Alternate baseball: chapter five

It has been a while since I wrote my last installment in this series of alternate baseball history scenarios. The hiatus wasn’t due to lack of interest on my part, or that of our readers. The problem was in finding the right situations, ones that measured up to the standards I’ve been trying to set and maintain with earlier editions.

I will not list the blind alleys I’ve run down during the last few months, looking for a good turning point. For one thing, I’m not done researching them, and they might not end up so blind. It would be awkward to say I’ve rejected some event as a subject, only to turn around and write it up in a couple months. Good for a laugh, but still awkward. For another thing, it’s boring to talk about one’s failure to do something. Success is much more interesting. At least, my successes are to me.

The key challenge, as always, has not been to find a big event to overturn. That’s pretty easy: baseball is replete with huge events that it would not take very much to change. A tougher task is figuring out all of the subsequent changes wrought by that original change, combing out what is vulnerable and likely to turn out differently from what is resilient and likely to be pulled back onto its familiar course.

The most difficult part, though, is that first domino. Imagining some huge incident to shove events onto a different course is too easy, the equivalent of giving a panzer division to Alexander the Great to see how much more he could conquer with it. The art of alternate history, as I have mentioned before, is in the light touch, the tiny alteration that snowballs into something great and irresistible.

I’ve done a lot already by misplacing a couple of letters and remembering a forgotten uniform. Let’s see what I can manage by stopping a proverbial cup of coffee from getting poured out.

A dream that ends early

Scenario No. 6
Change: Con Dempsey never has his seven-inning career with the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Result: “It’s gone! It’s 715! There’s a new home run champion of all time … and it’s Mickey Mantle!”

Cornelius Dempsey was a ballplayer like thousands of others over the many years of professional baseball: good enough to have a shot at the major leagues, but not good enough that he could make it without lots of work and some luck. Whether his years of efforts succeeded or failed can be debated. He pitched in big-league games—exactly three of them, with a 0-2 record and an ERA of 9.00. He also got to bat, once. And struck out. He reached the majors, but the material effect it had on his life was probably slim.

The material effect it had on others, however, could have been very great indeed.

Con Dempsey was born in San Francisco in September of 1922, yet he first played in the minors only in 1947, turning 25 at the end of his first season. He had played in high school and then college, at the University of San Francisco, before World War II broke out. He served in the Navy, was discharged in early 1946, and eventually decided to give pro baseball a try.

After a good 1947 in the Class C Pioneer League, he was snapped up by the San Francisco Seals of the Triple-A Pacific Coast League. He had a better 1948, going 16-11 with an excellent ERA of 2.10, easily the best pitcher on the team. He would have been a shining prospect for his parent club, if the Seals had been a major-league affiliate.

But they weren’t: they were independent, in an era when the top minor-league teams still could be. He’d have to be bought up, not called up—and Seals owner Paul Fagan was not selling. He had aspirations to make the PCL the third major league, which meant, among other things, holding onto his best players, especially local ones like Dempsey for their drawing power. Frozen where he was, Dempsey just had to go out and keep producing.

He couldn’t quite manage it. His K rate fell, though he still led the PCL in strikeouts; his walk rate rose; his ERA doubled to 4.23, though he kept a winning record at 17-14. The next season was worse, a terrible start getting him banished to the bullpen for a time. He rebounded late to a 9-9 record, but his ERA and his K/BB rate both worsened again. Con Dempsey seemed to have missed his chance.

And that’s when he got his chance. Fagan’s ambitions were fizzling out, and his Seals were in financial trouble. He had to start making deals. So in October of 1950, he made a conditional sale of Con Dempsey to the Pittsburgh Pirates. Fagan would get $75,000, plus players, if Dempsey stuck with the Bucs past May 15. (That, back then, was the deadline to cut the major-league roster to 25 players: before that date, rosters were larger, effectively giving an extended spring training to try some guys out.)

A month later, the Pirates made a bigger move, one that could have negated Dempsey’s opportunity (and arguably did). Pirates owner John Galbreath, last seen in this series scooping up Hank Greenberg from Detroit, hired Branch Rickey as his general manager. New brooms sweep clean, the old saying goes. The Mahatma would not have been beholden to a predecessor’s judgment of a PCL pitcher, especially when committing to him would bear heavy future costs.

Not that Dempsey wouldn’t get a chance. Pittsburgh was coming off a last-place finish in 1950. “Last place teams should be adventurous,” Rickey was quoted as saying during spring training, adding, “We’re going to use as many of the kids this year as we possibly can.” And where they needed those kids was on the pitching staff: “Our pitching simply isn’t good enough.”

One hitch was that, at age 28, Con Dempsey might be a kid to the septuagenarian Rickey, but not in baseball terms. The Pirates had real kids angling for pitching jobs: 21-year-old Vern Law, who had already logged a season in Pittsburgh, 20-year-old Bob Friend, and 19-year-olds Bill Koski and Paul Pettit. Dempsey was grizzled compared to them—and remember one of Rickey’s most famous aphorisms, that it’s better to let go of a player a year too early than a year too late.

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Another problem was that Rickey didn’t like Dempsey’s delivery. Con had a sidearm motion, and Rickey, mistrusting the quirky method, told him to pitch overhand. Dempsey didn’t have much choice: he did as he was told, or tried.

Early results in spring training were discouraging. In his first six games, Dempsey pitched 19 innings and gave up 15 runs on 27 hits and five walks, his 14 strikeouts the lone bright spot. He twisted his knee slipping on the mound in one game, costing him a turn and precious time in bringing his performance around.

