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This day in baseball history

A long-time reader files this report on an epic 50 year-old home run race.

After the New York Yankees swept their three game series with the Detroit Tigers on Labor Day Weekend of 1961, the only remaining suspense in the American League centered on the race for home run leadership between Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle, and on the quest of both to break Babe Ruth’s single season record of 60. On September 19, any suspense concerning Mantle came to an end, as The Mick was unable to start either game of the Yankees’ doubleheader against Baltimore. Thereafter, he would start only three of the remaining nine games and hit only one more home run.

Heading into the doubleheader, Mantle had hit 53 home runs, and Maris 58. Thus, Mantle’s prospects of catching either Maris or Ruth were remote. This was all the more true because Mantle was slumping. He hadn’t homered for seven games, during which period he went only 4 for 23.

The mythology of the Maris-Mantle home run race generally attributes Mantle’s forced exit to an injection he received from Dr. Max Jacobson. The injection landed Mantle in Lenox Hill Hospital where he underwent surgery for an abscess in the right hip.

Jacobson was the same quack who had treated President Kennedy earlier in the year during the Vienna summit. Kennedy apparently felt better than Mantle did afterwards (and continued to use Jacobson’s services), though you wouldn’t know it from JFK’s performance in Vienna.

Whatever his role in Vienna, the baseball chronology does not support a claim that “Dr. Feelgood” played a meaningful role in the home run race. According to Mantle’s autobiography (“The Mick,” written with Herb Gluck), Mantle visited Jacobson, on the recommendation of Mel Allen, after a series in Boston. Mantle says he needed relief because he was suffering from a severe head cold. However, Mantle’s recent biographer Jane Leavy was told by his teammate Clete Boyer that the injection was actually intended to treat a case of gonorrhea.

Mantle’s autobiography, which avoids providing dates, plays up Jacobson’s role in the failed bid to catch Maris. However, the series in Boston ended on September 24. So the shot must have occurred on September 25, when the Yankees were back in New York after a 13 game road trip (Mantle says that Jacobson ‘s office was near Central Park). By this time, only five games remained, and Mantle was no longer in the home run race, having failed to start four of the previous six contests. Presumably his absence was due to some combination of ailing legs and the “head cold.”

Mantle was in the starting lineup on September 26, the day after he apparently received the injection. He walked in the first inning, but had to be replaced by a pinch runner (Hector Lopez). Maris hit his 60th home run later that night. Mantle would not play again until Game 3 of the World Series on October 7.

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