SLAYING THE MICK
By Sam Garfield
July 15, 1957
(Comiskey Park) –I took in the White Sox-Yankees game yesterday afternoon with my friend Ted, a visiting scribe from a New York tabloid. We both agreed it was the first time we’d ever seen the outcome of a ballgame decided before the first pitch was thrown.
We got to the park early, took our seats—first row, behind the visitors’ on-deck circle—and settled in for B-P. Batting practice, a time for meditation for baseball’s true believers. A certain quiet that is lost once the game starts, like sitting in a church pew well before the altar boys, choir and minister arrive. I like to study each batter’s swing as he takes his cuts in the cage; watch his hands, his head, as bat meets ball. And the sounds of B-P, sounds that get drowned out by the crowd during the game: a crack of the bat that seems to last forever in the “empty” park; the groans and wisecracks between the players as they jog along the outfield warning track, sweating out last night’s Rush Street frivolities.
“Here comes McDougald,” Ted said. “Watch the way he’ll spray the ball from foul line to foul line. Incredible bat control.”
Sure enough. The slender McDougald, legs wide, bat held low from the right side of the plate—he says his peculiar stance helps him hit the curve ball—held his hands back on the first pitch, and, at the last second, punched the ball to right field. Next pitch, up the middle. Then he pulled one down the left field line, all the way to the wall. And so it went, pitch after pitch, McDougald, directing the ball across Comiskey’s field of green, like a pool hustler running the table. A thinking man’s hitter, McDougald saw it all play out in his mind: the runner advancing to second as he stroked the ball to right; a teammate scoring from second on his drive in the gap; the winning run crossing the plate on his sacrifice fly.
But it was the guy waiting to take his cuts, the one with the golden hair and wide smile, laughing with reporters behind the batting cage, that’s the guy I came to see. Mickey Mantle wears the uniform and hits the baseball like no other ballplayer. The Triple Crown winner last season, he is baseball’s Thor, wielding his hammer from both sides of the plate, hitting home runs beyond imagination.
He took his first swings right-handed: smooth, compact and natural, a powerful upright stroke. One after another, the balls shot out of the batting cage and smashed into the green seats in the left field bleachers, careening up the rows like wild pinballs. As a lefty, his stood in a crouch and swung from his heels: pure, uncontrollable violence, a storm at sea. Veins pulsed in his massive neck with each swing. Towering blows that cut through the steamy July air. This was the show, what the baseball purists had come to witness. Wide-eyed, vendors watched in awe with Andy Frain ushers. A cluster of reporters peered through the wire mesh of the batting cage; photographers clicked away. On the field, Yankee teammates looked to the sky and howled as the blasts soared over their heads. I too was caught up in The Mick’s thunder.
But then I sensed it, slowly at first, like the sound of a distant locomotive headed your way. I looked toward the park’s arched windows behind the bleachers. The treetops, faraway in Armour Park beyond left field, swayed in the wind, wind that came from the southwest: Canaryville, Back-of-the-Yards. It’d be here in a minute. I covered my mouth and nose with a handkerchief and kept one eye on Ted, the other on Mantle. It took a while but my New York buddy finally picked up the scent.
“What the _ _ _ _, what’s that smell?”
“Are you serious? What is it?”
“The South Side in the summer, at least in this neck-of-the-woods. It’s the Stock Yards, my friend.”
Sunday, the busiest afternoon and evening of the week at the Union Stock Yards, when tens of thousands of cattle, hogs and sheep arrive in Chicago for the last night of their lives; by the time the White Sox begin their next series, they’ll be steaks and chops, soap and glue. Like a heaving Lake Michigan wave, the summer wind carried the slaughterhouse stench over the bungalows of Bridgeport and dumped it on Old Comiskey, just as Mantle was hitting his stride.
Suddenly he fell away from the plate and started to gag. Hunched over, he let out bellowing heaves, followed by a barrage of cuss words, loud enough for all to hear. And when a new blast of wretched air swept across the park, he staggered at home plate, dazed, like a boxer facing a TKO. There he was, The Mick, baseball royalty, on his knees, felled by the sudden stink of the Stock Yards, vomiting in his Yankees hat, in the “City of the Big Shoulders, HOG Butcher for the World.” (Oh, for the reified air of the Bronx.) Two teammates helped him to his feet and led him slowly to the Yankee dugout.
As he walked through the tunnel to the clubhouse, the wind softened to a sweet summer breeze. The game turned out to be a picnic for the Sox. Billy Piece kept the Yankees hitters off balance the entire afternoon, earning a 3-1 victory. The Mick went hitless.
On our walk back to the car, Ted couldn’t help himself. Like all true New Yorkers, he hates to lose. Got to be some evil force working against his Yanks; they can never fail on their own.
“Out of the blue,” he barked, “a gust of Stock Yards stink rains down on the field, and Mantle—of all people—is on his knees throwing up. The gods are out to get us.”
“Around here we call it bovine intervention.”
Copyright © 2011. John Theodore — All Rights Reserved. Text may not be reproduced without permission.