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Yankees Go West in 1951
Greetings from Catalina Island
The '47 Dodgers in Havana
History of the Cactus League
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Yankees Go West in 1951

In the spring of 1951, for the first and only time, the Bronx Bombers went West for Spring Training to get rejuvenated in Arizona and California. And there emerged Mickey Mantle, the youthful star who would not only lead the dynasty to another string of titles but also replace the irreplaceable Joe DiMaggio.

A young fan once heckled Al Kaline for not being "half the player Mickey Mantle is!" The Tigers star replied, "Son, nobody is half the player Mickey Mantle is."

It was in February of 1951 that baseball fans got their first glimpse of the player Mickey Mantle was. Yankees manager Casey Stengel had assembled a camp of some 25 rookies for an instructional school in Phoenix, Ariz. and Mantle quickly became the focus of Stengel's attention. The dynastic Yankees were rarely impulsive about promoting minor leaguers-much less kids from the low minors; but when Casey saw Mantle, he began wondering whether this time the old rules didn't apply. "This kid ain't logical," Stengel complained. "He's too good. It's very confusing."

The awe with which Stengel viewed his new thoroughbred was shared by the press which devoted voluminous ink to chronicle Mantle's arrival on the baseball scene. First the kid was a switch-hitter, which by itself was a rarity. At the time of Mantle's arrival, the American League featured just one regular switch-hitter, Dave Philley of the Athletics. Moreover, switch-hitting was seen as a device employed by hitters who were lacking other weapons. Of the switch-hitters that had preceded Mantle (Frankie Frisch, Red Schoendeinst and Max Carey were the best), nearly all were disdainful of the longball. In 1951, the career leader in home runs by a switch-hitter was Ripper Collins with 135. The idea of tape-measure power from both sides of the plate was enough to get anyone's attention. But Mantle was also the fastest thing on cleats that anyone could remember seeing. The first time Stengel saw Mantle running windsprints with other players at his rookie camp, he couldn't believe his eyes. He had them run again, and then put Mantle against everyone in camp. "My God," Stengel said. "The boy runs faster than Cobb."

Maintaining the Dynasty
At the same time, another player was making preseason headlines. Joe DiMaggio, now 37, spent the winter after the 1950 World Series considering his future and on March 2 revealed that he expected '51 to be his last season. The Yankees front office was stunned by the announcement, but the disbelieving press reported, hopefully, that DiMaggio had left a loophole with his promise of a definitive statement at the end of the year. Surely, the Clipper would reconsider.

In retrospect, there was an obvious symmetry to the Yankees line of succession: Lou Gehrig had assumed the superstar role after Babe Ruth last wore the pinstripes, DiMaggio's debut came at the end of Gehrig's career, and Mantle, similarly, first appeared in the Bronx in DiMaggio's last season, 1951. But in the desert that spring, few realized that a torch was being passed. DiMaggio couldn't be through; he had just finished blasting 32 homers with 122 RBIs in the 1950 campaign. And besides, Mantle was a shortstop.

When Stengel was chosen to manage the Yanks before the 1949 season, the Bombers were an aging ballclub. Though they had won the World Series in 1947, they finished out of the money in '48 and started poorly in '49. With DiMaggio edging into his twilight years, some wondered if Stengel had been brought in just to give some color to a team in decline.

Instead, the Old Professor patched together two pennants in a row and went west in the spring of 1951 hoping to find a way to keep his tattered troops together for another championship run. None of his starting pitchers (Vic Raschi, Eddie Lopat, Allie Reynolds and Tommy Byrne) was younger than 31. His top reliever, Joe Page, broke down in training camp (he never pitched for the Yankees again) and Old Reliable Tommy Henrich startled the baseball world with the admission that he was three years older than previously thought. He called it quits before the season. DiMaggio was old too, and Johnny Mize was older.

Small wonder, then, that Stengel prevailed upon the Yankees brass to institute a preseason camp just for rookies, giving the club a forum to both train and evaluate the cream of the Yankees farm system. As was usually the case, New York had more minor league teams, 14, than any club in the league. If Stengel were to stay on top, here is where he had to begin.

