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The Strike Zone

Did Mickey Mantle used a corked bat? Here's why it wouldn't have mattered

Mickey Mantle bat An x-ray of the barrel of the alleged Mantle bat. (Grey Flannel Auctions)

Earlier this month, Grey Flannel Auctions made waves by listing a corked bat that was said to have been used by Mickey Mantle at some point during his 18-year career. On Monday, the auction house pulled the listing after the Mantle family released a statement disputing the authenticity of the bat:

"We no longer can remain silent. The statements and suggestions that Dad used a corked bat more than 49 years ago to cheat at the game he worshipped are false. Let us be clear: Dad didn’t need and never used a corked bat. Mickey Mantle was honest about the way he played the game that he loved and to which he devoted his professional life. He was one of the best who ever played the game because of his natural talents and abilities – and his heart. Our Dad's legacy must be protected and the injury to his reputation must be corrected -- he does not deserve to be the subject of these outrageous fabrications.

The bat in question — a 35-inch, 32.6-ounce Louisville Slugger from 1964 — was said to have been studied by John Taube of PSA/DNA, a professional authentication service. Taube discovered alterations atop the barrel of the bat, and x-rays confirmed that it had been drilled and filled with cork. The Grey Flannel Auctions listing said that former Twins equipment manager Ray Crump claimed in an autobiography (presumably this 1993 out-of-print but available one) that he had corked some bats for Mantle, but that none had surfaced. However, the exact provenance of the bat hasn't been fully explained, nor has the question of what a Twins employee was doing supplying illegal equipment to the Yankees been answered. Furthermore, it hasn't been established that Mantle used the bat in a game or in batting practice, or even that it was altered while he still owned it.

Like doctored baseballs, corked bats are illegal according to baseball's rules, but users are rarely apprehended or disciplined. Since the 1970s, just six major leaguers have been caught using such bats, and suspended for substantial periods of time, with Graig Nettles' Super Ball-filled bat in 1974 the first and Sammy Sosa's 2003 corker the most recent. The latter drew an eight-game suspension, which was reduced to seven games upon appeal.

Many more have likely gotten away with using one. A contemporary of Mantle's, Tigers first baseman Norm Cash, said in a 1981 Sports Illustrated article that he "used a hollow bat my whole career," including in 1961, when he led the AL with a .361 batting average and hit 41 homers with 142 RBIs, numbers he never approached again. That article also mentioned numerous other players from the 1970s and early 1980s accused by their peers or opposing managers of using corked bats, including Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt, and Pete Rose owned up to using one in bating practice. At the time that was written, players truly believed in their benefits:

What does hollowing the wood from a bat do? According to Cash, it makes the bat lighter, so that a batter is getting the mass of a 36-ounce bat with the whip of a 34-ounce bat. And, of course, it stands to reason that a bat with a cork center will be livelier than a bat with a wood center. Players say they can get an extra 20 to 50 feet with corked bats.

More recently, physicists have at least partially debunked the notion that such bats provide benefit. Testing by physicist Alan Nathan of the University of Illinois and mechanical engineer Lloyd Smith of Washington State University at the latter's testing lab — which performs the official bat testing for the NCAA — showed that the tradeoff between swing speed and collision efficiency did not necessarily work out in the corked batsman's favor. Batted ball speeds off a corked bat are lower, producing shorter fly ball distances, though there may still be an advantage to being able to produce more bat speed and acceleration. From a Popular Mechanics summary of the recent research:

When testing corked bats, Nathan and his team found that instead of adding more trampoline effect, corking a wooden bat actually decreased it. "What you gain in higher bat speed, you lose in a less effective collision," Nathan says. "It does not lead to a higher batted ball speed." And because the bat is lighter, balls hit with a corked bat don't travel as far, he says. However, the lighter weight of a corked bat may allow hitters to get to pitches they might not otherwise hit with a standard bat.

Between the limited evidence that corked bats provide any benefit and the potentially tenuous connection between Mantle and the offending bat in question, it's a stretch to suggest that Mantle's achievements — 536 home runs, three MVP awards, a Triple Crown, seven World Series rings and a plaque in the Hall of Fame — are truly tainted, though one can understand the Mantle family's desire to refute the allegations produced by the auction listing.

That said, for more than four decades — since the publication of Jim Bouton's Ball Four autobiography in 1970, at least — it's been clear that Mantle was no saint. By the slugger's own admission, he drank to excess during his career, and played hungover more than once, which at least colors the family's statement that "The legacy of our Dad’s professionalism, perseverance and integrity has endured for more than 43 years since his retirement from baseball and is a testament to his status as an icon in American sports and culture." His absence down the stretch in 1961 due to an abscess in his hip is said to have been caused by a quack who injected him with a concoction of steroids and amphetamines, administered to cure him of a sexually transmitted disease.

Warts and all, Mantle is still revered for what he accomplished as a player and for facing up to his demons later in his relatively brief life (he died in 1995 at age 63). It's doubtful that the corked bat in question will ever be definitively connected to him, so this saga over a randomly resurfaced curio shouldn't do anything to diminish his standing in the eyes of baseball fans.
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