Mickey Mantle: Got Those Kansas City Blues
Yankees general manager George Weiss was nervous – more than nervous – his damned heart was palpitating… Here it was, first day of 1951 spring training, and the most valuable kid to ever come out of the team’s farm system failed to show. What could it be? More money – the kid was signed for a song, maybe he and his Okie pop were getting wise and wanted some more cash. Or maybe he was having some personal problems. Harry Craft, his manager for the past two seasons reported the kid had some sort of confidence issues. Or it could be vice. In Joplin he was starting to hang around with some unsavory characters and had developed a taste for the sauce. It could be a woman. A kid with all that talent would be a prime target for some seasoned chippy with keen foresight. After all, he was heralded as the successor to Joe DiMaggio without even having played a single major league game.
Weiss couldn’t take it anymore. He picked up the phone and put a call through to Commerce, Oklahoma. A few minutes later the Yankees general manager relaxed with a deep sigh. Turns out the kid hadn’t received his transportation money to Phoenix. His own front office had screwed up. The future star of the best ball club on earth was biding his time working as an electrician’s assistant 500 feet underground in a zinc mine. Weiss told the kid to stay the hell above ground and immediately had a competent underling wire the travel money.
The Yankees in 1951 were a team in transition. The most popular ballclub in the country was starting to gray around the edges. What remained of the pre-war stars were fading fast and manager Casey Stengel was in the tough position of trying to flawlessly transform the old team into a new team while trying to repeat as World Champions. Clearly, Mickey Mantle was a key component in making the transition from old to new, but there was a problem for the impatient Yankees – the kid just wasn’t a major league shortstop. Stengel and his coaches wisely acknowledged that it would take at least two seasons of additional minor league experience to bring his fielding up to professional standards. On any other ball club that would be acceptable, but not for the Yankees. If the kid was supposed to be the successor to the great DiMaggio, why not make him an outfielder?
You would think that the great Yankee outfielder Joe DiMaggio would have been the perfect teacher, but he would have absolutely no part of his chosen successor. As with so many things in his life, the touchy DiMaggio imagined he was being insulted, and as such, no one on the team was more unfriendlier to the rookie than the aging star. When the coaching staff decided on remolding the kid into an outfielder, DiMaggio told the press he didn’t agree with the decision.
He was the only one.
Casey Stengel brought in outfielder Tommy Henrich specifically to tutor him. Henrich had retired the season before and was now one of Stengel’s coaches. “Old Reliable” lived up to his name and after working with Mickey every day, Henrich turned the shortstop into a respectable right fielder. Mantle, for his part, was happy with the change in position. He told The Sporting News “I like the idea of shifting to the outfield. It is not as tough as the infield, and out there I get to use my legs.”
The sportswriters went nuts covering the rookie superstar, and he didn’t disappoint.
Everything about the kid was special – hell, even his name was special. The name “Mickey” was always a great baseball nickname, but a nickname given by someone else, short for Michael or something. This kid’s given name was Mickey. Like the unbridled talents he brought with him from Oklahoma, he came with that great name. In all respects, he was the complete package.
If anyone had any lingering doubts about the kid, what happened on Monday, March 26th would put them all to rest. Playing at Bovard Field against the University of Southern California, Mantle clubbed two home runs, a bases loaded triple and single. One of the homers was a 650 ft bomb that not only went over the outfield wall, but it also cleared the football field behind it. After the game, the Yankees’ bus was almost tipped over when over-excited fans swarmed trying to get the kid’s autograph. By the time the team headed East for opening day, right fielder Mickey Mantle was hitting well over .400. Center fielder Joe DiMaggio couldn’t crack .200.
The rookie started off just like he was supposed to. Wearing number 6 on the back of his jersey, one couldn’t help but notice it was the next number after DiMaggio’s own number 5. Ruth had been 3, Gehrig 4. It was only natural the next great Yankee star follow in order. Throughout the first month of the season he was above .300 and batting second in the lineup. But then things started to fall apart. With the Korean War raging, many angry people were asking why this human God was wearing Yankee pinstripes instead of army green. It was a good question. The name “draft dodger” started being thrown around. In fact, Mantle had been given a military physical by his draft board in Tulsa twice, once in 1949 and again just days before opening day. Each time he was rejected as 4F. Due to an earlier football injury, he suffered from osteomyelitis, a bone infection that never completely goes away. He might be healthy now, but if he was inducted in the service and it flared up, the government would be on the line for a lifetime of disability payments. Because of this liability, the military unilaterally flatly turned down anyone with osteomyelitis. Still, no matter how hard the Yankee publicity machine tried to explain the truth, Mickey was heckled on the field as a draft dodger and angry parents sent him hate mail on a staggering level.
The cold shoulder from fellow outfielder DiMaggio also made the rookie’s life unnecessarily tough. In their first game against the Red Sox, photographers ushered DiMaggio and Mantle together with Ted Williams for a picture. DiMaggio greeted Williams but consciously neglected to introduce Mickey. After an awkward and wholly unnecessary silence, Williams took it upon himself to put out his hand and make the new kid’s acquaintance.
