The inquiry arrived via e-mail with a note of urgency from my publisher: You might want to take a look at this. Mrs. Frank Sullivan had just received a condolence call from a dear friend who had learned of her husband's death on page 162 of The Last Boy, my 2010 biography of Mickey Mantle. Mrs. Frank Sullivan was upset. She was also surprised because her husband, an All-Star pitcher for the 1950s Red Sox, was sitting beside her on their porch in Kauai watching the sunset and sipping his favorite wine from a box. Mrs. Frank Sullivan wished to know how soon I might declare him undead.
This is an article from the March 26, 2012 issue
I was appropriately mortified. Mickey murdered the ball, sure, but I had killed Frank. My apology was prompt and profuse. I had tried to find Frank Sullivan, honest. Two former teammates (at least!) and one heretofore unimpeachable online source had reported that Frank was putting on his pants one leg at a time in a better world.
I had grieved for him and, truth to tell, for myself because Frank wasn't just another dead ballplayer. He was responsible for the best line ever uttered about Mantle, maybe the best line ever uttered by a major league pitcher. Asked how he pitched to the Mick, Frank answered on behalf of the 548 menaced hurlers who faced Mantle over 18 years: "With tears in my eyes."
I had to use it. So I put Frank in the past tense.
The "late" Frank Sullivan e-mailed the next day:
Dear Jane, it would distress me big time if you were to lose a minute's sleep over this. I know I haven't. And besides, you're probably not off by much.
Sully, who is now 82, pitched for the Red Sox from 1953 to '60, in the era before the ball club attained Most Favored Nation status. He was far better than the teams he played for, a two-time All-Star who deserved a kinder fate—certainly from me. "Water off a duck's back," he said when I called to make further amends. "Don't forget you're dealing with a guy who was booed by thousands."
He doesn't remember when he said what he said about the Mick, what occasioned it or to whom he said it. Mantle had a way of obliterating memory. "He was spooky good," Frank says.
Theirs was a liaison dangereuse, a template for the complications faced by every pitcher who threw to the Mick. It lasted nine years, on and off: 27 one-night stands, home and away; 79 brief encounters at the plate (including unofficial at bats), each preserved in box scores and encrypted in agate type.
AB H 2B 3B HR BB IBB SO HBP SH SF AVG OBP SLG
61 18 1 0 7 18 0 14 0 0 0 .295 .456 .656
They crossed paths on the field and met in occasional headlines and high jinks. Like many baseball relationships, theirs has improved over time, at least in Frank's memory. "I had a lot of success with Mickey," he tells me. "He didn't like my herky-jerky motion." Which might explain why nine of the 14 times Frank struck him out, the Mick was caught looking. "I think he hit only four home runs off me," Frank says.
Actually it was seven, only 1.3% of Mantle's 536 career home runs (surrendered by 224 pitchers) but enough to tie Frank for sixth place on the list of Pitchers Most Victimized by the Mick. You might call it a long-distance relationship.
May 21, 1954, was a raw, dank day in New York City. Frank thought the game might well be called on account of rain. Then a photographer knocked on the door of his room at the Commodore Hotel and said, "I'm here to take your picture. You're pitching tonight."
Nobody had said a word to him about making his first major league start that day. He was a rookie, bearing the burden of possibility, just as Mantle had in 1951. Everything was before him.
He had survived 4½ months on the line in Korea, where he rehabbed a sore arm by chucking hand grenades. "I'd just as soon have had a sore arm forever," Frank tells me.
Mantle had yet to fulfill the tantalizing promise ignited in '51, when he had what Yankees infielder Gil McDougald called "a spring you only dream about" and manager Casey Stengel prevailed upon the Yankees' higher-ups to put the 19-year-old rookie on the major league roster after only two years in the minors. "He has more speed than any slugger and more slug than any speedster—and nobody has ever had more of both of 'em together," Stengel declared. "This kid ain't logical. He's too good. It's very confusing."
McDougald was named Rookie of the Year. Mantle's season ended in disappointment and despair in the fifth inning of Game 2 of the '51 World Series, when he tore up his right knee trying not to run into the man he called "Joe F---' DiMaggio" in centerfield at Yankee Stadium. Mantle would never set foot on the field again without pain. He would play the next two seasons on an undiagnosed unstable knee and would not have surgery until November '53. It was too little and too late to repair the damage, which was compounded by a misguided post-surgery hunting trip with Billy Martin in the winter of '54. Mantle was operated on again just weeks before spring training.
