11:01 PM EDT, September 6, 2013
The early 1950s was a golden era of baseball. The epicenter was New York City.
Might Los Angeles be poised for the same?
Will the presence of Mike Trout with the Angels and Yasiel Puig with the Dodgers reprise the wonder days of Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays? Can we not fantasize about what might be, how good this could become?
A youngster lived the New York era. He often walked from his home on 180th Street to the Polo Grounds on 155th Street, where the Giants played.
"Twenty-five blocks," he says. "When you're a kid, that's nothing."
He became a Giants fan because he once went past a Chinese laundry that posted baseball line scores in the window. One day, it said: Yankees 18, Giants 3.
"I remember thinking, 'Oh, those poor Giants. The Yankees beat their brains out,'" he says.
He walked those 25 blocks, paid 55 cents for a bleacher seat — "Back then, you could get five cents for an empty soda bottle." — and found his spot in the Polo Grounds bleachers.
He says sitting there was like playing center field.
"You could look directly into the press box and dream about being there one day," he says.
Soon, he was. Vin Scully, then a wet-behind-the ears broadcaster for the Dodgers, saw and lived the era.
Jackie Robinson had broken the color barrier with Brooklyn in 1947. A future Hall of Famer, Duke Snider, was already entrenched in center for the Dodgers at Ebbets Field. Then, in the summer of 1951, rookies named Mantle and Mays, eventual Hall of Famers themselves, made big league debuts for the Yankees and Giants.
"It was something," Scully says. "New York is New York. There were 11 metro newspapers. The New Jersey newspapers traveled with the teams too."
Mantle was 19 when he was called up. Mays had had his 20th birthday 18 days before his call-up.
Trout was only 19 for his first call-up, July 8, 2011. He is 22 now, already a rookie-of-the-year winner and an established star. Puig is also 22. His call-up was June 3 this season. When Trout came up for good last season, his play put the lethargic Angels back in the playoff fight. Since Puig has arrived, the Dodgers have gone from being a mess to being World Series favorites.
Take note, Los Angeles baseball fans. Trout-Puig and Mantle-Mays don't come along every day, certainly not in the same city.
"This could be great," Scully says. "If they both have long careers, we get to enjoy them for a long time."
Mays' career was 22 years, Mantle's 18. Like Trout and Puig, they were different, but they were young stars, young headline-makers.
"Mantle had demons," Scully says. "He lived with the fear he wasn't going to live long. Mays had none of that. He played with childish enthusiasm."
At first, Mantle played right field, because there was some guy named Joe DiMaggio in center. In the 1951 World Series, Mantle veered away on a fly ball so as not to collide with the legendary DiMaggio and tore a knee ligament when he stepped in a drain. He would play the rest of his career on that injured knee.
The ball had been hit by Mays.
Both struggled at first. Mantle was sent to the minors and then recalled. Mays went 0 for 12 before hitting a home run off Warren Spahn in his 13th at bat.
"If I had gotten him out that time," Spahn joked years later, "we might never have seen him again."
Mantle went into the Hall of Fame in '74. Mays, because he played longer and eligibility doesn't begin until after retirement, made it in 1979.
Mantle hit home runs that sent people scrambling for tape measures. Even with his bad legs, he was timed in 3.1 seconds from home to first, a speed seldom matched even today.
Mays tried to steal home 10 times in his career and was successful eight. He remains the only major leaguer with three triples in one game and four homers in another.
Mantle hit 536 homers in his 18-year-career, had a lifetime batting average of .298 and hated the fact that it wasn't .300. Mays hit 660 homers in his 22-year career and had batted .302.
Legendary sportswriter Red Smith once wrote about Mantle and Mays, "You could get a fat lip in any saloon, starting an argument about which was best."
Arguments and fat lips could be a way of life in Los Angeles in years to come, assuming the Angels eventually pay the market rate for Trout and Puig's maturity catches up with his bat speed.
The redheaded kid from New York, now 85, just signed on for his 65th season of Dodgers play-by-play. He has dozens more Mantle and Mays stories, and they would work in nicely from the broadcast booth of a World Series that matched the Trout-led Angels and the Puig-led Dodgers.
Scully could even tweak his signature opening:
"It's time for Los Angeles baseball."
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