At this point, with March fading into April and the Pirates playing their way east from spring training in California, the likeliest conclusion is that Con Dempsey never makes the team. He’s yielded over seven runs per nine innings, a change of pitching motion mandated by the front office is hurting him, and his own manager is laying the groundwork for his release. “He’s getting hit too hard for me to approve such a high price tag,” said Bucs skipper Bill Meyer. “If he settles down and can pitch, I might go for the big fellow, but I honestly couldn’t at the moment.”

But the unlikely happened, with bizarre circumstances attendant. He had a decent game in New Orleans, throwing five innings and giving up two runs, one unearned. The bigger story was that their ballpark, Pelican Park, caught fire in the bottom of the sixth. Everyone evacuated safely, and damage was moderate enough that Pittsburgh’s next game at the field was played as scheduled.

His next game, four days later in Montgomery, Ala., was chippy but ultimately successful. In seven innings he gave up seven hits and four walks, and hit a batter. He yielded four runs, but only one was earned, and he received the win. Six runs in 12 innings isn’t great, but for the desperate Pirates it was tolerable, especially with most of them unearned. Rickey and Meyer, perhaps wishing to be persuaded, were persuaded.

That, or it might have been the pigeons. Yes, I will explain that.

In the Pittsburgh Press of March 11, 1951, reporter Les Biederman wrote a human-interest story about Con Dempsey centering on an old hobby of his: training and racing homing pigeons. A chance remark from someone nearby as the reporter and pitcher talked in the team hotel set Dempsey off on his reminiscences, which eventually drew a crowd of curious listeners. He also humorously observed that, during his struggles in 1950 with the Seals, some fans were giving him a ‘bird’ of a different feather. (The story actually had the subhead “Fans Give Him ‘Bird.'” And this in 1951.)

Biederman’s story gained an extended life when he had a revised version of it printed in The Sporting News on March 28. This one omitted the Seals fans, but included a splashy three-column photo of Dempsey handling a pigeon (the Press had a different Con-plus-poultry picture). Dempsey now had some national cachet, enough that Pittsburgh fans were probably expecting, not just hoping, to see him play for the Pirates.

A wise businessman listens to the people who are buying his product. That doesn’t mean they get to choose all your players, but in a borderline case—and in a season where you’re already looking to take some chances—they may tip the balance. Those pigeons just might have helped put Con Dempsey on the Opening Day roster.

They couldn’t help him pitch. Dempsey’s two regular-season starts were wrecks: four runs in four innings hosting Cincinnati, and three runs in a single inning visiting the Giants. He’d throw two scoreless innings in garbage time at the Polo Grounds the next day, but his doom was sealed. Two days short of the May 15 deadline, Pittsburgh sent Dempsey back to San Francisco.

He struggled along for a season with the Seals, apparently feeling severe aftereffects of Rickey’s enforced arm-slot change: he had more walks than strikeouts in ’51. He went to spring training with the Phillies, long enough to get a Topps baseball card showing him in their colors. He didn’t stick: his damaged arm couldn’t pitch often enough, and he sat out the whole 1952 season hoping it would heal. A terrible year with the Oakland Oaks in 1953 showed it hadn’t, and he hung up his spikes after that.

A major-league career often requires luck. Con Dempsey’s luck was more bad than good: The war interrupting his development; Paul Fagan blocking his sale for two years; Branch Rickey wanting to take risks, but not on a side-winder. Some say Rickey’s demands ruined Dempsey’s arm and thus his career, and it may well be true. He certainly never got the career he hoped to have, and it might even have prospered better had he never gone to spring training with the Pirates in 1951.

No Con game; laying down the Law

So how did the eye-blink career of Con Dempsey change baseball history? It happened in the second game he pitched for Pittsburgh, facing the New York Giants on May 4, 1951.

It began promisingly for the Pirates, with Pete Castiglione‘s leadoff triple against Sal Maglie. It took an easy one-out grounder that first baseman Monte Irvin bobbled to let Castiglione sneak home on the three-unassisted, but it did give Dempsey a run to work with. It didn’t last: after a one-out walk to Spider Jorgensen, the Thom(p)son twins, Bobby and Hank, homered back-to-back to put New York up 3-1.

Maglie made an effort to give the lead back. He walked Pete Reiser, who stole second before George Strickland went down looking. “The Barber” then walked Monty Basgall and Ed Fitz Gerald, loading the bags for Dempsey. It was this juncture of the game that made the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette report “It looked at the outset as though Maglie wouldn’t be in the competition for very long.”

Bill Meyer must have smelled blood, too, mixed with the aroma from Dempsey’s first inning. He sent Wally Westlake to bat for Dempsey, aiming to get those runs back, maybe to chase Maglie. Westlake could only put up a short fly to center fielder Bobby Thomson, whose strong throw home easily got Pete Reiser trying to score. The rally was killed.

There would not be another. The reprieved Maglie flipped the switch and stymied Pittsburgh on two walks and zero hits over the final seven innings. Pirates relievers held the Giants to two runs the rest of the way, a laudable but unavailing effort. The Giants broke Pittsburgh’s four-game winning streak with a 5-1 triumph.

One that could have turned out very differently.

Let’s imagine a different starter taking the mound for Pittsburgh. What starter? Any would presumably be an improvement, though there are restrictions. A nasty flu bug was going through the team at this time, felling Bob Friend and Cliff Chambers and a day away from claiming Bill Werle and Joe Muir. (Of course, I could have given Dempsey the flu to get him out of this game, but then he’d probably get a later start before being released, complicating matters. I’ll stick with the original plan.)

The likeliest candidate is Vern Law. He had a good career, capped with a Cy Young Award in 1960, though early 1951 was not his best stretch. He had starts on April 24 and 29, then 12 days off before his third. He could have pitched today and his next real-life game with full rest.

