This article was written by Lawrence Baldassaro
When Boston and New York met at Fenway Park on August 14, 1957, the reigning World Series champion Yankees were in first place with a 73-38 record. The Red Sox were in third, 13 games behind at 60-51. In terms of competition, the rivalry was no longer what it had been in the years immediately following World War II when Boston won the pennant in 1946. Following the departure of such stars as Bobby Doerr, Vern Stephens, Dom DiMaggio, and Johnny Pesky, the Sox became, more or less, a .500 team, while the Yankees remained a perennial powerhouse. After finishing a close second to New York in 1948 and ‘49, Boston fell back to sixth in 1952, then finished in fourth place the next four years.
Nevertheless, on this Wednesday in mid-August — a sunny day with temperatures in the mid-70s — the game attracted 36,207 fans, the biggest crowd of the year and the second highest daytime attendance to that time in the history of Fenway Park. The long and storied rivalry between the two franchises doubtlessly accounted for much of that crowd, but the real rivalry on that day was less between the two teams than it was between their stars: Ted Williams and Mickey Mantle.
The 25-year-old Mantle, then in his seventh season, had won the Triple Crown the previous season and was the AL’s reigning MVP, while Williams, who would turn 39 in 16 days, was in the twilight of his great career. But as their teams prepared to face off that Wednesday, the two were locked in a battle for the AL batting and home run titles. Both boasted averages far above anyone else in the majors. Entering the game, Williams was hitting .388, Mantle .384. (The next-highest average in the AL that day belonged to Baltimore Orioles first baseman Bob Boyd at .324. Hank Aaron of the Milwaukee Braves led the NL at .334.) Mantle led Williams in homers, 32 to 30.
The starting pitcher for Casey Stengel’s Yankees was Whitey Ford, who entered the game with a 7-3 record, while Tom Brewer (13-9) was on the mound for Pinky Higgins’ Bosox. In the top of the first, Hank Bauer led off with a drive off the left-field wall, rounded first and headed for second. But Williams played the carom cleanly, then fired a strike to second to cut down Bauer. Gil McDougald, and Mantle both singled, but a strikeout and groundout ended the Yankees threat.
In the bottom of the first, after Gene Mauch singled and went to second on a passed ball by Yogi Berra, Ted Williams was walked intentionally. Dick Gernert then singled to drive in Mauch and give the Sox a 1-0 lead.
After walking Billy Consolo and giving up a single to Sammy White in the bottom of the second, Ford came out of the game with a sore shoulder. He was replaced by Don Larsen, who gained fame in 1956 by throwing a perfect game against the Brooklyn Dodgers in the fifth game of the World Series. White was forced at second on a bunt by Brewer, with Consolo advancing to third. After Mauch walked to load the bases, Frank Malzone drove in Consolo with a sacrifice fly to right, bringing Williams to the plate with runners on first and second.
Williams promptly hit his thirty-first homer, driving in three runs and bringing him within one round-tripper of Mantle. Those three runs gave the Sox a 5-0 lead and would prove to be the difference in the game. But coming in the second inning, with plenty of game left, Williams’ homer was not a dramatic game-clincher. What made this clout so memorable was not so much its effect on the outcome but its direction. This was not a typical homer by Williams, a notorious pull hitter whose long drives usually landed in the right field bullpens or the stands beyond. Instead, it was a rare opposite-field shot, a fly ball that cleared the 37-foot-high Green Monster in left and nestled into the screen that sat above the wall. Of course, that made no difference to the Sox faithful, who rose as one to celebrate a Ted Williams home run against the reviled Yankees.
Getting back to the Mantle-Williams rivalry, Mantle struck out leading off the fourth and Williams ended the bottom of the inning by grounding out to first. The Yankees got on the board in the fifth when Larsen doubled to left with two outs, then scored on a single by Bauer, making the score 5-1.
Leading off the sixth, Mantle struck out a second time. Boston then extended its lead to 6-1 in the bottom of the inning when, with one out, White reached first on a throwing error by Larsen, went to third on a single by Brewer, and scored an unearned run on a groundout by Mauch. In the top of the seventh, with two outs and nobody on, Larsen hit his second double and Bauer followed with a two-run homer to cut the lead to 6-3.
In their final at-bats, Williams hit a leadoff single in the bottom of the seventh but was left stranded, and Mantle grounded out to second to lead off the top of the eighth. The Yankees threatened in the ninth when, with one out, Tony Kubek hit a double to center. Pinch hitter Harry “Suitcase” Simpson grounded out before Larsen notched his third hit of the game, a single to left, scoring Kubek. At that point Higgins brought in Mike Fornieles to relieve Brewer, who had surrendered 15 hits. After Bauer reached first on an error by Consolo, McDougald flied out to Williams in left to end the game, 6-4.
Williams’ opposite-field shot was an unusual moment in what proved to be an extraordinary season for the aging veteran. At the end of the game his 2-for-3 performance had raised his average to .390, while Mantle fell to .382 after going 1-for-4. Both players would be sidelined in September. Mantle was hampered by an ankle injury and finished the season with a .365 average, the highest of his career. After missing two weeks due to an upper respiratory infection, Williams came back with a vengeance. Between September 17 and 23, he reached base in 16 consecutive plate appearances, a still-standing record in the modern era. Over the second half of the season he hit .454 and finished with a .388 average — the highest in the majors since he hit .406 in 1941 — giving him the fifth of his six batting titles. Nor was Williams reduced to a singles hitter; he hit 38 homers (second in the AL) and his league-leading slugging percentage (.731) and OPS (1.257) were his best since the 1941 season.
In his autobiography, My Turn at Bat, Williams wrote, “I started the season mad and finished mad, I didn’t say two words to the Boston writers all year, and in between I probably had the most amazing season a near-forty-year-old athlete ever had.”1 In fact, he was named Player of the Year by The Sporting News, and Male Athlete of the Year by the Associated Press. However, in the vote for MVP he finished second to Mantle, even though his average was 23 points higher and he hit four more homers. Regardless of Williams’ performance, one writer gave him a ninth-place vote and another a tenth-place vote, an unfortunate consequence of his contentious relationship with some members of the media. Nevertheless, given Williams’ remarkable performance at the age of 38, a solid argument can be made that 1957 was the most impressive season of his Hall of Fame career.
I’m inserting a personal note to illustrate the surprising effect that home run had on one spectator in the park that day. A freshman in high school and a diehard Sox fan, I was part of that record crowd, along with my parents and a friend of theirs, an elderly attorney whose name I no longer recall. I do recall that he was a quiet man who was reserved to the point of melancholy and never seemed to express any emotion. We had made the 90-mile drive from our homes in Western Massachusetts and were seated down the left field line, a little beyond third base.
When Williams hit his round-tripper, no one cheered more loudly than I did as I witnessed the first (and, sadly, the only) home run I saw in person by my boyhood hero. Then I suddenly realized that my parents’ friend, who was seated to my left, was cheering as wildly as I was. There he was, jumping up and down, clapping his hands, and screaming with sheer joy. At that moment, a home run by Ted Williams had turned this demure gentleman into as much of a kid as I was. The image of that man’s sudden metamorphosis is as firmly ingrained in my memory as is the sight of Williams’ home run.
In addition to the source cited in the Notes, I consulted the Baseball-Reference.com and Retrosheet.org websites and the August 15, 1957, edition of the New York Times. Due to a Boston newspaper strike at the time, there was no local coverage of the game.
1 Ted Williams, with John Underwood, My Turn at Bat: The Story of My Life (New York: Pocket Books, 1970), 175.