Ever since I can remember, the big talk in baseball going back to when Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays broke into the game in the same season was who was better? Constantly compared throughout the next two decades, they were two distinct players, but they also had a slew of similarities. In addition, they had unique and noteworthy entrances into the majors--different, yet similar.
Both players were born in 1931: Mantle in Spavinaw, Oklahoma, Willie in Westfield, Alabama. Both fathers had the burning ambition to see their sons play pro baseball. Mantle’s father, Mutt, toiled in the dangerous and unhealthy lead and zinc mines by day. After the whistle blew, he would then work with his son until sundown on the finer points of the grand old game, especially switch-hitting. The last thing Mutt wanted was his son spending the rest of his life as an underground miner. Willie’s dad, Willie Sr., played semi-pro ball in the heavily competitive Negro industrial leagues of the Deep South. In this environment, the younger Willie grew up watching--hanging around the dugout--eventually advancing to playing alongside his dad and his black teammates.
Mantle and Mays were teenage sensations fast-tracked to the majors. Mantle jumped from C ball in Joplin, Missouri to the parent New York Yankees in early 1951. A few weeks into the same season, Mays left the AAA American Association Minneapolis Millers for the New York Giants. The two were destined to meet that October.
In spring training, Mantle astounded the Yankee staff with his foot speed running the bases, a reported 3.0 seconds to first from the left side and 3.1 seconds from the right side. They had never seen any prospect that fast. His hard, on-the-money throws from the outfield were equally astonishing. Said fellow-rookie teammate Gil McDougald: “It was like watching a young, blond god.”
Then, the switch-hitting, 19-year-old Mantle put on a clinic during an exhibition game against the University of Southern California Trojans in Los Angeles on March 6, 1951 where he crushed two long home runs hitting left-handed, one measuring 656 feet in the air before it landed well beyond the right-center field fence, the other an opposite-field shot that soared across the street before descending to earth in a backyard 500 feet from home plate. On the day, the mighty Mantle went 4-for-5, with two homers, a single, a bases-loaded triple and seven RBIs.
On a roll, Mantle opened the season crushing every ball in sight. That is until the American League pitchers found his weaknesses and starting striking him out with high fastballs and outside breaking curves. Sent down to the minors in Kansas City for fanning far too often--and obliterating a water cooler or two--the unpolished Mantle continued in his woes at the plate by swinging at bad pitches, until he was ready to quit and go home to the mines.
Frustrated and in tears, he called his father, Mutt, who drove six hours from Oklahoma to Mantle’s hotel room in Kansas City to tell his son in person and in no uncertain terms to smarten up and be a man. An hour or so later in the hotel restaurant, Mutt told his boy, “Everyone has slumps; even Joe DiMaggio. It’ll come together for yuh.” A renewed Mantle returned to Kansas City Blues lineup. Two days later in Toledo, he hit for the cycle, two of those hits being homers over the right-field light tower. All told, in the 40 games spent with Kansas City, Mantle hit a blistering .361 with nine doubles, three triples, 11 homers, 50 RBIs and a .651 slugging average. After that, he was recalled to the Yankees for good.
Thirty-five games into the Minneapolis Millers schedule (in the same Triple A American Association as Mantle), Mays got his call to the majors via Giants’ manager Leo Durocher on May 24, 1951. The to-the-point long distance telephone conversation went something like this…
Durocher: “Willie, I need you in New York. I want you to play center field for me.”
Mays: “I don’t know if I can hit major league pitching.”
Durocher: “What are you hitting now?”
Durocher: “You think you can hit half that in the majors?”
Mays: “Yeah, I think so.”
Durocher: “Okay, then. What are you waiting for? Get the hell over here!”
Mays went oh-for-12 in his first major league at bats before blasting a home run over the left-field roof of New York’s Polo Grounds off pitching great Warren Spahn. After the game, Spahn was asked by reporters what happened, to which he replied, “For the first 60 feet that was one helluva pitch.” Years later, in retrospect, he said, “I’ll never forgive myself. We might have gotten rid of Willie forever if I’d only struck him out!”
