Thursday, May 26, 2011

Mickey Mantle swept through Joplin on his way to stardom

With Joplin, Missouri devastated by an EF-5 strength tornado, the highest possible on the Enhanced Fujita scale of tornado power and intensity, much of the country’s attention is focused on beginning the relief efforts in this southwestern Missouri city.

While baseball may be farthest from the minds of those attempting to put back the pieces of their lives destroyed by the storm, longtime residents remember Joplin as the home of the Class C Joplin Miners of the New York Yankees organization.

Mickey Mantle / Cliff1066 - Flickr
In 1950, a fleet 18-year-old shortstop from Oklahoma named Mickey Mantle captured the hearts of this Midwestern city, rallying the team that inhabited Miners Park on 4th and Main. Leading the Western League in almost every offensive category, Mantle batted an astounding .383 with 26 home runs.

Defensively, Mantle did not develop as quickly as his hitting, committing 55 errors in 137 games. Blessed with a strong arm and tremendous range, Mantle went through growing pains at one of the most demanding positions in baseball.

Teammate Cal Neeman, who would go on to a seven-year career in the big leagues as a catcher for five major league teams, knew very well Mantle was a star that needed just a little more polishing.

“Everybody knew he had a lot of talent. There is no doubt about that. He did some fabulous things, but he also made errors too,” Neeman said via a telephone interview Wednesday from his home in Missouri.

Steve Kraly, who pitched with Joplin that year and made it to the Yankees himself in 1953, also shared via telephone Wednesday tales of Mantle’s woes at shortstop.

“If there was an infield pop-up, we’d tell him to get out of the way! He had such a strong arm, when he threw to first, nobody sat in the box seats behind first base.”

Despite Mantle’s troubles in the field, there was no denying his prowess at the plate. Neeman, who had played at Joplin the year before, marveled at Mantle’s power.

“We had a fence in center field that was 420 feet. The first year I was there, nobody hit it over the fence during a game. One night in Joplin, Mickey hit one over it left-handed and right-handed. Incredible!”

Both Kraly and Neeman saw a tremendous change in Mantle’s play in between the 1949 and 1950 seasons. Prior to the start of the 1950 season, Casey Stengel held a training camp for Yankee prospects in Arizona. Neeman attended the camp along with Mantle in January that year.

“Mantle made his mark in a school that Stengel started for prospects in January of 1950 in Arizona. I was there too. In Phoenix, everything everyone knew about him was his power,” said Neeman. “He was left handed and hit it over the left field wall constantly. He’d go the other way right handed and there was no telling where he would hit it.”

Kraly provided the perspective of Mantle's transformation from playing with him during his debut year of 1949 at Class-D Independence.

“When he joined us in Independence, he came in the second month of the season. He weighed about 160 lbs. All he did was bunt and run,” Kraly remembered. “Harry Craft finally told him to start swinging the bat. Then he started swinging the bat and hitting the ball, [but] he didn’t hit too many home runs. The next year we went to spring training in Branson, Missouri with Joplin and you saw the difference in his physique from 1949 to 1950. That’s what you saw in the big leagues. He hit home runs over the light towers.”

During his time in Joplin, Mantle roomed with a trio of future big leaguers, Kraly, Lou Skizas and Bob Wiesler. The four were teammates the previous year in Independence. Kraly said that the experience living together in Joplin strengthened their bond.

“We enjoyed it and we had a lot of fun. We became like brothers, not just teammates,” Kraly said.

Reminiscing about their Hall of Fame teammate, also allowed both players to share their impressions of the devastated town.

“I had all positive memories about Joplin. It was the first placed that I played professional baseball. The whole atmosphere there was really good. People liked the ballplayers,” Neeman said.

He added that the community went out of their way to support the players.

“Some of those places would give us a free meal if you hit a double and things like that. It was just really pleasant.”

Kraly echoed Neeman’s feelings about the good-natured people of Joplin.

“I was shocked when I saw that on television. There are a lot of nice people there. It hurts to see a town get wiped out where I was able to play and meet the people there. If they released the names, I probably could remember some of them. The people were nice; they gave us gifts when we performed on the field.”

Over sixty years later, invoking the name of Joplin brought back pleasant memories for two of Mantle’s teammates, playing alongside one of baseball’s brightest rising stars during a more innocent time away from the spotlight that followed their teammate until his passing in 1995.

While Mantle’s spirit may not be able to fix the damage of this tragic disaster, hopefully the memory of his magical season in Joplin will make the day for residents a bit brighter than the last.

0 comments:

Post a Comment