Yankees Out West
The Bronx Bombers were the preeminent draw in American sports. It didn't hurt that in 1951 they were baseball's reigning champs. Each of baseball's other 15 Major League clubs had their followers, but to most Americans the Yankees and baseball were one and the same. Still, no Yankee team had ever set foot on the West Coast. Spring rites had been performed by Yankee squads in Cuba, Bermuda, Venezuela, Panama, New Orleans, Houston, Savannah and often Florida, but never among the cities of the Cactus League.

The Yankees first started training in Florida in 1919, and except for the interruption of World War II, have trained there ever since. But in 1951, Yankees co-owner Del Webb, a resident of Phoenix, wanted his club to keep him company for a spring in Arizona and also take a tour of the West Coast. Webb arranged a training camp swap with fellow owner Horace Stoneham: the New York Giants joined the Grapefruit League, training in St. Petersburg, Fla., and Stengel's nine headed west to Phoenix.

The new surroundings apparently agreed with both squads as the Giants and Yankees eventually faced off in the 1951 World Series. The Yankees appearance in Arizona, although for just one year, also helped to solidify the Cactus League. The Cubs traveled from their longtime spring home on Catalina Island, Calif., to play an exhibition series with the Yankees in Phoenix. The road trip's success coupled with a spring snow on Catalina prompted the Cubs to relocate their Spring Training facility to Mesa, Ariz., the next year. And they've remained there ever since. When the Orioles moved in to train in Scottsdale, Ariz., in 1956, joining the Giants in Phoenix, the Cubs in Mesa and the Indians in Tucson, the Cactus League could boast four clubs in close proximity and provide convenient exhibition play. The spring circuit in Arizona has not fielded fewer than four squads since.

Perhaps even more excited than Phoenix by the arrival of the New Yorkers in 1951 was California where the Yankees would begin an 11-day barnstorming trip on March 16. The club's two dominant personalities, Stengel and DiMaggio, were Californians. Stengel lived in Glendale and had preceded his tenure with the Yankees by piloting the Oakland Oaks to a PCL championship in 1948. DiMaggio was a San Franciscan and played four years for his hometown Seals before the Yankees bought him in 1936. And San Francisco was a fountain of infielders into which the Yankees had been dipping for years: Frank Crosetti, Tony Lazzari, Jerry Coleman and now Gil McDougald, another rookie getting Stengel's attention in the instructional school.

San Francisco was also the home of 23-year-old Jackie Jensen who, unlike Mantle (who signed for $1,000), had come to the Yankees as a bonus baby. Signed for $40,000 after starring in the 1949 Rose Bowl for the University of California, the Golden Boy was coming home.

So Soon, Another War
While baseballs filled the warm spring air in Phoenix and, across the continent, in Florida, there was another matter commanding the attention of Americans during the early days of 1951. No one could ignore that a war was in progress, least of all the young men who were expected to fight it. North Korea had marched south the previous June and by July American soldiers were in battle.

With the grim memories of World War II just five years old, the nation was fearful that a repeat was on the horizon in Korea. In November, China had entered the war and now, as ballplayers assembled in their camps, Gen. Douglas MacArthur was threatening to bring the war to the Chinese. The fear of international Communism added to the sense of doom shadowing the country. In March, 1951, the Rosenbergs were convicted of giving atomic bomb secrets to the Russians.

Whitey Ford, hero of the 1950 World Series, was drafted into the service, as was Billy Martin, who otherwise would have participated in Stengel's pre-camp instructional school. Other young players waited for the call, but a different cloud hovered over Mantle. To the disbelief of all who saw Mantle fly down the first baseline, the military had determined that Mickey was 4-F physically unable to perform combat duties. He suffered from osteo-myelitis, an infection of the bone in his left leg. The condition was the result of an injury he suffered playing high school football and, despite occasional flare ups, was impossible for anyone other than a doctor to detect.

