USC: Phil Rizzuto
March, 26, 2011
By Pedro Moura | ESPNLosAngeles.com
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.