For a rookie not yet 20 years-old, the pressure started to build. The way he was playing would have been more than acceptable for any other rookie, but Mickey wasn’t any other rookie – he was supposed to be the next DiMaggio. To be a big league ballplayer was the only thing he was raised to be. Each slump or lapse on the field unleashed his teenage temper. Inside, he was seething at himself, and unfortunately that anger sometimes overflowed and was propelled outward. After striking out he would swear loudly on his way back to the dugout. As Tony Castro relates in his book, Mickey Mantle: America’s Prodigal Son, when one elderly season ticket owner rebuked him after a particularly nasty outburst, he told the woman to “shut your God-damned mouth!”
Off the field his life got complicated as well. With his long-time girlfriend Merlyn back in Oklahoma, the most eligible rookie in New York started slipping around with a showgirl named Holly Brooke. Brooke introduced the country boy to the glittering lights of Broadway. To cover his awkwardness at cocktail parties he discovered the magic of scotch whiskey. Shyster businessmen circled the 19 year-old, and he quickly fell prey to uneven business deals that took whole teams of Yankee attorneys to extricate the naive rookie from.
And if the pennant race, frequent strikeouts, and legal issues weren’t enough to deal with, the Yankees western road trip brought another level of vexation to the teenage rookie.
Just as they do today, many fans of teams other than the Yankees tended to go out of their way to show their hatred of the New Yorkers. As the Yankees played their way west, the team endured several borderline violent and potentially dangerous incidents. At first, it began with the usual pieces of paper and cardboard, torn into confetti and thrown down at the players. Then coins and other hard objects were being hurled at the Yanks. In Cleveland, one exasperated fan tossed a black cat at pitcher Eddie Lopat’s face to break the curse the Yankees ace seemed to hold over the Indians batters. In Detroit, fans threw stones at Jackie Jensen as he chased a flyball. Extensive color and size “forensics” conducted by Briggs Stadium security revealed that the stones were not sourced from the field but brought into the park for the purpose of throwing them at the Yankees.
When the Yankees got to Chicago the “rowdyism” was kicked up a notch because the White Sox were 2 ½ games in first place. During the sold out games, loud cracks could be heard throughout Comiskey Park, and soon firecrackers rained down from the right field seats, with the Yanks’ star rookie their primary target. One came frighteningly close to Mickey, exploding just behind him as he tried to catch a ball. When someone in the stands yeeted a whiskey bottle in Mantle’s direction, Casey Stengel had enough.
In a June 11 syndicated AP story, Stengel told sportswriters, “Foolish stunts like that might cut short a man’s career or even cost him his eyesight. Suppose one of those firecrackers exploded at Mantle’s eye level? Or what if Jensen had gotten an eye knocked out by a stone? I guess they’d fine the guy $10 or $25 but that wouldn’t restore a man’s eyesight.”
Turns out Casey was right about the fine; the day after the AP story ran, a yutz named Adolf Sananiego was pinched by Chicago PD as one of the firecracker fans. A judge fined the crazed Sox fan a ten-spot and sent him on his way. Although the usual paper and cardboard continued to be thrown at the Yankees, fans confined the firecrackers and whiskey bottles to the stands.
The Yankees headed home after the Chicago gauntlet with Mickey batting .268. His strikeouts soon started snowballing. Stengel dropped him from leadoff to third in the lineup and was forced to answer daily questions from the beat writers about when he was going to admit defeat and send the kid back to the minors. By the last week of June he was mostly pinch hitting. Stengel stuck to his guns for as long as he could, but after Mantle went 1 for 5 with three whiffs in the July 13 game against Cleveland, he submitted to the inevitable. With actual tears in his eyes, Stengel told the kid he was being sent down. Mickey Mantle was optioned to the Kansas City Blues. It was back to the minors.
The Kansas City team Mickey joined in the summer of 1951 was a seething pot of dissension. Just like today, the Yankees never had to rely much on a farm system. Being the most successful team in the biggest market, the Yankees could purchase ready-made ballplayers unlike most other teams who had to grow their own. Though Kansas City was New York’s top farm team, it wasn’t so much stocked with budding stars as filled with has-beens and never-will-be’s. While many on the team knew they would never show their mugs in the majors, everyone knew Mantle was just in K.C. temporarily. In his book Mickey Mantle: America’s Prodigal Son Tony Castro writes that Mantle described the Blues as “malcontents” whose pitchers “carried pints of whiskey in their back pockets.” Before he was even with the team he was resented.
The guy at the helm of the Blues was probably the only man who could relate to Mantle’s unique position of having to replace a legendary Yankee star. On opening day in 1935, George Selkirk put on a Yankees jersey with number 3 on the back and took Babe Ruth’s place in right field. If anyone knew the pressure Mantle was under, Selkirk sure did.
