Mantle In Milwaukee: Sixty Years Ago
Milwaukee commuters wrestling their way down highway 43 may not know that the pavement between Locust and Burleigh Streets is hallowed ground, the former site of Borchert Field, home of the minor league Milwaukee Brewers for much of the first half of last century. Borchert Field was an old, rickety ballpark with crazy dimensions: the foul lines were only 267 feet (who knows how many home runs Braun and Fielder would have hit in this ballpark?). And the Brewers, in the early 50s, were a very good minor league team, the triple A affiliate of the Boston Braves and two-time Junior World Series Champions.
Sixty years ago this July 16, on a warm, foggy evening, a small crowd of 3400 came to watch the Brewers host the Kansas City Blues, both teams tied for second place in the American Association league. Fans that night couldn’t have known they were about to witness a glimpse of future hall-of-fame greatness. It happened to be the first minor league appearance that season for a 19 year-old Oklahoman who’d been wearing pinstripes just days before.
Mickey Mantle had struggled for the previous month as a New York Yankee, his average sinking to .260, and it was decided that he should regain his swing in Kansas City. When Yankee manager Casey Stengel told Mantle privately of the decision, Mantle cried.
Days later in Milwaukee, the fog was so thick, Mantle quipped, “I may need a mask out there tonight.”
That evening, the switch-hitter batted left handed and went 1 for 4, his only hit a bunt single to the first-base side. Those in attendance got to witness Mantle at his blazing best: that is, among the fastest to ever play the game (batting left handed, he'd been timed running from home to first in 3.1 seconds).
The following evening, after word had spread that Mantle was in Milwaukee (both the Sentinel and the Journal had articles highlighting his appearance), the crowd swelled to over 10,000, and Mantle went 0-4. In fact, he played so poorly for the next couple of weeks, he considered quitting baseball altogether. Luckily for baseball, he didn’t. And luckily for the Brewers, by the time they faced the Blues again, Mantle was already back up in the majors, having hit .361 with 11 home runs and 50 RBIs during his six week stint in the minors. He was never to return.
And as fate would have it, he was just a month away from an injury that would rob him of his full potential.
That October, during game 2 of the ‘51 World Series against the Giants (who’d made it there after Bobby Thompson’s “Shot Heard ‘Round the World”) Mantle caught his spikes in a drain in right field while trying to avoid a collision with Joe DiMaggio, on a ball hit by another celebrated rookie, Willie Mays. It was the convergence of three of the game's best, linking the past with the future, including Mantle's. He blew his knew out on the play, and would never run the base paths again without pain.
Although his injury may have kept him from realizing his full potential with regard to speed, it certainly didn't keep him from achieving greatness: he would go on to win three MVP awards and seven World Series titles.
As for Milwaukee, the Brewers and Borchert field gave way to the Braves and County Stadium in 1953, beginning a thirteen year stint. Mantle would return to Milwaukee again in 1955 as a Yankee All-Star, almost four years to the day of his appearance at Borchert Field. He wasted no time getting the American League on the board, hitting a three run home run in the first inning. And in his next game in Milwaukee, he hit yet another home run, this time in game 3 of the ‘57 World Series, a 12-3 whooping for the Yankees over the Braves.
For those in attendance that fall day at County Stadium, perhaps a handful could remember seeing Mantle six years earlier, when he was a struggling ballplayer with lightning speed and limitless potential. A potential, it would appear, that was now - even if slightly hampered - fully realized.