So in Con Dempsey’s absence, we’ll have him start. The Bucs will get their run in the first, and then Law will face the Giants. We won’t entirely reverse Dempsey’s fiasco, but we’ll limit it. Bobby Thomson hits a solo dinger, and we’re tied at one after one.

The Pirates come back to bat, and wait out Sal Maglie as before. The bases get loaded with one out and the pitcher coming up. It’s still a high-leverage situation, but with the score tied and Law not spontaneously combusting on the mound, there’s no temptation to lift him. He’ll bat for himself, with literally no way to do worse than Wally Westlake did in real life.

Oh, and did I mention that Vern Law batted .344/.400/.563 in 1951, for an OPS+ of 154?

Law always batted well for a pitcher, but this year was his best. He was a serious threat to knock in a couple, or take a walk to put Pittsburgh ahead and keep the carousel turning. And after him came Castiglione, who was smoking hot in this very young season. In his first seven games he’d had five multi-hit days, and his leadoff triple had just hiked his average to .484 and his slugging percentage to .806.

It is probably likelier than not that one or the other gets to the wobbling Maglie. That puts the Pirates ahead, and either by their efforts or those of the following batters, Maglie may well get knocked out of the box. The Giants are in the hole after two, and will be counting on their bullpen rather than a revivified Maglie to keep them from digging deeper.

Forecasting the course of the game after that is a matter of guesswork: any play-by-play I ginned up would be pure fiction. Still, one of my favorite sports superstitions is “It’s bad luck to be behind at the end of the game.” The same holds true, with less finality, for the middle of the game. With a Pittsburgh team at 8-5 versus a 5-13 Giants squad that had only recently snapped an 11-game losing streak, with a dicey 21-year-old starter against a bullpen looking at seven innings of work, odds are you’d rather be the Pirates.

So Pittsburgh wins this game. It doesn’t matter much for them—they’ll still finish seventh, three games out of the cellar instead of two—but as you have very probably noticed by now, it’s going to mean a whole lot for the Giants.

Assuming there are no aftereffects of May 4’s reversed result on the rest of their season (or at least that the negative and positive aftereffects cancel out), it means the Giants sink as low as 14 1/2 games behind the Brooklyn Dodgers on Aug. 11th, rather than 13 1/2. It means the furious charge they make, starting with a 16-game winning streak, begins from a slightly more desperate situation. It means instead of catching Brooklyn two days before season’s end, they only creep within one game.

It means no playoff. It means no Bobby Thomson, no Ralph Branca, no best-selling record of Russ Hodges’s world-famous call. No rookie Willie Mays kneeling in the on-deck circle, wondering if he was fated to be the final out of the Giants’ season.

It doesn’t mean, though, that the race doesn’t end with tremendous excitement.

Game 154 of the 1951 season began simultaneously for the Giants and Dodgers, but didn’t end that way. The Giants were in Boston playing the Braves, and in this scenario, they had to win just to have a chance for a playoff. They carried a 3-1 lead into the last of the ninth, partly on the strength of Bobby Thomson’s 30th homer of the year.

Then it started coming unglued. Boston got its first two aboard on a double and single, the tying runs. An RBI force-out moved the Braves within one, then after another force, Walker Cooper singled to move the tying run to second. (Cooper, the winning run, came out for a pinch-runner—Warren Spahn. What a different era it was.) But Willard Marshall‘s fly ball to left found Monte Irvin’s glove, and the Giants survived the scare.

By the time that final score went up on the board in Shibe Park, where Brooklyn was playing the Phillies, it was still only the bottom of the sixth, and the Dodgers were trailing 8-5. Lose this game, and their 14 1/2 game lead on New York would have vanished at the last possible moment, forcing a playoff. They had three innings to make up those three runs.

It took two. After Gil Hodges and Billy Cox rapped one-out singles, the pinch-hitter Rube Walker, Roy Campanella‘s backup, blasted a two-strike pitch into the left gap for two runs. Robin Roberts came on in relief for Philly, but Carl Furillo hit his 1-1 for a game-tying single. It was 8-8, and it stayed that way a long time.

The teams traded some mild threats before the Phillies mounted an extreme one in the bottom of the 12th. A single and misplayed bunt put two on; a force-out at second put the winning run at third, and brought an intentional pass to put the force on everywhere. The Phillies, who won the pennant the previous year in a dramatic final game against Brooklyn, would have been on the cusp of playing spoiler, or at least of giving the Giants a chance to spoil the Dodgers’ year themselves.

Don Newcombe, the sixth Dodgers’ pitcher of the day and in his fifth inning of work after throwing a shutout the previous day (see Spahn comment above), bore down to strike out Del Ennis looking. Eddie Waitkus came up, and smoked a Newcombe fastball on a low line to the right of second base.

And into the glove of Jackie Robinson. Jackie had been cheating toward first on the lefty Waitkus, but ran, dived, and snagged the ball, knocking his wind out as he fell to the dirt. He had to be helped back to the dugout, but recovered in time to resume his position at second base in the bottom of the 13th.

He also recovered enough to hit the two-out upper-decker home run in the top of the 14th that won the game—and in our case, the pennant—for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Arch Murray of the New York Post called it “the shot that could be heard around the baseball world.” That term, without its competing counter-example, would stick to Robinson’s blow, though not with the resonance of that other shot that, now, would never be made.

We lose the epochal 1951 playoff, but it isn’t a total loss. The drama of this final day’s games, of New York keeping the pressure on to the last, of Brooklyn battling into the 14th, of Jackie Robinson’s defensive and offensive heroics, will make a glowing entry in the lore of baseball. If it doesn’t make as strong an impression, that’s no surprise: walk-off wins provide such a visceral thrill.

