The Last Boy Mickey Mantle and the End of America's Childhood
By Jane Leavy
Harper Perennial Copyright © 2011 Jane Leavy
All right reserved. ISBN: 9780060883539
Chapter One March 26, 1951
The Whole World Opened Up
On March 20, 1951, shortly after arriving in Los Angeles for the
beginning of their spring training tour of California, the World Champion
New York Yankees visited the lot at MGM where Betty Grable was
rehearsing dance numbers for her newest flick. A PR still, later published
in Movie Fan magazine, was taken to commemorate the occasion. There's
Yogi Berra front and center wearing a garish paisley sports shirt as bright
as his smile, with a collar as wide as his ears and Grable on his well
tailored arm. There's The Scooter, Phil Rizzuto, the unlikely MVP of the
1950 season, and his double-play partner, second baseman Jerry Coleman;
Johnny Hopp, Johnny Mize, and big Joe Collins offering Grable his
In the back row, like a schoolboy who'd wandered into the wrong class
picture, stands the rookie Mickey Mantle, his features as unformed as his
future. He gazes over Grable's shoulder, his blond hair smartly parted,
cowlick neatly slicked, necktie tautly knotted.
Mantle and his roommate, Bob Wiesler, were the only rookies in the
bunch, both movie buffs. They couldn't understand why more of the
veteran players hadn't jumped at the chance to go to Hollywood. They
met Esther Williams, Red Skelton, Howard Keel, and the guy who later
played Miss Kitty's bartender on Gunsmoke. They saw Debbie Reynolds
hurrying down the hall carrying two fur coats and called out, "Hiya,
Deb!" Mantle wrote home to his Oklahoma sweetheart about the starlets
who returned his hello. "Wasn't any as pretty as you."
It was a big time for Mickey Mantle. His childhood friend from Commerce,
Nick Ferguson, who had migrated west after high school, drove up
from San Diego in his old '42 Plymouth to show him the California coast.
Ferguson wanted his Okie buddy to see the Pacific. They went straight
out Wilshire Boulevard to the Santa Monica Pier. It was Mantle's first
opportunity to feel the surf and sand between his toes. But he did neither.
Baseball was the only thing on his horizon. All he cared about was getting
to the ballpark on time.
Del Webb, the Yankees' entrepreneurial co-owner, had contrived that
spring to switch training camps with the New York Giants. Webb was a
Phoenix real estate developer, ahead of his time in grasping the westward
rush of postwar America. Sporting News reported that he was considering
selling his stake in the Yankees to his partner Dan Topping as part of a
plan to extend major league baseball beyond the Mississippi.
Bringing the Yankees to train in Phoenix allowed him to play the big
shot in his hometown. Then he sent them barnstorming up and down
the California coast in order to showcase Joe DiMaggio in the Clipper's
home state and whet the appetite for big league ball. The schedule called
for thirteen games in California, mostly against Class AAA Pacific Coast
League teams, with stops at Glendale, manager Casey Stengel's hometown;
in Oakland, where Stengel had managed the Oaks before being
promoted to the Yankees' job; at Seals Stadium in San Francisco, where
DiMaggio had made his name; and finally at the University of Southern
California against the Trojans, better known for their gridiron exploits.
That spring was the last time the Yankees would train anywhere other
It also marked the opening act of one of baseball'sor Broadway's
greatest hits, an SRO psychodrama with a very long run.
Stengel had seen Mantle for the first time a year earlier at a prespring
training camp held in Phoenix for the top prospects in the Yankees system.
The kid, just eighteen, had missed the team bus to the practice field.
He was standing with a teammate, Cal Neeman, neither of them knowing
what to do, when a taxi pulled up. "Well, hop in, boys," Stengel said,
"we'll go to the park."
Neeman recalled, "And we're ridin' along, and he wants to know who's
in the car. Well, we really didn't want to tell him. I give him my name. He
come to Mickey and says, 'Who are you?' And he says, 'I'm Mickey.' And
he says, 'Oh, you're that kid that's all mixed up. You're not supposed to be
able to run like that and hit the ball so far.' "
Mantle was all but invisible until the coaches said, "Take your
marks . . ." Hank Workman, a prospective first baseman, recalled, "They
were timing guys from home to first. Nobody noticed Mantle up to that.
