Sunday, August 6, 2017

A Portrait of Mickey Mantle in Decline


You’ve probably seen this iconic photo of Mickey Mantle before:



According to “Twilight of the Idol: A Portrait of Mickey Mantle in Decline,” a 2014 article by LIFE.com’s Ben Cosgrove:

The John Dominis picture ... remains not just one of the best photos of Mickey Mantle, and not just one of the finest baseball pictures to run in LIFE magazine, but one of the most powerful photographs ever made of a sports hero in decline. Shot during a meaningless game at Yankee Stadium during the team’s abysmal 1965 season—the Yankees finished below .500 for the first time in 40 years—Dominis’s picture of Mantle tossing his helmet in disgust after a lousy at-bat distills in a single frame the wounded pride of the inexorably fading athlete.
But exactly when was the photo taken? And was it actually “shot during a meaningless game?” I recently conducted research to answer both of these questions.

The photo, taken by longtime photojournalist John Dominis, was first published in the July 30, 1965, issue of LIFE magazine. Not only did the exterior of the magazine feature a beautiful shot of Mantle, but the cover story, written by John McDermott and titled “Last Innings of Greatness,” featured a dozen photos of Mantle, each taken by Dominis.



There’s no doubt that Dominis shot the photo of Mantle tossing his helmet in 1965 and specifically for the LIFE Magazine story, but most sources fail to give an exact date.

In a September 16, 2014, New York Post article about a lawsuit between Dominis’s ex-wife and his longtime mistress, reporter Julia Marsh stated that,

besides the July 30, 1965 Mantle shot, other notable Dominis photographs include the historic image of athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising their fists to protest racism at the 1968 Olympics and the 1966 LIFE feature “The Great Cats of Africa.”
But here Marsh confuses the date that the Mantle photo was taken with the publication date of the LIFE Magazine in which it appeared.

And the Getty Image web site, where one can purchase the Mantle helmet-tossing photo, states that the picture was taken on June 25, 1965. A quick check reveals that the Yankees hosted the Angels at Yankee Stadium that day, but Mantle did not play in the game and the contest took place at night, while the photo clearly shows daytime action. Clearly June 25th, 1965, is also incorrect.

To determine the exact date the photo was taken, I jotted down four straight-forward clues:

1) The photograph had to have been taken in 1965 before the LIFE Magazine publication date of July 30.
2) The photograph was clearly shot during a day game.
3) The venue was most certainly Yankee Stadium.
4) Mickey Mantle participated in the game.

These four clues, as simple and obvious as they may seem, quickly winnowed the number of possible games in which the photo was taken from 104 (the number of games played by the Yankees from Opening Day through July 30, 1965) to just 26.

I discovered a critical fifth clue by closely examining an uncropped version of the photo:



Note that a large portion of the left-hand side of the photo was cropped when it ran in the LIFE magazine article. That portion shows that the on-deck batter wore uniform number 6. This was the number assigned to Yankees third baseman Clete Boyer from 1961 to 1966. Mantle is nearing the dugout when he tosses his helmet and yet Boyer is in the on-deck circle with two bats in hand. This means that Boyer’s spot in the lineup came after the batter who followed Mantle. For example, if Mantle batted third in the lineup, Boyer must have batted fifth; or, if Mantle batted fourth in the lineup, Boyer batted sixth; etc.

As it turns out, this Mantle-Boyer batting-order scenario was quite rare, as Mantle generally batted fourth and Boyer usually batted seventh or eighth. Nevertheless, I checked each of the 26 games that I had isolated from clues one through four to assess which featured the correct Mantle-Boyer positions in the lineup. This left me with just five possible games:

  • April 22 vs. Twins (Mantle bats fourth, Boyer sixth)
  • April 25 vs. Angels (Mantle bats fourth, Boyer sixth) (first game of doubleheader)
  • June 5 vs. White Sox (Mantle bats fourth, Boyer sixth)
  • June 19 vs. Twins (Mantle bats fifth, Boyer seventh)
  • June 20 vs. Twins (Mantle bats fifth, Boyer seventh) (first game of doubleheader)
(For those unconvinced that the photo reveals that Mantle and Boyer had a batter in between them in the lineup, I also checked to see if Boyer ever immediately followed Mantle in the lineup in those 26 games: It never happened.)

Finally, a sixth clue comes from the caption that accompanied the helmet-tossing photo as published in the LIFE Magazine article:

Frustration and bitterness are Mantle’s regular companions this season—and he displays them with passion. Before 72,000 fans in Yankee Stadium, he erupts after grounding out and striking out.



Yes, there were 72,000 fans at Yankee Stadium! Indeed, the photo shows that the grandstand behind Mantle is completely packed.