Joining the team on the road, Mantle was handed a used jersey with number 20 on the back and promptly continued his batting slump. In his first handful of games he went 3 for 18. The first hit was a swinging bunt which he speedily beat out for a hit. When he reached the dugout at the end of the inning, Selkirk chastised the kid. “We know you can bunt, Mick,” he said. “You’re not here to bunt. You’re here to get some hits and get your swing back.”
Each night he sat in his hotel room and poured over the Yankee box scores. The longer he stayed in the minors, the less sportswriters mentioned him in the papers. He was fading away, and in Mantle’s teenage mind he was sure he’d blown his chance with New York. At some point during a Blues homestand, depressed and suffering from what must have been severe anxiety over his future, Mickey called his father and told him he wanted to quit. Over the years, the story of what happened next has been embellished and honed into one of baseball’s greatest dramatic legends.
The way Mickey himself often told the story is that after his call home, his father Mutt jumped in his truck and drove half a day to Kansas City. If Mickey was expecting a pat on the back and encouraging words, he was in for a rude surprise. In his son’s hotel room after the day’s game was rained out, Mutt listened stoically as his boy explained how he was a failure and wanted to quit and go home to Oklahoma. Mutt Mantle stood up and started packing his son’s clothes, telling him that he thought he’d raised a man. “I see I raised a coward.” Dumping contents of the dresser drawers into a suitcase, Mutt told his son he could come home and work in the mines with him. The shock treatment did the trick. Mickey realized that if he quit now, that would be the real failure. He begged his father to stop packing and resolved himself to stick it out.
The exact date of this cry for help has never really been pinned down, but there are two theories.
The first is that it happened during Mantle’s first appearance in KC. Jane Leavy writes in The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America’s Childhood, “It is unclear exactly when Mutt delivered his ultimatum. The June 1997 edition of the Ottawa County Emporium, a historical newsletter featuring reprints of newspaper stories from Miami, Oklahoma, included this report: ‘Mr. and Mrs. E. C. Mantle and their son, Larry, as well as their daughter, Barbara, and Miss Merlyn Johnson, visited Mickey after his home debut for the Blues on Sunday, July 22nd.’” This date would make sense since Mickey was batting .278 with no home runs in 8 games. Furthermore, Mantle’s girlfriend and later wife, Merlyn, recalls being outside the hotel room when Mutt gave his boy the business. However, in the many times Mickey told the story, the father-son confrontation took place on a day when the game was rained out, and there is no mention of Merlyn, his mother, brother, and sister being present. The Blues played a doubleheader on July 22 and then left for a road trip.
On the subsequent three-week road trip, Mantle’s bat did come to life. When the team rolled into Milwaukee, he had one 4-hit game, then began belting the home runs. In Indianapolis, he hit two – one from each side of the plate. Against the Toledo Mud Hens he hit for the cycle and then added an additional homer for good measure. By the time the team returned to KC, Mickey was hitting .345 with six homers and 25 RBI.
The second theory of when the Mutt-Mickey showdown took place was put forward by Joe Posnanski in his 2001 Kansas City Star article, “Mantle’s legend began – and almost ended – 50 years ago in KC.” Posnanski opines that the day of the Mutt-Mickey confrontation was likely Saturday, August 11, 1951. This fits a little more closely to the way Mickey often told the story in that the August 11 game was indeed a rainout.
The story goes on to state that Mickey hit two home runs in his very next game; except, he didn’t. After the rained out doubleheader, the Blues played another 2-fer on Sunday, with Mickey going 0 for 4 with a stolen base in the first game and 2 for 3 with a triple and RBI in the second. However, a little further digging and box scores show that on Monday, the third game after the talk was supposed to have occurred, Mickey exploded against Columbus, going 4 for 5 with two homers.
So, what was the truth? We’ll likely never know. Both dates seem plausible. Perhaps Mutt made two trips to KC to visit his son?
In his Kansas City Star article, Joe Posnanski succinctly recaps the rest of Mickey’s KC story: “He would hit .485 the rest of that homestand, with five home runs and a ridiculous 21 RBIs in just nine games.”
On August 20th, he got the call he was hoping for: New York wanted him back. Trading in his number 20 Kansas City jersey for a set of pinstripes with number 7 on the back, Mickey Mantle rejoined the New York Yankees – this time for good.
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Besides the abundant 1950-51 newspaper articles used to write this story, several modern sources came in handy. Joe Posnanski’s August 11, 2001 Kansas City Star article was extremely helpful. As far as books, Tony Castro’s Mickey Mantle: America’s Prodigal Son is especially excellent. Pinstripe Empire: The New York Yankees from Before the Babe to After the Boss by Marty Appel is pretty much the best overall history of the Yanks. The Ottawa County Emporium report of the Mantle family trip in Jane Leavy’s The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America’s Childhood provided a great tidbit of documentation as to the possible date of the Mutt-Mickey pep talk.
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This week’s story is Number 38 in a series of collectible booklets.
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