When fans think of Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays- they think of the Hall of Fame, the greatest names in Cooperstown, the manor of Major League Baseball. Ruth, Aaron, Robinson, Mantle, Mays – these are the names that are revered as the top baseball players the world has ever seen.
In the summer of 1951, Mantle and Mays took their first steps on a major league ball field. That year is forever written in history as the season that two of the greatest outfielders ever to play the game got their start.
Fast forward sixty some-odd years to 2012, and we have two outfielders who are already drawing comparisons to the stoic surnames of Mantle and Mays – 2012, the summer of American League Rookie of the Year Mike Trout and National League Rookie of the Year Bryce Harper.
April 17, 1951- At the ripe young age of 19, Mickey Mantle takes his first steps on the field at Yankee Stadium. The Commerce Comet got a hit in his first at bat, going 1-4 on the day, with an RBI. It was the Hall of Famers first step towards greatness, though it wasn’t a seamless season for the promising young outfielder.
While Mantle had a decent debut, he was later demoted in the midst of his rookie year. Mickey couldn’t get a hit and started doubting he was major league material. He was sent down to the Kansas City minor league club and still wasn’t hitting. He phoned his father expressing his concerns, and Elvin Mantle showed up at his hotel room the night of son’s frantic phone call. Without hesitation, Elvin packed up Mickey’s stuff and was ready to take him home. After a heated father-son discussion, Elvin called the young Yankee a “coward,” and Mickey credits those words as the spark he needed to get back on track. The Mick took his father’s challenge to heart and proceeded to hit pitches all the way back to the Bronx.
While Mickey was warming to the majors, Willie Mays made his debut at the age of 20, on May 25, 1951. The Say Hey Kid went 0-5 in his debut and continued his hitless streak to an 0-12 mark- he totaled only one hit in his first 25 at-bats.
Mays was waning on confidence after his stagnant start. Willie went to his New York Giants skipper, Leo Durocher, begging him to take him out of the lineup, but Durocher knew what he had in his 5-tool rook. Mays’ first hit (though he didn’t collect his second for quite some time) was a memorable one – homering off Atlanta Hall-of-Fame lefty, Warren Spahn. Mays, with the confidence of his manager, stayed with it all season long and put together an award-winning year. This rookie’s resolve resulted in the first of many of Mays’ awards- 1951’s National League Rookie of the Year.
People probably see a little bit of Willie and Mickey in Mike Trout, the 2012 AL Rookie of the Year… but Trout’s debut was in the 2011 season, so how was Trout the 2012 award winner?
According to the MLB Rule Book: “a player shall be considered a rookie unless, during a previous season or seasons, he has (a) exceeded 130 at-bats; (b) accumulated more than 45 days on the active roster of a Major League club or clubs during the period of 25-player limit (excluding time in the military service and time on the disabled list).”
Trout got his cup of coffee in 2011, serving a short stint as one of the Angels in the outfield. He had 123 at-bats, a .220 batting average, 27 hits, and 30 strikeouts. He was up with the Halos from July 8th to the 29th, demoted, and called back at the close of the season, August 19th to September 28th. With only 40-days of MLB service, and 123 at-bats, Mike Trouts’ eligibility for rookie status wasn’t jeopardized, and thus 2012 would birth baseball’s AL Rookie of the Year.
Opening Day 2012 was Wednesday, March 28, 2012, and absent were both Michael Nelson Trout and Bryce Aron Max Harper. But, both players were not far out from digging into major league dirt, as they made their first appearances on the evening of Saturday, April 28th.
Like Mays, Mike Trout’s official rookie season didn’t start out as a hit. Trout was 0-9 before doubling off of Twins pitcher Nick Blackburn during his first home game of 2012. That double came on the 30th of March, and Trout didn’t have a monthly on-base percentage (“OBP”) lower than .366 for the remainder of the season. This Jersey boy was major league ready and finished with a storybook season. Trout was voted AL Rookie of the Year, finished second in the AL MVP voting, won a Silver Slugger, and was voted an AL All-Star.
Bryce Harper paved his own path to The Bigs and it was one filled with as much admiration as scrutiny. He was deemed the LeBron of baseball by Tom Verducci and featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated as a high school athlete in 2009. He left high school early after passing his GED test and spent a season with The College of Southern Nevada (a junior college in Henderson, NV) where he was drafted first overall by the Washington Nationals in the 2010 MLB First-Year Player Draft. He is a player who is talented beyond his years and who was impatiently waiting to explode onto the scene of pro baseball. Harper’s maturity and talent have been the prospect’s strongest suites, and the 2012 season was where it was on full display.
Harper was a surprise call up on that Saturday night in April while the Nats were on a West Coast road trip. Harper walked out of the tunnel at Dodger Stadium and was slatted to start in right field and bat seventh. In his first at bat he grounded out to pitcher Chad Billingsley. In the fifth inning he flied out to left field. But then, in the seventh, on a 3-2 count – Harper lined a double into center field for his first major league hit.
Harper later slumped in the dog days of summer, but from mid-August to the season’s close was hitting well over .330 on a Nationals team ranked atop the NL Eastern Division. This 19-year-old phenom was as good as advertised, as he was recognized for his achievements by winning NL Rookie of the Year and being voted an All-Star by the fans.
With only one season behind them, we will not be able to judge if Harper and Trout will be Hall of Famers, hit over 500 or 600 home runs, achieve multiple MVP honors, hit for the triple crown, or go down as two of the best to every play ball. But, they came in together – just as Mickey and Willie – and they’ve already got a leg up on the ’51 dynamic duo. They both won rookie of the year, while Mantle lost, ironically, to his teammate Gil McDougald!
That being said- Mantle and Mays will never be duplicated or approached in what they meant to the game.
Yet, we do know this, these four players are something special to the sport, and we need to enjoy the Harper and Trout years to come.
Mantle was a man’s man as much as he was a ladies man. He played through a rare bone disease, osteomyelitis, and rose to the occasion time and time again as the World Series record holder in total: walks, extra base hits, home runs, RBI, runs, strikeouts, and total bases.
Mays took the torch in the era of civil rights and ran with it. He played partially in 1952, and missed the 1953 season because he was fighting for his country in the Korean War. Many argue he is the best to ever take the field with over 3,000 hits, 660 home runs, a lifetime batting average of .302, and defensively recording the most putouts by any outfielder ever, with 7,095- can one really argue against it?
I am thrilled that Harper and Trout are the here and now of Major League Baseball. If they play 18-seasons like The Mick or 22-seasons like The Say Hey Kid, it will be a treat for baseball fans to watch their careers unfold. I wish them both health and prosperity, but most of all, I hope that everyone has taken notice of the historical talent that has taken the field in 2012 – just as it did in 1951.
By: Vance McCullough