In 1965, there was just one date at Yankee Stadium that had an attendance anywhere near that mark: a June 20th doubleheader which drew 72,244 fans (71,245 paid). Indeed, from 1960 through 1965, Yankee Stadium had cracked the 60,000 attendance mark just four times, each date being a doubleheader:

  • July 24, 1960
  • July 4, 1961
  • June 17, 1962
  • June 20, 1965
So, with these six clues, I was able to isolate the date of the photo to just one possibility: the first game of a doubleheader played on June 20, 1965. In the first game of the doubleheader, Mantle had four plate appearances:

  • In the bottom of the first, with no outs, Mantle grounds into a fielder choice and reaches first base safely. After Joe Pepitone makes the second out, Clete Boyer hits a grounder to force Mantle at second base to end the inning.
  • In the bottom of the fourth, Mantle leads off and grounds out to the pitcher on an attempted bunt hit.
  • In the bottom of the sixth, Mantle leads off with a strikeout.
  • In the bottom of the seventh, Mantle singles to third base and is removed for a pinch-runner.
The first-inning scenario doesn’t match the photo, as Boyer would not have been in the on-deck circle when Mantle returned to the dugout and tossed his helmet. However, the other three at bats are possible matches, with Mantle returning to the dugout after making an out in the fourth and sixth, and Mantle leaving the game after singling in the seventh.

While the exact moment that Dominis took the photo remains a mystery, we now know that Dominis captured the frustrated Mantle in the first game of a doubleheader against the Twins on June 20, 1965.

Was it true that the photo had been “shot during a meaningless game?” Not at all. As reported in the New York Times on June 20:

For today’s double-header a crowd of more than 50,000 is expected. It will be “Bat Day.” Every child under 14 who is accompanied by an adult will get a Little League bat.
And here’s an ad from the same paper:



Indeed, June 20, 1965, was the first-ever “Bat Day” at Yankee Stadium.

On June 21, the New York Times published the following photo with a caption that read: “Young fans holding aloft bats they were given by the Yankees yesterday at the Stadium.”



Was this game meaningless for the many thousands of delighted kids who received free bats? Was this game meaningless for the many thousands of fathers who took their child(ren) to the park that day, which just happened to be Father’s Day? Was this game meaningless for many of the over 72,000 fans who are now able to say that they were at Yankee Stadium the very day that photographer John Dominis took one of the most celebrated photos in modern baseball history? I think not.

18 comments:

  1. In addition on June 18 Mantle batted 5th and Boyer was 7th but it was a night game.

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  2. What if Mantle got a hit and was caught stealing or picked of first base? Boyer might have been hitting further down the order. It could be another game in 1965

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    1. Mantle was only caught stealing or picked off once in 1965, so this is highly unlikely.

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    2. Author is probably correct but I agree that was an assumption

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  3. Were the Yankees really out of the race for the pennant on June 20th -- when the season was far less than half over? If not, the game was not "meaningless." Only "meaningless" in retrospect.

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  4. I just checked. Prior to the doubleheader, the Yankees record was 28-33. Five games under .500 at the sixty-one game mark meant that the Yanks were not out of contention. The games was not "meaningless" on these grounds alone! http://www.baseball-almanac.com/teamstats/schedule.php?y=1965&t=NYA

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    1. They were in 7th place, 9 games out.

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  5. The caption to the photo says that he "erupts after grounding out and striking out." So it seems the photo must have been taken in the bottom of the sixth, immediately following his K.

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  6. I can't see any bats being held aloft in the crowd. If this is bat day, shouldn't there be some in view?

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  7. Great piece. I believe you are correct and it shows him after being thrown out trying to bunt for a hit in the fourth inning.

    It's unlikely this is the strikeout as he appears to be walking back to the dugout from first, not home (he would be much closer to Boyer).

    It's unlikely he would throw his helmet in disgust for being lifted for a pinch runner. Being thrown out bunting for a leadoff hit --- a hit he perhaps would have beaten out on younger legs -- yes.

    I write photo captions for a living. The caption writer is likely saying that one photo is after a groundout, the other (probably the smaller photo) after a strikeout.

    As to the "meaningless" -- after being swept in this doubleheader they were 11 games out in June, looking up st 6 teams ahead of them in the 10-team American League. And in those days only one team would go to the "playoffs." That's pretty bleak for a team not used to being in the second division.

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  8. 4 Young Americans died on June 20, 1965 when their helicopter was shot down in Viet Nam. But we'll remember the flying hat.

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  9. What research you do...great job...

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  10. A little premature to call Mantle "in decline" at that moment. He had led the AL in OBP and OPS the year before.

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  11. I'm not a big sports fan, but I was intrigued by a tweet about this story. Thank you for the research you did & the amazing tale about the great Mickey Mantle, baseball, kids & Father's Day. I learned much today & am grateful to you & your hard work for the history lesson. Thank you, Mr. Shieber.

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  12. Keep in mind that in 1965, with no wild card, no divisions, the Yankees' 28-33 record put them 9 games behind the first place Twins, with 5 other teams to leap-frog between them.

    Also, though the photo was taken on 6/20, the article was in the 7/30/65 edition of Life, meaning that the article may not have been written for it until a week before, captions for the photos perhaps even later. At that point the Yankees were 13 to 15 games out, and clearly not a contender in any sense.

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  13. Life magazine dated july 30, 1965 on page 47 it shows mantle in the bottom of the sixth slamming his bat after a strikeout. On page 46 it shows mantle angrily,he flings his blacksmith arm out and scales his batting helmet far down the baseline. Photo is from bottom of the fourth inning mantle lead off and grounds out to the pitcher on an attemped bunt hit. First game of a doubleheader on bat day june 20th 1965. Meaningless game after being in 12 world series 1951-52-53-55-56-57-58-60-61-62-63-64. Yes.

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