McLain, Mantle, and Grooving One In

Manny’s back in the news this week, and with him, a whole mess of sanctimony about how he is an example of all that is bad with baseball and how he should not have been allowed to play in the minor leagues during his suspension, let alone return to the majors. I have to admit, the endless discussion about the Manny issue (and the meta-discussion about the discussion of the Manny issue) can be rather tiring. Still, it reminded me of a story that I meant to bring up a little while ago, so I thought I’d tell it now. I’m not breaking any ground here by telling this story – it’s been told for 40 years now – but I think it’s one that might need to be revisited since it deals with the unwritten rules of baseball and the competitive spirit that we’re told is such an important part of the sport.

On September 19, 1968, Mickey Mantle started at first base in the Yankees 155th game of the year. He was sitting on 534 career home runs, tied for third all time with Jimmie Foxx. With only a week left in the season (and in his career), Mantle was itching to get that next home run so he could move into sole possession of third place behind only Ruth and Mays. His last home run was nearly a month earlier, on August 22, and the pressure was starting to get to him.

That day, Mantle and the Yankees were facing Tigers’ ace Denny McLain, who, in his last start, had become the first pitcher since 1934 to win 30 games. In his first three at-bats, Mantle singled and walked twice, but, by the time he came up again in the 8th inning, the Yankees were losing 6-1. This is how Time magazine described the next at-bat a week later:

Who says pitchers are heartless? Not Yankee Slugger Mickey Mantle. It was the top of the eighth one day last week, and Detroit Tiger Ace Denny McLain was coasting to his 31st victory on a five-run lead. Up stepped Mantle for perhaps his last time at bat in Tiger Stadium. Mickey took a called strike, fouled off two more pitches, and then signaled with his bat for Denny to put the ball belt-high, where he likes it. Denny served it up, and Mick lined the ball into the upper deck for his 535th home run. As he rounded the bases, he moved past Jimmy Foxx into third place in the alltime homer derby, behind Babe Ruth (714) and Willie Mays (585). “Be sure to tell Denny thanks,” said Mantle afterward. “Thanks for what?” asked McLain when he got the message. Then he grinned broadly and added: “I make mistakes all the time.”

A better description might be found in this UPI report from the next day:

Mickey Mantle got his pitch en route to another career milestone – 535 home runs – but Denny McLain, who served up the pitch, got the victory, his 31st, and gained a new fan.

“McLain has made a fan of me for life,” exclaimed Mantle affter the game which New York lost to Detroit 6-2. The home run moved the powerful switch hitter into sole possession of third place on the all-time homer list. It came on his last time at bat, in the eighth inning Thursday.

As Mickey stepped up to for his last trip to the plate at Tiger Stadium this year and possibly forever, the crowd of 9,063 gave him a standing ovation.

Mantle took two pitches inside, then motioned to the Tiger hurler to get the ball out a little more. The Yankee great got the pitch he wanted and lined his home run into the second deck in right field.

As Mantle rounded third base he looked at McLain, nodded twice and shouted “thanks.”

In this day and age, with Sportscenter and PTI and endless talk radio shows, this type of shenangians would be fodder for weeks. The sanctimony about the integrity of the game and the hallowness of records would be almost endless. But this only happened 40 years ago. The acceptance of such a thing couldn’t be that different than it is today, right?

From Arthur Daley’s “Sports of the Times” column in the New York Times the next week:

Despite weak denials to the contrary, everyone assumes that Denny McLain, a hero-worshipper at heart, fed a nice, fat pitch to his boyhood idol, Mickey Mantle, late in a game at Detroit last Thursday. The Mick gratefully hit it into the seats for the home run that lifted him past Jimmy Foxx to third place behind Babe Ruth and Willie Mays in the career list. Therupon McLain put aside all generous impulses and stopped the Yankees for his 31st victory of the year.

It was a romantic gesture that McLain made but the propriety of the move always can be questioned, even though he did get away with it. However, Mantle still had to connect for distance, fat pitch or not. This is not as easy as it sounds. A homer contest was held at the Stadium the other day and every pitch was fat. Yet Mantle propelled only two of 10 fair balls into the stands, while Carl Yastrzemski of the Red Sox contrived to hammer in only one. Three of 20 present rather low percentages.

Daley continues on, bringing up stories about Hall of Famers Dizzy Dean and Al Kaline:

McLain is not the first pitcher ever to groove one for a batter and he certainly will not be the last because ballplayers sometimes give in to sentiment on occasions when the risk is minimal. Even Dizzy Dean had moments when he’d ease up.

If McLain grooved one for Mantle – as he undoubtedly did – one teammate was able to understand and approve. He was Al Kaline, finally in the World Series after 16 seasons of big league ball. But his mind had to go back to his first year with the Tigers, a scared kid of 18 straight from a Baltimore high school. Kaline hit one home run in his maiden year.

The Helpful Pitcher

Dave Hoskins was pitching for the Indians that day. Like everyone else in the league, he took an instant like to this clean-cut boy with the stamp of future greatness already on him. Cleveland had a safe lead as Hoskins squared off on the mound against Kaline in the batter’s box. The pitcher smiled reassuringly.

“Here, kid,” he said as he prepared to serve up the ball. “Go ahead and hit it.”

The pitch was fat. Kaline blasted in into the stands for the first of about 300-odd home runs. But he still had to hit it just as Mantle did.

He wraps up his defense of the play:

What saved the Mantle-McLain business from awkward embarrassment is that it would have been perfectly dreadful if the gift homer had lifted Mickey past Foxx and if he never hit another before retiring. But the Mick hit No. 536 a few days later and that took the curse off the operation.

It’s analogous to Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak. The Yankee Clipper came up with some fluke hits but not one was vital to the streak. Every game that had a debatable hit also contained an unquestionable smasher, often a home run.

From the standpoint of propriety, McLain acted unwisely but it was such a human touch that he can readily be forgiven for his beau geste.

So, because Mantle hit another, more legitimate home run the next day, then we shouldn’t care that McLain gift-wrapped #535 for the Mick? Or is it because Mantle still had to have the strength, timing, and hand-eye coordination to put the bat on the ball and push it into the seats? Either way, it’s pretty clear that Mantle & McLain were forgiven, at least by the Times. And this isn’t from some hack writer. Daley won a Pulitzer for his “Sports of the Times” column in 1956, only twelve years earlier.

Being forty years removed from the event, it’s hard to say for sure if this was the prevailing sentiment at the time. As more newspapers get archived online, this might change, but right now I’m only able to find so much. Maybe we’re looking at the 1968 equivalent of a Bill Plaschke or Jay Mariotti column, but I somehow doubt it. A featured column by a Pulitzer Prize-winning sportswriter is hardly the place for one to excuse away the deeds of a superstar in the face of public opinion.

I guess the question we have to ask ourselves is whether these kinds of shenanigans – or, if you prefer, this kind of cheating – is something to get upset about and, if it is, how far should we go to punish/correct it? Or, if it isn’t worth getting upset about, then where do we draw the line for what’s “acceptable” and what’s “outrageous”?

People are going to assume that I’m making some sort of statement about steroids with this piece – and, I admit, that does contribute to my motivation – but I’m not actually making a judgment. I just think that people need to fully explore this whole realm of “rule-bending” before they decide on where they settle in the debate. Hopefully, revisiting this story might help people down that path.

Larry Granillo

About Larry Granillo

Larry Granillo has been writing Wezen Ball since 2008 and has dealt with such touchy topics as Charlie Brown's baseball stats and Ferris Bueller's day off. In 2010, he got the bright idea to time every home run trot in baseball; he has been missing ever since.