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Mickey Mantle's First Home Run Was His Most Memorable

Harold FriendChief Writer IJune 21, 2011

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Rookie Mickey Mantle started the game against the Chicago White Sox at Comiskey Park on May 1st, 1951, as the New York Yankees leadoff hitter and right fielder.

Jackie Jensen started in center field for the injured Joe DiMaggio.

In the seventh inning, manager Casey Stengel replaced Mantle with No. 7 Cliff Mapes for defensive purposes.

The game turned out to be one of the most significant games in Mantle's career. It was something that he realized as soon as he hit his first homer.

Left-hander Bob Cain started for the White Sox against Vic Raschi. The Yankees had no trouble with Cain, who left for a pinch-hitter in the fifth inning, trailing 5-2.

Randy Gumpert took over in the sixth for Cain. With one out and Raschi, who had doubled, on second, Mantle stepped into the left-handed hitters' box.

Gumpert, a grizzled veteran who had faced greater hitters than Mantle would become, including Lou Gehrig, Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio, was well aware of the expectations the press had for Mantle. He knew that rookies, especially rookies under great pressure to perform, were usually anxious at the plate.  

Gumpert tried to fool Mantle with a changeup. Years later, he described what happened.

"Mickey smacked the ball in dead center field right into the bullpen . . . it must have traveled 450 feet in the air!"

Yankees backup catcher Charlie Silvera, who was in his usual spot in the bullpen, picked up the ball Mantle hit for his first home run. Silvera knew, as did almost all of the Yankees, that Mickey would want that ball.
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No, it wasn't because it was worth a lot of money, because in 1951 it wasn't. The obscenity of charging ridiculous amounts of money for memorabilia was still in the distant future. Mickey wanted the ball for himself.

He inscribed the ball with the statements "My first H.R. in the Majors, May 1, 1951, 4:50 p.m. Chicago" and "6th inning off Randy Gumpert."

As the years passed, Mantle hit 535 more regular-season home runs and 18 in the World Series. But his favorite baseball was the one that became his first home run.

Near the end of his career, it was displayed in his Holiday Inn restaurant in Joplin, Missouri. The city that helped Mickey gain confidence and return to the Yankees in Aug. 1951, after he experienced a terrible batting slump in July.

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Mantle was never a great defensive outfielder, which is why Stengel played him in right field that day. But when he moved to the spacious center field in Yankee Stadium, his great speed enabled him to catch up to fly balls that few other center fielders could reach.

After his initial home run, Mickey managed only 12 more in his rookie season. He went into a terrible slump during the middle of the 1951 and was sent to the minors. But he returned in August.

During his rookie season, Mantle batted leadoff a few times, including the World Series against the New York Giants. What if Mantle had batted leadoff his entire career?

He would have had many more plate appearances and opportunities to hit a home run. His .421 on base average is 20 points higher than that of Rickey Henderson (.401), generally considered the greatest leadoff hitter of all time.

Mantle hit some of the most memorable home runs in baseball history, but for him, nothing was quite as good as his first.

References:

http://fcassociates.com/ntmantle.htm

By JAMES P DAWSON Special to THE NEW YORK TIMES Associated Press Wirephoto. (1951, May 02). Mantle leads yanks to victory over white sox at chicago. New York Times (1923-Current File), pp. 51. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/111988891?accountid=46260

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