He was limping when the Yankees reported to camp in St. Petersburg. Yankees pooh-bahs fumed at his lack of maturity and his irresponsibility. The violence of his urgent lefthanded swing placed extreme torque on the compromised right knee. Stengel had benched Mantle in the 10 previous games against righthanded starters; he was batting .136 lefthanded, with three measly singles. But Stengel had him in the lineup and batting third against the righty Sullivan and the last-place Red Sox on May 21.
Dr. Bobby Brown, the Yankees' infielder just back from two years in Korea—who notes that he was the only man ever to take medical school exams in the home locker room—was aghast when he saw the condition of Mantle's knee. He had lost two inches to atrophy. "I measured it," Brown says. "I told him, 'Your knee is going to continue to buckle until you get that quadriceps built back up where it should be.'"
Brown first saw Mantle run in the fall of 1950, when the Yankees brought him up for a late-season cup of coffee, a reward for winning the batting title of the Class C Western Association. Mantle ran so hard, Brown says, that "he kicked up tufts of dirt as high as his head." Even after the injury, which cost him at least a step, he was faster than anyone else from home to first. One night during a lull in the fighting on the 38th parallel, Brown had screened footage from the 1952 World Series for the enlisted men in the mess-hall bunker. Mantle hit the first of his 18 World Series home runs in Game 6 and broke a 2--2 tie in Game 7 with a sixth-inning homer that vanquished the Brooklyn Dodgers once again. But that wasn't what took the GIs' breath away. "It was a bunt on one bounce back to the pitcher that he was out on by about half a step," Brown says.
"Lieutenant, lieutenant, run that back again!" an enlisted man called out.
The projectionist ran it again. "Look at that 4-F son of a bitch run!"
Twice Mantle had been declared 4-F by Army doctors because of osteomyelitis, a bacterial infection of the bone in his left shin. While Sullivan and Brown were on the front line, Mantle was in pinstripes, receiving death threats and bad p.r., which prompted another military physical exam in November 1952. The Army surgeon general took one look at Mantle's X-ray and declared him unfit to serve, citing a "chronic right-knee defect resulting from an injury suffered in the '51 World Series." Yet Mantle did not have surgery for another year. And, the Yankees' trainer confided to Brown, Mantle hadn't done the exercises he needed to strengthen the muscles around that knee. He hid the weights he had been given so he didn't have to do the prescribed exercises on road trips.
When Mantle came to the plate to face Frank Sullivan with two outs in the bottom of the first inning, what was Sully thinking? "Not much," he says. "I would have been throwing sliders for strikes and a fastball to get the guy out, and I had no idea where the fastball was going."
Mantle, at 5'11", wasn't an intimidating physical presence, not to Sullivan, who at 6'7" was the tallest pitcher in the American League. (After the 1960 season he would be traded to the Philadelphia Phillies for 6'8" Gene Conley in what is still known as the biggest trade in baseball history.) Sully had made his first major league appearance as a reliever the previous July and walked Mantle the first time they met, that September. But this was his debut as a member of the starting rotation. He struck Mantle out in the first inning and in the fourth and again in the sixth. "I thought, Where's all the press on this guy coming from?" Frank says. "Then he hit one [off me] so far up in the bleachers in Yankee Stadium, I couldn't believe it. He could hit the ball so much farther than anybody his size. Or anybody's size."
The headline in THE NEW YORK TIMES the next morning said, ROOKIE FANS NINE, TRIPS BOMBERS, 6--3: Red Sox' Sullivan Wins First Big League Start Despite Mantle's 2-Run Homer. Buried at the bottom of the story was this note: "Mantle, starting against right-handers again, now has more strikeouts than hits, 17 to 16."
By the time Sully faced him in Boston on July 1, Mantle was hitting .313. He hit his 15th home run of the year in the third inning, but the Yankees left Boston a half game further behind the first-place Cleveland Indians, a gap they would never close and an indignity Casey Stengel would never forgive. He blamed Mantle for the Yankees' forfeiture of their rightful place atop the American League, daring him at season's end to be as good as the Dodgers' Duke Snider and the Giants' Willie Mays, his New York counterparts, who surpassed him in statistics and stature. The Mick would have much to prove in 1955.
Mantle reported to spring training as whole as he could be. On May 6, in a pregame ceremony at Fenway Park, the Red Sox celebrated the beginning of Mental Health Month in honor of outfielder Jimmy Piersall—"now fully recovered from a nervous breakdown," the Times noted. Mantle celebrated his regained fitness by hitting his fifth home run of the year. He defied a whistling wind blowing in hard from rightfield and redirected one of Sully's first-inning pitches into the Yankees' bullpen. (A week later he would have the only three-home-run game of his career, which would also be the first time he homered from both sides of the plate.) Sullivan was gone by the fifth inning, having "strained his left shoulder when he fell while fanning," the Times reported.
