Mickey Mantle's Turning Point

Harold FriendChief Writer IJuly 21, 2010

It was a comment that received little attention during spring training, but it might have been a turning point for Mickey Mantle.

Some New York Yankees' rookies were showing off their skills at St. Petersburg in 1956. Mickey watched the hopefuls a few minutes and then the Yankees' 24-year-old veteran turned to a reporter.

"A lot of these young kids of ours are going to be good ballplayers."

This was a new Mickey Mantle.

The late Shirley Povich of the Washington Post predicted that 1956 would be the year when the real, mature Mickey Mantle arrived. He wouldn't be the Yankees' leader, but he would lead by example. He wasn't a kid anymore.

Povich noted that Mickey was striking out less. Yankees' coach Bill Dickey, a Hall of Fame catcher, remarked that Mickey was getting a piece of the ball because he was not going for "the sucker pitch," which is another way of saying Mantle was becoming more selective at the plate.

Many of the "experts" predicted that 1956 would be the year that Mickey challenged Babe Ruth's single-season home run record.

Yogi Berra, who was considered an even more dangerous hitter, followed Mantle in the batting order.

In 1955, Yogi won his third MVP award, hit 27 home runs, and batted in 108 runs. Pitchers would be careful with Mantle, but they would not be eager to walk him with Yogi lurking in the on-deck circle.

Switch-hitting gave Mickey an advantage because curve balls always broke into him, but Yankee Stadium favored left-handed hitters, which meant that about one-fourth of the time, Mantle would have to face the cavernous left-center outfield, referred to as "Death Valley."

Thanks to Phil Rizzuto, Mickey was one of the best bunters in baseball, but Yankees' management realized that fans wanted to see gargantuan home runs, not beautiful drag bunts. The threat of injury was another factor.

Two weeks before the end of the 1955 season, Mickey pulled a muscle behind his knee while beating out a bunt in the pennant-clinching game at Boston.

Ben Epstein of the New York Daily Mirror wrote, "That's when he won the pennant and lost the World Series. That knee kept Mickey out of most of the Series, remember?"

Mickey Mantle had a breakout season in 1956. On July 4, which is the unofficial mid-point of the season, Mickey had 29 home runs. He led the league in batting (.371), in runs batted in (71), and in runs scored (69).

The "experts" were right. They popular opinion was that Mickey was a very special player.

"Nobody of his era has been able to hit the ball farther, run as fast, or bunt as well as Mantle."

Dickey, who was Ruth's teammate, said that Ruth could hit a ball awfully high and far. So could Mantle.

He compared the awe other players had when they saw one of Mantle's long home runs with the amazement of players who watched Ruth.

In 1956, Mickey didn't break Ruth's home run record. He didn't come close, but Mickey won the Triple Crown.

He led the majors, not just the American League in batting (.353), home runs (52), and RBIs (130).

It was rare. It was unusual. For once, the "experts" were experts.



Reference:

Povich, Shirley. "As High and Far as Ruth." Baseball Digest . July 1956.

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