All he had to do was tag him. He had the ball in his hand. The runner was just a few feet away. A sure out. Game over.
It was obvious to you. The coke-bottle lenses of your plastic horn rims were no more than 12 inches from the screen of the old black-and-white Dumont TV in the corner of your parents’ bedroom.
In here, you could watch in private without fear of your siblings busting in on your concentration, the way they happily did when you watched out in the den where their favorite pastime was needling you about yours: all things baseball.
You’d run home from school to watch this, the seventh game, and you’d writhed as it turned Pittsburgh’s way—Hal Smith’s three-run homer in the eighth put them up—and back, with the Yankees scoring and threatening to take the lead in the top of the ninth. First-and-third, only one out. And Yogi Berra up! Great clutch hitter! All Berra had to do was lift a sacrifice fly to the outfield and the Yankees would tie the game. And then Berra hit that bullet down the first-base line and as soon as Rocky Nelson came up with it and stepped on the bag, you knew it was over.
You knew Mickey Mantle was dead meat, caught off base like that. Nelson tags him, Pittsburgh wins the World Series. And you seemed to know this even before the reality had descended on Nelson. Or Mantle.
You knew because you knew everything about the game. Your world smelled of bubblegum. And you wore your mitt hooked onto your belt. You wanted to be a big-leaguer.
You watched your older brother crimp the bill on the high school team’s cap so he got the peak just right. Stuck your nose through the cyclone fence to watch the older kids play. Oiled your glove, collected autographs. You pored over the pocket-sized flip book that came with the one-dollar purchase of a super speed razor that you’d pestered your dad into buying even though he didn’t need a new one, nor would you for years. Signals…The Secret Language of Baseball in Finger-Tip Movies Featuring Paul Richards in a Gillette Exclusive. When you fanned the pages, you watched the Orioles’ onetime manager, Paul Richards, run through the sign language of a third base coach—hand to sleeve then touch the bill of his hat then wipe his chest. Flipped it over and over to watch Richards go through his moves.
Yes, you wanted to be a big-leaguer. And—except for lack of age, height, weight, skill, salary, car, off-season job selling insurance, pubic hair, entourage, and roster spot, among other things—you were. At the very least, you could mimic how they trotted onto the field. How they stepped into the batter’s box and took their practice swings. Their every move.
But before you really could take the field—whether it was laid out in gleaming, Chiclet-white bases on a regulation diamond or consisted of mashed can, the antenna of a parked car, a manhole cover and a muddy sock someone had abandoned in the gutter—there was another ballgame you learned and played: running bases. Two guys whipping the ball back and forth while you scampered between two bases trying not to get tagged out. And there was only one resort if the ball beat you to the bag—elude the tag. Fool the guy with the ball. Hop sideways on a dime. Feint. Jitter. Make him miss.
On this October afternoon in 1960, Rocky Nelson had the ball and he was standing practically on top of first base having just recorded out number two and if he tagged Mantle, the Yankees were losers, 9-8.
Mantle being the last out twisted the knife. He’d just singled, prolonging a desperate, ninth-inning rally that had gotten them to within a run. Nelson was holding Mantle on the bag, which was why he’d been in position, right on the line, to catch Berra’s scorcher. Of course Mantle had taken a few steps off first base when the Pirates’ Harvey Haddix delivered the pitch that Berra had whacked the hell out of, and that could have cleared the bases—except there it was in Nelson’s mitt. Mantle looked as frozen as the box of Birds Eye peas your mom regularly took out of the freezer.
It seemed to happen way too fast. As if time wasn’t meant to unfold this way. As if this was a flip movie in the little red pocket-book whose pages had slipped too quickly from beneath your thumb. And gotten to the end too soon, way before it should have. The Yankees’ rally was dead prematurely. There was nothing anybody could do.
Mantle did this: He planted his left leg and shifted his weight. As if he was about to bolt toward second. Nelson, after spearing Berra’s low smash, came off first base on the outfield side of the bag half facing away; then he pivoted, straightened up, and saw Mantle while drawing his left arm back to throw.
At that moment, Mantle dove back toward first base. Toward the home plate side of the bag. Nelson gathered himself and moved toward where Mantle no longer was. Mantle got his left hand onto the bag under Nelson’s desperate, lunging tag. He was safe. And as time stood still, while Nelson and Mantle dueled in the dirt, the Yankee runner on third scored the tying run.
“And so what appeared to be the game-ending double play results in the tying run,” you heard the announcer, Mel Allen, say. He called it “an amazing turn of events.”
You called it a miracle. Mantle was a sure out, and then he wasn’t. Mantle had brought the Yankees back from the dead.
The Yankees weren’t alive for much longer, of course. Mazeroski’s homer came five minutes later, and you watched him whoop his way around the bases, and you wondered how could anyone be so happy knowing he had made so many people so sad. Particularly you.
