Over the weekend I started reading Jane Leavy's biography on Mickey Mantle, "The Last Boy." The book came out in 2010 and I've had the paperback on my shelf for quite awhile now, so figured I'd finally give it my time. I've never actually read any of the seemingly hundreds of books on Mantle -- Mantle himself collaborated on six different autobiographies -- but Leavy's book was especially well received.
Anyway, in an early chapter, Leavy details the story of a spring training game from Mantle's rookie season in 1951. Mantle had played in Class C ball the year before so wasn't expected to break camp with the big league club, but his talent was obviously undeniable and the New York reporters filed breathless report after breathless report on the phenom's exploits.
The Yankees trained in Phoenix that year and then took a tour through California. In a game against USC on the Southern Cal campus, Mantle hit two long home runs, including one legendary shot that landed on the football practice field, where spring practice was under way. The ball bounced into a huddle and hit Frank Gifford on the foot, at least according to Gifford. A USC pitcher named Ed Hookstratten was there that day as well.
"We walked it off,' Hookstratten said. "A shoe is a foot. We got over the fence in the football field and paced it form there. I bet the whole team went out. We were all curious. Six hundred, six-fifty, going toward seven hundred feet, absolutely."
Despite Gifford's eyewitness testimony, reports circulated around campus that the ball had landed in a Methodist church behind the practice football field. Or over it. Or in a dentist's office.
Leavy writes that, six decades later, others have used technology more advanced than a shoe to attempt to measure Mantle's blast, arriving at estimates from 551 to 660 feet. Mantle apparently couldn't remember the home run.
Maybe Mantle really did hit a 600-foot home run. Maybe he didn't. The legend -- or mythology -- of it exists, and at some point the legend becomes truth.
This story brings me back to the recent Hall of Fame election, or to the Hall of 100 project we just did on ESPN, and how we view baseball in an age where every game is televised, every statistic recorded, the distance of every home run measured.
Of course very few players are elected to the Hall of Fame. The stories of players like Mickey Mantle grow with the years, like Jack's beanstalk, to a place where only giants can roam. The writers who vote aren't gatekeeping the moral integrity of the game -- keep out those cheaters! -- as much they are the mythos of baseball's rich history. Mark McGwire can't hit 600-foot home runs, or least not with the assistance of steroids. Bryce Harper can run and hit, sure, but Mantle -- you should have him when he was 20 years old. He hit the longest home runs ever and ran like a Heisman Trophy winner and made throws you'd never seen before.
There will never be another Mickey Mantle. That's what the Baseball Writers are protecting.
To be fair, they're not the only ones. Baseball-Reference.com has something called the Fan EloRater, where readers can vote on player comparisons. The top 15 hitters are Ruth, Mays, Wagner, Speaker, Williams, Cobb, Aaron, Hornsby, Musial, Gehrig, Mantle, Collins, Lajoie, Kaline and Foxx.
Not a single player who began his career after 1954. Not a single player who played a game in the '80s, '90s, '00s or '10s. Nine of 15 who never played against a black player. The top five pitchers all played before World War II, and four of those pitched in the dead-ball era. At least Greg Maddux, Roger Clemens and Randy Johnson crack the top 15.
This is how we view baseball. The greats of yesteryear are untouchable.
Players today can't hit home runs as far as Mantle or throw as hard as Feller or pitch like Cy Young. The players were better in the old days. Of course they were.
You can believe that if you want. The stories, after all, do help tie baseball's present to baseball's past. Or you can believe this: You can believe that when you see Mike Trout, you're seeing the ghost of Willie Mays, excepting that Mays is still very much alive, of course. When you watch Justin Verlander, you can see Bob Feller, only with much better control. When Clayton Kershaw pitches, he evokes the dominance of another Dodgers left-hander. Miguel Cabrera is a right-handed Lou Gehrig.
The greats are playing now, just like they played in the '30s and the '50s and the '80s. So create your own stories, your own legends. I remember that game when ...