He was very quiet and extremely shy. He would pull his cap down so far
over his brow that you could hardly see his face. Then he ran. And I swear
he was going so fast you could still see the tufts of dust in the air from his
footprints a couple of feet back from where he was."
Bunny Mick, one of Stengel's lieutenants, timed him from the left-
handed batter's box to first base in 3.1 seconds, a new land-speed record.
Workman also recalled Mantle's debut in intrasquad games: "The first
time Mantle came up, he hit one a mile outta that ballpark. About three
innings later he comes up again. The pitcher's changed, and he hits one a
mile out the other way. And all he does after is, he trots out to shortstop
in his non-ostentatious way with his hat pulled way down."
The camp was shut down when Commissioner Happy Chandler got
wind of the big league instructors getting a head start on spring training.
But Stengel had seen enough to see the future. "Mantle's at shortstop
taking ground balls, throwing 'em by the first basemanand outta the
dugout comes Stengel," Workman remembered. "He's got a fungo bat in
his hand, and he runs right at Mantle. He starts waving this bat at him,
and he shoos him out into the outfield, and turns around and loudly
announces to all the coaches and everybody that's assembled that this guy
is gonna be a center fielder. 'I'm gonna teach him how to play center field
myself, and I don't wanna see him at shortstop again.' "
But that's where he played for the 1950 Joplin Miners. His .383 batting
average deflected attention from his 55 errors and he was named the
Most Valuable Player of the Western League. In January 1951, The Sporting
News hailed him as a "Jewel from Mine Country."
"Nineteen-year-old Mickey Mantle, dubbed by some big time scouts
as the No. 1 prospect in the nation, will be off for Phoenix in a few weeks
to display the talents that won him such raves from veteran talent hunters,"
baseball writer Paul Stubblefield declared. And in a special box, The
Sporting News announced the engagement of the Yankees' big catch
who "didn't cost a nickel"to Miss Merlyn Louise Johnson of Picher,
The groom to be was a no show when rookies reported to spring training
camp two weeks later. A reporter and photographer from the Miami
Daily News-Record found Mantle at the Eagle-Picher motor pool and
delivered a message from Yankee farm director Lee MacPhail: "Where are
Helping out the pump crew, came the reply, for $33 a week.
The Yankees hadn't sent him a train ticket, and Mantle wasn't a bonus baby like
Skowron ($25,000) and Kal Segrist ($50,000). His half brother, Ted
Davis, used his Army discharge money to pay for Miss Johnson's engagement
ring. The photographer snapped a picture of the overall clad prospect
with the smudged grin leaning against a mining company truck. The
next day, Tom Greenwade, who would forever be known as the scout who
signed Mickey Mantle, showed up with his fare.
By the time Mantle got off the train in Phoenix, the Yankees' most
heralded rookiesBob Wiesler, Moose Skowron, Gil McDougald, Andy
Carey, and Bob Cervwere working on their baseball tans. They never
forgot those early tastes and smells of the big time. For Al Pilarcik, an
outfielder from Ohio, it was the scent of orange blossoms from the trees
outside the team's motel. For Wiesler, it was the standing rib roast that
circulated through the dining room on a rolling cart. Every night, waiters
would lift the platter's heavy silver-plated hood and the kids would help
themselves to a juicy slab of promise.
The early reports on Mantle were measured in tone. He was being
groomed, considered, studied. Neither he nor his employers expected him
to play in the big leagues in 1951. Never had anyone in the Yankee system
made the leap from Class C to the majors after only two years in professional
baseball. And Jackie Jensen, the California golden boy, was also
waiting in the wings for DiMaggio to exit stage right.
But Stengel was watching, keeping a close eye on his new kid. "We'd
go down through the lobby, Casey would always be sittin' there," Nick
Ferguson said. "And he never said anything, but he was eyeballin' me like
he knew I wasn't a player, and what was I doin' there with Mickey?"