How this different result affects the histories of the Dodgers and Giants is likely not as great as one might think. Thomson never has his glory, Branca never has his misery, and the two are never fused together in the popular imagination, but they’ll both get along in real life without it. Robinson has his legacy augmented, but his stature is already so high in the game that there isn’t much room to rise. Any surviving film of his pennant-winning homer would surely be as familiar to us as his steal of home against Yogi Berra in the 1955 Series.

The sign-stealing scheme that the Giants ran during the stretch drive never becomes more than a curiosity, a bit of color added to the story of 1951. No harm, no foul, so no cause to raise a big stink. If the Giants had actually won the pennant while pulling that stunt, it might be a different matter.

The two teams’ departure for the West Coast in 1958 probably isn’t altered by one pennant changing hands between them. Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley might be in a little less financial trouble, but Horace Stoneham of the Giants would be in a little more. So if O’Malley might be a bit tardier in hatching the scheme, Stoneham would be more swift and eager to fall in with it, and it balances out.

As for the 1951 World Series, it becomes yet another Yankees-Dodgers showdown, making an astounding seven between 1947 and 1956. It probably doesn’t interrupt the Yankees’ five-for-five string of championships. If the Bombers could cool off the hottest team in baseball, they could overcome a Dodgers squad with a somewhat better run differential than the Giants.

Especially since they’d be doing it without suffering one of the most consequential injuries in baseball history.

Mickey misses it

Let’s briefly revisit our own timeline. It’s Oct. 5, 1951, Game Two of the World Series. The Giants are trying to sweep the first two games at Yankee Stadium, but they’re down 2-0 entering the top of the fifth. Willie Mays, trying to spark a rally, hits a fly into the right-center gap, but it hangs up. Center fielder Joe DiMaggio and right fielder Mickey Mantle are converging on it.

Mantle is pelting in hard. DiMaggio is hobbled by a bad heel, one of the long string of injuries that has cut short his career and made this his final season. Manager Casey Stengel told the rookie Mantle to go for every ball he could reach. Yet this is DiMaggio: lordly, ice-cold, intensely proud. You take a fly ball from him at your dire peril, doubly so for a rookie.

Mantle said DiMaggio called “I got it.” DiMaggio would, decades later, claim he called “You take it.” Eyewitnesses agree that Mantle slammed on the brakes—right in the area where there was a small sewer drain in the outfield, about the size of the palm of your hand, with a loose cover. Mantle’s right foot hit that drain.

But only in our world. In the world where Con Dempsey never came up with Pittsburgh and the Dodgers held off the Giants’ comeback, Willie Mays isn’t there to hit that ‘tweener right to that unfortunate spot.

This might be where you decide not to follow me at the fork in the road. You might protest that the scenario with Vern Law and Sal the Barber had one too many ifs to take as a certainty. You may be right. But my scenario is a lot like Groucho Marx’s principles: if you don’t like them, I have others.

Try Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher Earl Mossor. He played all of three games in the bigs, his very first one against the Giants on April 30, 1951. Entering in relief in the first inning, he yielded a sacrifice fly and three walks for three earned runs before getting the hook. Those three runs were New York’s margin of victory, not counting the two inherited runners Mossor let score. If he’s not there to pitch so ineffectively, Brooklyn may well win that day and take the pennant by two games.

In another strain, there’s Jim Blackburn of the Cincinnati Reds. He played his last two games in 1951, three years after his only previous season in the majors. In relief on May 5 against Brooklyn, he carded five outs while giving up six runs, in a game the Dodgers would win 12-8. Without this implosive appearance, Brooklyn probably loses the game, and New York takes the pennant outright in the last game of the regular season.

Or there’s Bob Thorpe of the Boston Braves. He had exactly two at-bats coming up in 1951 with Boston before returning to Milwaukee in the minors (he’d play parts of two other seasons). Pinch-hitting in the eighth against the Giants on April 19, he lashed an RBI triple that keyed a three-run inning. With that critical hit, Boston pulled out a 13-12 slugfest. Without it, Boston probably loses, and again the Giants win the pennant without needing a playoff.

There are so many players who did almost nothing in 1951, but whose absence still would have turned a game crucial to the pennant race, that the conclusion of the season that we all know from history may be the true aberration. Much like the result it would bring forth on the outfield of Yankee Stadium.

Mickey Mantle’s foot hit that drain, and in a split-second his right knee was destroyed. Contemporary medical records no longer exist or are shielded by patient privacy regulations, but modern forensic analysis states that he tore his anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), his medial collateral ligament (MCL), and his medial meniscus. Despite the massive damage, Mantle’s first operation on the knee would come more than two years later, and the surgeons never did repair the ACL rupture.

From that October afternoon forward, there was never another day in Mickey Mantle’s life when he wasn’t in pain, and never another game where his performance wasn’t circumscribed by the progressive damage to his body that began with the gruesome injury to his knee from hitting that drain.

Against the Dodgers, that never happens. Against a Giants team that wins the pennant in 154 games, not 157, it never happens either. The World Series would have begun a day earlier without the NL playoff. Even if everything else in the World Series happens as it did before, even if Willie Mays hits that exact same medium fly in the fifth, it’s still a little different. The weather is different; the wind patterns are different. Not enough to change the result in the box score: a mere matter of inches.

Just like Mantle’s foot missing that drain would have been a mere matter of inches.

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There are times when you can measure the lasting effects of a trauma only by imagining their absence.
(Robert Cowley, “The What Ifs of 1914”)

Mantle’s knee injury began a cascade of damage to his body that lasted his entire career, and a great deal of it can be traced back to the original injury. His weakened knee would suffer further deterioration, notably in 1953. Also, in avoiding putting maximum strain on that weak point, Mantle was adding greater strain to other parts of his body, notably his hamstring muscles, which he kept pulling. The dominoes kept falling.

