A Very Special Story: Mickey and Me (Part 1) – by Joe Brown
Joe Brown, a former sportswriter and big Yankees fan, reached out to us here at Start Spreading the News with the hopes that will will share this great memoir.
After reading this great story, we, of course, agreed.
We will run this story in two parts, on successive weeks. Part 1 is here. Part 2 will be posted on Saturday, November 2 at 1:00 p.m.
Mickey and Me (Part One) by Joe Brown
I was sitting in the backyard of my Cushing, Oklahoma home on East Moses Street, on a warm and sultry early spring day in 1962, acutely aware of the acrid sulfuric stench from the Kerr McGee oil refinery west of town. For weeks I had puzzled over whether I would play another season of baseball or get a summer job. I was 14 and confident I could find a summer job, but baseball had always been my favorite thing, my passion. I badly wanted to buy a car when I turned 16. Baseball wouldn’t get me a car. A job would.
In 1962 Oklahoma, the best ballplayers were in the American Legion Leagues. However, I’d missed the signups for that league. So, if I was going to play ball, where would I play? I guessed it would be a “rec league” team. But that would be like participating in neighborhood pick-up games. I had always played on competitive teams. “You blew it,” I muttered to myself.
Because the game meant so much to me, baseball had often been a source of delight. My heroes were all baseball players. Mickey Mantle of the New York Yankees, an Oklahoman too, was my foremost hero, and I worked very hard to be just like him. Of course, I knew there was only one Mickey, but a kid can dream.
Mom came to the back door, and excitedly called out, “Joey, you have a phone call from some man about baseball.”
I ran into the house and asked Mom, “Who is it?” She just shrugged.
I picked up the phone and said, “Hello, this is Joe.”
A man said, “Joe, this is Earl Gibble, I’m calling from City Hall. Several boys, including you, missed the cut-off for Legion baseball signups. The City of Cushing has decided to sponsor an additional Legion team if you and the others still want to play.”
I couldn’t help myself as I shouted, “YES!!! I would love to play.”
The man from the city offices said, “Joe, come to City Hall and sign up. Be sure to as for me, and I will give you a letter telling you when and where to show up for the first team meeting.”
I said, “Thank you, sir, I will be there immediately.”
The next day, at the first team meeting, I met coach Harold Brown from Yale, Oklahoma, a town about twelve miles from Cushing. He had volunteered to come to Cushing to coach the new team. His son Skip would be playing on the team as well.
Coach Brown was about forty years old and came with a solid background in baseball. Skip was a pitcher, and there wasn’t a team for him to play on that summer at Yale. Coach told us after our first practice, “I see a group of good players and hard workers; we are going to surprise a lot of people.”
The baseball season would start in early June and run through early August. We would play eleven games or about one game a week and would have three weekly practices, two more than the other teams in the league. I found ways to add at least two hours of work a day on my skills at home between practices and games.
Despite our commitment to hard work, our team, The Cushing Oilers, lost our first two games. But then things seemed to click, and we began to play as an organized unit. We ran off streaks of wins that rapidly moved us into first place. I had settled into playing third base and batting fourth or “clean up” in the lineup. I was not a power hitter, but I was leading the league in batting average and RBIs (runs batted in). I seemed to come through in “clutch” situations.
In dramatic fashion, the final game in August would determine the league champion. A tie for first place between the Oilers and our hated rivals the Cardinals would be decided. We knew it would take our best to beat the Cardinals.
It was a hot and sticky Oklahoma night when the game started. The Cardinals batted first and scored one run in the first inning. In the bottom of the inning, our team came back to take the lead with Skip getting on with a double followed by me hitting a single to score him. Then on three straight pitches, I stole second, third, and home to give the Oilers the lead.
This game was my best of the season. I stole ten bases, and went four for four, hitting singles at each at-bat. The final score was Oilers 10 to 4 over the Cardinals. This game ended a successful season with me leading the league in many offensive categories, but I was proudest of being part of a very close-knit, hard-working team of players and friends. My self-confidence grew because of that season, but I still had doubts regarding how my skills compared to other Legion ballplayers across the country.
One week after that final ball game, my father came home from work with news about the family vacation scheduled to start the following week. He teased my sister Gency and me about our travel plans for a while, then announced, “We are going to New Orleans, but we are first going to Kansas City to see the New York Yankees play the Kansas City Athletics. Joey needs to see his baseball hero, Mickey Mantle, play at least once.” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing! I remember saying something like, “Dad, you gotta be kiddin’ me?”
