Switch-hit homers: Channeling The Mick
Hitting bombs from both sides of plate in same game is 'cool'
Platooning goes back to John McGraw, who in the early 1920s introduced one of his more gifted outfielders, one Charles Dillon Stengel, to the concept. Casey recognized the merits of the strategy, but he hadn't yet implemented platoon baseball at the big league level when he was appointed Yankees manager for 1949. Years earlier, the right-handed father and left-handed grandfather of a young boy in Oklahoma took turns pitching to a member of the family's youngest generation, enabling the lad to develop switch-hitting skills that would serve him quite well in what became a Hall of Fame career.
The father, Mutt Mantle, was convinced that platoon baseball in the big leagues was on the immediate horizon, that the game was moving toward a degree of specialization and would evolve to a point at which managers would routinely create batting orders based on the handedness of the opponent's starting pitcher. The ability to hit from either side of the plate, Mutt Mantle believed, would assure a player a place in the lineup for every game regardless of the pitcher. His foresight as well as his passion for the game helped make his boy the pre-eminent switch-hitter of all-time.
Mickey Mantle had uncommon, almost unmatched power from both sides, power that would launch 536 career home runs, 373 when he batted left-handed, 163 when he batted right-handed. Twenty-one of the 536 were hit in 10 noteworthy games from 1955-64. In each game, he hit at least one home run from each side, turning a baseball oddity into a near phenomenon that still prompts a degree of fascination.
Neither a conveniently concise term nor a catchy acronym -- AHRs for ambidextrous home runs in a game? -- exists for what Mantle did those 10 times. The batter's box from which a home run is launched is immaterial. Style points are not awarded for symmetry. The 521 home runs produced by the left-handed swing of Ted Williams and the 521 created by the right-handed bat of Frank Thomas are equal in the eyes of SABR, the Elias Sports Bureau, MLB.com, Vin Scully and the 11-year-old budding seamhead down the block.
But hitting a home run from each side of the plate in the same game is ... well ... "very cool."
No less an expert than Nick Swisher, the Yankees right fielder, chose "cool" as the appropriate modifier. He has done the cool thing once this season, April 28 against the Tigers at Yankee Stadium, and 11 times in his career, more often than all but three players in Major League history, more than even Mantle himself. Indeed, only Swisher, his teammate Mark Teixeira (13), Chili Davis and Eddie Murray (11 each) have exceeded Mantle's 10.
"It's just one of those things that's special," Teixeira says. "It doesn't count more than hitting two from the same side, but it's special."
Special in a way that hitting for the cycle in order or striking out the side on nine pitches is special. The results are the same, the methods different. "It doesn't really matter," Swisher says. "But you do feel pretty cool when you do it."
For decades, switch-hit home runs in one game didn't happen often enough for seamheads to obsess. When Red Schoendienst hit one left-handed and one right-handed for the Cardinals in Pittsburgh on July 8, 1951, his feat was noted but hardly celebrated. His was merely the sixth instance. Only five players had hit one from each side in the same game.
So Mantle's first switch-hit home run game -- he hit two against right-handed Steve Gromek and one against left-handed Bob Miller of the Tigers at Yankee Stadium on May 13, 1955 -- established no precedent. But the package that Mantle was -- a center fielder for the Yankees with power, speed, promise and seven dailies chronicling his every deed -- brought a prominence to the feat that might not have developed had a lower-profile, less-charismatic player produced five or six such games.
Mantle did for switch-hit home runs what Magic Johnson did for the triple-double. He wasn't an innovator. Neither was Johnson; Oscar Robertson averaged a triple-double for years before Earvin was magic. But Mantle and Johnson brought renewed life to the accomplishment by the power of their personae. They made it cool.
When Teixeira hit one home run batting left-handed and another batting right-handed in Fenway Park in April, he established three big league, albeit somewhat arcane, records. He extended his big league record for most switch-hit home run games and established an American League record for such games with 11. Moreover, his home runs in the sixth and seventh innings, against left-hander Felix Doubront and right-hander Matt Albers, was the 49th instance in franchise history in which players had hit switch home runs in the same game.
Swisher's game against the Tigers put the Yankees' total at 50. Not only have the Yankees produced the most such games, but they have more than any two teams, as many as 13 other teams combined and 50 more than the Marlins. "I knew I had the most," Teixeira said, "and I guess, if I had thought about all the switch-hitters they've had here, I would have realized [the Yankees] had to have the most."
|12||Red Sox||Reggie Smith||4|
|8||White Sox||Jose Valentin||3|
|5||Blue Jays||Roberto Alomar||2|
The Yankees' standing in this area is not merely the work of Mantle, the game's most accomplished switch-hitter, Teixeira and Swisher. Bernie Williams, Jorge Posada and Roy White, among others, have contributed significantly, so much so that the Yankees' total is 30 more than the next highest total that is the work of the Mets.