Removing that first one would not have left Mantle in perfect health his whole life: baseball is not usually that forgiving. But the wounds and pains he suffered in the course of playing would have been far more ordinary, and the chain of injury compounding injury would have begun forging its links far later in his career, or possibly never.

Mantle would not have been robbed of his jaw-dropping speed while still 19 years old. He remained a fast player, but the hitch in his gait rendered him merely fast. When his knee was still intact, observers marveled at him as the fastest baseball player—at least, the fastest white baseball player—they had ever seen.

As for Mantle’s hitting, it was also plainly affected, especially batting left-handed. The instability of the right knee, extended and locked for his power stroke, delivered immense stress and enormous pain, and sapped his follow-through. It even produced a hole in his swing: chest-high, a little inside, which back in Mantle’s heyday was pretty close to the strike zone. Save the knee, and you close up that hole and deliver full power to his swing.

In this new timeline, Mantle is a much fitter and a better athlete. One also has to at least ask whether he might be a more sober one.

People seek out alcohol for a near infinity of reasons. One of the most potent, and most natural, is the dulling of pain. Such pain is often emotional, but sometimes it is physical, and this can be a powerfully self-reinforcing rationale. We’ve seem similar things pop up elsewhere in pro sports: some will recall Brett Favre coming forward years back to admit to an addiction to painkillers, and there are many other cases, during and after punishing careers.

Did Mickey fall into his spiral of alcoholism because he was masking the chronic pain of his body betraying him? It is so tempting to wipe away this misery that blighted his life, wrecked his family, and hastened his death. I cannot quite do it. There were too many other predispositions he had in his psyche to say that this would have saved him. He enjoyed a good time too much, and booze was his second-favorite good time. There was also the spur to live life while he could: family history, especially his father’s, suggested that his life might be short.

Of course, having the full blossom of his youth cut short at age 19 by a crippling injury could only have reinforced that sense of personal doom. Saving his knee won’t prevent his descent into the bottle, but I do believe that, by removing physical pain and some psychological dread, it will slow the fall. Aside from the deferred agonies of alcoholism inflicted on others, the insults that it inflicts on his own body will likewise be delayed.

What does all this do for Mantle’s career? It’s still rather stunning to recall that Mickey played his last game with the Yankees at the age of 36. Given the ages to which other superstars extended their playing days, a fairly conservative starting point would be to add four years to Mantle’s career.

These wouldn’t be “playing out the string” years, either. They would be prime seasons, shifting the decline phase of his career most or all of the way down the calendar. Not that we can just create four prime seasons and drop them into his career line. His peak would not only have been longer, but higher.

Strangely, that raised peak might not have given him any more home run titles. He led the American League four times, in 1955. ’56, ’58, and ’60. His nearest miss during the ’50s was in 1954, when his 27 came five short of Larry Doby‘s 32. Our alternate Mantle might have made up this ground, or, his power still not fully mature at age 22, he might not have. Making up the eight-homer gap against Roy Sievers in 1957 would have been at least as hard. A subsequent close home run race I will examine in detail later.

By 1956, Mantle’s power had certainly matured. A 1990s book title released under his name would call it his favorite season, and it is easy to believe. He won the Triple Crown and his first MVP award, while slamming 52 home runs. Our Mantle, unencumbered, would have made a serious run at Babe Ruth‘s record of 60 homers in a season. I doubt he would have broken it, though he might have managed a tie. To stay a little conservative, though, we’ll drop him one shy at 59, still the closest anyone had yet come to cracking the Bambino’s mark.

Mickey would have a consolation prize. In our timeline, on May 30, 1956 at Yankee Stadium, Mantle hit a thunderous shot off right-hander Pedro Ramos that struck the fabled facade crowning the stands a mere 18 inches from the top. Our healthy Mantle, his left-handed swing unimpeded, hits it that much better. It is the first and only confirmed case of a baseball player hitting a fair ball completely out of Yankee Stadium. Unless, that is, Mickey manages to uncork one or two more in the years to come.

Does the added potency of Mantle’s game—and remember that it’s speed as well as power: more steals, more singles turned into doubles, greater mobility in the field—add to the dynastic Yankees’ haul of pennants and world championships? The former, almost certainly not. When Mickey’s Yankees missed the flag, it was by plenty. Their closest miss was by eight games to the 1954 Indians. The Mick is an improved player, but he is not eight games better.

The World Series is a trickier case. One can forecast general performance over a season or career, but an improvement in specific single games is hugely speculative. Making it worse is that four of the five World Series the Yankees lost during Mantle’s career were in seven games, so the balance is delicate. One different at-bat certainly could have turned any of them. I’ll glance at those four, setting aside the 1963 sweep by the Dodgers.

The 1964 Series saw New York lose games to St. Louis by one run and two runs, plus another loss in extra innings. The best candidate for a changed result may be Game Four, the one-run loss. During a three-run rally in the first, Mantle hit an RBI single, but was thrown out going for second. Without the Crash of ’51, maybe he legs it out. If he does, there’s a very good chance he comes home on Elston Howard‘s subsequent single, or at least Joe Pepitone‘s fly to right that would have been the second, not third, out. Ken Boyer‘s grand slam in the sixth only ties it, the game goes to extras, and who knows what happens.

The Series in 1960 saw the Yankees famously lose four close games, but there was less room for a slight improvement by Mantle to tip the balance. In three of them, his days were dominated by walks and strikeouts. The immortal Game Seven saw him go three for five, with two well-hit outs. Fortunately, I have that game on disk, and I gave Mickey the eyeball test.

