Standing in the capacious outfield at DC’s Griffith Stadium during batting practice, Irv Noren glanced at the scoreboard hovering over left field and told Mickey Mantle: “Geez, you might be able to hit one out of here today.”
Noren knew all about the stadium’s prevailing winds—when the ballpark held the heat, when the breeze blew through the open grandstands. He had played two years for the Washington Senators before being traded to the New York Yankees in May 1952 as insurance against Mantle’s infirm right knee.
Noren knew that Babe Ruth had hit a ball into the oak tree on the other side of Griffith’s center-field wall, that Larry Doby had hit a ball over the 31-foot wall in right field, prompting a call to the Senators’ front office: “Someone from your stadium just threw a ball onto our house and woke up my children.” He also knew that no one in major-league history had ever hit a ball over the 32 rows of concrete bleachers erected in left field in time for the 1924 World Series, the only one the Senators had ever won. Noren thought Mantle might be the man to do it.
April 1953 was as kind to Mickey Mantle as the year before was cruel. Then he’d been expecting his father’s death; now he was awaiting his first child. His draft status—and his status as Joe DiMaggio’s heir—had been resolved. He had arrived at spring training a star who had batted .345 in the 1952 World Series, driving in the winning runs in game seven.
On April 9, in an exhibition game in Pittsburgh, Mantle hit a ball onto the roof at Forbes Field, a 450-foot effort that duplicated Babe Ruth’s last major-league home run. The Babe would have been impressed: The night before, Mantle, Billy Martin, and Whitey Ford had missed the train from Cincinnati while cavorting in nearby Covington, Kentucky. They had paid a taxi driver $500 to drive them to Pittsburgh, arriving just in time for batting practice.
Three days later, at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn, Mantle was chatting with the home-plate umpire when the public-address announcer greeted him with news from Joplin, Missouri: “Mickey doesn’t know it yet, but he just became the father of an 8-pound, 12-ounce baby boy.”
Chuck Stobbs, a lefty newly acquired from the Chicago White Sox, was the Senators’ starting pitcher on Friday, April 17. Noren told Mantle, “You can hit him pretty good.”
The weather had played havoc with the first week of the season, forcing cancellation of the Senators’ home opener set for Monday, April 13. The Senators gained an important spectator at Thursday’s rescheduled festivities: President Eisenhower returned from a golf vacation in time to make the traditional first heave, preventing a grievous insult to the home team.
By Friday afternoon, the fans and VIPs had disappeared. Paid attendance was 4,206—an embarrassment camouflaged by 3,000 boys in the upper deck along the third-base line who had gotten in free. It was Patrol Boy Day.
With two outs in the top of the fifth and the Yankees leading 2–1, Stobbs committed pitching’s cardinal sin: He walked Yogi Berra with two outs and the bases empty, bringing Mantle to the plate.
When Stobbs made his debut with the Red Sox in 1947, he was 18, the youngest player in the major leagues. Now he was in his seventh season and making his first start for the Senators. He was only 23 but had gotten old early. Shoulder stiffness had limited his innings during spring training. Mantle wasn’t feeling up to par, either; he’d pulled a thigh muscle the day before. He stepped to the plate with a borrowed bat—a 34-ounce, 34½-inch Louisville Slugger belonging to teammate Loren Babe, who hit only two home runs in his major-league career.
As Mantle settled into the batter’s box, he was greeted by the friendly visage of “Mr. Boh” 460 feet away in deep left field. Mr. Boh was the one-eyed, mustachioed mascot of the home brew, National Bohemian.
Left field in Griffith Stadium was about as vast as center field in Yankee Stadium—405 feet down the line. That forgiving acreage was the reason Senators manager Bucky Harris thought a control pitcher like Stobbs would flourish in Washington.
Griffith Stadium’s construction was minimalist: exposed steel girders and concrete. Its charms were supplied by the neighborhood—the smell of bread rising at the Wonder Bread factory on Seventh Street, where stadium vendors purchased their hot-dog rolls, and the African-American spirituals from Elder Solomon Lightfoot Michaux’s church greeting dispirited fans after another loss. A tall oak stood sentinel behind the center-field wall.
Mantle took Stobbs’s first pitch for a ball. On the Yankee bench, Jim Brideweser said to coach Jim Turner, “You know, I bet this kid could hit that big scoreboard.”