A story of Mickey and Jackieby John Walsh
July 29, 2009
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.
|"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.
|"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:
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.
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."
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.
John Walsh dabbles in baseball analysis in his spare time. He welcomes questions and comments via e-mail.