Mantle VS Mays and the Home Run Derby that Started it all

As a kid my favorite part of the all-star break was the Home Run Derby, not because of the event itself, but because it ushered in a new marathon of the black-and-white TV show “Home Run Derby” endlessly airing on ESPN Classic. The program had a nonchalance to it that enthralled me. The contestants casually lounging next to host Mark Scott while his competitor hits is something I always enjoyed. Of course, watching legends hitting home runs was a nice feature too.

 

Willie Mays deep in thought while waiting in the broadcast booth with host Mark Scott as they watch Mickey Mantle take his cuts in "Home Run Derby."

 

Upon re-watching the show as an adult I’ve come to appreciate Mark Scott’s role as a huge factor in my enjoyment. He’s part Jeff Probst(endlessly prodding and attempting to excite the players) and part Chris Berman(awkwardly trailing off his home run call when the ball lands on the track). His casual demeanor with the players makes it seem like they are sitting on the couch next to me. A great feat considering the tough job Scott has. There is no crowd or stadium music to get us excited. There is no sideline reporter to ask the players questions. There is no on-screen technology to help pass along information. It's all on Mark Scott. He even tells us about the park, “This park favors neither American League nor National League hitters.” Who would've guessed?

Speaking of the park, the show somehow managed to snag Wrigley Field as the venue!!

 

Wrigley Field in Los Angeles is actually the original "Wrigley" as it was named when the famous ivy-walled stadium in Chicago was still called Cubs Park. 

 

Yep, that's definitely Wrigley Field.

As for the event itself, it’s the first episode that I want to focus on as it was the world’s introduction to an event that is so well known today. What an introduction it was, as two of the 10 best players of all time squared off in a contest to see who can hit the most home runs in 9, three-out innings.


"It’s a home run or nothing here on Home run Derby!"   - Mark Scott


Dingers will have to wait as Mark Scott first introduces Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays as well as all of the rules. Finally Scott gets to the cash reward description in which the winner gets $2,000 dollars while the loser still gets $1,000(to put that prize in perspective, Mays made a salary of $75,000 in 1959, the highest in baseball. Mantle made $65,000).

The most surprising part of the rule description comes when Scott tells the players that there is a home plate umpire calling strikes and if a hitter takes a pitch that he calls a strike it counts as an out. Watching home plate ump, Art Passarella, ring up Hall of Famers in a home run derby is easily the strangest part of this whole event.

Finally we are ready for the contest. Mays is up first and as a precursor to the success of the show, and of derbies in general, he smacks the first pitch out of the park.

 
 

The rotation between hitters is a little quick and doesn’t allow for the “groove” that the modern home run derby provides. This creates an awkward amount of time on the show being filled with the two players switching spots in the seat next to Scott. However, the quick conversations between Scott and the players end up being quite entertaining. Almost all of the interactions are slightly awkward but the players are much less stiff and drab than they are in modern day interviews.

Both players have moments of complete garble mouth that I’m assuming has something to do with nerves of being on a show. Take this comment from Mantle after being prompted from Scott with, “Mickey you hit a long there for your 1 run of the inning,”

 
 

“Yea I hit those bug. [weird gesture] They just didn’t go in.” - Mickey Mantle


 
 

It’s not just Mantle with the awkward exchanges, here is one of my favorite back-and-forths between Scott and Mays:

 

Scott: “Willie that one that you did hit out of the ballpark was hit a ton, wasn’t it?”

Mays: “I think so Mark”

Scott: “That foul ball was just not straight enough. It would’ve gone too.”

Mays: “Well I pulled it too much.”

Scott: “Yes.”


There is also a particularly great interaction between Mantle and Scott that takes place after some hard grounders from Mantle where they appear to collectively discover the “Fly-Ball Revolution” that is such a big topic in today’s game. Here’s the clip:

 
 

It’s these moments that make this show so watchable in 2018. Every baseball fan has seen a derby. Every baseball fan has seen homers, and some have even grown tired of home runs. Yet, watching this event in its infancy gives us a sense of clarity on how the sport got to where it is today.

On a less serious note, Mark Scott screwing up a home run call is the real reason this show is watchable. Throughout the early innings of the contest as Mays is consistently hitting homers, basically every ball hit in the air gets the home run treatment from Scott.

Here are a couple of my favorite homer derps from Mark Scott:

 
 

About halfway through the competition Mays is well ahead and Scott tries his best to set the seed for a comeback, “Look’s like Mickey is looking them over a bit better than he had been before, eh Willie?” Now before you watch Mays’ reaction keep in mind he is up 7-2 at this point and Mantle hasn’t hit a homer in 5 straight outs.

 
 

That’s a “what the hell are you talking about?” look if I’ve ever seen it. But being the Hall of Famer that he is, he quickly adjusts and gives us the respect nod to close out the worldless response.

Did I mention that Mantle was really struggling? Scott sure didn’t forget to mention.

 
 

Here’s the official scoreboard to help translate the sound Mantle just made:

 
 

We’re deep enough into this contest that I think umpire, Art Passarella, has forgotten that it’s a home run derby. At one point Mantle hit a groundball down the line and Art pulled out this maneuver to see if it was fair or foul.

 

Umpire, Art Passarella, going down to a knee to make sure he gets the call correct. Even though it was a groundball...in a home run derby...

 

This would be a lot less fun as a blowout so thankfully Mantle finally found his swing in the later innings hitting a homer in the 6th, 3 dongs in the 7th and 2 more in the 8th, all while Mays put up zeroes. Leaving the score tied at 8, after 8 innings. .

Heading into the bottom of the 9th any modern announcer would’ve blasted us about the fickle beast known as “momentum” being on Mantle’s side. Thankfully Scott is not a modern announcer and he never even mentioned my least favorite sports term. It hardly mattered though as Mantle pressed the flashing red momentum button, anyway, cashing out for a derby winning home run on the first pitch he saw in the 9th inning. The comeback Scott was fishing for earlier was officially complete as Mantle won 9-8.

 
 
 

Running Home Run Totals After Each Inning

Mays went homerless over his last 14 outs as Mantle stormed back to win it in the 9th.
 

As a lifelong Giants fan this comeback has always annoyed me. I was raised to believe that Mays was a God and his first inning only further confirmed my bias. Seeing him go homerless over his last 14 outs is tough to watch. However, his jovial attitude never wavered and he was gracious in defeat. Those traits leave impressions on kids like me and even though I wasn’t happy at the time, I’m glad I got to see Mays lose. Of course, seeing him kick ass in later episodes doesn’t hurt(He won three straight derbies, Episodes 19/20/21).

He’s clearly a God.

The saddest part about this story isn’t that Mays lost. It’s that there is only one season of this show. Mark Scott tragically passed away the following summer before a second season could be filmed. The producers decided to let it end rather than try another host.

Probably should leave on a happier note so here is a clip of Mays getting wrung up by Art Passerella as Mantle snickers from the broadcast booth. 

 
 

And if you want more of this action, there are full episodes available here on youtube. 

Lucas Hooper