If I had known I was going to live this long, I’d have taken better care of myself!
The Seventh Inning of Baseball: A Film by Ken Burns takes us into the 1950s in America. Subtitled “The Capital of Baseball,” this installment of the documentary revolves primarily around New York City and the three teams who dominated the baseball world during this decade: the New York Yankees, the New York Giants, and the Brooklyn Dodgers. For ten straight years (1947-1956) a local team always played in the World Series, and a local team won nearly all of them as well.
It was certainly a great decade for the Yankees under manager Casey Stengel. With Mickey Mantle in the outfield and Yogi Berra behind the plate, the Yankees were as dominant as ever. The way Roger Angell describes the atmosphere in New York during this period, where everything seemed to revolve around baseball, makes me wish this type of world would come back into existence. “Stengelese” became a thing, though I like how the discussion also revolves around Stengel’s baseball intelligence. Similarly, while Yogi Berra remains most commonly known for “Yogi-isms,” he was also a phenomenal ballplayer. After all, you don’t get elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame just for speaking amusing phrases.
Jackie Robinson, released from his three-year vow of silence with Branch Rickey, began lashing out against those who slighted him. It’s an understandable reaction, especially considering how long he had to go without answering the racism he faced. His play just grew better with his anger, leading the Dodgers to some great seasons, including a World Series championship in 1955.
We get to watch the Giants’ Bobby Thomson’s ever-popular “Shot Heard ‘Round the World” during the 1951 playoffs against the Brooklyn Dodgers. It was an event that ignited a tremendous amount of excitement not only at the Polo Grounds, but also in fans’ homes as the game was televised across the country. I always get a kick out of hearing Russ Hodges’s excited screaming, “The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!”
A good portion of the disc was devoted to Mickey Mantle, who essentially took Joe DiMaggio’s place with the Yankees. The attention he receives is well-deserved, as is the attention to his struggles with injury and his tendency to stay up all night partying. Given how well he was able to play in spite of being hurt much of the time, one can’t help but wonder what Mantle would have accomplished had he been healthy. Sadly, we’ll never know. Mantle himself doesn’t even touch on the subject in his own discussions of his playing days on the documentary.
While the breaking of the color barrier by Jackie Robinson in 1947 was undeniably a great thing for baseball, it did have an unfortunate downside. Attendance at Negro Leagues games fell as black fans flocked to watch Robinson and those who followed him play in the major leagues. On the positive side, players including Willie Mays, Curt Flood, Ernie Banks and Hank Aaron became stars in Robinson’s wake. We get to watch Willie Mays make “The Catch,” a play that seemed impossible until he pulled it off.
The other unfortunate events, besides the end of the Negro Leagues, that we see during this decade involved the move of the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Giants to the west coast. In the case of the Dodgers, the move took place in 1957, not long after the team finally managed to win a World Series, which made the move all the more heartbreaking for its fans. The Dodgers’ last ever World Series in 1956 saw them lose to the Yankees in a Series that involved Don Larsen’s perfect game. These moves were great news for Californians, of course, but Dodgers and Giants fans left behind in New York found themselves at a loss. Brooklyn and the Giants weren’t the only teams that moved during this period. The Philadelphia A’s moved to Kansas City, and the St. Louis Browns became the Baltimore Orioles.
The subtitle for this Inning, “The Capital of Baseball,” proved itself undeniably fitting. We love to think of baseball as a game and a pastime, but in the case of professional leagues especially, it is first and foremost a business. Bill Veeck’s promotional stunt of sending Eddie Gaedel to the plate is one of many displays of the importance of commercialism in baseball. It makes for a hard reality check when your league is forced to fold or your favorite team moves to an entirely new city, and in the present day, we experience a number of miniature heartbreaks any time an impactful player becomes a free agent and moves on to other teams.
After I hit a home run I had a habit of running the bases with my head down. I figured the pitcher already felt bad enough without me showing him up rounding the bases.
~ Mickey Mantle
Sure I played, did you think I was born at the age of 70 sitting in a dugout trying to manage guys like you?
~Casey Stengel, talking to Mickey Mantle
Mickey Mantle is one of those players that everybody wants to love, and yet is becomes so hard to look past his lifestyle and how it affected his on-field performance. This piece does a great job of capturing that sense, where, as a reader, you really want to feel sympathy for Mantle, but you can’t quite let the other stuff go.
This poem was published in Spitball magazine in October 2014.
Leaving Oklahoma, Mantle
Corn fed and country handsome,
Listened to his daddy and
After he died young, carried
On conversations with him
In the Yankee center field.
Mickey looked up at what stars
He could see, and there was Mutt
Telling him to move in some,
To always hit the cutoff,
But when the game was over,
Mick was all alone with his
Mates, the women, the party,
Walking Manhattan sidewalks,
The latest girlfriend on
His arm, as he drunkenly scanned
The empty meaningless sky.
For the last few weeks, I spent my commutes to and from work, as well as my time in the car running errands and driving back and forth to Kansas City, listening to an audiobook: Mickey and Willie: Mantle and Mays, the Parallel Lives of Baseball’s Golden Age by Allen Barra. For some reason, it never occurred to me to consider the two men simultaneously. I suppose that it didn’t fully click that they played Major League Baseball at the same time (funny how clueless I can be about something that I usually feel I know so well!). But I am glad to have come across this biographical study of how the lives and careers of Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays paralleled each other in so many ways.
In spite of the fact that their backgrounds differed so greatly, Mantle and Mays were virtually the same age, practically the same size (though Mantle was slightly bigger), and they both arrived in New York at the same time. Both played center field and both had close relationships with their dominant fathers as they grew up in the South.
They even paralleled one another in the ways that they differed. Mantle was white, Mays was black. Mickey drank heavily, while Willie couldn’t stand alcohol. Mickey stayed married to one woman, but was a notorious womanizer. Meanwhile, Willie Mays married twice, but if there were any extramarital affairs, he kept them private.
The biggest thing these men shared in common was their celebrity and the expectations that came with that fame. Both players experienced the fickleness of celebrity, being cheered one moment and booed in the next. Each had a song written about him (“Say Hey (The Willie Mays Song)” and “I Love Mickey”). When Mantle was rejected for military service, fans turned on him for being a draft dodger. When the Giants moved from New York to San Francisco, Willie Mays was booed for not being Joe DiMaggio and, likely, for being black.
The question of who was the better player comes up frequently in the book. The answer Barra seems to hint at appears to indicate that it was Willie Mays, though Mickey Mantle would’ve had the title if only he would have taken better care of himself. Mantle himself publicly conceded that Mays was the better player. Mays, evidently the more prideful of the two, hated the idea of anyone being considered better than himself.
Barra puts his own personal touch into the book as well. He discusses his own idolization of Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays. He even admits that, the older he became and the more he learned about the two ballplayers, the more disillusioned he became. Even in spite of this, he continued to admire them, accepting the fact that, in spite of their greatness on the diamond, Mantle and Mays were only men, after all.
All in all, I found this book a worthwhile read (or, in my case, a worthwhile listen). The reader gets biographies of two players simultaneously, and it is done in a fashion that presents a perspective not usually found in biographies.
It’s unbelievable how much you don’t know about the game you’ve been playing all your life.