In the second, he flied out to Bill Virdon in deep right-center. Roberto Clemente was moving in behind the play: had Mickey clubbed it a little farther, Clemente would probably have handled it. In the eighth, Mantle hit a rope to shortstop that Dick Groat hopped up and caught. With more oomph, maybe that liner gets over Groat’s head. The two-run Yankees rally that inning becomes three runs at least, and as Series MVP Bobby Richardson would have come up with two outs and runners on second and third, it could easily have become bigger.

That doesn’t necessarily sink the Pirates. Add just the one run, and Bill Mazeroski‘s ninth-inning homer ties the game rather than winning the whole ball of wax. Even with a bigger Yankees cushion, who knows? Pittsburgh put up five in the eighth when down 7-4. The Pirates may still battle back. They may produce an ending just as good as Mazeroski’s walk-off. But it won’t be Mazeroski’s walk-off—and without that all-time highlight on his resume, there’s a good chance he’s still on the outside of the Hall of Fame, looking in.

Injury directly affected Mantle’s performance in the 1957 World Series, but it can’t be linked to that sewer drain. In Game Three, Red Schoendienst of the Milwaukee Braves landed hard on Mantle’s right shoulder during a botched pickoff attempt. It cost Mantle two-plus games and conceivably cost New York the championship, but it wasn’t a consequence of the 1951 injury. It just demonstrates that some of his wounds on the field came from different directions.

Then there was 1955. Mantle suffered a right hamstring pull on Sept. 16, had only two more at-bats in the regular season, and was badly limited for the World Series that began on the 28th. He came up 10 times, with just two hits, and the one homer he managed came on the short end of an 8-3 shellacking by the Dodgers. New York suffered a three-run loss and two two-run defeats, the last in Game Seven to give Brooklyn its only World Series win.

That hamstring injury, likely due to the shifting of strains to favor his right knee, might have been pivotal. Game Five saw Irv Noren play center field for the Yankees, going 0-for-4 with two double plays as his team lost 5-3. Put in a healthy Mantle … yes, it’s speculative, but there’s a chance. Ditto for Bob Cerv‘s 0-for-4 in Game Seven, lost 2-0.

It is a historical irony that, in losing the pennant race of 1951, the Brooklyn Dodgers may have assured themselves of winning the World Series in 1955. As for the Yankees, there’s no Series they definitely win with an unimpeded Mantle, but with three of them, there’s a chance, albeit iffy.

Reimagining Mantle’s career would be a wasted exercise without looking at 1961. With Mantle in an augmented prime, his run at Babe Ruth’s 60 (his second, remember) would be that much stronger. Back in 1956, I credited Mantle with seven added home runs to just miss the Bambino at 59. If I do that again … well, Mantle in our timeline hit 54 in ’61.

History changes around Mantle again. He gets his 61st home run of the year, although after Ford Frick’s imposed 154-game deadline. And he missed some games at the end of the season: shouldn’t he get some credit for that, too?

No. The malady that laid him low was not related to his knee, but to his first-favorite good time: it was a venereal infection. It took him out of the lineup for a few days, and when he went to have it looked after, he chose the worst possible place. He went to Max Jacobson, the infamous Dr. Feelgood whose quack concoctions were sought after by the rich and famous all the way up to President and Mrs. Kennedy. His badly-aimed syringe hit bone and left Mickey with an abscess in his right hip.

I could pull a song-and-dance about how no knee injury means less intense drinking, which changes his prowling activities and keeps him away from the wrong bed. I won’t do that. This one’s on him. He still misses those last regular-season games, and is lucky to play in the World Series with his open hip wound.

And that clears the field for Roger Maris. With Mantle’s increased pace, more of the press attention on the long chase of Babe Ruth falls on Mickey, and away from Roger. The terrible pressure on the quiet Maris is lessened, and he plays a little better for it. Just well enough to get an extra home run somewhere, so on the final day of the season, his shot into the right-field stands at Yankee Stadium is home run number 62*, two ahead of Babe—and one ahead of The Mick.

In our world, the fans hated Maris for being the “wrong one” to beat Babe Ruth. In the alternate world, imagine how much worse it would have been for Roger, not only to surpass Babe, but to snatch the glory of the new record out of Mantle’s hands. Mickey wouldn’t have blamed him, any more than he did in our world. He would have felt for Roger, and all he was unfairly suffering, and would have backed him publicly. He would follow that same course later.

Mantle’s career would wind down more slowly than in our reality, staying an elite player perhaps three years longer. He should, for example, be at least a win better in 1966 than he otherwise was. That added win saves his declining Yankees from the ignominy of a last-place finish that year, leaving them tied for eighth instead. It’s not an added World Series win, but it’s something.

He will be coming close to the end of the line in 1972, probably akin to where he was in his real-life final season of 1968. But he will have an irresistible inducement to stay in the game a little while longer. Babe Ruth, after all, didn’t have just one home run record.

In projecting Mantle’s career performance without his knee injury, I set a mark of adding four prime years to his numbers. I resisted the temptation of adding his four best home-run seasons as being a trifle too optimistic, and went with adding the results in his second through fifth-best seasons. That comes out to 171 round-trippers, which, added to his real-life career mark of 536, puts him at the end of 1972 at a grand total of 707.

Almost there. No chance does Mickey decline the opportunity: he’s human, after all, more human than most. One more season will definitely do it—especially if a new rule makes that season a little easier on his aging body.