Spring is a season of profusion, especially for baseball writers, the
inevitable consequence of sending grown men to Florida and Arizona
with empty notebooks, a per diemand no wives. Red Smith rued the
day he received a wire from Stanley Woodward, his editor at the New
York Herald Tribune, ordering him to quit "godding up those ballplayers."
Nonetheless, in the spring of 1951, Mickey Mantle was elevated and
In the thin Arizona air, his home runs soared and florid prose burst
forth from fallow typewriters like desert wildflowers. Just a week after
Mantle arrived in camp, Ben Epstein, the effusive beat writer for the New
York Daily Mirror, wrote, "Thank the fates for Arizona's ambrosial air. It's
practically necessary to fuel one's lungs with the stuff if you want to stay
in fashion and carry on about Mickey Mantle. Latest estimates hoisted
the Yankee oakie doakie as the eventual successor to Joe DiMaggio."
Bad weather during the first days of campsnow, evenforced the
players indoors. Indolent scribes still had to churn out copy. Encomiums
lit up the Western Union wires: "Rookie of the Eons,"
"Magnificent Mantle," "Mighty Mickey," "Young Lochinvar," "Commerce Comet,"
"Oklahoma Kid," "Colossal Kid," "Wonder Boy," "One-Man Platoon," "The
Future of Baseball."
Pete Sheehy, the clubhouse man and guardian of Yankee succession,
assigned the lockers and the uniform numbersthe Yankees were the first
team to do that. Sheehy had gone to work for the club when he was fifteen,
summoned to his calling while waiting for the Stadium gates to open one
day in 1927and stayed until his death fifty-nine years later. The Yankee
locker room is named after him. He was the institutional memory of
the club, who divulged nothing. He fetched hot dogs and bicarb for The
Babe and joe for Joe D.; he informed a historically challenged rookie that
George Herman Ruth's number 3 was not available, nor was Henry Louis
Gehrig's 4. As for 5, everyone knew 5 was still working on immortality.
Sheehy gave Mantle 6. "The law of mathematical progression," the Yankees'
public relations man Red Patterson called it.
Veterans reported on March 1. Archie Wilson, an outfielder
returning from military service, arrived to find both beds in his
assigned room taken. Archie's widow, Sybil Wilson, recalled that as her
husband put his things down on a roll-away, Mantle rose from his bed
and said, "You're not going to sleep on the cot." He would take it
Wilson was an Army vet and his senior.
On March 2, Stengel announced that he was moving Mantle to the
outfield. The next day, DiMaggio announced that the 1951 season would
be his last. His throwing shoulder was sore, his left knee was swollen, and
his pride was smarting. All those questions didn't help, either. Louella
Parsons, the dominatrix of Hollywood gossip, wanted to know about a
possible reconciliation with his estranged wife, Dorothy. The baseball
writers wanted the dope on the new kid. So DiMaggio threw them all
His retirement was on the horizon, but the Yankees had no idea an
announcement was coming that day. "What am I supposed to do, get a
gun and make him play?" Stengel groused. Overnight, Mantle went from
a good story to the story. "When they'd go into the hotel lobbies, all the
newspaper people would flock to Mickey," Sybil Wilson recalled. "He
would get down behind Archie and squat down so they wouldn't see him.
He was so scared of them."
Tommy Henrich, Old Reliable, was assigned the task of turning him
into an outfielder, teaching him how to gauge the angle of the ball off the
bat; how to position his body to catch the ball on his back foot and get rid
of it in one smooth motion; how to react to a drive hit straight at him. His
arm was plenty stronglegend had it that minor league ballparks refused
to sell tickets behind first base when Mantle was patrolling the infield or
put chicken wire up to protect the spectators. Delbert Lovelace, a friend
from sandlot ball back home, was on the receiving end of more than one
errant heave: "One time he let the ball loose, and it looked like surely that
ball was goin' to drop into the dirt, and I put my glove down, and it hit
me on the wrist above my glove."
The seams of the baseball were engraved in his flesh.
Excerpted from The Last Boy by Jane Leavy Copyright © 2011 by Jane Leavy. Excerpted by permission of Harper Perennial. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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