The comparisons have been made for years, and tonight one of them comes true. Like Mickey Mantle, Bryce Harper will make his major league debut tonight, slightly out of position, and at the same age – 19.
Dismissing for the moment the relative validity of the comparisons of the players, something startling dawned on me this afternoon. We all know Mantle broke into the majors at Yankee Stadium on April 17, 1951, batting third and playing in right field (and wearing number 6) and grounding out to second base in his first at bat against Bill Wight of the Red Sox. Mantle would go 1-for-4 and notch his first of 1509 career RBI on a single that plated the third run in a 5-0 shutout by Vic Raschi.
But that wasn’t Mantle’s first game in New York as a bona fide member of the Yankees – and that’s where the startling part comes in.
Check this out:
That’s exactly what it looks like. Mantle posing with Joe DiMaggio – at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn. The date is Saturday, April 14, 1951 and it’s part of the annual pre-season exhibition games the Yankees and Dodgers used to play. The seriousness of these games (though they didn’t count) is evidenced by those patches on their left sleeves. It’s the 50th Anniversary of the founding of the American League and the patches were brand new. Mantle has just gotten off an overnight flight from Kansas City, having just again been classified as medically unfit to serve due to osteomyelitis by yet another draft board. DiMaggio played CF and Mantle RF, and in the second exhibition, on Sunday the 15th – as Jane Leavy reports in her epic biography The Last BoyMantle merely went 4-for-4.
Update: This was not just Mantle’s first game in New York, it was also his first game in a Major League stadium. In 1951 – and only in 1951 – the Yankees spent spring training in Phoenix. There were no big league parks west of St. Louis then, and when the team began the “tour” that annually preceded the regular season (and to some degree still does) it went west to places like Seals Stadium in San Francisco. On March 26, 1951, Mantle hit a home run at USC’s field that went at least 550 feet, possibly as much as 600. But then came a letter from the draft board and Mantle had to leave the Yankees for nearly two weeks.
Note what’s painted onto the press box level in the fabled Brooklyn ballpark. WMGM was the Dodgers’ radio flagship station (at 1050 AM, it had been, and would again, become WHN). But it was just an exhibition game. Would Mantle’s debut have even been on the radio that day?OK, so I can’t find the television listings for April 14th.
But there you have it: at minimum, Mantle’s first game ever in New York, on Saturday April 14, 1951, was broadcast by the Yankees’ station (WINS, with Mel Allen and two new colleagues who were replacing Curt Gowdy, named Bill Crowley and Art Gleeson), and was also carried by the Dodgers’ station, WMGM, with their announcers.
The Dodgers announcers? In 1951?Red Barber on the left, then beginning his 13th year in the Brooklyn booth. In the center, Connie Desmond, Barber’s sidekick since 1942. And on the right, the kid, the local fellow who had just joined the team in the middle of the prior season…Vin Scully.
Updating: I asked my old friend (and my second boss) and Dodgers’ broadcaster Charley Steiner to check with Vin this evening to make sure he didn’t have that weekend in 1951 off for some reason. Vin says he has no recollection one way or the other (I mean, it was at least 10,000 games ago) but doesn’t think he wouldn’t have been working the exhibition games, especially the ones in New York, and recalls doing so throughout that era. So I think it’s safe to say that Vin Scully broadcast both Bryce Harper’s Major League debut tonight, and Mickey Mantle’s first game in New York just 61 years, and two weeks, ago!