Recently, my friend Marty Appel shared a wonderful photo on Facebook. Take a look:
That's Brooklyn's Jackie Robinson (#42) playing first base and the Yankees' Mickey Mantle (#7) right by his side. The iconic numbers, the idyllic setting, the casual poses. It all makes for a simply beautiful shot.
I got to wondering: What can I learn about this image? So I set to work.
A few key clues were quickly apparent. The palm trees in the background made it quite clear that the Dodgers and Yankees were playing one another during a spring training game. Since Jackie preceded Mickey to the big leagues by four years, the earliest the photo could have been taken was Mickey's first spring training with New York: 1951. But in that year (and that year alone), the Yankees held spring training in Phoenix, Arizona. In fact, there's a famous image of Mickey taken at Phoenix's Municipal Stadium in 1951. It's his Bowman rookie bubble gum card:
Compare this card to this shot of Mickey at spring training in Phoenix.
And here's an overlay of the card on the photograph:
Sure, the Bowman artist took some liberties with the photo, manipulating the background trees and poles, and slightly shortening Mantle's bat, but the card was obviously based on the photograph.
By the way, careful observers will notice that while almost all of Mantle's uniform number is not visible, he most certainly is not wearing a "7." That's because the highly touted rookie was originally given uniform number 6, which is indeed the numeral he is wearing in both the photo and bubble gum card.
Additionally, take a close look at the end of Mickey's bat and you'll see that he's not holding a Mantle model. (Did one even exist in at that time?) Instead, he grabbed the bat of teammate Joe Collins:
Returning our attention to the photo of Jackie and Mickey ... With the Yankees over 2,000 miles away from Brooklyn's training facilities in Vero Beach, Florida, we can safely eliminate 1951 as a possible year that the photo was taken. Furthermore, since Jackie retired following the 1956 season, we can now feel confident that the photo was taken in spring training sometime between 1952 and 1956.
Now take a look at another photograph, this one found at randombaseball.tumblr.com:
Clearly this photo was taken within a few moments of the first picture, but here we see a bit more of the park and, most importantly, a Dodgers pitcher wearing uniform number 49. For our known time frame of 1952 through 1956, only one African-American pitcher for Brooklyn wore that number: Joe Black. And since Black was traded to the Reds in the middle of the 1955 season, we can eliminate 1956 as a possibility for the date of our photo.
One other clue jumps out from both of these photographs. The Yankees are wearing their home pinstripes and the Dodgers their road grays. Thus, New York was the home team for the contest.
Though spring training home games are sometimes played at neutral locations, a reasonable first guess is that the photo was taken at the Yankees facilities at St. Petersburg, Florida, where they trained every spring from 1924 to 1961 (except for the war years of 1943-1945 and, as noted above, 1951).
Now compare both of these photos of Jackie and Mickey to this old postcard of the Yankees' home field in St. Petersburg, Al Lang Field:
While the postcard shows the ballpark without light standards, the bleachers down the left field line and the palm trees in the background match up quite well. There is little doubt that the photographs were taken at St. Petersburg's Al Lang Field.
The next step in attempting to learn more about the photograph is to determine on which dates the Yankees and Dodgers met at Al Lang Field during spring training of 1952, 1953, 1954, and 1955. A check through old spring training schedules provided the answers:
- April 2, 1952
- March 29 and March 31, 1953
- March 26, 1954
- March 25, 1955
For these five games, only one featured Jackie Robinson playing first base, Mickey Mantle participating in the game, and Joe Black pitching: March 29, 1953. That's our game.
On that date, a record crowd of 8,809 fans packed Al Lang Field to see a rematch of the two pennant-winners that met in the previous season's World Series. The game was an exciting contest, with the Dodgers holding a slim 1-0 lead entering the bottom the ninth. Here's how sportswriter Louis Effrat described that final frame in the following day's New York Times:
Then came the ninth and [Yankees manager Casey] Stengel had three pinch-hitters ready.Another note in the Times explained Jackie's unusual position for the game:
[Joe] Black, only one run ahead, was called upon to face Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra and Johnny Mize. One could do it and a combination could win it. When Mantle walked on four pitches the crowd, already thrilled, did not budge.
Berra slammed the ball over the right-field fence, but it was a foul homer. Then Yogi bounced to the mound. Black turned and threw to second. It was a low, wide toss, but Pee Wee Reese made an excellent grab, stepped on the base and relayed to Robinson, who was the first baseman in this game, for the double play. Mize then popped foul to Bobby Morgan and the Dodgers were home free.
"There will be a place in the line-up for Robinson every day," [manager Chuck] Dressen said. "Only an injury will keep Jackie out." Putting two and two together, this means that Robby will be shuttling between first and third.As it turned out, in 1951 Jackie shuttled between left field (75 games) and third base (44 games), handling the duties at first base in just six games all season long.
Finally, a quick check of the box score in the Times fills in the final piece of the puzzle.
Here we see that the first base umpire, who appears in both photographs, was Bill Jackowski. Jackowski, who ultimately fashioned a fine, 17-year career as a National League umpire, may be best remembered as the home plate umpire for Game Seven of the 1960 World Series. Of course, that's the classic game in which Pittsburgh's Bill Mazeroski hit his Championship-winning, walk-off home run to top the Yankees.
In summary, the photo shows Dodgers first baseman Jackie Robinson and Yankees base-runner Mickey Mantle at first base as umpire Bill Jackowski looks on. There are no outs in the bottom of the ninth inning of this spring training game played at St. Petersburg's Al Lang Field on March 29, 1953.