Nov. 6, 2017
On April 17, 1953, Mickey Mantle hit a home run off Washington lefty Chuck Stobbs that cleared the left-field stands in Griffith Stadium. The blast gave rise to the term “tape-measure homer,” largely because Mantle and Yankees publicist Red Patterson later posed for a photo with a prop designed to look like a tape measure. Another post on this site, “Fact and fiction about Mantle’s “565-foot home run,” examines the event in detail.
The mythology surrounding the legendary home run includes Patterson’s report of how far it traveled — 562, 563 or 565 feet, depending on the source repeating the claim. Physicist Alan M. Nathan posted his research online, complete with illustrations of contemporary baseball cards (http://baseball.physics.illinois.edu/Krannert-v3.pdf), concluding that while the ball might not have flown as far as initially reported, it probably did land at least 535 feet from home plate. There was a steady 20-mph wind that day with gusts up to 40 mph. Even so, this prodigious clout established Mantle as baseball’s premier slugger. His blast was recounted on a card in the 1961 Topps set.
This all came early in Mantle’s legendary playing career. Over the years, Mantle developed a friendship with the Washington Post‘s iconic sports columnist Shirley Povich (yes, he’s Maury’s father). They became golfing buddies, and Povich became a great defender of Mantle when the critic started to harp on the Mick’s drinking. When Mantle was dying in 1995. Povich wrote an outstanding column, included in the 2005 collection, “All Those Mornings … At the Post,” presenting the case for Mantle, a humble and fragile human being, that ended with the memorable lines: “When are they going to call off the dogs? It’s time.”
The photo here is my Mantle card from the 1963 Topps set. It’s a PSA-graded 7 (near mint) and the only Mantle card I have from his playing days.
On June 28, 1965. The Yankees were in Washington to play a twi-night double-header against the Senators. I had gotten my driver’s license when I turned 16 the previous fall, so I drove with my friend John McCloskey to camp outside the players entrance shortly after noon at what was then still D.C. Stadium to await the arrival of our baseball heroes. John was a huge fan of Mantle and came ready with a nice magazine photo mounted on cardboard. I had a little notebook I could slip in my back pocket, along with a set of black-and-white team-issued photos of several Senators.
One of the first to arrive was Nats manager Gil Hodges. He neatly signed my photo of him in his Senators uniform. Years later I had it professionally authenticated, and it remains on my desk, likely one of a few surviving examples signed by Hodges during his time in Washington. Both of us got the autographs of most of the Senators, including Frank Howard, as they arrived one by one over the next hour or so.
The big thrill of the day, however, was when the Yankees’ team bus pulled up. The players all seemed to be in a good mood, probably laughing that two teens were waiting for them, not something they must have expected in D.C.. I can’t remember if Mantle got off the bus first, but he had a big smile as I was blabbering about how my buddy was his biggest fan. He signed John’s photo and my little piece of notebook paper with his distinctive and highly legible style.
We both managed to get Whitey Ford and Elston Howard to sign. Mine has both on the same piece of paper. Jim Bouton signed for me on the same sheet as Mantle’s autograph. That was about all we were able to get before everybody entered the clubhouse, but who’s complaining? I often had gotten autographs of players leaving the clubhouse after games. This was an entirely different experience.
A year or so later, John and I would both cover high school sports for the Washington Daily News Scholastic Sports Association, which paid high school students to do it. John became friendly with Russ White, who covered the Senators for the Daily News. Late in 2016, when John and I got back in touch, he recounted this D.C. baseball story: After learning how much John admired Mantle, White invited John to come to D.C. Stadium on a night the Yankees were in town. This probably would have been in 1967. John brought a scrapbook he had compiled of pictures and stories about Mantle. White took it into the clubhouse. The next thing John remembers was Mantle standing in front of him, shaking his hand and saying how much he liked looking through the scrapbook.
When Mantle died in August 1995, I had the honor of eulogizing him in an editorial for the newspaper I worked for in New Jersey.
Mantle hit 39 of his 536 home runs in Washington — 29 at Griffith Stadium and 10 at D.C./R.F.K. Stadium. That number is second only to Detroit (42) as his highest total on the road.
If you’ve stuck with me this far, let me leave you with a trivia question — it was much harder before you could Google it, of course: The only pitcher who faced both Babe Ruth and Mantle? Al Benton. Darn, I would have guessed Bobo Newsom.
A footnote, discovered when I was working on his SABR bio: Former Senators relief pitcher Tom Ferrick also pitched to Ruth and Mantle, but only to Mantle in a real game (four times in 1952). As a high school pitcher, Ferrick threw batting practice to Ruth in either 1933 or ’34.