We had a long hot ride to Kansas City in our blue 1960 Chevrolet Impala sedan with inadequate factory air conditioning. We arrived the day before the Yankee game and, fortunately, the weather cooled down. The four of us went to a ballgame that evening between the Athletics and the Washington Senators. The stadium amazed me. It was a double-decker with more seats than I had ever seen before in my life. The scoreboard was bigger than any building back in Cushing. It was hard for me to believe that the base paths were the same length as the ballfield I had just played on back home. It all seemed bigger than life to me.
After scouting out the seating at Kansas City’s Municipal Stadium, dad went to the ticket office and purchased four seats directly across from the locker room door where the Yankees would come out to go down to the field the next evening. He was determined to give me every opportunity possible to see “The Mick” up close and personal.
The next day we arrived at the stadium in the late afternoon three hours before the game was scheduled to start. Everything was terrific, even the smells, like the odor of buttered popcorn, grease in the wind from the hamburger vendor stalls blended with the scent of newly mown grass. That night I was in baseball heaven. After we bought hot dogs, peanuts, and Cokes, I sat in the seat nearest the locker room door and eagerly awaited the Yankees. Hot dogs at the ballpark had ever tasted so good.
When the sun dropped below the west side of the stadium, and the stadium lights came on, some of the Kansas City players entered the field. I was mesmerized by the professionals.
Then movement to my right startled me. To my amazement, it was my hero, Mickey Mantle. He’d stuck his head out of the locker room door.
I hollered, “Hey Mick, I’m an Okie.”
Mickey laughed. The sounds of his cleats chattering on the concrete ramp were like a rif of the most beautiful music I had ever heard. My heart seemed to want to leap from my chest as he came over to me, his right hand out.
“Well, I’m an Okie, too, and I’m Mickey Mantle.”
Taking his hand, I gushed, “Yeah, I know, and I’m Joe.”
Mickey immediately asked questions: Where’s your home? How old are you? Do you play baseball?
I know I answered all his questions, but I can’t remember what I said.
Mickey pulled over his teammates as they came out of the locker room and introduced them to me. “My little Okie buddy, Joey,” he told them. It was like Mickey was a member of our family. Until then, only my family called me Joey. That night, I met Whitey Ford, Yogi Berra, Bill Skowron, Bobby Richardson, Tony Kubek, Roger Maris and, everyone else on the Yankee’s team.
After he’d introduced me to his teammates, Mickey smiled and said, “Joey, I better get on down to the field and warm myself up for the game.”
As he turned to leave, I hollered, “Mick, hit me a homer.”
Mickey turned and smiled again. “Joey, I’ll sure try.”
Jim Bouton (who later won the American League Cy Young award as the best pitcher) pitched that night and came back up the ramp after his pre-game warm-up and tossed me a baseball saying, “Joey, here’s the game ball I just warmed up with, have fun with it.”
I said, “Wow, Jim, I sure will.”
Smiling, he waved and went back down the ramp to the field.
In the first inning when Mickey came to bat, he hit a homer to left field that flew out of the ballpark. It sailed as high as the monster scoreboard and landed way out in the vast parking lot. I could see the flight of the ball from where I sat and marveled at the distance the ball traveled. Mickey seemed as excited by the homer as I was. As he rounded second base, he looked directly up above third base, toward me, took his ballcap off and twirled it around. Tom Tresh had hit a leadoff triple and scored on a sacrifice fly by Bobby Richardson, so nobody was on base when Mickey hit the homer. Those were the only runs the Yankees scored that night as they lost the game 7-2. After the game, we hung around for a while because I wanted to see Mickey one more time and tell him I was sorry they lost and how excited I was to see the homer.
Dad eventually said, “Joey, Mickey is probably being interviewed by the radio and TV folks. He did hit that home run, you know. We leave early tomorrow morning for New Orleans, so let’s go.”
I hated to leave, but I left the ballpark that night, smiling from ear to ear because Mickey had hit a home run for me.
As I have told this story many times over the years, I have come to realize how my father sacrificed so much to give me that experience. I don’t recall him saying or doing anything when Mickey was talking to me. He and Mickey may have nodded at each other, but I never noticed it. I was captivated by Mickey and the Yankees, and a bomb could have gone off down the street, and I might not have heard it. Dad was a big Mickey Mantle fan too, and for him to give me that moment in time was unselfish and generous.
That experience in August of 1962 ended the best summer I could have imagined. Many positive things happened to me that summer. I learned that through hard work and dedication, I could play baseball well. I learned that even sports icons and heroes could be kind and friendly and that Mickey was willing to give his valuable time to a kid from a small town in Oklahoma. From that experience, I gained confidence and a stronger self-image that would last a lifetime.
(Note – Joe Brown can be reached at: jbrown2452 (at) yahoo (dot) com)