But before that pitch, Willie had his freshman troubles too: Only at the plate, and not the field. After a one-for-25 start to his rookie season, he burst into tears in the near-empty Giant clubhouse. Durocher was quickly summoned by a coach where another player-manager conversation between the two occurred…
Durocher: “What’s the matter, Willie?”
Mays: “Mr. Leo, I can’t buy me a hit. I’m letting you, the team, and the fans down.”
Durocher: “Lookit, Willie. I don’t care if you don’t get a hit for the rest of the year. You’re my center fielder now and will be for the rest of the year. Now, quit you’re balling and get back out there tomorrow!”
Like Mantle, Mays recovered. He went on to take the National League Rookie-of-the-Year Award by season’s end. In 121 games, he hit .274 with 22 doubles, five triples, 20 homers and 68 RBIs. He also used his speed to steal seven bases. Learning to take a walk instead of swinging at bad pitches, Mantle finished 1951 by playing in 96 games, hitting a decent .267 with 13 homers, 65 RBIs, and stealing eight bases. Defensively, Mays threw out 13 base runners. Mantle nailed eight runners, while playing almost exclusively in right field. The following year, with center fielder Joe DiMaggio retired, Mantle switched to center.
That fall, the New York Giants and New York Yankees met in the World Series. In the fifth inning of Game 2 at Yankee Stadium, Mays--wouldn’t you know it--hit a high fly to right-center. Mantle, playing his usual right field, ran towards the ball, but was called off by DiMaggio who had it all the way. Out of respect for his veteran teammate, Mantle ground to a halt, but as he did that his cleat caught an open drainpipe used for the sprinkler system, thus tearing his right knee to shreds and leaving him with knee problems for the rest of his career.
Passing their 1951 initiation season was only the beginning for Mays and Mantle. The Hall of Fame was dead-ahead for the two hard-hitting center fielder icons. Their achievements are as follows:
--18 seasons (1951-1968), all with the Yankees
--lifetime: 536 homers, .298 batting average, 1509 RBIs
--excellent career walk/strikeout ratio for a power hitter: 1734/1710
--16 All-Star Games
--12 pennant winners, seven World Series championships
--Triple Crown winner in 1956 (52 homers, 130 RBIs, .353 BA), along with a league-leading .705 SA
--four-time AL home run leader
--hit 50 homers twice, including 54 in 1961, the same year Roger Maris hit his coveted 61
--hit .300 ten times
--AL MVP three times, two other near misses (both taken by teammate Roger Maris in 1960 and 1961)
--hit numerous tape-measure shots, including three over the right-field roof of Detroit’s Briggs Stadium, and two high-arching blasts within mere feet from exiting Yankee Stadium
--In 65 World Series games, he hit 18 homers, 40 RBIs, and 26 extra-base hits
--rated #17 on the 1999 Sporting News List of 100 Greatest Baseball Players
--His #7 uniform retired in 1969
--1974 Hall of Fame member on the first ballot with 88.2% of the vote
--22 seasons (1951-1973) with the New York Giants, San Francisco Giants, and New York Mets
--12 Glove Gloves, all consecutively from 1957-1968
--24 All-Star Game appearances
--eight consecutive 100-RBI seasons
--two NL MVPs
--hit 50 homers twice
--NL batting champ in 1954
--classic catch off Cleveland’s Vic Wertz’s long fly in the first game of 1954 World Series that stunned those who saw it. Now known as “The Catch”
--four-time NL homer king
--hit .300 ten times
--hit four homers in one game in 1961
--lifetime: 660 homers, 3283 hits, 1903 RBIs, 338 stolen bases, .302 batting average
--on four pennant winners and one World Championship
--his #24 uniform retired by the San Francisco Giants in 1972
--Hall of Fame member in his first year of eligibility in 1979 with 94.7% of the vote
--rated #2 on the 1999 Sporting News List of 100 Greatest Baseball Players
So, Mickey or Willie, who was the best? What do you like, apples or oranges? Let’s just say they were both great.