On September 13, 1956, at Kansas City's Municipal Stadium, Mickey Mantle's 3rd inning home run—his 48th of the year—not only proved the margin of victory in the Yankees' 3-2 win over the Athletics, but ended a drought of 10 games and 35 at bats in which he had not hit a home run. With slightly more than two weeks left to the season, he was no longer likely to match, let alone eclipse, Babe Ruth's iconic 60 homers hit in 1927. Meanwhile, both the Cincinnati Redlegs collectively and their spectacular first-year left fielder, Frank Robinson, remained poised to set new single-season records for home runs by a major league team and by a rookie.
Catching Up on the '56 Home Run Chase
(60 Years Ago, September 13, 1956)
(60 Years Ago, September 13, 1956)
It was, of course, inevitable that the best baseball player on the planet in 1956 was bound to hit a wall. He had just 5 hits in those 10 games and went hitless in 6 games. His only extra-base hit was a double, and he had exactly zero—that's "0"—runs batted in. It was not, however, the Mick's first extended long ball drought of the season. From June 22 to July 1, Mantle also went 10 games (and, ultimately, 33 at bats) without going deep, but he did hit .344 with 3 RBIs as the Yankees went 5-5. And from August 15 to 23, he went 9 games without a homer and hit just .121, striking out 10 times in 33 at bats, for the worst stretch of his season. He did drive in 2 runs. The Yankees were 4-5 in those games. Despite those slumps, he was still ahead of Ruth in his quest for 60, or even 61, going into September.
Mantle's 3rd-inning homer off KC's Tom Gorman on September 13 may have ended his latest homerless stretch of games, but it left him with little chance of out-homering the Bambino in a single-season. With the Yankees having played 140 games, they had just 14 remaining in which Mantle, now with 48 homers, would have needed 12 more just to tie the Babe with 60. Through the Yankees' first 140 games in 1927, Ruth had hit 52. It wasn't impossible for Mantle—just nearly so.
Even so, Mickey Mantle was still the Triple Crown leader in the American League. Besides having hit by far the most homers in baseball, his 119 RBIs were the most, and nobody had a higher qualifying batting average than his .353.
The home run record that seemed almost certain to be broken was the 38 for a rookie set by Wally Berger in 1930. Frank Robinson started the month with 35, hit his 36th off the Braves' Lew Burdette in the first game of a September 3 doubleheader; hit his 37th in the 10th inning the next day off Braves' reliever Ernie Johnson to win the game; and his 38th on September 11 off the Giants' Steve Ridzik at the Polo Grounds to tie Berger's rookie record.
Robinson went 1-for-4 against the Pirates in Pittsburgh on September 13, without a home run, but his 9th-inning single off Pirates' relief ace Elroy Face drove in the winning run in another must-win game for Cincinnati. With an 82-58 record, the Reds were 3½ games behind the first-place Braves, and 1½ back of the Dodgers. With 140 games down—(they had actually played 141, one game having ended in a tie because of rain)—and just 14 to go, Cincinnati was running out of time to catch Milwaukee. For Frank Robinson, however, there seemed to be plenty of time for him to send one going-going-gone at least once more to set the new record for home runs by a major league rookie.
While Robinson did not go deep in Cincinnati's victory over Pittsburgh, George Crowe, pinch hitting, did. It was the 202nd home run of the year for the Redlegs in 141 games. The 1947 Giants, whose team record of 221 was in sight, had 204 through their first 141 games (also one of which had ended in a tie, same as for the '56 Reds), so the Redlegs were now slightly behind the Giants' pace . . . But not by much. They still had 14 games to hit 20 more homers to set a new record—
—And, of course, hopefully win the pennant for the honor of facing Mickey Mantle and the Yankees in the 1956 World Series.