Two future Baseball Hall of Famers were facing each other in what was supposed to be a hitting exhibition exactly 45 years ago this month in West Haven, Conn. One of them was the former New York Yankees’ superstar, Mickey Mantle, four years after he retired from the game and two years before he was inducted into the Hall.
The other was also an ex-Yankee, although very briefly. Bobby Cox was in just the second year of what would become a Hall of Fame managing career. He was then at the helm of the West Haven Yankees in the Double A Eastern League.
It was July 20, 1972, on a late Thursday afternoon, when Mantle attracted an amazingly large crowd, officially numbered at 4,937, including an advance sale of over 2,000. More than half had arrived a few hours before the familiar figure wearing a Yankee uniform with his now retired number 7 stepped onto the field. Most of those watching were youngsters who wanted to see their hero up close and, if lucky, get his autograph.
This was the inaugural year of the West Haven Yankees, who played in Quigley Stadium. What is left of that old baseball and football facility is still being used today, but the permanent seating is long gone. In 1972 it had mostly bench seats in rickety stands.
Mantle came to West Haven for just $1,000
The West Haven team was often referred to in the press of that era as the EL Yanks. Its owner was Ron Duke, a likable sportsman from Hanover, Mass., who put his heart, soul, and resources into the venture. Duke had prevailed upon “The Mick” to come to Connecticut for a modest fee of $1,000 plus expenses. Perhaps Mantle needed the money badly. Regardless of why he came, things hardly worked out the way everybody had hoped.
Mantle vs. Cox
It was a preliminary to an Eastern League game, the West Haven Yankees against the Pittsfield Red Sox. Without the cameo appearance by Mantle, the game would probably have drawn about a thousand. But the place was packed for this occasion, which was supposed to feature a display of Mantle’s hitting prowess, with Bobby Cox throwing “cupcakes” to the plate.
The youngsters were there to watch Mantle blast the ball out of the bandbox of a stadium, which is still located in a commercial area on Front Street and off of Route 1 (the Boston Post Road), in the Allingtown section of the city.
Things did not get underway well when Mantle swung and missed the first two deliveries by the West Haven manager. When he did make contact he failed to reach the close fences. In fact, only a few baseballs off of Mantle’s bat made it to the outfield. The majority of those he hit were batted into the ground.
According to Paul Marslano in the New Haven Register, “Most of the people expected the ball to sail out of Quigley. Instead, it turned into a sad affair as one of baseball’s greatest hitters swung lazily at the ball.”
A rocky trip to West Haven
The day had started poorly for Mickey Mantle and Ron Duke. The clubs’ owner had driven to New York to pick up his guest, who was staying at a hotel prior to a Yankees Old Times’ game two days later. But passing through Westchester County a tire went flat and there was no spare in the trunk. So Duke and Mantle had to walk to a garage for a new tire.
As a result, Mickey’s press conference at the West Haven Elks Club was delayed about 90 minutes. When it was over he was taken to Quigley and walked onto the field, where he signed autographs near the backstop.
“He spent 10 or 15 minutes writing his name for the youngsters and even a few elders,” Marslano related. “Then he motioned to Cox, the West Haven manager, that he was ready.”
A sad flop at the plate
Unfortunately, he probably really wasn’t ready for what was to follow. He couldn’t even hit a “cupcake” out of Quigley Stadium.
Mantle was then 40 years of age, and Father Time had caught up to him early in life. That became apparent shortly after the once feared switch hitter stepped into the batter’s box. He chose to hit right handed, his stronger side.
The kids who were there that day are now adults of middle age. They may remember their disappointment of 45 years ago when they saw Mantle at the plate and Cox trying to make it easy for him to do what he once did naturally.
They were two ex-baseball players who would become Hall of Famers, but not because of anything they did that disappointing day in West Haven.