Why you should care
There’s life, and then there’s legend. And somewhere in between there was Mickey Mantle.
By most accounts, the baseball landed near the back end of a football practice field beyond the right field wall at the University of Southern California’s Bovard Field in Los Angeles.
As the All-American USC tailback, and future NFL Hall of Famer, Frank Gifford, who was practicing on the field at the time, would later recall, “The ball came banging into the huddle and hit my foot. I said, ‘Who the hell hit that?’”
It was like a golf ball going into orbit.
“Some kid named Mickey,” came the response.
Mickey was, of course, Mickey Mantle. But in March 1951, the 19-year-old from Commerce, Oklahoma was not yet “the Mick.” He wasn’t even a major leaguer – just a rookie among many trying to crack the New York Yankees’ vaunted squad that spring.
After the exhibition game between the Yankees and USC – one of the best college teams in the country – curious Trojan players paced off the distance of the tape-measure home run hit by Mantle, the son of a coal miner who was younger than most of the college players he was playing against that day. Their estimate, and subsequent analyses made with photos and satellite imagery, place Mantle’s blast somewhere between 550 and 660 feet.
“It was like a golf ball going into orbit,” the legendary Trojan manager Rod Dedeaux would recall.
USC was the Yankees’ last stop on an unusual spring barnstorming tour through California to strum up interest for professional ball on the yet-to-be franchised West Coast (as Jane Leavy recounts in her recent biography of Mantle, The Last Boy).
“When in doubt, keep the ball low,” Dedeaux had told his pitcher, 6’5” right-hander Tom Lovrich about facing the Yankee sluggers. And, in his initial confrontation with Mantle in the first inning, the Trojan ace did exactly that. On a 2-and-2 count, the side-armer hurled a fastball low and well off the outside part of the plate to the switch-hitting Mantle, batting from the left side of the plate.
“Mantle actually stepped outside of the box and reached across the plate,” Lovrich remembers. “How he reached it, we never knew.”
“My God. Look at that,” exclaimed Trojan second baseman Stan Charnofsky as he watched explode upwards over his head. Centerfielder Tom Riach ran back and climbed up the wire outfield fence, but he too could only watch from the right of the 439-foot sign in deep center field as the ball continued on its flight.
Around 3,000 other attendees crowded into the now long-gone Bovard Field also witnessed the spectacle that day. They had come to see Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio and the defending champion Yankees, including the much-heralded Mantle. He was The Sporting News No. 1 rookie prospect in 1951 but no one, including Mickey himself, really expected him to make the team straight out of Class-C ball in Joplin, Missouri.
Still, Mantle’s legend had started to build already that spring. Just a week before, the blonde boy wonder had launched a home run off a red-brick building beyond the right center field bleachers at Wrigley Field in L.A. — something only Babe Ruth and a few others had ever done.
This kid ain’t logical. He’s too good. It’s very confusing.
Mantle’s well-seasoned manager, 60-year-old Casey Stengel, had never encountered anything Mantle’s power and speed on quick-hitting. “He has more speed than any slugger and more slug than any speedster,” Stengel observed that spring. “This kid ain’t logical. He’s too good. It’s very confusing.”
At just 5’11” and 185 pounds, Mantle was not as physically imposing as some players, but the country boy was as strong as a bull. As Yankees pitcher Eddie Lopat noted about the rookie, “That kid gets bigger the more clothes he takes off.”
Mantle’s precocious rise was made all the more compelling by another legend’s fall. At a party he had hosted just two nights before at Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco, the aging slugger Joe DiMaggio, who had announced he would retire at the end of the season, was asked about moving to left field to make room for Mantle in center. His answer: “There’s nobody taking center from me until I give it up.”
But Mantle would not relent. The home run during his first at-bat against USC is believed to be the second-longest one of his famed career. And, he was just getting warmed up.
In the sixth, Mantle launched another moonshot, striking the front porch of a house down the street beyond the left-field fence. The next inning, he sent a bases-clearing triple to the deepest portion of the ballpark. And then, in his last at-bat in the ninth inning, Mantle beat out a routine groundball to the shortstop, who, as USC pitcher Dave Cesca, later quipped, “would have thrown out any normal human being.”
It may have been an exhibition game against a collegiate opponent, but it was “the greatest show in history,” as Dedeaux would hail it.
For Mantle, the far more memorable moment would come a few weeks later on a train bound for the Yankees’ home opener in Washington, D.C. where he would hear the words that so many rookies eagerly await this time of year. In transit and in limbo, Mantle cornered Stengel somewhere outside the dining car, to ask about his future.
Stengel paused, then winked. “I think you’ll stay with us.”