He was a little more than a year out of high school–just 18 years old and playing for peanuts in a small Midwestern town–but it wouldn’t be long before he was known to every avid baseball fan across the country. He sure had a name that sounded like baseball and when you added the nickname of the team he was playing for in 1950 and his father’s occupation, it was pure sports poetry.
When the stats were totalled at the end of the season, Mickey Mantle of the Miners–son of Mutt the Oklahoma lead and zinc miner– hit .383 for Class C Joplin in the Western Association. Belted 26 homers and drove in 136, too.Sometime during that season, Joplin area photographer Thomas Korn snapped a team photo. Someone apparently created a souvenir by adding the players’ facsimile autographs to the front. It probably wasn’t a big deal in 1950 but today it’s considered a slice of baseball history.
A rare, surviving copy of the 8×10 photo, with that local lensman’s stamp on the back, has been uncovered and is among the top attractions in RMY Auctions’ November Premier catalog.
The silver gelatin original shows the smiling Oklahoma native sitting fifth from the right, surrounded by teammates and staff. Despite a couple of light corner creases, it’s generally aged well. RMY calls it “the earliest image of Mantle we have ever offered.”
Mantle was a shortstop on that squad but had his share of trouble on defense, committing 55 errors in 137 games. He was shifted to the outfield as the Yankees began to see him in their future plans.
“We had a fence in center field that was 420 feet ,” recalled teammate Cal Neeman who went on to a six-year big league career himself. “The first year I was there, nobody hit it over the fence during a game. One night in Joplin, Mickey hit one over it left-handed and right-handed. Incredible!”
A year after sitting for the photo in Joplin, Mantle was considered a possible franchise cornerstone, his picture among the late-season inclusions in Bowman Gum’s 1951 baseball card set.
The photo is one of 18 photos featuring Mantle in an auction of over 1,300 images taking place through November 10 at RMYAuctions.com.