By Marty Appel
Astronomers and astrologers like to talk about planets aligning, heavenly bodies appearing to overlap, and eclipses caused by the positions of the sun and moon.
A baseball eclipse occurred in 1936 when a rookie named Joe DiMaggio arrived at the Yankees spring training camp and took his place on a Lou Gehrig-led team. They would play together for three full seasons before Lou became ill and was forced to retire, but the Yankee tradition continued, for by ’39, Joe was a household name, an American sports hero, and a rightful heir to the Ruth-Gehrig legacy.
Fast forward to 1951.
It was the year Dave Winfield, Bucky Dent and Goose Gossage were born. It was also to be a moment of the planets aligning once again.
DiMaggio, bothered by a painful heel spur, was winding down. But from zinc mine country off Route 66 in Commerce, Oklahoma, born in the age of the Great Depression Dust Bowl, came a raw talent named Mickey Mantle. He was 19. And for one year, fifty years ago, the lineage of Yankee greatness would again touch. DiMaggio would symbolically pass the baton to Mickey Mantle.
And once again, for the next 18 seasons, Yankee Stadium would be the home of not only pennants and pride and tradition, but also the home of the nation’s best known, and ultimately most beloved athlete. For a generation of post-war “Baby Boomers,” who learned their baseball in the mid-‘50s, Mickey would be the symbol of their youth, the hero to millions, just as DiMaggio had been to their fathers.
It was fifty years ago when Mantle, the erratic shortstop, who also happened to be the fastest and most powerful switch-hitter baseball had ever seen, arrived in his first big league training camp.
Spring training that year was in Phoenix, the only time the Yankees ever trained in Arizona. Horace Stoneham, the owner of the Giants, had made arrangements with Dan Topping, the Yankees co-owner, to swap training sites for the year. The Yankees ceded the Giants St. Petersburg, their home since 1925, and it put Willie Mays, another heralded rookie, in Florida for his first camp.
Mantle arrived in the desert, two years out of Commerce High School, with his cardboard suitcase and his Marty Marion glove, and was quickly shown the way to right field.
He was also given uniform number 6. Not that there was any pressure to that, of course. Ruth 3, Gehrig 4, DiMaggio 5. No pressure at all.
Fortunately for the Yankees, Mickey took to the outfield as well as Chuck Knoblauch would 50 years later. It was a non-issue. The big guy would play center, and Mick would play right, all the while being “groomed” as Joe’s successor, whether it would be in 1952, 1953, or whenever.
At bat, it didn’t go as smoothly for Mantle. Still a teenager, he struggled, and felt the pressure. Yankee Stadium housed four times the population of Commerce. He went to the minors in July, came back, switched to number 7, and straightened out. But Gil McDougald would be the league’s Rookie of the Year.
As Yankee history would unfold, both DiMaggio and Mantle would play their final seasons at age 36. His heel too painful to play on, Joe retired after the ’51 World Series, best remembered for Mantle crumbling in pain over a drain in right field chasing a fly ball by Mays. The knee injury would eventually contribute to Mantle’s retirement following the 1968 season. Both Joe and Mickey could have signed $100,000 contracts to play another year, but both knew when the end had arrived.
And because there was no immediate Hall of Fame-bound successor to Mantle among the Yankees lineage of greatness – the unbroken leadership provided by Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio and Mantle would finally come to a close in 1968, 49 seasons after Babe Ruth arrived from Boston.
It was a heck of a run.