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Whether or not it was the real or psychological effect of the shift, Mantle's home run pace slowed abruptly in the first week of June. About the shift, Yankee General Manager George Weiss voiced a remark which was something less than a compliment to Mickey's still-maturing self-discipline: "It got him thinking, and that's bad."
"Here's a man can bunt and run down to first base," Stengel said. "If he bunts 10 times he'll get on base five and that's a .500 average. If he hits he'll hit as many home runs as he would anyway because there isn't anyone in the world can catch a ball in the upper stands or the lower stands. Those guys out in left field and right field may catch a couple of long balls, but we have no one on base and we wouldn't score a run anyway and if he bunts who's up next? Berra. Am I right?"
But it seemed to gnaw on Stengel. Here was Mantle, for the first time in his career quietly confident in his own ability, poised and sure of himself, and here was that damned shift and the possibility that Mantle might start to press thinking about it. George Weiss stayed a little worried, too. "I think he ought to just stand up there and hit," George suggested. "Just forget about the shift."
Mantle, while sloughing off from his rapid-fire home run pace, had no cause to worry, not yet, at any rate. All the great home run hitters produced their homers at an uneven tempo. All had one brilliant run (remarkably similar to Mantle's burst of 20 in 41 games), a good secondary cluster (which Mantle, hopefully, will have, too) and a series of dry spells. Jimmy Foxx, who at 24 (Mantle's age) hit 58 home runs in 1932, had one long good surge in May and June (22 in 44 games) and a long lukewarm period in midsummer. But twice he went through 10 straight games without a single homer.
No one was more erratic than Hank Greenberg when he hit 58 in 1938. He went along evenly at first until June 1, when he fell into an abject slump and hit only one home run in the next 16 games. Once that was over he started up like an outboard motor: a sputter of home runs, a brief hesitation, another sputter, another, and then b-r-r-r-r-r-r! through the end of July. He hit 23 home runs in only 38 games, the greatest sustained streak of home run hitting of any of the great sluggers. It ended in a wild crescendo: a home run on July 24, two on July 26, two more on July 27, two more on July 29 and two more on July 30. Then the motor stalled and in the following 17 games Greenberg added just one. In mid-August he came alive again and hit a blistering 20 in the next 40 games. Five days before the end of the season Hank had his 58 home runs. He needed but two more to tie Ruth, three to beat him. What happened? Well, you remember those outboard motors of the '30s. Didn't some of them pick the most frustrating times to konk out?
Ruth himself was erratic. In 1927 he raced through May and into the middle of June, the pace that Mantle has been surpassing. From mid-June until mid-August he slowed down to a comparative crawl. By August 16 the Babe was 29 games behind his pace when he had hit 59 in 1921. But from then to the end of the season Ruth hit homers at an ever-increasing rate. With nine games to play he was still seven shy of 60. Ruth, ever dramatic, hit the seven, four of them in the last four games.
Some time, maybe, Mantle will have the curiosity to go back some 29 years, to a day of grandeur such as he may live to enjoy himself. If so, this is what he will read in the New York Times of October 1, 1927:
" Babe Ruth scaled the hitherto un-attained heights yesterday. Home Run 60, a terrific smash off the southpaw pitching of Zachary, nestled in the Babe's favorite spot in the right field bleachers....
"When the Babe stepped to the plate in that momentous eighth inning the score was deadlocked. Koenig was on third base, the result of a triple, one man was out and all was tense. It was the Babe's fourth trip to the plate during the afternoon, a base on balls and two singles resulting on his other visits plateward."