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Scott Ostler

Dale Mitchell Watched Big One Go By

January 07, 1987|SCOTT OSTLER

The most infamous Lookie Lou in baseball history went down for good this week, dead of a heart attack at age 65.

Dale Mitchell.

Never heard that name? Better bone up on your history, son. Not trivia. History.

In the fifth game of the 1956 World Series, two out in the top of the ninth, Dale Mitchell struck out. Took a called third strike, allegedly on the outside corner. The strikeout gave Yankee pitcher Don Larsen the only perfect game in World Series history.

Funny how these things happen.

Larsen was a comic-book reader, a drinker and chaser, a player whose baseball achievements can be pretty much summed up by one afternoon's box score. He will forever be a hero.

Mitchell was a college educated family man, a solid veteran with career statistics that should rate him at least passing Hall of Fame consideration. He will forever be a goat.

I don't know if Mitchell spent the last 30 years of his life trying to lose the memory of that Oct. 8 afternoon in Yankee Stadium. He never played baseball again. He became a successful oil executive in Oklahoma, raised a family, was strong in the community, was apparently able to joke about the strikeout.

But when a representative of NBC's "Today Show" phoned Mitchell last fall and asked him to do a let's-reminisce show with Larsen and Yankee catcher Yogi Berra, Mitchell didn't think twice.

"I ain't flying 2,000 miles to talk about striking out," he said to the network caller, then hung up.

Surely Mitchell had relived the moment enough. On his mind's instant replay machine, he must have watched that last pitch a million times. During business meetings, fishing trips, every October, that scene must have cued itself up in his head. And every time, he stood and watched the pitch drift over the outer edges of the strike zone.

Maybe I'm wrong, but I have a hunch if a rep from an even higher source had ever come to Mitchell and offered him another chance at that outside fastball, in return for all the money he ever made and all the baseball glory he ever achieved, Dale would have started to limber up.

Folks in Oklahoma were probably kind to him. Some of them, at least, must have remembered the 1946 baseball season when Mitchell hit .507 at the University of Oklahoma, then led the Texas League in batting, then finished the season in the big leagues with the Cleveland Indians, batting .432 in 11 games.

They must have remembered, some of them, that Mitchell had a great decade in Cleveland, hitting .312, batting leadoff and playing a strong left field on teams that went to two World Series. But I wonder how many hundred people he met who, when they heard his name, said, "Say, aren't you the guy."

Hobbled by a bad knee, Mitchell was traded to the Dodgers near the end of the '56 season as pinch-hitting pennant insurance.

On Oct. 8, the Dodger manager, Walt Alston, nodded to Mitchell to pinch-hit for pitcher Sal Maglie. The Yankees led, 2-0. The first 26 Dodgers had gone down in order. But with a base hit here, the Dodgers were still alive.

You had to like Mitchell's chances. In more than 4,000 at-bats, he had struck out only 107 times. He was a line-drive hitter. He had faced pressure World Series situations before.

Larsen will tell you he was scared. Standing on the mound waiting for Mitchell to step into the box, Larsen was almost numb with fear and his knees were shaking.

Larsen threw a ball, then a called strike. Then Mitchell swung and missed, then fouled off a pitch. The next pitch was a fastball. Mitchell looked. Umpire Babe Pinelli, working the last game of his 22-year career, called it a strike.

For the next 30 years, Mitchell swore that the pitch was high and outside.

At a banquet that off-season in Oklahoma, a sportswriter friend caught Mitchell's eye from across the room, and Mitchell yelled out: "It was a ball!"

Bob Lemon, the Yankee scout and former manager, was a teammate of Mitchell's in Cleveland. He remembers Mitchell as a soft-spoken man who "who never stirred anything up."

Not until Oct. 8, 1956. Lemon discussed the strikeout with Mitchell on more than one occasion.

"He always said it was a bad ball," Lemon said Tuesday. "I said, 'Hell, you thrived on that. You'd hack at anything .' He'd tell me, 'Lem, I couldn't reach it. I'd've swung at anything I could reach.' He never was one to take a pitch. He'd be up there whackin'."

Except for once. Too bad--isn't it, Lem--that Mitchell had that nice career, but he's remembered for one swing he didn't make.

"Too bad," Lemon said. "But that's what happens. It was a tough spot, though. To pinch-hit then, go up there with a cold jock."

After the strikeout, Yogi Berra leaped into Larsen's arms, making for one of baseball's most historic photos. Mitchell instinctively wheeled in the batter's box to protest the call, but Pinelli was already walking away.

The cameras didn't focus on Mitchell. There are no shots of him slumped in the dugout or walking briskly out of the stadium later.

It's almost as if, with that last pitch, he ceased to exist.

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