Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Headline: Mickey's in a Slump ! (60 Years Ago, 1956)

As the Yankees began play on June 9, 1956, their lead over the second-place Cleveland Indians—the team considered the most likely to compete with them for the American League pennant—was down to 3½ games. They were shutout by the visiting Indians the previous day, 9-0, behind the 5-hit pitching of their ace, Early Wynn. The first of those five hits was a double by Mickey Mantle, who went hitless in his next three at bats to bring his batting average down to an even .400. The Mick was in a slump.

Headline: Mickey's in a Slump ! (60 Years Ago, 1956)

 In singing Mantle's praises in its preview of the 1956 season, Sports Illustrated wrote: "Mantle is so good, they say he has a disappointing season if he doesn't hit .400." That was hyperbole, perhaps, but the point was well taken. After five big-league seasons, and having led the American League in home runs in 1955 with 37 to go along with 99 runs batted in and a .306 average, Mantle was poised for a tremendous year.

Except, maybe they were really serious about the .400 part. On May 9, after going 3-for-4 in a 6-5 Yankee loss to the Indians, Mantle was batting .446. It was 20 games into the season. Mantle had played in every game. He had gone hitless in just three and been on base in all but one. He had multi-hit games in twelve. And in addition to his .446 batting average, the Mick also had 10 home runs and 24 RBIs in the 20 games. Nobody could get the guy out.

Batting third in Casey Stengel's line-up, Mantle was certainly helped by the protection of Yogi Berra hitting behind him in the clean-up spot. Berra, having also played all 20 games, was batting .351 with 9 homers and 23 RBIs. Pitchers, pick your poison. Undoubtedly worried about the three-time MVP Berra coming up next, Mantle had walked just 12 times as of May 20, and none were intentional walks. 

One month and 29 games later, Mantle was batting a mere .400. Berra, a model of consistency, had seen his average dip to .330, but it was now back to .351. Opposing teams were now definitely pitching more carefully to Mantle. After going 1-for-4 against Wynn in the first game of the series on June 8, Mantle's average since May 9 was .373—certainly excellent for anyone else, but maybe not for the player who SI said would "have a disappointing season if he doesn't hit .400." (Hey, they were just kidding ! Kind of.)

Some slump, if we must call it that. He had failed to get a hit in only five of the Yankees' 29 games since May 9, and he had played in them all. Mantle had hit 11 more home runs, bringing his total to 21 in the Yankees' first 49 games, and he had driven in 28 runs, so now he had 52 RBIs.

There's a reason why .400 is such rarefied air. It's harder to do than to climb the highest Himalayan mountains (not to demean the difficulty and magnitude of that achievement). 

After walking in his first at bat against Cleveland starter Mike Garcia at Yankee Stadium on June 9, Mantle led off the bottom of the third off reliever Don Mossi with a single up the middle. The Yankees were already ahead, 4-0, and he soon came around to score on a 2-RBI single by Bob Cerv. That hit brought his batting average up to .403. The next inning, still facing Mossi, Mantle grounded into a fielder's choice. His average was now .401. 

That would be the last time in what was becoming—and would forever be—the epic Mickey Mantle season, that the Mick's batting average was over .400 for the season. While the Indians came roaring back to win the game, 15-8, starting with rookie Rocky Colavito's two-run homer in the fourth (the fifth of his career), Mantle flied out in the sixth with a runner on first and the Yankees' holding onto a now-slim 8-7 lead. He was now just a shade below .400 at .399. In the last of the 8th, the Mick popped out to the shortstop, making him 1-for-4 on the day and bringing his average down to .397.

The Yankees' loss reduced their lead over the Indians to 2½ games. Their record was now 31-19a .620 winning percentagewith 50 games down and 104 to go. They played even better with a .635 winning percentage the rest of the way, 6½ games better than Cleveland. 

As for Mickey Mantle, he batted .327 the rest of the season with 31 more home runs and 78 RBIs. When all was said and done for 1956, Mickey Mantle had won the Triple Crown with a .353 average, 52 homers, and 130 runs batted in. 

But he didn't hit .400. 


1 comment:

  1. Mantle wasn't helped by Yogi Berra's "protection". Numerous studies have examined this issue and found there is no such effect.