Marty Marion, the unexcitable manager of the Chicago White Sox, described a homer Mantle had hit against the Sox with two out in the ninth to tie a game the Yankees eventually won. "It went way up there," Marty said, with a wry little grin, pointing to the far reaches of the upper stands in deep right-center field. "Way up there. He swung just as easy and whup! It was gone. Way up there. I never saw anything like it."
As for the nonprofessional, there is no question that Mantle is the new excitement, the new Ruth. Like Ruth, he is known to those who don't know baseball, magically, the way Ruth was. A 7-year-old boy, just on the edge of interest in baseball and in bed getting over the measles, watched part of a Yankee game on television. Later he was not quite sure what teams had been playing and he wasn't positive of the score, but when he was asked if he had seen Mickey Mantle bat, his red-speckled face lit up and he said, excitedly, "He hit a big one!"
Of course, Mantle wasn't the only one to hit "big ones" in this year of the slugger. Some said the 1956 version of the lively ball (see box next page) was responsible for the increasingly bullish market in home runs. Others gave credit (or blame) to the growing popularity of the slender-handled willow-wand bat, which bends like a reed when swung hard and breaks easily but which combines concentrated mass and blinding velocity much the way a golf club does. Mantle uses a 32-ounce bat when he hits left handed, 10 ounces lighter than the bat Ruth used.
Whatever the reason, 19 players had hit 10 or more home runs by June 11, an unprecedented number. But Mantle towered above this forest of hitters both for quality and quantity of his home runs. By June 11 only Ruth had hit more home runs up to that point in a season (see box opposite page).
Most of the managers in the American League marveled at Mantle's strength and hoped that the heat of summer and the law of averages would slow him down. Lou Boudreau of the Kansas City Athletics turned to more immediate and dramatic means. Boudreau is an eminently practical man who said sorrowfully of the lively ball that, while other teams must be hitting it, no one ever seemed to throw it to his batters. When the Athletics came into Yankee Stadium a week ago Boudreau carried with him a sheet of paper on which was scribbled a baseball diamond and nine Xs.
When Mantle came to bat in the first inning with two out and the bases empty the Athletics in the field deployed to points approximating the Xs on Boudreau's map. The effect was slightly sensational. It was the Boudreau Shift, with radical variations that included a left fielder playing an extremely deep third base and a third baseman playing a shallow center field. Everyone remembered at once that it was Boudreau, then manager of the Cleveland Indians, who devised the shift in 1946 to stop Ted Williams, and that Manager Eddie Dyer of the St. Louis Cardinals used it in the World Series that year to smother Williams' bat—five singles in 25 at bats in seven games.
But Williams was a slow runner and an unreconstructed right-field pull hitter, whereas Mantle is a switch hitter who knocks the ball well to all fields whether he's batting left handed or right handed. More than that, Mantle is a superb bunter and the fastest man in baseball down to first base.
Everyone waited for Mickey to bunt the Athletics blind, but the pitcher, the erratic Lou Kretlow, had sufficient control of his rising fast ball that night to keep it high and close, with the result that Mantle fouled off all three of the bunts he attempted. He struck out twice (though later in the game, with a man on base and the shift off, he hit a home run) and the next day struck out once more. In the three games against Kansas City he had four base hits in 13 times at bat, which isn't bad: a .308 batting average. But, truth to tell, the shift seemed to affect Mantle's poise at the plate.
TO FAN OR NOT TO FAN
The strikeouts were a symptom. Mantle's greatest problem in his first five years in the majors was a tendency to strike out. This year in spring training he restrained his need to crush the ball with his bat every time he swung, and he struck out only once in the exhibition season. This restraint, applied in the regular season, did not keep his strikeout total quite so dramatically low but it did increase his control of the bat, his ability to meet the ball and, therefore, his domination over the pitcher. Meeting the ball gave him a lot more line-drive base hits and a batting average that has scorched along near or above .400 all season, and his natural strength sent more of those base hits over the outfield barriers than ever before.