Courtesy Morris Eckhouse
A map of the USC campus in 1959 shows Bovard Field in the left-center and the football practice field just north of it, where a Mantle homer landed during a March 26, 1951 football practice, legend has it.
Noted baseball historian Morris Eckhouse stands in front of a nondescript rock on the USC campus, looks around and aims his arm toward where two o’clock would be.
“Somewhere there, somewhere between the buildings and in front of the church,” he says, “is where it landed.”
“We don’t know where it landed, but it landed.”
And what is it?
Just the legendary home run Mickey Mantle hit at USC 60 years ago today – March 26, 1951 -- in an exhibition game against the Trojans baseball team, commonly believed to be the second-longest homer of Mantle’s Hall of Fame career and one of the more intriguing as well.
It was a very unusual event, a perfect combination of wholly unusual factors coming together to create baseball history. First of all, to Eckhouse and other baseball lifers’ knowledge, it’s the only time a major league team has ever played a college team on a college campus. It also happened during spring training in 1951, which to this day is the only year in their history the Yankees didn’t spend the spring in Florida. They spent a month in Arizona, switching coasts with the New York Giants for the year, and toured the West Coast for two weeks barnstorming.
Mantle was a 19-year-old rookie, two years removed from his high school graduation in Oklahoma and yet to play in a big-league regular-season game. The Yankees and manager Casey Stengel had him in camp to groom him to replace their aging center fielder, one Joe DiMaggio. He wasn’t supposed to make the team, but he had been putting together a run of solid play on the West Coast tour that had Yankees management tempted to put him on the roster for opening day, just three weeks away.
And then the Yankees, back-to-back World Series champions at the time and on their way to three more consecutive titles, came to USC to face Rod Dedeaux and the Trojans. Legend has it one of the primary reasons the game was scheduled – New York could have played another pro team and went against better competition – was that the Yanks were interested in Dedeaux, then 37, as a potential coaching candidate.
Mantle, a switch-hitter, had four hits in the game, including two homers – one from each side of the plate. His first came from the right side of the plate, a lengthy blast in its own right that landed on the street behind the left-field fence of Bovard Field, where the Trojans played at the time. (Dedeaux Field, their current stadium, was built in 1974.)
But the second was the real story.
Jane Leavy, in her 2010 biography of Mantle titled The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America’s Childhood, describes the home run, as landing in the middle of the football practice field during a spring football practice, which ran adjacent to the right-center and right-field fence of Bovard.
The distance of the homer was never officially measured, but it was given a guessed length of 656 feet at the time – by whom, it is not known. And, looking from where the rock stands now on campus, which was then the location of home plate, to where the USC Catholic Center sits in the same location as the University Methodist Center 60 years ago, that figure sounds a little far-fetched.
Eckhouse isn’t sure it’s even 650 or so feet from the rock to the church. Even so, the distance would have to be a lot shorter if it landed on the football field. A projection of 600 or fewer feet makes more sense.
“But I wouldn’t get caught it up in that,” says Eckhouse, who has written many books on the history of baseball and the Cleveland Indians. “The point is Mantle, by my understanding, was really not expected to make the team and was having a great spring training, with this as the capper on it. He had a great game, albeit against a college team.
“This is hallowed ground.”
Eckhouse, who lives near Cleveland, came across the story when reading Leavy’s book late last year and asked his son Allen, a senior at USC, to do a little preliminary research into any remnants of the homer left of campus.
He didn’t find anything, but Eckhouse kept looking and eventually found that USC had video of the homer available in its Hugh M. Hefner Moving Image Archive on campus.
So he came to town and saw it. And, in the basement of the Norris Theater where the archive is located, the video is remarkable.
It’s a 73-second clip, filmed and produced by students for the 1951 Trojan Review, a newsreel that was all the rage then. The video – great quality and hardly grainy -- is cut up into tiny two-second clips because the students tried to save film by only filming big happenings. You see DiMaggio. Stengel. Hall of Fame shortstop Phil Rizzuto. Cutaways of the packed-house crowd of 3,000 and a bit of USC’s campus in the background.
And then Mantle – but for only a second, or maybe two. You quickly see his fabled left-handed swing, and the ball carries to right – and that’s it.
USC plans to show about 30 seconds of the video at Saturday’s USC-UCLA baseball game, with Justin Dedeaux, Rod’s 67-year-old son, present for the festivities.
Eckhouse hopes fans will come to see the video, which he says gets him “jazzed up,” even after many repeated viewings. But USC doesn’t bring too many fans to Dedeaux Field, typically. Friday night’s series opener between the Trojans and Bruins had 707 fans in attendance at the 250-seat stadium.
When he arrived on campus, Eckhouse was amazed at how little documentation remains on USC’s campus of old Bovard Field – and, more specifically, how nothing in Heritage Hall commemorates Mantle and the Yankees’ March 1951 appearance. A small sign marks the perimeter of the field near Heritage Hall, but that’s the only indication of the game and the home run Eckhouse is aware of.
“You had the greatest college baseball team of all time and the New York Yankees,” he said. “And nobody knows.”