April 18, 1951
An hour and a half before the New Year dawned, Mickey Charles Mantle — he was christened Mickey, not Michael, after Mickey Cochrane, whose name is Gordon Stanley - was standing on the top step of the Yankees' dugout looking back into the stands where a kid in a bright windbreaker brandished a home-made sign fashioned from a big pasteboard carton. The sign bore a photograph of Phil Rizzuto, cut out of a program, and crude lettering read- "C'mon, Lil Phil. Let's go."
Sitting on the bench, Casey Stengel could see his newest outfielder only from the chest down. The manager grunted with surprise when he noticed that the sole of one baseball shoe had come loose and was flapping like a radio announcer's jaw. He got up and talked to the kid and came back shaking his head.
"He don't care much about the big leagues, does he," Casey said.
"He's gonna play in them shoes."
"Who is he?" a visitor asked.
"Why, he's that kid of mine," said Mr. Stengel, to whom proper names are so repugnant he signs his checks with an X.
"Yeh. I asked him didn't he have any better shoes and he said he had a new pair, but they're a little too big."
"He's waiting for an important occasion to wear new ones," the visitor said.
Casey is not unaware of the volume of prose that was perpetrated about this nineteen-year-old during his prodigious spring training tour, when he batted .402, hit nine home runs and knocked in thirty-one runs.
"How about his first game in a big league park?" a kibitzer said. "Saturday in Brooklyn, when he got only one single. What was wrong?"
"My writers," Mr. Stengel said, "had an off day."
Mr. Stengel told about Mantle asking him how to play the right-field wall in Ebbets Field.
"It was the first time the kid ever saw concrete," he said. "I explained how the ball hits the wall like this and bounces like this and how you take it as it comes off the wall. I told him, 'I played that wall for six years, you know.' He said, 'The hell you did!'"
"He probably thinks," Mr. Stengel said, "that I was bom at the age of sixty and started managing right away."
A couple of newspaper men were talking to Bill Dickey. About Mantle, naturally.
"Gosh, I envy him," one of them said. "Nineteen years old, and starting out as a Yankee!"
"He's green," Bill said. "But he's got to be great. All that power, a switch hitter, and he runs like a striped ape. If he drags a bunt past the pitcher, he's on base. I think he's the fastest man I ever saw with the Yankees. But he's green in the outfield. He was a shortstop last year."
"Casey said that out in Phoenix he misjudged a fly and the ball stuck on his head."
"It hit him right here alongside the eye," Bill said. "He's green, and he'll be scared today."
"If anybody walks up to him now," a newspaper man said, "and asks if he's nervous, Mantle should bust him in the eye. Golly, Bill, do you realize you were in the big league before he was born?"
"He was bom in 1932," Dickey said, "and that was the year I played my first World Series."
"And I'd been covering baseball years and years," the guy said. "What's been happening to us?"
After that there was a half-hour relentless oratory at the plate, and Whitey Ford, the Yankees' prize rookie of last year, walked out in his soldier suit to pitch the first ball, and then the season was open and it was New Year's Day.
Mantle made the first play of the season, fielding the single by Dom DiMaggio which opened the game for the Red Sox. He broke his bat on the first pitch thrown to him and was barely thrown out by Bobby Doerr. He popped up on his second turn at bat.
When he came up for the third time the Yankees were leading, 2 to 0, with none out and runners on first and third. Earlier, Joe DiMaggio had started a double play with an implausible catch of a pop fly behind second, as if to tell Mantle, "This is how it's done up here, son." Now Joe, awaiting his turn at bat, called the kid aside and spoke to him.
Mantle nodded, stepped back into the box and singled a run home. Dickey, coaching at third, slapped his stern approvingly. When the kid raced home from second with his first big-league run, the whole Yankee bench arose to clap hands and pat his torso. He was in the lodge.