Sully recovered in time to be the losing pitcher in the 1955 All-Star Game in Milwaukee, a black mark on what would be his finest season, with an AL-best 18 wins. He was summoned to relieve Whitey Ford with two outs in the eighth inning and the American League leading 5--3 thanks to Mantle's 430-foot first-inning home run (one of only two he hit in 20 All-Star Games). The game had been delayed a half hour by the funeral of Chicago Tribune sports editor Arch Ward, who'd conceived the Midsummer Classic in 1933. "I had to walk by Mantle coming in from the bullpen," Frank says. "He hollered at me, 'Let's get this thing over, because it's getting into cocktail hour.' I didn't reply. I was nervous as hell."
Al Rosen booted a ball at third base, allowing the National League to tie the score at 5--5. Frank stayed in the game and kept it that way. By the bottom of the 12th, when no further progress had been made, everyone was getting thirsty. "Do something," AL catcher Yogi Berra implored leadoff hitter Stan Musial, who hit Sully's first pitch for a game-winning home run. "I was only following Mantle's advice," Frank said, but the memory still rankles.
Mantle, who regarded the All-Star Game as an interruption in a weekendlong cocktail party, had played all three hours and 17 minutes. He exacted his revenge on Sully when the Yankees returned to Fenway on Aug. 16. There was a moment of silence for Babe Ruth—it was the seventh anniversary of his death—and then, in the top of the third, a crash: Mantle's 30th home run of the year, his fourth in three days, an opposite-field shot that sailed over the 379-foot mark in left center and hit a building across the street. Frank lasted 22/3 innings.
But Mantle wasn't done with him. One day, Sully isn't sure exactly when, he returned to the Hotel Kenmore, where he lived during the season, to find his VW Beetle sitting on the sidewalk, wedged tightly between a telephone pole and a brick wall. "I had to call a tow truck," he says, "to pick the front end of it up and drag the damn thing far enough so I could get in."
When Sully got to the ballpark the next day, Vince Orlando, the clubhouse man who worked the visitors' locker room, told him he had overheard Mantle laughing about it with his pal Bill (Moose) Skowron.
If Mantle's accomplishments during the 1955 season (.306, 99 RBIs and a league-leading 37 home runs) were a prelude to what would be the greatest year of his professional life, the World Series that fall was a reminder of how hard it would be for him to sustain good health and good fortune. In mid-September he tore his right hamstring trying to beat out a bunt. No one knew enough sports physiology back then to understand that a hamstring was subjected to abnormal stress—sometimes more than it could bear—when it had to compensate for a compromised knee. Mantle could play in only three of the seven World Series games against the Dodgers, managing two hits in 10 at bats, and is sometimes credited with delivering a belated world championship to Brooklyn.
By September 1956, Mantle was on the cusp of complete redemption, vying with Ted Williams for the batting title and making a serious run at baseball's elusive Triple Crown. When the Yankees arrived in Boston on Sept. 21 he was batting .350, five points behind Williams, who did not yet have enough at bats to qualify for the batting title. All the talk going into the series was about whether the Yankees would pitch to Williams.
The Yankees left 20 men on base that day and, thanks to a solo shot by Mantle in the second inning, set an AL record for most home runs by a club in a major league season (183). Again, Sully was the victim. "Damn near broke the back wall at Fenway," Frank says. "Hit the last brick on top of the wall in dead centerfield. I thought it was going to wipe out the Citgo sign."
It was Mantle's 51st home run of the season. He went 3 for 5, raising his average to .352, four points behind Williams. The sports pages began referring to Sully as Mantle's "favorite cousin."
By the end of the weekend Mantle was batting .356, six points ahead of Boston's favorite brooder. (And he would go on to win his Triple Crown, hitting .353 with 52 homers and 130 RBIs.)
Sully and Mickey would soon show up in the same locker room, but only in an artist's imagination. After Sunday's game Tom Dowd, the Red Sox' traveling secretary, arrived in the losers' clubhouse with orders for Sullivan, catcher Sammy White and rightfielder Jackie Jensen: They were to report to a studio in Stockbridge, Mass., the next day. They weren't given a choice, and it didn't occur to them that they had one. Williams, whose presence had also been requested, was not about to drive clear across the state to pose for anybody on his day off, in the middle of a race for the batting title, but he agreed to allow the artist, a guy named Norman Rockwell, to use his likeness.