Teixeira has had eight switch home run games in three-plus seasons with the Yankees -- more than 15 teams have had in their histories. He had three with the Rangers, two the Braves and none in his brief tour with the Angels. The only player with more than Teixeira with one club is Mantle. Williams and Posada also had eight each as Yankees, Murray had eight with the Orioles and Ken Caminiti eight with the Padres.
Two players who have contributed to the Yankees' total are among the all-time leaders in such games -- Swisher (11, three with the Yankees), Tony Clark (10 overall, one with the Yankees). Davis played his final two seasons with the Yankees, but never hit more than one home run in a game with them. Clark also contributed to the Mets' total. He has the most in the Tigers' history (six) and in the D-backs' history (two).
That the Mets lead their league is surprising if only because they didn't begin play until 1962. The Astros began 50 years ago as well, and they have produced 12 such games. Moreover, the Mets' first switch-homer game didn't occur until 1978 -- Lee Mazzilli was responsible; their second, by Howard Johnson, didn't happen until 1991. But once they got the knack of it -- not to mention a few more powerful switch-hitters -- they produced 18 more such games rather quickly.
Ken Singleton didn't add to the Mets' total during his brief run with them; for that matter, he didn't have a switch-hit home run game in three seasons with the Expos or in 10 with the Orioles. "I would have liked to do it," Singleton says. "I might have come close, I don't remember. But when I got to Baltimore, I just let Eddie [Murray] take care of that stuff. He knew how to do it."
The Mets' hitting 18 in a period of 19-plus seasons pales in comparison with what the Yankees have done in the same period; they've hit 30.
But even that run doesn't compare with Mantle's both-sides-now production. He produced eight from May 13, 1955, to April 26, 1961. In that period, the rest of baseball produced none. So at one point, he had eight such games, and the next best of the Majors, dating to the 1800s, had six -- Wally Schang (A's, 1916), Augie Galan (Cubs, 1937), Johnny Lucadello (Browns, 1940), Jim Russell (Braves, 1948, and Dodgers, 1950) and Schoendienst.
. Mantle was the phenomenon. He was historic. Indeed, while Mantle was active (1951-68), there were only six other instances in the AL, three by teammate Tom Tresh, two by Reggie Smith and one by Smith's Red Sox teammate Pumpsie Green. By the time Mantle had produced his 10 switch-hit home run games, the rest of baseball had produced 11.
It's not that easily done. "I get paid to hit and hit for power in the middle of the lineup," Chipper Jones says, "And I've been blessed to be able to do it both ways. It's not something I've paid that much attention to. I've done it a handful of times in my career. It's difficult. It's difficult in and of itself to be feeling good from both sides of the plate at the same time and then be able to execute your swings."
Some folks find it surprising that Mantle produced only 10 in his 18 seasons. But when he broke in, complete games were far more common than they have been in the past three decades. He didn't face the number of relief pitchers whose handedness was the opposite of the starter as players routinely do these days. He produced eight switch-hit home run games through 1961 and two more through '68, and he was an MVP-level player through 1964.
Research by the Elias Sports Bureau has determined that opponents pitched complete games in 30 percent of the Yankees' games in Mantle's 18 seasons. Jones, one of the elite switch-hitters of his time, is in his 18th season with the Braves. In those seasons, opponents have pitched complete games in merely five percent of the Braves' games.
And none of those calculations weighs the impact of thinner pitching staffs, the home run barrage that began in the late '80s, and, particularly, the too-generous bullpens of the past 15 years. Then again, Mantle became more familiar with pitchers if only because fewer pitchers worked in the league in his time, Interleague Play didn't exist and he probably was better able to measure a pitcher because he might face him four times in one game. Not so in today's game and for the current Yankees.
"With this team, with the kind of hitters we have, and the way the game is played now," Teixeira says, "you know you're going to see relievers every game, maybe two or three in a game. So Nick and I get more chances than someone who played in the '50s when the starters went nine. So that's what makes what [Mantle] did so unbelievable."
Or is it just cool?
"I think people think it's cool," Jones says, "because not a lot of people can do it."
"It's cool," Swisher says, "because you're connecting yourself to Mickey Mantle. Ya know, what's cooler than that?"
Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.