This story first ran on June 1, 2009, but I’m bringing it back because of a personal post script.
At the time, steroid use in baseball was the hot topic, but my attention was drawn to another aspect of cheating.
Although I believe steroid use is a whole different league of cheating, cheating is still cheating; which is why I was surprised and disappointed in reading a report about cheating by one of my own heroes, Mickey Mantle.
The story is told by Jim Price, former catcher for the Detroit Tigers of how he and pitcher Denny McLain conspired to give the Mick a “going-away gift.”
“A few weeks from retirement and tied with Jimmie Foxx with 534 career home runs,” writes Alan Schwarz for the New York Times, “Mantle came to the plate in the eighth inning with the Tigers comfortably ahead, 6-1. Detroit had already clinched the American League pennant… and McLain had already won his 30th game.
“Price, a second-year reserve who was playing to give [first-string catcher] Bill Freehan a rest, walked out to the mound to give the 9,063 fans in Tiger Stadium one last chance to pay their respects.
“When I got there,” Price told a reporter in a phone interview, Denny said, ‘Hey, big guy, should I let him hit one?’
“I said it was a great idea. Mickey was always nice to me. So I went back behind the plate and Mickey, like he always did, was tapping the plate with his bat when I said, ‘Want us to groove one for you?’
“Mantle apparently didn’t believe Price, but when he saw McLain nodding on the mound, he understood what was going on.
“High and tight, mediocre cheese,” Mantle told Price.
“McLain served up a few that were apparently not gift-wrapped quite as neatly as the Mick preferred,” the Times report said. “But then came exactly what Mantle was looking for, and he hit a rocket into the upper deck in right field, the next-to-last home run of his career.
“Tipping pitches,” signaling hitters of a specific pitch to opposing players in return for tipped pitches, is just one of the claims made by Selena Roberts in her new biography of Alex Rodriquez. However, Price questions this notion.
“That blows my mind,” Price said. “I’ve watched hundreds of games. I don’t see how that could happen, I’m sorry. That sounds pretty far-fetched to me.”
What “blows my mind” is Price’s justification concerning Mantle. “What we did was a gesture to a great player at end of his career,” Price said. “It was offered by the pitcher — it was his suggestion and Mickey went along with it. We’d already clinched the pennant. I don’t feel that I did anything wrong at all.”
But you did, Jim! In fact, you did three things wrong.
First, you tricked all the fans watching, listening or reading about the game into thinking that Mickey genuinely hit a homerun.
Second, while the Tigers may have clinched the pennant and McLain won 30 games, you cheated baseball enthusiasts into thinking Mantle legitimately hit homerun number 535.
Finally, you cheated Mickey out of reaching the goal on his own. In spite of both injuries and age, he hit another home run a few games later to end with a total career of 536.
So, does one “gimme” at the end of Mickey Mantle’s career make him a fraud? Probably not. However, I’d like to believe that all the homers in Mickey’s career were legitimate, but with Jim Price’s revelation, I’ll never really know.
As soon as Mantle hit his going-away gift, “McLain was clapping as Mickey was rounding the bases,” Price said. “And when he crossed home plate, Mickey thanked me. The next batter was Joe Pepitone, and he said, ‘Give me one, too.’ And I go, ‘No way, you’re not Mickey Mantle.’ ”
Now here’s the post-script:
I shared the story with a friend who listened, smiled and then asked, “Okay, let’s say, you’re the pitcher when Mickey comes to the plate in one of his last appearances before fans, what would you do? Be honest,” he tells me.
I take a moment to think before responding.
“Okay, I would have thrown the ethics book out and done the same thing,” I said.
“Why?” he asked.
“It’s Mickey Mantle!”