"I didn't know who the hell he was," Frank says. "We were told by the Red Sox to take our uniforms and go. Jesus, it was a whole long way. There was no freeway in those days, three hours there and three hours back—and he served iced tea for lunch!"
Then Rockwell ushered them into his spartan studio, where a facsimile of the Red Sox's spring training locker room in Sarasota, Fla., had been created. There were makeshift lockers with handwritten nameplates and a rudimentary bench constructed by Rockwell's studio assistant, Louie Lamone. The artist littered the floor with matchbooks, crumpled paper cups and dirty towels. He filled the lockers with liniment bottles and towels and baseball gloves. Frank hung his aloha shirt and his sport jacket on a hook and put on his uniform and posed for an hour. Rockwell told the players where and how to sit, where and how to look. Then his photographer, Bill Scoville, began shooting.
"He just kept telling us to keep looking up," Frank says. At what? He wasn't sure. Rockwell didn't explain the composition he envisioned or the assignment from The Saturday Evening Post, which had commissioned the painting for its cover. "He was a little meek, pipe-smoking guy, very polite," Frank says. "He wanted me to sit there with my arm on Jensen's shoulder," affecting locker room intimacy. Rockwell stationed White on the bench to Sully's right and a bare-chested studio assistant behind him. Rockwell called the assistant John J. Anonymous, a stand-in for all the forgettables who managed a line in The Baseball Encyclopedia.
Then he told Frank to stand at Williams's locker and pretend he was the Splendid Splinter. Rockwell would put Ted's head on Frank's body later.
Ledgers at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge show that a check for $100 was issued to each of the players. "I never saw mine," says Frank, who should have gotten paid twice.
A few weeks later, on Oct. 20, Mickey Mantle's 25th birthday, a high school senior from Pittsfield, Mass., arrived at Rockwell's studio to fill out the composition. Sherman Safford, who actually preferred basketball to baseball, had been recruited to pose for Rockwell as the Rookie in his eponymous painting. "Picked me out of a chow line," Safford recalls a half century later.
He was a tall, gangly, California-raised boy. He had an open, expectant face that was full of promise, the look Rockwell was searching for. He called Safford's mother with a list of instructions about what her boy was to bring and to wear. He was to show up with a five-fingered fielder's glove, which he didn't own, and a bat. "He didn't want me to wear Levis," Sherm says. "He said, 'See if you can get a seersucker coat.' And he said, 'I want a straw suitcase.' My mother found one somewhere. I think it was a picnic basket."
And, Rockwell told Mrs. Safford, "for God's sake don't let him cut that hair."
"I always got it cut once a month," Sherm says. "By the end of the month it got pretty shucky." That was the hayseed look Rockwell was after.
Safford arrived in brown penny loafers, chinos that were too short to cover his white wool socks, and a jacket whose sleeves didn't reach his wrists. Rockwell plunked his own fedora on Sherm's head. "He said, 'Here's what I want. Smile just as broadly as you can. Extend your hand. You're here to be the savior of the team. You're going to take them to the World Series. And you're just as proud as you can be.'"
Rockwell directed him to put the glove and suitcase in his left hand so he could extend a hand to the jaded vets lounging in the faux locker room. But, Sherm says, "there was something he didn't like." And on Nov. 1, Rockwell called him back to the studio. The painting was slated for the cover of The Saturday Evening Post in March, when pitchers and catchers reported to spring training, and perhaps the artist realized that the rookie in his painting would have been too abashed to be so forward and outgoing, especially when confronted by the predatory glare that Rockwell fixed on Ted Williams's uninviting mug. In the final drawing, Rockwell stationed Red Sox infielder Billy Goodman (photographed separately) behind the Rookie, hand to his mouth in an attempt to stifle the grin provoked by the interloping rube.
The cover hit the newsstand on March 2, 1957; the Red Sox were in spring training in Sarasota. Sully noted how faithfully Rockwell had replicated their locker room—minus his aloha shirt. Rockwell got everything right but the shoes (Jensen is wearing street shoes with his uniform) and Ted Williams. "Looks awful, doesn't it?" Frank says.
