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The home run that launched the myth of Mickey Mantle

Sixty years ago in an exhibition game against USC, a young Mickey Mantle hit a home run that became baseball legend and spawned a mystery: Just how far did it go?

March 25, 2011|By Baxter Holmes
  • Mickey Mantle, shown here in 1961, was league MVP three times.
Mickey Mantle, shown here in 1961, was league MVP three times. (Associated Press )

It was the first inning, one runner aboard, the count at two balls and two strikes, and Tom Lovrich stared down the 19-year-old rookie batter.

USC's junior ace didn't know much about him, except that he more than filled out his gray New York Yankees uniform.

"He was a strong, country kid from Oklahoma," Lovrich said, recalling the legendary at-bat that took place 60 years ago Saturday. "Very strong."

Lovrich figured the rookie would chase something low and away for strike three, so the 6-foot-5 right-hander known as "Tall Tom" began his sidearm windup and fired.

His head sank as soon he heard the devastating crack of the wooden bat.

"My God," said USC second baseman Stan Charnofsky, watching the ball scream over the wire fence in right-center field. "Look at that."

USC's football practice field ran adjacent to Bovard Field. The ball bounced at midfield and rolled into a huddle.

"Who the hell hit that?" one player asked.

And as they walked off the field, their spring practice complete, another football player learned the answer to that question and told the others.

"Some kid named Mickey Mantle."

Introducing himself

The black-and-white clip is grainy, but the narrator's voice is sharp and upbeat:

"It's big league baseball on Bovard Field as the Trojans become the first college team ever to host a world champion," he begins. "The guests of the day: the New York Yankees."

The myth of Mantle and the legend of "The Mick" began at USC that day.

The Yankees visited as a favor to USC Coach Rod Dedeaux, who played for Yankees Manager Casey Stengel when Stengel managed the Brooklyn Dodgers. Dedeaux also had three former players who were Yankees rookies.

The afternoon game was the finale in the Yankees' rare, 13-game spring-training swing in California. They drew huge crowds at every stop — about 140,000 fans in all, according to The Times' account — and extra seating had been erected at Bovard to increase capacity to 3,000.

The 1-minute 13-second newsreel clip from the 1951 Trojan Review shows at least that many.

They sat shoulder-to-shoulder, men in collared shirts and women in full skirts. Many wide-eyed students leaned over railings.

Some came to see the big names, catcher Yogi Berra, shortstop Phil Rizzuto and center fielder Joe DiMaggio. The trio of stars were on the cover of the game scorecard, just below a large illustration of Stengel's face.

But there was also plenty of curiosity about the player being groomed to fill DiMaggio's shoes, a 5-foot-11, 185-pounder who made the uncommon leap to the Yankees from Class C baseball in Joplin, Mo.

Mantle had yet to take an official major league swing, but he had astonished fans all spring, hitting one tape-measure home run after another, going from unknown to boy wonder with every awesome drive.

"Even the players gathered when he took batting practices every day, and they were as awed as the people in the seats," author David Halberstam wrote in the book "October 1964."

Mantle didn't disappoint against the Trojans, going four for five with a single, a triple, two home runs and seven runs batted in.

"Mickey Mantle practically dismantled the Trojans all by himself," The Times' story began the next morning, under the headline "Yankees Dismantle Troy in 15-1 Rout."

"The greatest show in history," Dedeaux later said.

Jane Leavy, in her book about Mantle titled "The Last Boy," called it "the day Mantle announced himself to the world."

He did it with that first-inning drive that might have been the longest home run of his career.

'We'll see what happens'

In the Yankees' dugout before the game, Rizzuto, the 1950 American League MVP, called down the bench to Mantle.

"Hey, rook," Rizzuto said, "I've got someone down here about your age."

Mantle came over and plopped down next to Justin Dedeaux. Rod's 7-year-old son was USC's bat boy.

The two joked around, but Justin didn't know a thing about Mantle and was really waiting to to see his favorite player, DiMaggio.

And when DiMaggio emerged from the building where the Yankees dressed, Justin trembled. "It was like God, God himself, walked out," he recalled.

Mantle, the son of a coal miner, was far from that, looking more like one of USC's players with his blond hair and boyish smile.

But physically he was stocky, broad through the chest with thick arms and legs. He was built more like a running back than an outfielder.

"Everything about him looked powerful," said Dave Rankin, then a sophomore reliever for USC.

Rod Dedeaux didn't tell his pitchers much except that Mantle could hit for power.

"So he said what he said about every power hitter," Rankin remembered. "'Keep the ball down, and we'll see what happens.'"

Nothing worked. Both of Mantle's two-run home runs — one from each side of the plate — traveled at least 500 feet, according to legend.

The longer of the two was Mantle's first, and it came on a pitch about eight inches off the ground, Lovrich said.

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