1951: The Changing of the Guard
One of the great things about baseball is the connection to numbers, connection to dates. Mention numbers like 56, 714, and 61 to longtime fans and they can usually connect a historic feat quickly.
Years also have the same effect. Bring up 1969, and the Miracle New York Mets come to mind quickly. The year 1978 immediately evokes great memories for Yankee fans, and despair for the Red Sox nation. The year 2004 flip flops those emotions.
The year 1951 right away brings to mind the great Brooklyn Dodger and New York Giants pennant race, when the Giants came back from a 13 ½ game August deficit to tie for first place at the end of the season. This prompted a three-game playoff, won by the Giants in the bottom of the ninth in the third game on Bobby Thomson’s iconic home run (“The Giants with the Pennant, the Giants win the Pennant”). The summer was also the beginning of the great career of Willie Mays. What isn’t as widely recognized is that after winning the NL flag the Giants lost the World Series to the AL champion New York Yankees in six games.
Upon further scrutiny, the 1951 season was pretty iconic for the Yanks as well.
The historic season started in Spring Training, when a 19-year old rookie shortstop, Mickey Mantle, took the team by storm. Mantle had spent the 1950 season in Class C league Joplin, where he batted .383 with 26 home runs and 136 RBIs. He struggled in the field, making 55 errors.
Upon arrival in Spring Training, Mantle impressed with his combination of power from both sides of the plate and blazing footspeed. Still a bit raw, general manager George Weiss stated his intentions to send the phenom back for more seasoning, as a jump from Class C minor league ball to the majors was very rare, but manager Casey Stengel had other ideas. On March 2, Stengel announced that Mantle would be moved to the outfield – “To make a first class shortstop out of Mantle would take a couple of years anyway, but to convert the young man into an outfielder; well that should not take too long”. Much like his mentor John McGraw had his prodigy Mel Ott, Stengel saw his in the talented Oklahoman. As spring training moved along, Mantle’s play – .402, nine homers and 31 RBIs forced the Yankees hand, and he went north with the team.
After the scheduled Opening Day in Washington was rained out April 16th, the Bombers opened in the Bronx on April 17th against Boston. Here was the Yanks’ lineup:
Jackie Jensen, lf Phil Rizzuto, ss Mickey Mantle, rf Joe DiMaggio, cf Yogi Berra, c Johnny Mize, 1b Billy Johnson, 3b Jerry Coleman 2b Vic Raschi, p
Aside from the obvious star power, with five future Hall of Famers in the lineup, this was notable in that it is the only Opening Day with franchise icons Mantle and Joe DiMaggio in the same lineup.
After signing a $100,000 contract over the winter, trailing only Ted Williams’ $125,000 in the Majors, the Clipper reported to Spring Training and stated the strong possibility that 1951 may be his last season. “This might be my last year. I would like to have a good year and then hang them up” the 36-year old centerfielder stated. It was well known that DiMaggio had struggled with injuries the past couple of season, though he proclaimed he was ready to go for 1951. “I could go right on playing ball for some years to come. But I don’t want to hang on.”
As Mantle thrived in Spring Training, there was rampant speculation that he would be the eventual heir apparent in centerfield. Neither Yankee management nor DiMaggio discouraged this type of talk. DiMaggio lavished high praise on the rookie, saying “Mickey Mantle is the greatest prospect I can remember” and the confident all-star even stated a surprising openness to switching positions “If he is good enough to take my job, I can always move over to right or left.”
As for Opening Day, the Yanks cruised to a 5-0 victory, with ace Vic Raschi scattering only six singles. In his first MLB at bat Mantle grounded out to Boston second sacker Bobby Doerr. For the day, Mantle and DiMaggio each had a single in four at bats. The batting star of the day for the Yankees was rookie leftfielder Jackie Jensen, who had a double and a home run from the leadoff spot.
The season proved to be a bumpy one for both Yankee legends. Mantle’s season started fast and was hitting .314/.377/.483 on May 20th. He then fell into a deep slump, batting only .211 through mid-July when he was sent to the minors. He was recalled at the end of August, and showed improvement upon his return, finishing his season with a .269 average and 13 home runs. DiMaggio also had a batting average over .300 into May, but struggled through the summer with injuries and age to a performance not near his elite standard – .263 with 12 homers.
After floating between first and third places much of the season, the Yankees passed Cleveland in mid-September and went on a 9-3 run to take home the AL championship. After falling down to 2-1 deficit to the Giants in the World Series, they won the last three to take home their third World Series title in a row, Stengel’s third in three seasons of managing the Yankees. DiMaggio had a home run and two RBIs in game four, and drove in three more runs in game five.
Mantle’s season ended abruptly in game two of the series. In the fifth inning Willie Mays lifted a flyball to right center field, where DiMaggio waited for it to come down. Mantle, playing right field, ran over to back up DiMaggio and got a cleat stuck in a sprinkler, suffering the first of what would be many injuries through his career. His first World Series was over. While still in the clubhouse upon the conclusion of the Series, DiMaggio stated that he had played his last game. He later officially announced his retirement in December, stating “If I can’t do it right, I don’t want to play any longer”. The three-time MVP was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1955. Even while not on the playing field, his legend continued to grow, be it being cited in literature or song, or his short marriage to actress Marilyn Monroe.
Mantle’s story was just beginning, and what a story it would be as well. He took over DiMaggio’s centerfield position in 1952 and held onto it through the 1964 season. Mantle’s Hall of Fame career ended with 536 home runs and three MVP awards of his own, including his 1956 Triple Crown season.
Taking away the World War II seasons of 1943-1945, Yankee fans were treated to legendary centerfeld play for almost three decades, one of the great periods of sustained excellence in the history of the game.
The Yankee icons came together for one memorable season, 1951.