The 4-F deferment was issued back in 1949, before Mantle had been subject to public scrutiny. But as the newspapers began to tout the young slugger, questions arose about his mysterious injury. It was one thing for the New York Yankees to connive to win the World Series every year (or so it seemed), but now to swing this 4-F ruling was too much. Mantle himself took the brunt of the criticism, but the draft board and the Yankee club were also targets. "We aren't sending boys over there to kick the enemy," wrote one skeptic.

The Kid Does Not Disappoint
When Spring Training began, Stengel knew of Mantle's success at Joplin in 1950 (.383, MVP), and was generally aware of Mantle's reputation. He didn't, however, come into camp with the idea that Mantle might replace DiMaggio or, for that matter, even make the team. In fact there were several other newcomers for whom he had bigger plans.

One was Jensen. Stengel is noted as a pioneer in the use of platoons, but he was also unusual in his willingness to shuffle players in and out of positions. He often won pennants with no set infield and would unhesitatingly move players to unfamiliar posts if it meant an advantage somewhere else. After two weeks of inspecting his 1951 crop of rookies, he decided on two important changes. One was moving Mantle to the outfield (Stengel briefly considered putting Mantle at third, and would have if not for the presence of McDougald); and the other was making Jensen a pitcher.

It was Jensen who was first tabbed heir to DiMaggio, but after hitting .171 in 45 games in 1950, Stengel didn't think Jensen could hit in the big leagues. But he liked the way the kid threw, so when Jensen arrived in Phoenix, he was told to start warming up his arm.

Mantle was placed under the tutelage of Henrich, in his first year as coach after years as an All-Star outfielder with the Yankees. Henrich's tough first assignment was to turn a shortstop who had committed 55 errors in the Class C Western League in 1950 into an outfielder able to patrol Yankee Stadium in 1951. Because Mantle was having trouble with balls hit right at him, Stengel felt more comfortable with the kid in right field than center. But with DiMaggio hobbling at the start of Spring Training, Mantle opened the exhibition season in center field.

The Yankees first exhibition game was in Tucson March 10 against the Indians and Mantle had three hits in a losing cause. Jensen, on the mound, was hit hard. If Mantle was feeling good about passing his first Major League test, he returned to earth with a thud the next day.

Starting in center again, Mantle was hitless in the game when Ray Boone's long drive conked Mantle on the head while he struggled to get his sunglasses in place, resulting in his immediate departure from the game. The next day he overran Dale Mitchell's fly in the ninth, allowing the tying run to score. After that, Mantle and Henrich went back to work. On March 13, the Jensen pitching experiment came to an end. With four hits, including two homers and four runs, Jensen rejoined the competition to succeed DiMaggio in the outfield.

The California swing opened in Hollywood where the Yankees game was a sellout; across town the Browns and White Sox, each with training camps in the Los Angeles area, played before 235 fans. The Yankees tour passed through Los Angeles, Glendale, Sacramento, San Francisco and Oakland. Mantle kept hitting, rewarding the reporters who, for three weeks, had been trumpeting his batting exploits. The last date on the trip was a game versus Southern Cal in L.A. on March 26. Mantle drove in seven runs. By the time the club headed back to Arizona, Mantle had blasted five home runs and was batting over .400.

DiMaggio, on the other hand, was limping. The knee that had been bothering him for years had flared up again and the Clipper wasn't hitting. With so many fans anxious to see the legend during his much-heralded homecoming, DiMaggio played but he finished the tour below .200. "The old geezer's about done," DiMaggio told friends in San Francisco.

Everything the Yankees did created repercussions and their jaunt through California was no exception. The Pacific Coast League clubs that hosted the Yanks had a bonanza at the box office, as the Bombers "wheeled their money wagon" up the coast. Conversely, Major League clubs, particularly the Browns, resented the fact that "they were denied even one spoonful of Yankee gravy," though the Yanks did play one of their 12 California games against the White Sox. Most importantly, the trip prompted baseball officials for the first time to seriously consider locating big league teams out west.

