With the end of the 2023 World Series, I became a little nostalgic for the baseball heroes I grew up with. Most of them were Dodgers: Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale, Duke Snyder. All great but didn’t come close to the charismatic hitting power of Mickey Mantle. So, when I read a story by former Detroit Tigers catcher, Jim Price, I felt a little uneasy.
At the time I had originally written this commentary, baseball and steroids were an issue that wasn’t going away. While several players were caught up in the controversy, my attention was drawn to another deception. I was surprised and disappointed to read that Mickey Mantle, a baseball hero I idolized, possibly cheated on a home run.
On September 19, 1968, Price and Detroit Pitcher, Denny McLain “conspired” to give Mickey “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 the pitch. “What we did was a gesture to a great player at the 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 two things wrong.
First, you tricked all the fans watching, listening, or reading about the game into thinking that Mickey genuinely hit career home run 535, and . . . Mickey went along with it?
Say it ain’t so, Mickey!
And you cheated Mickey out of reaching the goal on his own. Despite 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 Mantle’s career make him a fraud? Probably not. However, I’d like to believe that all the homers in Mantle’s career were legitimate, but with the Price 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 a post-script:
I shared this story with a friend, another baseball fan, 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, what would you have done? Be honest!”
I took a moment to think about it, and . . . “I honestly don’t know,” I tell him. “I’d think about the cheers from the fans, the players, managers, commentators, but . . . that would simply rationalize my decision to cheat. I’d like to think I would do the right thing and make him work for it. I’d like to see my hero earn it on his own, end his career with all that he had already done for the game.
Then again . . .