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Yankees Came, Saw and Conquered
Feature Article

This story, commemorating the New York Yankees' only appearance in Sacramento against the Solons, appeared in the Sacramento Bee sports section, Sunday, October 22, 1991.

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By Rick Cabral

Forty years ago, Sacramento baseball fans enjoyed a rare treat when the World Champion New York Yankees played an exhibition contest against the home town Solons.

The Yankees made their first and only visit to Edmonds Field in March, 1951. Although the game held little importance except for a spring tuneup, it marked a pivotal year in Yankee history. The season represented the final year of Joe DiMaggio's illustrious career and the first for a 19-year-old rookie named Mickey Mantle.

The Yankees were in the midst of their first-ever West Coast swing, which matched them against the Los Angeles Angels, the Hollywood Stars, the Solons, Oakland Oaks and San Francisco Seals. When the train pulled into Sacramento on Thursday, March 22 the New Yorkers were still smarting from three consecutive defeats, including two to the Stars. This was the first time a Yankee team had lost two in a row to a minor league team, indicating the high caliber of Pacific Coast League ball.

The early losses didn't dampen the Sacramento fans' enthusiasm for Casey Stengle's club, which included 1950 American League Most Valuable Player Phil Rizzuto, Yogi Berra, Johnny Mize, Hank Bauer, Eddie Lopat, Allie Reynolds and Vic Rashci. The Yankee coaches were well known too, with the likes of Bill Dickey, Frank Crosetti and Tommy Henrich.

Most fans of course came out to see the Yankee Clipper, Joe DiMaggio. A native San Franciscan and celebrated Pacific Coast Leaguer, DiMaggio was talking about retiring after the 1951 campaign. Injuries had tarnished his once outstanding skills. His 1950 statistics had been excellent for most players--32 home runs, 122 RBIs and a league leading .585 slugging percentage. His batting average, however, dropped to .301; significantly lower than his .328 lifetime mark.


Yankees' stars Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle in 1951

Sacramento fans didn't mind. DiMaggio was still the captain of the World Champs and the final link to the Lou Gehrig generation of Yankees. According to Clarence Azevedo, Sacramento's mayor from 1956-1960 and a member of the Board of Directors of Solons, Inc., which owned the club in 1959-60, "Everyone was focused on DiMaggio."

Bill Conlin, who covered the team for the Union from 1946-1959, said DiMaggio concluded his final season in style. "None of that farewell tour stuff you see nowadays."

DiMaggio was accompanied by a solid supporting cast. Entering his fifth major league campaign, Berra was coming off a splendid '50 season when he hit .322, 28 home runs and a club-leading 124 RBIs. Hank Bauer hit .320 and slugged 13 home runs and 70 RBIs. The team again was strong in pitching.

Despite the glittering assemblage of major league stars, attention was being showered on a Class C ball player trying to make the club. Mickey Mantle, a switch-hitting shortstop converted to the outfield, was generating glowing praise. An Associated Press story quoted Yankee coach Bill Dickey as saying, "He's the greatest prospect I've seen in my time, and I go back quite a ways."

Mantle was enjoying a phenomenal spring. His lightning start could be credited, in part, to a scheduling aberration. That spring the New York Giants and Yankees agreed to a one-time-exchange of training camp sites. Normally, the Yankees trained in St. Petersburg, Florida, while the Giants worked out in Phoenix. In 1951, the two teams switched and Mantle found the warm desert climate to his liking.
In his book, The Mick, he wrote, "It seemed that everything I hit went off the bat for a home run, both lefty and Phoenix I went on a hot streak and stayed hot."

During spring training, Stengle switched Mantle from shortstop to the outfield, where his blinding speed and strong arm suited him better. Plus, it gave Mantle a better chance to stay with the club. In Stengle: His Life and Times, Robert W. Creamer quoted Stengle as saying, "...the only reason I switched (Mantle) to the outfield was because I had Rizzuto and he'd have had to play three or four years in the minors before he could come up as a shortstop."