But it doesn’t do that. American League owners are ready to vote for a three-year trial of a designated-hitter rule, starting in 1973. When it emerges as a serious possibility, though, there is a sudden campaign in the press against it. It’s a cheat, a scheme designed to help push Mantle across the finish line in his race with Ruth. Mickey should have to play it the same way Babe did. I mean, can you imagine how many homers Ruth would have piled up with a DH rule in his favor?

The backlash of publicity turns some owners’ feet cold. Instead of an 8-4 vote, the AL owners deadlock at 6-6. The DH rule has to wait. (It would wait just one year.)

Mantle grins and bears it, for the crown. He’s been playing first base the last two years; he’ll play it one more, for the crown. He’ll stagger to his worst season since his rookie year, put up maybe a dozen home runs. But it’ll be enough. Some day, probably in July, he hits the one that ties Babe, and some day, in a month or a week or possibly even that same day, he’ll hit the one that surpasses him. The crown will fit.

But not for long. The reign turns out to be an interregnum. I can get Mickey Mantle to 715. There is no way I can get him to 755.

The role model

His body wearing down from daily use and nightly abuse, Mantle calls it a career at the end of the 1973 season. It doesn’t matter that Henry Aaron is charging hard, as sure to pass his number next year as he was of passing Babe’s this year. That’s okay by Mickey. He can live with that. In fact, he will do a little bit better.

It’s sad historical fact that Aaron would endure some very nasty stuff in his quest for the home run record. Viciously racist hate mail, heavily peppered with death threats, were part of his life in the 1973-74 off-season. In this world, however, events over in the American League would draw a little of the venom out of those barbs.

Aaron finished 1973 with 713 home runs, one shy of Ruth, right at the door. The imminence of his surpassing Babe made it something near a national obsession, with fans all the way to the panels of “Peanuts” wondering whether Aaron, not would, but should break the record. Move the record to, say, 719, and you take some of the keenest edge off of that debate, and off some of those who were most strenuously in the negative.

The identity of the sitting record-holder mattered as well. Babe Ruth, a quarter-century in his grave, hovered somewhere between an idol and a god, his records considered almost sacrosanct, as Roger Maris had dolefully learned in 1961. His absence, thus his inability to speak for himself, brought out defenders-by-proxy in the millions, seeking to protect “history.”

With Mickey Mantle the reigning home run king, the tenor will be far different. Mantle’s ascent triggered the defense mechanism, but with the record passing to a fellow Yankee, it was much weaker: Mantle, again, seemed the “right” successor. (For those in the know about Mantle’s nightlife, vis-a-vis Babe’s, he would have seemed even more natural.) In his turn, Aaron was chasing, not an awe-inspiring ghost, but a flesh-and-blood human, a much less daunting task.

The nature of his target brings one additional advantage to Aaron’s pursuit: a very famous, very relevant public figure supporting him.

Mickey Mantle had many problems in his life, but an overweening ego was not one of them. He didn’t have to be the center of attention, the king of the mountain. Our hobbled Mantle was willing to admit that, in the famed “Willie, Mickey, or the Duke?” debate, Mays came out ahead. He could live with being number two.

He had also seen what negative public opinion could do to a man chasing the Sultan of Swat. The sufferings of Roger Maris were an even greater example to alternate-Mantle than they were to ours. He did not want to watch history repeat itself.

The heart of malignancy in the controversy, Aaron’s race, would not have daunted Mickey. He had yielded to casual racism in his early years, but long experience in a cosmopolitan environment taught him better. (One wonders how much the Copacabana incident was cause, or effect, of this.) In this matter, if not many others, Mantle grew up while still young.

So when the question comes around to Mickey—Will it be Aaron? Should it be Aaron?—he throws himself four-square in the Hammer’s corner. He says there’s no reason Aaron shouldn’t have the opportunity to do what he did, and when Henry breaks the record (no ifs about it), he’ll be cheering.

That knocks some of the starch out of the hate campaign. How can you be so riled up about it, when the guy about to lose the record is all but giving Aaron batting tips? Not everyone is convinced, because not everyone can be convinced, but the ratios in Aaron’s mailbags swing toward his supporters more so than we saw in our reality.

It won’t be the only factor dampening the vitriol hurled against Aaron. It may not even be the strongest factor. But it is the most visible and obvious factor, a simple act of goodwill crossing the boundaries of race. It helps sustain Aaron through the weakened storms of bigotry he must still endure. It renews itself when, on the Atlanta evening that sees Aaron break the still-fresh record, Mickey Mantle is at Fulton County Stadium, cheering him on, true to his word.

It is an act people will recall in the same breath as Pee Wee Reese‘s arm around Jackie Robinson’s shoulder: not as brave given the circumstances, but in the same spirit of inter-racial amity. It will win new fans to both ballplayers, including each other. It may even change some hearts in the wider world.

And on the day they bury Mickey Mantle in 1996—his slower slide into the bottle earns him a little extra time, maybe six months, maybe a year—it puts one more person in the Lovers Lane United Methodist Church in Dallas. Henry Aaron is a mourner, not a eulogist, which is a pity: he probably could have delivered a fine one.

He’ll have heard all the words about whether Mantle deserves to be thought of as a hero or a role model, though the nay-saying is a little muted compared to our timeline. He will know, though, that making the world better doesn’t always require heroism. Sometimes, simple decency is enough.

