|Few American athletes have approached the mythic status that attends Joe DiMaggio. Owning an air of mystery created by his reserved and taciturn demeanor, DiMaggio captured the enduring fancy of the nation during his playing days. On the field, he was a case study of poetry in motion, a model of excellence whose game lacked any flaw. He was an All-Star in every one of his thirteen seasons. Succinctly capturing the essence of 'The Yankee Clipper,' historian Charles Alexander said in 1939 that DiMaggio played with 'spezzatura', the ability to make the difficult look easy.||The greatest switch-hitter of all time, Mickey Mantle's mammoth home runs tended to overshadow the all-around brilliance of his game. Endowed with perhaps the most raw physical talent ever seen on a baseball diamond, the 'Commerce Comet' could do it all. He combined blazing speed with tremendous power from either side of the plate. Impressive as his 536 home runs and 1,509 RBIs are, there is no telling what he might have accomplished had a series of injuries not weakened his body and robbed him of numerous games throughout his career.|
|Although DiMaggio's career numbers -- a .325 batting average and 361 home runs -- are certainly impressive, they fail to adequately describe his true talents as a hitter. Were it not for losing three full seasons of his career to military service and numerous home runs to the cavernous left-field reaches of Yankee Stadium, DiMaggio's numbers might have more closely resembled those of his contemporary, Ted Williams. A testament to his power are the 46 home runs he belted in 1937 -- still a team record for a right-handed batter.
In 1941, DiMaggio set the record that he will always be remembered for, hitting safely in 56 consecutive games. As the pressure steadily mounted, DiMaggio maintained his outward calm. 'I was able to control myself,' he said. 'That doesn't mean I wasn't dying inside.' After two fine defensive plays by Cleveland third baseman Ken Keltner helped end the streak on July 17th, DiMaggio hit safely in another sixteen consecutive games. If not for Keltner, DiMaggio might well have extended his streak to 73 straight games!
|The term 'tape-measure home run' didn't exist until Mickey Mantle came along. Batting right-handed on April 17th, 1953 at Washington's Griffith Stadium, Mantle launched a fifth inning blast so far that Yankees' publicity director Arthur 'Red' Patterson decided to measure it for posterity. Patterson actually paced off the distance to the backyard of a nearby house where the ball had landed (estimating the length of the home run at 565 feet) and the myth of the tape-measure was born.
The ferocious swing that produced such epic shots naturally led to many swings and misses. Mantle whiffed 1,710 times in his career but actually ended his career with more bases on balls than strikeouts. Far more than just a power-hitter, 'The Mick' had a .298 career batting average. Ten seasons he hit .300 or better and twice hit over .350. Perhaps the best indication of what a healthy Mantle could accomplish came in his Triple Crown season of 1956, when he terrorized American League hurlers with a .353 average, 52 home runs and 130 RBI. The monster season put him in the company of Babe Ruth and Jimmie Foxx as the only players in baseball history to hit 50 home runs while batting over .350.
|The word most often associated with DiMaggio was grace, and his skillful play in centerfield defined that quality. He never once collided with a teammate. DiMaggio played a shallow center field, confident that he could track down anything. Once he reached the ball, he employed a strong and accurate arm to his advantage. An intense student of the game, DiMaggio learned the habits of opposing batters so well that he often knew where they would hit the ball before they swung the bat.||Originally signed as a shortstop, the Yankees moved Mantle to right field before his rookie year in 1951. (New York's incumbent shortstop was Phil Rizzuto, the reigning AL MVP). When Joe DiMaggio retired after that season, Mantle inherited his centerfield post. Even though in his first season in center he led all American League outfielders in errors, his tremendous speed and cannon arm soon made it look as if he were born to play the position. In the 1956 World Series, Mantle preserved Don Larsen's perfect game with a tremendous running catch of a 430-foot drive off the bat of Gil Hodges.|
|The man whom manager Joe McCarthy once called 'the smartest baserunner I've ever seen' had little need to flash his speed while playing for Yankee teams which routinely bludgeoned their opponents into submission. After watching DiMaggio accelerate to stretch a single into a double, catcher Bill Dickey turned to a teammate and remarked, You know something? That guy can run as fast as he has to.'||Legend has it that the Yankees once timed Mantle at an unearthly 2.9 seconds from the left-handed batters' box to first base. Whether or not that apocryphal story has any validity, there is no doubt that Mantle had phenomenal speed before injuries irrevocably damaged his fragile legs. Pitcher Bud Daley recalled that 'there was an unwritten rule that Mickey didn't steal unless the score was tied or it was a one run game. What people don't realize is that Mickey could have stolen a hundred bases a year if his legs had been sound.'|
|DiMaggio biographer Maury Allen wrote that Joltin' Joe's teammates took an instant liking to him because 'he did his job and kept his mouth shut.' As proof of the intensity with which he played, many teammates point to a catch DiMaggio made against the Tigers' Hank Greenberg in August of 1939. Although the Yankees had already built an insurmountable lead in the American League standings and were losing handily to Detroit, DiMaggio ran at full speed with his back to infield, stuck up his glove at the last moment and hauled in the drive just shy of the bleacher wall, 460 feet from home plate. As Yankee pitcher Spud Chandler said, 'Nothing was at stake. But that's the way Joe played ball -- everything was at stake for him, all the time.'||The man who was touted as not only 'the next Babe Ruth' but also 'the next Ty Cobb' had almost impossible expectations placed on him when he broke into the big leagues at the age of nineteen. That he not only survived but thrived under the weight of that pressure speaks volumes about the strength of his character. A ferocious competitor who played for the team and not himself, Mantle was always well-liked and respected by his teammates. Although injuries forced him to play most of his career in pain, he never used that as an excuse.|