A story of Mickey and Jackie

He remembered the shapes of the clouds in the south at dawn on the 30th of April of 1882, and he could compare
them in his recollection with the marbled grain in the design of a leather-bound book which he had seen only once,
and with the lines of spray which an oar raised in the Rio Negro on the eve of the battle of Quebracho.



— Jorge Borges, Funes, The Memorious

I recently finished reading Mickely Mantle’s autobiography The Mick,
published in 1985, ten years before the death of the Yankee great. I
don’t read many player autobiographies—they seem to be more
about the player’s off-field escapades than about baseball between the
lines. Instead of hearing about another guy playing hungover, I’d
rather read about, oh I dunno, maybe Sam Crawford going straight to
second base on a walk, thus allowing Ty Cobb to score from third
base.

But I was getting on a plane and needed something to read, so I
grabbed The Mick, not expecting to like it very much. It lived
up to my expectations: There are plenty of crazy stories about Billy
Martin
and Mantle doing silly stuff together, Mickey neglecting his
family, Mickey drinking a lot, Mickey remembering his father.

But, there are a few good baseball-related stories in the book, too. The
best came as Mantle describes his role in the 1952 World Series
victory over the Brooklyn Dodgers:

My personal highlights were: homering off Joe Black in the deciding
game and Robinson hitting a line drive to me in right center, three
skips into my glove. He rounded first base, acting like he would
stop. I used to pick guys off first on the play pretty often. This
time Casey had told me that Robinson would be watching for my
throw. So after I caught the ball on the bounce, I faked a throw
behind him. And sure enough, Robinson took off for second. I threw to
Billy and we had him out by ten or fifteen feet.

I’ll never forget the sight: Jackie getting up, dusting himself off,
and giving me a little tip of the hat, his eyes saying, “I’ll get you
next time.”

After the Series he came into our clubhouse and shook my hand. “You’re
a helluva ballplayer,” he said. I thought, “Man, what a class guy. I
never could have done that, not in a million years.” I’m a really bad loser.

Mickey Mantle
“I could never have done that. Not in a million years.”

That is a great story. It’s shows (once again) Jackie
Robinson’s competitive spirit as well as his graciousness. We learn
something about Mantle, too, his admitted lack of sportsmanship in
defeat. We get a glimpse of the baseball smarts of Casey Stengel, who
instructed Mantle on how to take advantage of Robinson’s
aggressiveness on the base paths. I just love this
anecdote. Except for one thing: It’s completely false.

Now, I’m not the kind of guy who is always trying to find mistakes in
the reminiscences of old ballplayers. Some people are into that—they go straight to the online historical box scores
and check to see, say, if Joe Morgan really
spoke to Don Wilson about
his no-hitter during the game. To me that’s a little like
shooting fish in a barrel. Old guys just forget stuff. I’m not that
young myself anymore and I hope people don’t go off and fact-check
everything I say.

No, I wasn’t trying to check up on the Mick’s memory, I was just
interested in the situation in which the play occurred. What it a
crucial play? Did it save the game? So, I went to the
box score and,
lo and behold, no such play. It’s not completely clear from Mantle’s account if
the play happened in Game 7, so I quickly checked the other
games. Nope.

Hmmm, maybe he got confused about the year? The Dodgers and Yankees
seemed to square off every year back in those days and in fact Mantle
and Robinson played against each other in four World Series: 1952,
1953, 1955 and 1956. So, I checked those games, too. Actually, I
grabbed the play-by-play data for those Series from Retrosheet and
told my computer what to look for. Nothing. No play where Mantle threw Robinson
out at second base.

I asked myself: Is this possible? The description was so precise,
so self-confident. All the details are there: “Three skips into
the glove” and that “little tip of the cap,” not to mention “I’ll
never forget…”. Could Mantle simply have made up the story? Gosh,
I hope not. In any case, the story was repeated almost verbatim in
Mantle’s “All My Octobers”, which was published ten years later.
That’s not too surprising, I suppose, but in a recent biography of
Mantle, author Tony Castro again tells the story as if it were true.
Castro could have verified Mantle’s account of the play, but he
evidently did not.

So, let’s assume Mantle just didn’t invent the story out of whole
cloth. Was he somehow remembering some other play and just got the
details wrong? I decided to dig a little deeper in the World Series
play-by-play data to see if anything turned up. I sifted through every
World Series play from 1951 through 1964, covering all of
Mantle’s Series appearances. In 87 games I found a total of 29
outfielder assists.

Mantle had one of those, in the 1956 Series, although the batter was
Pee Wee Reese, not Jackie Robinson. On this play, Reese had indeed
singled (no way to tell if the ball skipped into Mantle’s glove on
three bounces) and was thrown out at second base. The sequence of
throws to get Reese went CF-SS-1B-2B-1B, which makes me think this may
have been some sort of decoy play as Mantle described. Most cases
where a batter gets thrown out trying to stretch a single into a
double don’t result in rundowns. If Mantle had tricked Reese with a
fake throw, Reese may have been “hung up” well before reaching second
base, with an ensuing rundown.