Later that evening you sat at the dinner table swirling strands of spaghetti onto your fork and watching them slip off the tines, and your mother felt your forehead to see if you had a fever because you’d never not slurped up meatballs and spaghetti before and must be ill. You dropped your fork and muttered that the Yankees had lost on a homer in the ninth, and she’d said, with a disdainful curl in her lip, “Why do you care so much?” You figured that was the last time they’d have the privilege of your company for the rest of their lives, left the table and spent the remainder of the evening alone in your room moping and flipping through the little red book, watching Paul Richards tug at the bill of his cap.
Your father said you were “off your rocker” for letting the result of a baseball game control your life, and, besides, he knew for sure that the games were all “fixed” anyway, by some mobster who lived in a penthouse in Las Vegas. Your behavior was “unseemly.” “Immature.” Your mother called you a “goop.”
Maybe so. Maybe it was a weakness. A character flaw. Something you had to work on because as you matured over the years, became a college graduate, then a grown man with a business card, you couldn’t disagree that getting unhinged over trivial events beyond your control wasn’t how a person should act if he wanted to be taken seriously. Maybe you weren’t a serious man like your dad. Maybe you were only a joker and maybe you always would be.
It didn’t stop you from making your way in the world. You got jobs, had a wife, a career, a kid you put through college, a mortgage. You got thrown out of a few bars; dodged a bullet or two; made it to a few corners of the globe. Your refrigerator swarmed with pictures under silly magnets. You hung a couple awards on the wall. You buried both parents and began seeing off friends. You received a pension, a social security card, the senior discount.
Through the decades it felt like you were the only person who understood the significance of Mantle’s slide, even though you couldn’t exactly explain it to yourself. Other people didn’t seem to care about it at all. If the subject of that 1960 World Series ever came up, and you began telling someone what the greatest thing about it was, they’d look at you oddly, as if you’d perhaps suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and had begun unwittingly speaking nonsense words. You could understand why. For one thing, it required way too much detail simply to explain the situation attending Mantle’s slide. Mainly, though, listeners—those who didn’t walk away yawning and remained to let you finish—failed to see your point, to put it charitably. They gave you that look. “So that’s it? He got back to first? You’re saying that was the greatest thing? But Mazeroski hit that walk-off home run to win it. That’s the greatest thing. So what—Mantle slid back into first? That wasn’t great, it was meaningless.”
To you, its significance had everything to do with its meaninglessness. But the more people looked at you as if you were deranged when you found an opportunity to mention the greatest thing about the 1960 Series, the less you mentioned it. It became something you kept to yourself. A valuable you kept secret in your pocket.
Fifty years after that Series, someone found the only known kinescope of the seventh game and Bob Costas showed it as he sat on a stage in an auditorium, alongside a panel including some of the players involved, who’d gained girth and lost hair. As much as you were intrigued by the idea of watching something engraved in your memory for half a century, you were hesitant to tune in. What if you had remembered the play wrong all these years? You’d feel foolish for swearing you’d seen something you hadn’t. And you’d feel like your pocket had been picked clean. And what would you think about that boy? Would you be able to trust him anymore? Did he deserve your faith?
You watched it, though. You had to. It turned out the play was exactly how you remembered it the day you saw it on that TV on its ugly black wrought-iron stand in your parents’ bedroom. Costas and his guests, however, like everyone else in the world, didn’t get how great Mantle’s slide was. They said that Mantle should have gotten into a run down—during which the tying run would have scored easily—rather than risk diving back into first.
But you don’t buy that. You know what you saw and you knew it wouldn’t have worked. Knew it in your bones from playing running bases in front of your house when you wanted to be a big-leaguer.
Mantle’s magical slide won’t be found in today’s world of listicles and click-bait. No algorithm summons it to a smartphone screen. It didn’t win the World Series or the World Cup. It didn’t set any record. It wasn’t an improbable longshot triumph, like Buster Douglas beating Mike Tyson or the U.S hockey team winning a gold medal or Leicester City winning the Premier League.
That doesn’t alter your appreciation of it, although you should know better than to believe in miracles by now. Life has taken you on a long, bumpy ride and pretty much bounced the bubblegum out of you. Sure, we all need hope in this world, and we want to believe, but you’re clear-eyed at this point about what’s possible and what’s never going to happen, and there are no great surprises left. You’ve even begun finding a guilty satisfaction that you won’t be around to see New York or Miami flooded by rising oceans. Or see Polar Bears become extinct. That’s out there beyond your approaching horizon line. The Hand holding the ball draws near ready to make the game-ending tag.
Why did Mantle’s slide matter if his team lost five minutes later? You’ve had a lifetime to wonder. What does a miracle matter if we live in a world with no meaning?
You can hear your mother’s voice scolding you: “Why do you care so much?”
You always wished you had a good answer for her. Something that didn’t make you sound like a goop. But it’s only now, over half a century later, that time has offered your reply: When Mantle slides safely back to first, that little boy lives.
Watch the moment of Mantle’s slide here.