MICKEY CHARLES MANTLE: MAY 1, 1951
A CAREER BEGINS . . .
By Frank Ceresi and Carol McMains
Branch Rickey, the man who brought Jackie Robinson into the major leagues and was a superb baseball man for most of his life, once said that to play baseball it was necessary only to have a ball, a bat, a glove and the imagination of a young boy. Baby boomers who grew up during baseball’s “golden age” during the 1950’s would take all of those elements and often dream that they were Yankee great Mickey Mantle. Many a young boy would imagine going to the plate, cleaning their spikes and, like Mickey, smash a long, towering home run . . . to win the key game in the bottom of the 9th inning! We all had that dream. Even Bob Costas, a Mantle worshipper since childhood, still carries Mantle’s rookie card in his wallet. Billy Crystal, producer of a new movie covering teammates Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle’s “great home run chase” of 1961 paid over $200,000 for a game used glove worn by his boyhood hero known affectionately as “The Mick.”
By the time “The Mick” would conclude his major league career, he would set numerous records. He played in more games than any other Yankee, won three Most Valuable Player awards, won baseball’s Triple Crown in 1956 while putting up gaudy batting numbers (a .353 batting average with 52 home runs and 130 runs batted in . . . leading the majors in all three categories); and hit 536 career home runs, including some of the longest in the history of the game. Oh yes, he also appeared in twelve World Series during his first 14 years as a Yankee and led his team to seven World Championships. But he wasn’t always a superstar. That’s where our story begins.
Mutt and Mickey
Big career numbers certainly impress baseball enthusiasts but do not, of course, tell the real story. Even though Mickey Mantle died nearly six years ago, he still captivates the heart of diehard and casual fans of baseball alike. It is said that his name is still magic in the huge baseball memorabilia market. Think of Billy Crystal’s glove! During the next several weeks you will be reading a considerable amount regarding the man who was born nearly 70 years ago in a dusty little town in Oklahoma. Why? Because it was 50 years ago, almost to the day, that Mantle, as he so eloquently put it prior to his death, “came from the sticks” to make his mark on our national psyche. For on May 1st, 1951, a young fresh-faced Mickey Charles Mantle hit his first of many major league home runs . . . and, believe it or not, since we have the very baseball that launched Mantle’s incredible career, we can share this “national treasure” with you. But let’s not jump ahead of ourselves! Where did he come from?
Mickey Charles Mantle was born dirt poor 70 years ago on October 20, 1931 in a small rural town of 300 in Spavinaw, Oklahoma. Mickey was the oldest of five children and he inherited his love for the game of baseball from his father, a former semi-pro player, with the colorful moniker of “Mutt” Mantle. Mutt named Mickey after Hall of Fame catcher Mickey Cochrane and instilled in his son the gritty Cochrane’s greatest trait . . . a warrior’s ability to play with pain and only play to win. Mutt also encouraged Mickey to develop strength by working as a boy alongside of grown men in the deep lead mines around their new home in Commerce, Oklahoma. By early 1951, the lessons of youth served Mickey well as the professional ball teams began to take note of the “Commerce Comet,” as he became known, because of his great speed and especially his mammoth home runs.
“A Straw Suitcase and Two Pairs of Slacks . . .”
By late April of 1951, exactly a half century ago, Mantle arrived in New York to try his hand at Major League Baseball in a world of unbridled expectations. Word had spread that this young phenomenon who hit those monster home runs would be able to actually replace the irreplaceable Joe DiMaggio as the “new” Yankee idol. After all, Joe was soon to retire and the Yankee faithful were searching for the next big thing! Even New York’s famous cynical press wondered about this 21-year-old boy from the country. What would he be like?
“He was a real country boy, all shy and embarrassed,” pitcher and Yankee great Whitey Ford recently said. “He arrived in New York City with a straw suitcase, two pairs of slacks and one blue sports jacket that probably cost only about $8.00.” Mickey may have well been entering a foreign land. “I was a real country bumpkin,” Mantle himself recalled later. “I had never seen buildings so tall and had never really experienced anything . . . I mean anything . . . like New York City!” It’s not easy becoming a legend. However, legends do begin somewhere and on May 1st, 1951 the New York Yankees traveled to Chicago’s Comiskey Park to take on the White Sox in their home park. That is when destiny would bring Mickey face to face with one Randy Gumpert, a grizzled veteran who had pitched his first major league game some 15 years earlier in 1936 . . . during a time when he faced Yankee legends like Lou Gehrig and a young rookie by the name of Joe DiMaggio.
In an interview with Mr. Gumpert for this article, he vividly recalled for us the game and his confrontation with Mickey. He remembered facing the young rookie, knew about the press expectations but thought he would fool the youngster with a change-up. After all, Gumpert reasoned, the Oklahoma lad was now in the big leagues! But, Gumpert related to us, “Mickey smacked the ball in dead center field right into the bullpen . . . it must have traveled 450 feet in the air!” Years later, we were told that Mantle asked Gumpert if he remembered “his first home run.” Indeed, Gumpert did then and does to this day! In fact, he chuckled, “Mickey hit another off me later that year . . . a towering shot in Washington, D.C.” It seemed like yesterday to the 83 year old former ballplayer.
It’s not often that a person who would eventually become a baseball legend collects his first home run baseball but, fortunately, Mr. Gumpert confirmed to us that Yankee catcher Charlie Silvera, warming up in the bullpen, retrieved the ball and gave it to his young teammate. Remember, this was 50 years before special home run baseballs garner big money as a collectible but Mickey wanted that baseball! Amazingly, Mantle inscribed the ball in his own hand. It states, on different panels of the baseball, “My first H.R. in the Majors, May 1, 1951, 4:50 p.m. Chicago” and “6th inning off Randy Gumpert.”
How is it that 50 years after the event we are able to share this national treasure with our readers? It turns out that Mickey saved the ball and actually displayed it himself during the later part of his career when he opened a Holiday Inn restaurant in Joplin, Missouri. He was proud of many of his baseball awards but certainly regarded this little worn, yellowed baseball . . . the one representing the very beginning of his illustrious career . . . with special fondness. Later, the ball joined several of Mickey’s artifacts when they were donated to the Little League Museum in Baxter Springs, Kansas. Eventually the ball found its way to auction in February of 1996 and since that time it has belonged to only one owner, a sports enthusiast and collector by the name of Thomas Scaggs. “It’s a pretty special piece,” Tom recently told us rather modestly. “In fact, it’s pretty spectacular to have Mickey’s first home run baseball . . . especially since he inscribed it in his own hand.”
The Legend Continues
As we mentioned, Mickey Mantle would go on to win several World Championships with the New York Yankees. In fact, he still holds World Series’ records for home runs, runs batted in, runs, walks, extra base hits and total bases . . . but, perhaps his biggest thrill was connecting for his very first home run off Randy Gumpert nearly 50 years ago to the day. After all, that is the one baseball that Mickey himself kept and showed off to his admiring fans. Ah, the fans! Even after his death, Mickey holds a special place in our hearts. And even his fellow players on the diamond were Mickey’s fans! Let’s let the great home run king, Hank Aaron, have the last word. “Mickey meant an awful lot to me . . . I was definitely a fan of his. He was a tremendous athlete. Even today, after his death, people don’t understand him the way they should have when he was alive. That man played 10 years on one leg! But more than that, I know that Mickey was a tremendous person!”