I came across another similar play involving Mantle in the 1964 World
Series, played against the Cardinals. This play featured a single to
right field with the batter being thrown out at second base. Now, by
1964 Mantle was ever more hampered by leg problems and although he manned center field
for most of the regular season, for the ’64 Series he was stationed in right field.
But if this single to right is the play that gave rise
to the Robinson anecdote, the Mick was more confused than ever. That’s
because Mantle was the batter on this play, he was cut down at
second base by Cardinal right fielder Mike Shannon. I wonder if Mantle
gave Shannon that I’ll-get-you-next-time look.

“I used to pick guys off first on the play pretty often.” This is
actually something we can check with the Retrosheet data. Ok, now I’m
really going after Mantle, I admit it. But, I feel betrayed. Here am
I reading a so-so player autobiography and I come across a story that
makes the whole thing worthwhile, and it turns out to be bogus. Did I
mention that Mantle was my favorite player as a kid? I grew up in the
NYC area and my first baseball memories were of those great early-60s
Yankees teams, led by Mickey Mantle, Number 7. The Yankees got crummy
pretty fast and Mantle faded quickly as well, and I outgrew my
hero-worship phase, but I still harbor a soft spot for the Commerce
Comet. So, how could he hoodwink me in this way?

Let the record show that Mickey Mantle, in the period from 1954
through 1968, never once “picked a guy off first” after a single. It’s
a rare play: In the whole Retrosheet period (1954-2008), this play was
accomplished by a center fielder only 67 times. Only 10 players have
managed it more than once and the all-time (post-1954) leader is,
surprisingly, Aaron Rowand, with four batters nailed at first base.

I’m digressing a little here, but I also had a look at right fielders
picking guys off first. As you might imagine, this play is more
easily made from right field and, indeed, I find 122 such plays in the
Retrosheet data. A total of five right fielders have made the play
more than twice. Tied for second place with three batters nailed at first
are Hank Aaron, Bob Abreu, Vada Pinson and Dante Bichette. You will
easily guess the all-time leader, but his total is pretty damned
impressive: Roberto Clemente, 9 times.

Back to Mantle: he played three seasons (1951-1953) before the
Retrosheet data kicks in for the American League. So, I suppose
Mantle may have made this play “pretty
often” his first three seasons, but it seems unlikely.

Jackie Robinson grounds ball at first base, 1950s.
“Mickey Mantle killed us.”

Can we take anything from Mantle’s Jackie Robinson moment at
face value? Did Jackie go and shake Mantle’s hand after the Series?
Hell, I don’t know. I suppose he did. He certainly praised Mantle in
the press right after the Series. This comes from the Eugene-Register
Press of October 7, 1952:

A damp-eyed Jackie Robinson expressed the opinion of the crestfallen
National League standard bearers.

“It was that Mantle, that Mickey Mantle killed us. If it hadn’t been
for him I think this would have been a very different series.

“We came so close, we had so many opportunities, but Mantle was the
difference.”

So, yes, Robinson did indeed praise Mantle after the Series and, to give Mantle his due, the young Yankee center fielder actually did hit a decisive home run off
Joe Black in the seventh game.

At this point, I wish I hadn’t ever gone to look at the box score for
Game 7 of the 1952 World Series. I liked the Mantle-Robinson
confrontation and would have been content to believe the story as told
by Mantle. You can’t really blame The Mick, though. After all, only Funes could remember every detail of every thing he ever saw. The rest of us mortals must do with imperfect memories.

I do think I learned something from all this, however: Stay
away from those player autobiographies and stick to target="new">The Glory of Their Times or
Baseball When the Grass Was Real.

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Comments

  1. Charley Walter said...

    Mantle plyed right field in the 1964 World Series because of his right shoulder, not because of his knees.  His last year in the outfield (1965) was spent in left field.

  2. mkd said...

    I finally got around to reading the Boys of Summer a couple of months back and, if I recall correctly, Carl Furillo claimed to have made that play 8 times. He also said that one time he just straight threw a guy out at first, which is what Kahn was asking about and what triggered the parsing of “throwing a guy out at first” (which Furillo did one time) vs “throwing behind a guy who takes too wide a turn”, (which Furillo did 8 times).

  3. John Walsh said...

    Charley: Good catch.  I had just assumed it was the legs.  I once saw a picture of Mantle on crutches in street clothes.  The photo was annotated with something like 15 arrows, pointing to the various injuries (or maybe surgeries) that he had had.  So, assuming “it was the legs” was probably not a good idea.

  4. John Walsh said...

    mkd: Yes, I remember reading the same thing about Furillo in Kahn’s book.  In fact, if I remember correctly, the one guy he actually forced at 1B was pitcher Mel Queen of the Pirates.

    Unfortunately, Furillo’s best years pre-date the Retrosheet era—I have always wanted to check the numbers on his famous arm.

  5. Jim Gibbons said...

    I have a clear recollection of a Mantle/Robinson stand-off in a World Series game. I don’t know which World Series it was, but Robinson had hit a sharp single to center and he did round first base, head toward second and then stop, watching Mantle who by then had caught the ball and was ready to throw. I remember wondering why Mantle did not run toward Robinson to force him to make a choice and then try to nail him. But the play ended with Robinson retreating to first and Mantle not throwing, probably because he didn’t think he could catch him at first. I also remember the roar of the crowd when this play was concluded. It was mainly a stare-down between a great center fielder and a great baserunner. That is the way it was called by the play-by-play announcer, and you could feel the tension over the radio.

    I am incapable of making this up. And I don’t know how it would have shown up on any Retrosheet.

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