Years later, what Mantle remembered most about that trip was how Stengel had favored the California-bred players in making out the lineup. "I didn't start," Mantle recalled. "I was from Oklahoma."

The club settled back in at Phoenix for one last week, with Mantle redoubling his work with Henrich in the outfield as the rest of the club tried to mend the various ailments earned in 12 games in 11 days on the road. Stengel fretted over a pitching dilemma unearthed by the coast swing. Reynolds was sore armed, and replacing Ford seemed harder than ever. "The desert broods and the desert knows," Casey mused when asked about finding five starters. "I just wish I knew, too."

On April 3, Stengel took his club east, playing every day at stops such as San Antonio, Austin, Beaumont, Houston, Dallas, Kansas City and Louisville. On April 4, before a game in El Paso, Mantle got some disturbing news. He had been called for another draft physical, and was to report to his draft board in Miami, Okla., on April 11. The Yankees denied it, but word leaked that the club, hoping to quiet the now steady chorus of denunciation concerning the phenom's 4-F classification, had asked the board to reexamine Mantle. Both Mantle and the club were getting hate mail, and fans at the ballparks were giving the kid more invective than he was used to. Now, perhaps, the army would change its mind and instead of the Bronx, Mantle would be heading to Panmunjom. He responded by hitting his sixth homer of the spring that day, along with a double and single.

Mantle rejoined the club in New York for a three-game set against the Dodgers. In the final game of the exhibition season he had four hits, finishing the spring with a .402 average, nine homers and 31 RBIs. Stengel still wasn't sure he had made the team, though the draft board reaffirmed his status as unqualified for induction. The Yankees total attendance for the spring, 278,880, was a new record.

Big League Debut
The club headed to Washington for opening day, but Mantle didn't know if he was along as a Yankee, or if he was on his way to Kansas City where the minor league season would start several days later. General manager George Weiss wanted to send Mantle down for a year but Stengel wanted Mantle to start in his outfield. Discussions with Yankee owners Dan Topping and Webb determined that the 19-year-old phenom would stick with the club, as would McDougald and Jensen.

It rained three days in Washington, costing President Harry Truman a first-pitch appearance. The club returned to Yankee Stadium to open the season against the Red Sox. Jensen was leading off and playing left field with Mantle in right, hitting third, and DiMaggio batting cleanup. Ford, in military uniform, threw out the first pitch.

Though Mantle had performed sensationally in Spring Training, the 1951 season would not be an easy one for the teenaged slugger. Big league pitching was far superior to the minor league variety seen in most exhibition games. Mantle drove Stengel crazy with his wild swings; one day in Boston he struck out five times on the same pitch out of the strike zone.

His temper began to show. After he took a poor at-bat into the field with him and blew an outfield play behind Lopat, the veteran pitcher threatened him. The Yankees weren't amused by his attacks on water coolers. The furor over his draft status had not been defused by the second exam and Mantle became a target of abuse. In Chicago, fans threw firecrackers at him, leading Stengel to threaten to pull the Yankees from the field.

Still, in early July, Mantle was leading the club with 45 RBIs and had slugged seven homers. However, his .260 batting average was in steady decline. Stengel reluctantly admitted a mistake and shipped him out to Kansas City. Jensen had won the regular job in left, and Hank Bauer was healthy and playing right field regularly. DiMaggio was still in center. Mantle finished the season with Kansas City and returned to the Yankees in September. By the time the 1951 World Series began, he was starting in right field. It was in Game Two that he tore knee ligaments when he stepped in an outfield drainage hole, the first of the debilitating injuries that blighted his career.

The Yankees won the World Championship in '51, as they did in eight of Mantle's first 12 years, six of those under Stengel. The Yankees returned to California in 1962 to play the relocated Giants in the World Series, but there have been no further Spring Training visits. Jensen was dealt to the Senators in '52 and ended up leading the AL in RBIs three times for the Red Sox. And Mickey Mantle became, for the Yankees and an entire generation of baseball fans, the next DiMaggio.

©1998 Spring Training Inc.
This article first appeared in the 1998 issue of Spring Training.

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