When Mantle took the field that afternoon, few Sacramentans were aware of his enormous potential. As Conlin noted, "He was just another rookie then. But he proved himself that spring."

Sam Kanelos, the Solons second baseman, said Mantle's reputation was well established when he entered Edmonds Field. "We had heard of him from Joplin. The Yankees were saying he would definitely be DiMaggio's replacement," Kanelos said.

A starter the previous year, Kanelos later was cut to make room for Joe Gordon, the new Solon player-manager in 1951.

A California native, Gordon retired from the major leagues in 1950 as one of the American League's better second basemen. In 1942, with the Yankees he won the American League MVP award by hitting .322 with 18 home runs and 103 RBIs. New York traded him in 1947 to the Cleveland Indians where he finished his career. Now, he was managing and playing against his former teammates.

A crowd of 10,354 turned out for the afternoon game. Seated behind the Yankee dugout was Governor Earl Warren, former heavyweight champion Max Baer, plus New York owners Dan Topping and Del Webb, and general manager George Weiss, who were traveling with the club on the West Coast tour. The overflow crowd had spilled from the stands into the roped-off outfield area against the left field fence. This was not uncommon for big games; any ball hit into the crowd was a ground rule double.

To start the game, Gordon sent pitcher Bob Gillespie to the mound. Leading off, Rizzuto promptly doubled to left and was driven in by Berra's single to center. Mize brought in Berra with a two-bagger, giving the Yanks a 2-0 advantage.


Scorecard 1951 Game Yankees vs. Solons
(Note: Rookie Mantle was not listed among the veterans.
His name was written in. See yellow box.)

In the third, New York scored five more times when Rizzuto and Jerry Coleman walked. Singles by Berra and DiMaggio scored two successive runs. Hank Bauer's high fly was lost in the sun by the Solon left fielder, scoring two more. Bauer later scored on a sacrifice fly out.

Meanwhile, Yankee southpaw Eddie Lopat held the Solons scoreless through the fourth inning. Pitcher Tom Morgan continued the whitewash for the balance of the game.

In the fourth inning, the Edmonds Field crowd witnessed a poignant moment when Stengle replaced DiMaggio with Mantle in center field. "It was sunrise and twilight, both at the same time," wrote Donald Honig about the transition in his book Mays, Mantle, Snider: A Celebration.

In his first two at bats, Mantle didn't reach base. But in his final time up the rookie launched the longest blow of the day. In the Bee's report Tom Kane wrote, "Heralded as a successor to DiMaggio, Mantle thrilled the crowd with a homer over the left field wall in the eighth (inning)." From then on we would follow Mantle's career like a hometown hero until his retirement in 1969. New York handily won the Sacramento game 11-0.

By 6:00 p.m., after the last fan left the ballpark at Riverside and Broadway, the Yankees were boarding a train bound for San Francisco.

The next day they suffered an embarrassing 18-5 defeat to the Seals; their worst on the Pacific Coast League tour. But the Bronx Bombers regained their winning form and surged ahead in September to claim another American League pennant. They defeated the New York Giants in six games to win their third consecutive World Series title.

The Solons, meanwhile, struggled throughout the 1951 season. They settled in the lower division like silt on a river bottom, escaping a last place finish with a victory on the final day. Gordon provided the team's biggest highlight with his league-leading 43 home runs.

The following spring, the Yankees returned to their Florida training site and never returned to the Capital City. For many, recollections of the Yankees-Solons game, the year, score and top players, remain blurred in a distant fog, but the performances of DiMaggio and Mantle shine brilliantly in the memories.

On October 20 this year, Mantle celebrated his 60th birthday. It seems hard to believe 40 years ago he was a bright-eyed rookie in pinstripes.

Happy Birthday, Mick. Thanks for sprinkling a little stardust on Sacramento.

* * * * *

Article reprinted with permission by The Sacramento Bee.

Yankees exhibition game against Sacramento Solons in 1951

by Rick Cabral - 10/22/91

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Reprint from Sacramento Bee, Sports