- The Washington Times - Monday, April 17, 2006

In the early 1990s, Mickey Mantle came to town while flacking an autobiography called “My Greatest Season” — meaning 1956, when he won the Triple Crown by batting .353 with 52 home runs and 130 RBI.

A TV interviewer before me asked questions such as, “What team did you play for, Mr. Mantle?” When my turn came, Mick sighed wearily and said, “I’m glad you’re the last one. It’s been a long day.”

So it had, but I knew a good way to get his attention. “Hey, Mickey, I can tell you something no other reporter has: If it hadn’t been for me, you wouldn’t have had that greatest season.”

Mantle blinked. “What are you talking about?” he said. “How could that be?”

So I told him this story involving a Hall of Fame ballplayer (Mick, of course), a Hall of Fame broadcaster (Bob Wolff, longtime “voice” of the Washington Senators) and me.

It all happened 50 years ago today, April 17, 1956. That was Opening Day for the Senators and Yankees at Griffith Stadium — and my first day working as Wolff’s assistant. He had called me two weeks earlier from spring training in Orlando, Fla., and explained he would need help that season because he and fellow broadcaster Arch McDonald would be traveling to all the road games rather than doing radio recreations from a studio in Washington.

“I’m sorry,” Bob said. “But I can only afford to pay you $50 a week.”

A chance to be around major leaguers and go to all the home games for free? Like most other teenagers of that distant era, I would have paid him.

The Yankees had won six American League pennants in seven seasons; the Senators usually battled to escape last place. But on Opening Day, the teams were equal — until President Dwight Eisenhower threw out the first ball and the game started.

Three years earlier to the day, Mantle had become the only man to clear the bleachers at Griffith when he hit a home run estimated at 565 feet. Now he was doing an encore, two of them in fact, with massive 500-foot blasts that soared to either side of the flag pole atop the center field fence in the first and sixth innings as 27,837 onlookers gaped. The Yankees won 10-4, starting a season that ended with another pennant plus Don Larsen’s perfect game in a seven-game World Series victory over the Brooklyn Dodgers.

The day after the opener, the Evening Star’s lead sports headline blared: Outer Space Only Target Unreached by Mantle Here. Baseball writer Burton Hawkins started his story this way: “About the only clouting achievement remaining for Mickey Mantle to accomplish here is to unhinge a planet from its orbit. He’ll get that opportunity tonight … providing the Senators haven’t scattered to the suburbs for safety.”

During a commercial break in the eighth inning, Wolff leaned over to me in the TV booth and pretended to solicit my opinion as to what guest he should get for the “Tenth Inning” postgame TV show.

Not being a total idiot, I squeaked, “Mickey Mantle?”

Wolff nodded. “Do it.”

Bob believed in painstaking preparation. Before the game, he introduced me to head usher Johnny Sullivan, who worked near the presidential box alongside the Senators’ dugout on the first base side.

“Dick may need to get onto the field as soon as the game is over,” Wolff said. Sully nodded.

When the last Senators batter was retired in the bottom of the ninth, P.A. announcer Charlie Brotman made the usual announcement: “Spectators will please remain in their seats until the president and his party have left the park.” But Sullivan opened the gate alongside the dugout for me, and I scooted onto the field as Mantle came running in from center field toward the Yankees’ dugout. Somehow I got in front of him and shouted, “Bob Wolff! TV interview!”

Mantle stopped. “OK, where do we go?” In those days, postgame interviews were conducted from the cramped TV booth on the mezzanine behind home plate. Mickey disappeared into the booth with Wolff while I waited outside. They talked on air for five or 10 minutes before Mantle emerged with a gift certificate for a $15 Countess Mara necktie while Wolff was still doing the show.

“How the [heck] do I get down to the clubhouse from here?”

This is where I saved his season. We walked down a steep cement ramp together with Mantle, in spikes, clinging to my 150-pound frame. “One false step,” I thought, “and I’ll be knocking on the clubhouse door and telling Casey, ‘Mr. Stengel, you don’t know me, but you’ve just lost the pennant.’”

Happily, we made it in one piece. Mantle shook hands and entered the clubhouse. And when I finished telling him the story 35 or so years later, he laughed and laughed.

“That’s great,” he said. “I guess I should thank you. Let’s have a drink — Coke, that is.”

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