As hard as it must be for baby boomers to accept, this year marks the 50th anniversary of one the greatest seasons in baseball history, Mickey Mantle and his Triple Crown year.
In 1956, Mickey Mantle had a baseball season that has been matched by precious few players, as his unlimited potential finally broke through all at once and the 24 year old from Oklahoma rose to full blown superstar status. Even today, the name of Mickey Mantle invokes a combination of power and speed that has never been matched in baseball.
Mickey Mantle came to the Yankees hyped as the great centerfielder that was to take over for the supremely talented Joe DiMaggio. Although he put together some very good seasons, Mickey Mantle was really only teasing baseball fans in his first couple of years with the New York Yankees. He knocked in 87 runs at the age of 20 in 1952, but it was not until a mid-April game in 1953 that Mickey Mantle’s legend began to come to the forefront.
In the country’s capital, on April 17th, 1953, switch-hitter Mickey Mantle hit what is still the longest measured home run in Major League Baseball history. Babe Ruth had reportedly hit a ball 600 feet in 1926 at Detroit, but despite numerous eyewitnesses who swore to the authenticity of the distance, it was never officially measured. Mickey Mantle’s ball, hit off of the Senator’s Chuck Stobbs, cleared the left field fence 391 feet away, nicked a scoreboard mounted on a 50 foot high wall that was 69 feet behind the fences, and kept going. Yankees public relations man Red Patterson smartly left the stadium to see where the ball landed. When he was shown the spot by the boy who had retrieved the ball, Patterson paced off the distance to the left field fence and came up with the figure. Mickey Mantle had hit the ball 565 feet!
He knocked in 102 runs in 1954, and 99 in 1955, but it was 1956 that would define Mickey Mantle. Indeed, during the course of his 18 seasons, Mickey Mantle had 100 or more RBI only 4 times. He reached over 90 runs batted in on 5 other occasions, and Mickey Mantle had 80 plus RBI twice. Pitchers so feared his power that they would often pitch around him. Mickey Mantle himself would later say that because of his 1,733 walks and 1,710 strikeouts during his career, he actually went about 6 seasons without hitting the ball.
Perhaps an omen of things to come for Mickey Mantle in 1956 came during an exhibition game at Al Lang Field in St. Petersburg, Florida. He hit a home run against the St. Louis Cardinals to left field that went clear into the bay. Marveled Stan Musial of the Mickey Mantle blast, “No home run has ever cleared my head by so much as long as I can remember.” Mickey Mantle would hit a couple more tape measure shots that spring, before assaulting American League pitchers for keeps.
On May 24th, 1956, Mickey Mantle went 5 for 5 with an intentional walk against the Tigers; he was then hitting .421. Batting left-handed on May 30th, Mickey Mantle would almost hit a ball clear out of Yankee Stadium; no fair ball has ever left “The House That Ruth Built”. The home run, against Camillo Pasqual of Washington, hit the facade of the right field upper deck on its way up and engineers later estimated it would have gone 600 feet if it had been unhindered. Less than a month later, Mickey Mantle smashed a pair of homers into Detroit’s Briggs Stadium right centerfield bleachers, something that had never been done. He also homered in the All-Star game in a 7-3 loss to the National League.
On September 18th, Mickey Mantle hit his 50th home run of the 1956 season, becoming only the 8th player at that time to reach 50. The blast helped the Yankees clinch the pennant. 11 days later, Mickey Mantle hit his 52nd home run against the Red Sox. The Yankee pitching staff helped Mickey Mantle clinch his Triple Crown by holding the fabulous Ted Williams to a paltry 3 for 20 in the final two series they played against Boston; for the entire season the Splendid Splinter could manage only 11 hits in 56 at bats against New York. Mickey Mantle won the batting title with a .353 average. He wound up with 130 runs batted in, 2 more than Al Kaline of Detroit, while Mickey Mantle’s 52 home runs were 9 more than Duke Snider’s effort for the Dodgers. He not only won the American League Triple Crown, but that of all of baseball, as no player in either circuit topped the numbers of Mickey Mantle in those categories.
Many players have led their clubs ionto baseball’s grandest stage and then faltered under the pressure, but in the World Series against the Brooklyn Dodgers Mickey Mantle continued his great campaign. He hit home runs in Game One and Game Four, but saved perhaps his biggest post season round tripper for Game Five. With Don Larsen in the process of pitching the only perfect game in Series history, Mickey Mantle gave him the only run he would need with a fourth inning home run. As if this were not enough, Mickey Mantle made what he himself would call the greatest catch of his career when he flagged down a screaming line drive hit by Gil Hodges that was headed for the gap in left centerfield. The Yankees would win the World Series in seven games, and Mickey Mantle was awarded the Hickok Belt at the end of the year as the country’s best professional male athlete.
Mickey Mantle would never again top his RBI total of 1956 nor his batting average. He would hit 54 home runs in the mythical 1961 season when he would duel teammate Roger Maris as they took on Babe Ruth’s single season record of 60 homers in a year. A poorly treated infection in his leg cost him any legitimate shot at that mark. Mickey Mantle would win 3 Most Valuable Player Awards; 1956, 1957, and 1962. He would lead the American League in home runs 4 times and runs scored 6. A myriad of injuries that caused him to play in almost debilitating pain, a trait that gained the love and admiration of every one of his fellow players to a man, reduced his abilities as his time in baseball wore down. Mickey Mantle retired in 1969 and was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1974. Mickey Mantle, who passed away in 1995, holds a special place in the hearts of baseball fans everywhere. His 1956 Triple Crown season engrained the image of Mickey Mantle into the soul of a nation, and made his name synonymous with raw power and grace, and with the very idea of baseball itself.