The Mick Hits Two

During the summer of 1961, Mantle and his Yankee team- mate and room-mate, Roger Maris, each threatened to break Babe Ruth’s seemingly unbreakable 1927 record of 60 home runs. As the summer progressed, nothing else in sports seemed to matter. While all that was going on, I was hitch-hiking  up the eastern seaboard with a friend named Gentry Lee.
Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris (right to left). image by Corbis.

Journalist  Jane  Leavy was an acquaintance of Mickey Mantle, having spent an Atlantic City  weekend with him (in separate hotel rooms) in 1983, during which time he propositioned her.  She says she declined.  If so, she may have been in the minority of the girls and women who received similar invitations from the Mick.  His many legendary home runs were not limited to the ball park.  Ms. Leavy, who says in the book’s preface that she fell in love with Mantle, did do something that none of those other women did.  She wrote a best-selling biography called The Last Boy  Mickey Mantle and the End of America’s childhood. Of the numerous Mantle biographies, hers, published  in 2010, is by far the best.  She does a beautiful job of reconciling the man’s basic honesty and innocence with his philandering, boozing lifestyle and occasional streaks of meanness, while at the same time writing in vivid prose a riveting history of the Yankees’ greatest era.

This is not a review of that book, although I  recommend it to anyone, sports fan or not, who would enjoy reading a masterful biography about a fascinating  20th Century American icon.   Instead this is a brief account of one Mantle fan’s recollection of watching him play in one game during the summer of 1961.  Leavy’s account of that year’s season re-kindled the memory.

During the summer of 1961, Mantle and his Yankee team- mate and room-mate, Roger Maris, each threatened to break Babe Ruth’s seemingly unbreakable 1927 record of 60 home runs.   As the summer progressed, nothing else in sports seemed to matter.   Years later the season was chronicled by a writer named Ron Smith in a book Entitled 61* The Story of Roger Maris, Mickey Mantle and One Magical Summer. In that book, Smith wrote that “(Maris) stepped reluctantly into the New York spotlight in 1960, a naïve, no-nonsense, tell-it-like-it-is small-town boy from Fargo, N.D.  (Mantle) had been auditioning for the role of New York icon for the better part of a decade, a handsome, fun-loving Oklahoma farm boy turned savvy sports star.”

In a forward to Smith’s book, Billy Crystal, a wildly enthusiastic, lifetime Yankee fan, declared that, “The summer of 1961 was the greatest of my life.”. . . “Maris started the season slowly; Mickey was on fire.  Then it happened.  Roger got going, Mantle matched him; Roger went ahead.  Mickey fought back.  We all started to take sides.  This was serious.  Someone was going to do it.  Two Yankees going after Ruth.  Perfect!”

While all that was going on, I was hitch-hiking  up the eastern seaboard with a friend named Gentry Lee. We were nineteen, somewhat foolish, and short of funds. We would stop and work for a few days, make a few bucks, and again hit the highways and byways, travelling through Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Virginia to Washington D.C. and eventually all the way to Montreal and back to Austin.  It was slow going because hitch-hiking was difficult at times, and we frequently had to stop and find work.

Along the way we would get a newspaper now and then to read about Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris, the “M&M Boys” as they had become known.  Mantle was our hero and had been for years.  We knew little about Maris other than what he was doing that summer for the Yankees.

By the time we got to Washington, D. C. on the Fourth of July, Maris had hit 31 homers, Mantle had hit 28, and we were almost broke.  Gentry finagled a job as a copy boy for the Washington Post.  I settled for a stint as an all- night hamburger cook at a downtown White Castle restaurant that filled up with rowdy and hungry drunks when the bars shut down at 2 am.

On the morning of Tuesday, July 18, the Yankees came to town, following a series in Baltimore, to play two games against the Washington Senators at old Griffith Stadium.  By then, Maris had hit 35 homers and Mantle 33.  Gentry and I must have made a few bucks because an hour or two before start of the July 18 afternoon game, we were perched in the cheap seats at Griffith watching the players warm up.  This was the first major league baseball game for both of us.

We were rooting for New York over Washington and for Mantle over Maris.  Odds heavily favored the Yankees, in first place with a 58-30 record, against the Senators, (later to become the Texas Rangers)  in 7th place with a record of 40-50.  Attendance, including Gentry and me, was 17, 695.

Pre-game batting practice was spectacular.  Both sluggers repeatedly blasted balls far over the fence and each time, as they say, “the crowd went wild.”  Drinking- age was 18 in D.C. then so we even had a legal cold beer or two in public  as the teams warmed up.  That, like the game itself, was a first for us two teenagers from Texas where the drinking age was set, sensibly, at 21.

On the mound that day for the Senators was right-hander Joe McClain. It must have been a daunting experience for him, a mediocre pitcher, to have to face the Yankees when the M&M boys had been hitting homers for weeks with seeming impunity.  McClain had only broken in with the big leagues on April 18.  He finished 1961 with eight wins and eighteen losses, and  only played in the majors for one more year.

Maris didn’t get a hit against McClain that afternoon; his fireworks all came in batting practice.  But in the first inning with a man on first and two out, the Mick strode confidently to the plate, took a couple of high inside fast-balls, and  on the third pitch slammed a towering two-run homer high over the right field fence.  The crowd went even wilder. It seemed that even the Washington fans were rooting for Mantle and New York.

Now Maris with 35 homers only led Mantle by one.  Nothing else spectacular happened until the top of the 8th when Mantle, again with two out but with no one on base, smashed an inside fast-ball deep over the center field fence to leave the two slugging team-mates  tied at 35 home runs apiece.   The Yankees won the game 5 to 3.  Mantle’s three RBI’s were the difference.

Mantle had been playing for most of his career with a badly injured knee (and often with a hangover).  After an infection put him in the hospital late in the summer, he faded somewhat and ended the season with 54 home runs.  On October 1 Maris hit number 61 to break Ruth’s record.*

The record book contains an asterisk pursuant to a controversial ruling by Baseball Commissioner Ford Frick that Ruth’s record had to be broken in 154 games because there were only 154 games played when Ruth hit his 60 home runs in 1927.  Maris hit his 61st in the 162nd. Game of the 163 game season.

Getting to see Mantle hit  two home runs in that phenomenal  1961 season is a memory I have always cherished.  The game ended in time for me to make it to my cooking job at the White Castle.  After the bars closed, the 2 a.m. drunks seemed rowdier than usual that night.  Maybe they were Washington Senator fans who had been celebrating Mickey Mantle.