References & Resources
The Sporting News
The New York times
Pittsburgh Press
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
San Francisco Seals, 1946-1957: Interviews with 25 Former Baseballers, Brent P. Kelley
The Last Boy, Jane Leavy
The Echoing Green, Joshua Prager
“A Legacy of Mixed Feelings”, David Wade, in The Hardball Times Annual 2012
1960 World Series, Game Seven, video by MLB Productions

And special thanks once again to Paul Golba, who hunted down the not-so-elusive Con Dempsey with a determination that would make you think he was the one writing this. Therefore, if the sheer length of this piece overwhelmed you, I can only take most of the blame. {joke}

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A writer for The Hardball Times, Shane has been writing about baseball and science fiction since 1997. His stories have been translated into French, Russian and Japanese, and he was nominated for the 2002 Hugo Award.
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Marc Schneider
Marc Schneider
Fascinating.  One point, though.  Walter O’Malley, not Charles Ebbetts, moved the Dodgers to Los Angeles. There’s another alternative scenario about the home run record that isn’t nearly as speculative.  Willie Mays missed nearly two full years to the military early in his career.  When he got back, he hit 51 and 41 home runs in the subsequent two seasons.  You can probably assume that he would have hit, being very conservative, at least 60 home runs (and more likely, closer to 80) in those two years.  This means that, instead of 660, Mays would have ended his career with between… Read more »
Shane Tourtellotte
Shane Tourtellotte
Ebbets, d’oh!  That’s what happens when I set the Wayback Machine on autopilot.  I’ll see if I can’t get that fixed, Marc. As for the Mays scenario, it’s a tantalizing one.  I might have explored it myself, except that it violates one of my self-imposed rules:  light touches to create big effects.  To keep Mays from being exposed to the draft, I would basically have to stop the Korean War.  That has a much bigger influence on history than how many home runs Willie Mays hits. That said, a three-way chase of the Babe would have been quite a spectacle—but… Read more »
Marc Schneider
Marc Schneider
Shane, That’s a good point; stopping the Korean War (or changing the draft system) would have been a pretty big step.  But it seems to have been sort of arbitrary about who was drafted so Mays could easily have been left out. As far as the three-way chase under my scenario, it actually, as I figure it, not have been a race.  Mays would have been first by at least a couple of years, if I read your article correctly that Mantle would not have gotten to 715 until 1973. Mays would already have broken the record in 1971 and… Read more »
Paul G.
Paul G.

I suppose you could find a minor thing that causes MacArthur to overrun North Korea and end the war in quick fashion without the Chinese interfering.  If not for the Chinese the war probably would have been over in 6 months or so.

Marc Schneider
Marc Schneider
Well, actually it would have been simpler than that.  If MacArthur had simply stopped at the 38th parallel after pushing the North Koreans back rather than invading North Korea, the war would have been effectively over by the end of 1950.  The Chinese did not intervene until MacArthur crossed the border and approached China.  But I guess that’s not really minor.  I guess maybe MacArthur gets the flu and is forced to stop at the 38th parallel? The other minor thing, though, might have been if the guy at Mays’ draft board had gotten distracted by a girl or something… Read more »
If we’re going back in time, getting the French to build the Maginot Line to the channel would have been easier than stopping the Korean War. Then Germans can’t do an end run around the French Army. Their attempted invasion into France in 1940 fails; Hitler and Co are then overthrown in a military coup and a new European peace treaty is signed before year’s end. With both a stronger U.S. and British Naval presence in the Pacific in 1941 and a French military presence in southeast Asia, Admiral Yamamoto scraps the whole Pearl Harbor raid idea as far too… Read more »
Shane Tourtellotte
Shane Tourtellotte
Not that I don’t like everyone’s take on the Mays/Korea scenario—I am actually enjoying this—but this just goes to prove why the “little cause” method is better.  We’re talking, at the extreme, about undoing the Second World War, bringing Hitler down, preventing the Holocaust, balking Communism before it can really grow up into a global threat and the totalitarian successor to Nazism.  And what interests us about it all is how it affects Ted Williams’ career. It’s not that such speculation isn’t valid.  It’s that baseball should be at most an ancillary part of it.  I mentioned this once in… Read more »
OK. OK. Joltin’ Joe gets three extra years, too, and ends up with 2700+ hits & 450 HR. That’s got to make Yankee fans around here a little happy, even if they won’t appreciate a Red Sox as the new all-time HR champ. [Imagine if #715 came in Ted’s last at-bat? No All-Star game injury in 1950 and/or no balata ball during the WWII years that are now not missed could have enabled him to break Ruth’s record in 1960.] Seriously, what the heck would it have cost to complete an extended Maginot Line? Around another billion francs or so?… Read more »
Carl I.
Carl I.

Con Dempsey was my gym teacher in 8th grade.  I remember him as a little bit imposing, a man of few words.  Latent bitterness over his failed major league career, perhaps?
This was right around the time the MacMillan Encyclopedia came out, and I took note that Dempsey struck out in the only plate appearance of his very brief career.  One day, I summoned the courage to ask him who struck him out (turns out it was Herm Wehmeier), and Dempsey insisted that he hadn’t whiffed.  Sadly, some baseball careers are more forgettable than others…even to the player himself.

Paul G.
Paul G.
I thought I would share some of the interesting things about Con Dempsey that didn’t make the main story.  First, you can find his obituary online here: I won’t mention everything in there, but a few points of interest (including things not in his obituary): – He didn’t make his high school baseball team.  He was playing on a softball team of some sort when the baseball team needed a batting practice pitcher.  After facing some batters the coach brought him over and basically asked him “Where have you been?!”  Ended up pitching for them in the playoffs. –… Read more »
Paul G.
Paul G.
By the way, for a while I was lobbying for Sal Yvars to be the butterfly in this scenario.  I like Con Dempsey in the role so I’m not complaining – especially after all that research – but here’s Sal’s story: Sal, the third-string catcher for the Giants,  saw a grand total of 50 PAs of action that season, most of it in the second half.  Let’s jump to July 7, the Giants 79th game.  At this point Sal has played a total of 7 games, accumulating 7 PAs and a single hit.  He enters in the 10th inning only… Read more »