over the years, Mantle’s statistics for his first season and his own recollections underscore 1951 as a sometimes painful period of adjustment. (It wasn’t this much-heralded minor leaguer who was named AL Rookie of the Year but his teammate, infielder Gil McDougald.)

But it wasn’t until after Mantle’s death that a circle wider than his intimates realized how a traumatic childhood and the heavy burden of expectation combined to produce what he called the worst day of his life.

Start with his family background. His father, Elven “Mutt” Mantle, had drilled him in the basics of baseball, in the hope that the boy’s talent would carry him far from life in the zinc and lead mines where Mutt worked.

But Mickey was not only carrying family hopes but terrible secrets, a fact not disclosed in depth until Jane Leavy’s 2010 biography The Last Boy. As a youngster he had been sexually abused multiple times—by a half-sister, neighborhood boys and a high-school teacher. Few realized at the time the psychic damage (including Mantle’s adult promiscuity and alcoholism) caused by such events.

In coming to the Bronx, he was also the proverbial fish out of water—a country boy in a city environment, removed from his normal emotional support and painfully aware of how inarticulate he could sound.

All of this he carried inside. What people saw on the outside was a ballplayer that Bob Sheppard---also making his debut that game, in the stadium public-address role he would have for the next half-century—described, in contrast to a later Yankee centerfielder, Mickey Rivers, as “Mick the Quick with muscle.”

Manager Casey Stengel put it even more memorably, in his eccentric fashion, to sportswriter Bob Deindorfer: “He has more speed than any slugger and more slug than any speedster—and nobody has ever had more of both of them together. This kid ain’t logical. He’s too good. It’s very confusing.”

One gift the youngster did not have was the ability to play shortstop. But Stengel converted him to right field—a position he himself had played—and then took the time to teach him the rudiments of the position.

Anyway, it was just a marker until DiMaggio—a superstar that Stengel had difficulty relating to—retired, as so many expected him to do the following year, given the increasing toll that injuries had taken on his body.

As for DiMaggio himself: perhaps he was jealous of the attention given Mantle by the press and Stengel, or perhaps this most graceful of centerfielders disdained how green the youngster next to him looked. But the proud, touchy Hall of Famer remained aloof from his teammate, further increasing Mantle’s unease.

In mid-July, Mantle—with a high propensity to strike out—had been reassigned to the Yankees’ Triple A Kansas City Blues unit. But, still slumping, and now with his power seemingly snuffed out, the despondent Mantle called his father to say he wanted to come home.

That would be fine, Mutt Mantle told his son. “But, if that’s all the man you are, then get your clothes and let’s go home.”

How much of Mutt’s reaction was due to frustration that the boy in which he’d invested so much emotionally wasn’t turning out as planned? How much of it was an attempt at tough love? How much was it a secretly ill man who would be dead within a year of cancer simply unable to contain his emotions?

Whatever the source of his reaction, it led Mickey to reconsider going home. He stayed and began drilling the ball again with the power and authority everyone had predicted. He was recalled to the majors, this time with his old uniform number 6 exchanged for #7, the one he wore for the rest of his career (and which the Yankees retired when he stopped playing 17 years later).

One more trying event remained for Mantle in the 1951 campaign: In Game 2 of the World Series against the New York Giants, pulling up short when DiMaggio called him off on a fly ball between the two, Mantle tripped over an exposed drain pipe in right center and injured his right knee. He would be dogged by the pain from that knee for the rest of his playing days.

Even so, he would progress steadily in the next few years. The following season, he batted over .300 and placed third in the voting for MVP. In 1956, he put all his offensive skills together by winning the Triple Crown, leading the league in home runs (52), RBIs (130) and batting average (.353).

Over the years, some have seen Mantle as a real-life embodiment of Roy Hobbs, the astonishingly gifted player who never achieves his full potential, in the novel and movie The Natural. In addition to injuries, Leavy has pointed to the personal flaws that crippled him inside. In an interview with sportswriter Bill Madden, she observed: 

“The tragedy of Mantle is that he had so little time, at the beginning of his baseball career, and at the beginning of his sober life, to be his best self. He was a decent man who was genetically pre-disposed to alcoholism and enabled his whole life by the trappings of his celebrity.”

Yet other players with the gift-curse of potential never went on to enjoy the Hall of Fame career that Mantle did. When he stepped down at the end of the 1968 season, he ranked indisputably among the greatest players in baseball history:

*He influenced players of subsequent generations to become switch-hitters, and though many became Hall of Famers themselves (e.g., Pete Rose, Eddie Murray), he remains, by common consent, the best;

*He hit home runs so far—particularly one he blasted out of Griffith Stadium in Washington in 1953—that a new term was coined for the phenomenon: the “tape-measure homer”; and,

*Most important to him, he became the cornerstone of the Yankee dynasty after DiMaggio retired as anticipated after 1951, leading the team to 12 pennants and seven World Series championships.

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