Mickey Mantle’s Spring Training of 1951
Most folks take spring training results “with a grain of salt”, as the results aren’t always a reliable predictor of regular season performance. Occasionally though a player comes out of seemingly nowhere to have a spectacular spring, force the big league team to take notice, and eventually take him north for the season.
In 1951, a 19-year old switch-hitting shortstop named Mickey Mantle presented such a case to the New York Yankees.
Mantle had spent the 1950 season in Class C league Joplin, where he gained the attention of the big league club when he batted .383 with 26 home runs and 136 RBIs. He struggled in the field, making 55 errors. Upon arrival in spring training, he impressed with his combination of power from both sides of the plate and blazing foot speed.
He was still a bit raw, and general manager George Weiss stated his intentions to send the phenom back to the minors for more seasoning, as a jump from Class C minor league ball to the majors was very rare. 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.
Mantle’s rookie season turned out to be a mixed bag. He held his own through May, when he was slashing at .279/.347/.429 in regular work, then struggled in June and early July and was sent to the minors with a promise from Stengel of a swift recall back to the Yanks. The story of the Mick’s despondence and desire to quit and then his father’s challenge (“I thought I raised a man, not a coward”) is well known. Mantle did report to the Yanks farm club in Kansas City, and raked at a 1.096 OPS over forty games, and true to Casey’s word, was recalled in August. The time away from New York seemed to put Mickey back on track, slashing .284/.370/.495 with six home runs in just over a month’s work at the end of the season, helping the Yankees take the 1951 American League pennant.
He never looked back afterwards. In 1952 he was an All-Star (first of fourteen selections in a row) and was third in MVP voting as a 20-year old. He of course went on to become a Yankee legend, highlighted by his Triple Crown season of 1956, and three MVP awards.
His career was capped with election to the Hall of Fame in 1974.