The most dramatic baseball game ever played, Part Four — Mantle’s moxie

Hal Smith’s three-run homer had barely landed before Casey Stengel headed to the mound to pull Jim Coates and bring in Ralph Terry. Among Stengel’s many questionable decision during this Series was his preference for Coates over Terry (assuming he wasn’t going to use Luis Arroyo) when he pulled Bobby Shantz earlier in the eighth inning. Terry was better than Coates during the regular season and pitched well as a starter in Game 4. But Stengel left him warming up in the bullpen when it came time to replace Shantz.

In fact, Terry had done quite a bit of warming before Stengel finally summoned him. It was reported that he had been up five different times and had pitched roughly half a game in the bullpen. But Terry nonetheless retired Don Hoak on a fly ball to end the eighth. Heading to the ninth inning, it was Pirates 9, Yankees 7.

Danny Murtaugh now had to make a pitching decision of his own. In the eighth, Murtaugh had finally lifted Elroy Face, for pinch-hitter Gino Cimoli. Now he had to pick between Harvey Haddix and Bob Friend.

Haddix seemed like the logical choice because Friend had started the previous game. But Murtaugh was as conservative as Stengel was mercurial. Ever since Murtaugh had taken over the Pirates, in mid-1957 when they were among the very worst teams in baseball, his mainstays had been Law, Face, and Friend. They were the ones who had “brung him” to this stage. Now that he was there, playing one game for the championship of baseball, Murtaugh had already placed his faith in Law and Face. Next, he would place it in Friend.

But Friend had nothing to repay it with. Bobby Richardson led off with a single. Ex-Pirate Dale Long, pinch-hitting for Joe DeMaestri who had replaced the injured Tony Kubek, singled as well. After four pitches, Friend was done and Haddix was in.

Stengel arguably had over-managed all Series, but now he under-managed. He left the lumbering 34 year-old Long, who represented the tying run, in the game instead of going with a pinch-runner.

Haddix got Maris on a pop-up. But Mantle ripped a single to right-center. Long made it to third. Seeing him runing the bases helped Stengel realized the error of his ways. He sent Gil McDougald in to replace the veteran first-baseman.

Next, with Yogi Berra at the plate, came one of the most famous and fascinating plays in baseball history. Here’s the short version. Berra hit a shot down the first-base line. Rocky Nelson fielded it on a hop. He stepped on the bag to retire Berra and take away the force play at second. Mantle, realizing that the force was off, dived back into first-base, avoiding Nelson’s tag. In came McDougald with the tying run.

I’ve always considered Mantle’s play to be one of the best pieces of base-running ever. But as I thought about it, in preparation for this post, it seemed to me that Mantle’s play was too risky. The safe play, once he had drawn Nelson’s attention, was to move away from first base. That way, Nelson could not retire him without allowing McDougald, who was heading towards the plate, to tie the game. By diving back to first, Mantle gave Nelson the opportunity, through a tag that normally can be made easily, to end the World Series with the Yankees on the short end.

Thus, it seemed to me that Mantle made a poor decision, but bailed himself out by acrobatically avoiding Nelson’s tag.

But I needed more facts to confirm this analysis. Where, in relation to first base, was Nelson when he fielded the ball? Where, exactly, was Mantle? And how about McDougald?

Fortunately, a film of Game 7 recently was uncovered in the wine cellar of then-Pirate part-owner Bing Crosby (1960 was a very good year). Crosby couldn’t make it to Game 7 because he was out of the country (in some accounts he did not attend out of superstition). So he had someone film the television broadcast.

Unfortunately, the film has not yet been aired – I understand it will be shown later this year on the Major League Baseball network. But the New York Times was as curious as I am about Mantle’s play. So it reviewed the film and interviewed some of the players who witnessed it (Mantle and Nelson are both dead). The Times even asked the great first-baseman Keith Hernandez for his take on Rocky Nelson’s decision to tag first instead of trying to start a game-ending second-to-first double play and his decision, after stepping on first, not to throw home to cut-off McDougald and the tying run. The Times also posted three pictures of the attempted tag play.

The still pictures tend to confirm, I think, that Mantle exercised bad judgment. To be sure, Nelson’s momentum in fielding Berra’s shot took him into foul territory. But the pictures suggest that Nelson, although not in an ideal position, was in a much more advantageous one than Mantle. It seems to have taken an astonishingly bit of athleticism, and perhaps a little bit of luck, for Mantle to evade the tag. What still isn’t clear, since the broadcast didn’t include multiple views, is how close to home McDougald was when Nelson looked towards second and saw Mantle.

In any event, Nelson’s best play probably would have been to throw to second initially and then complete the double play. The ball was hit so hard that Berra would have been hard-pressed to beat the return throw. But being so close to first base when he fielded the ball, it’s easy to understand why he instinctively stepped on the bag.

One can certainly make the case that Nelson then should have thrown home. The catcher, Hal Smith, told the Times he thinks they could have gotten McDougald. But once Nelson saw Mantle stranded near first base and preparing to dive back to the bag, it was probably reasonable to think that his odds of tagging the Mick out were at least as good as his odds of throwing McDougald out at the plate.

But Nelson probably wasn’t computing odds. Smith told the Times that he later asked Nelson why he didn’t throw him the ball. Nelson told him, “To be truthful, I didn’t see you.” But Smith added, “I understand Rocky’s position, he sees a runner right there and thinks he can get him; he thought he could get Mantle.”

Here, according to the Times, is why Nelson didn’t get Mantle:

For a split second, Mantle and Nelson eyed each other. Mantle made an initial move toward first, then gave a head fake toward second. He quickly reversed himself, sliding and sprawling toward first on the inner side of the bag with his left hand reaching out. Nelson lunged forward, angling himself toward Mantle instead of moving to the base.

Or, as Keith Hernandez told the Times, “it was like an elephant and a gazelle.”

Hernandez concluded that he would have attempted the same play Nelson did — step on first immediately, then try to tag Mantle to end the game instead of throwing home. “I can’t blame the guy,” Hernandez explained. “You have to make the play; it’s right there in front of you.” “Kudos to Mantle,” he added. “What a deke.”

With that deke, the Yankees had tied the game at 9-9.

Responses