Certainly, it didn't look anything like Ted Williams. But the title character in The Rookie looks very familiar. In fact, he looks just as Mickey Mantle did when he showed up in the Yankees' locker room in 1951, carrying a straw suitcase and, in the recollection of the late Hank Bauer, "wearing hush-puppy shoes and white sweat socks all rolled up." Like Rockwell's Rookie, he was met by a superstar's baleful glare. Joe DiMaggio was not happy to make Mantle's acquaintance. And like the face of Rockwell's Rookie, Mantle's was unclouded by doubt and freckled with possibility. "That face was special," Sully says. "You've never seen another face like that."
There is no allusion to Mantle in the archives at the Norman Rockwell Museum. But Rockwell, who grew up rooting for the Dodgers, was no doubt aware of Mantle's ineffable smile. By the spring of 1957, Mantle had become an American archetype. His image and his myth had become part of our collective consciousness. Perhaps that explains why The Rookie, one of Rockwell's 321 covers for The Saturday Evening Post, remains one of his most ubiquitous and merchandised illustrations. Frank has a Rookie magnet; Sherm's boss saw The Rookie on a wallpaper border at a home-improvement megastore.
The Rookie can be put together in a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle or assembled from a 500-piece puzzle in a tin. The Rookie adorns a 100% silk tie sold at the museum in Stockbridge and a 4-inch collectible plate sold at the Norman Rockwell Museum of Vermont in Rutland. The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston sells a Rockwell Rookie Single Coaster for $5.95, a mouse pad for $18.95 and a key chain for $2.99, which is currently out of stock. The Boston museum is where Sully, the sole surviving ballplayer on Rockwell's canvas, saw the original painting in 2005, when he attended his first major league baseball game since the Minnesota Twins put him out to pasture in 1963. He was inducted into the Red Sox Hall of Fame three years later.
Sully faced Mantle for the final time in the summer of 1962, after he was released by the Phillies and signed by the Twins, his third and last stop in the majors. Frank walked him, just as he had the first time they met. Frank was "in the twilight of a mediocre career"—a line he says he stole from the well-traveled utility infielder Rocky Bridges. Soon Mantle, too, would be in decline. After '64 he no longer had "it in his body to be great," as Stengel once put it. Mantle told me he should have quit after '65, but he played another three years because he didn't know how to do anything else, and the Yankees didn't know what to do without him.
Frank moved to Hawaii in order to get as far away from baseball as possible. If he had to dig ditches for a living, he says, he didn't want anyone he knew to see him doing it. He also didn't want to be "just another stupid jock hanging around a game he could no longer play." He worked for companies that built helicopter pads and golf courses on Kauai; he became a golf pro and sailed boats through the seven seas; he wrote a damn good book called Life Is More Than 9 Innings—a lesson Mantle didn't learn until it was too late.
Mickey's star burned hot and bright, and burned out too soon; Frank's still twinkles. Mantle became a legend; Sully survived. "I'm glad you're alive," I told him, still repentant after we'd gotten to know each other better.
"And I'm glad you're alive," he replied, which was generous, considering that I'd inadvertently killed him off in my book.
"If I knew I was going to live so long, I would've taken better care of myself," Mantle liked to say, a throwaway line he delivered often while throwing his life away.
"I had no idea of the misery and suffering the poor bastard went through," Sully wrote me after he finished reading The Last Boy. "If I'd known how tough Mickey's life had been, I would've thrown a few fat ones over the plate."
"Sully and the Mick" is from DAMN YANKEES: Twenty-Four Major League Writers on the World's Most Loved (and Hated) Team, edited by Rob Fleder and published by Ecco.
TAKING SULLY DEEP
Of Mickey Mantle's 536 career home runs, seven were off pitches thrown by Frank Sullivan, and five of those contributed to Yankees victories over the Red Sox. Here's a partial box score for each dinger.
May 21, 1954
BOS d. NY 6--3
Mantle: 1 for 4, 1 R, 2 RBIs
July 1, 1954
NY d. BOS 8--7
Mantle: 2 for 5, 0 BB, 1 R, 3 RBIs
May 6, 1955
NY d. BOS 6--0
Mantle: 1 for 4, 1 BB, 1 R, 1 RBI
Aug. 16, 1955
NY d. BOS 13--6
Mantle: 3 for 5, 1 BB, 1 R, 2 RBIs
Sept. 21, 1956
BOS d. NY 13--7
Mantle: 3 for 5, 1 BB, 3 R, 2 RBIs
Aug. 13, 1957
NY d. BOS 3--2
Mantle: 3 for 3, 1 BB, 1 R, 3 RBIs
Sept. 3, 1958
NY d. BOS 8--5
Mantle: 2 for 4, 1 BB, 3 R, 1 RBI