Mickey Mantle hit 536 career home runs, but few are more memorable than his next to last one.
Denny McLain, meanwhile, won a lot of big games and threw a lot of big pitches during his historic 31-win season in 1968.
But when the two baseball legends met for the final time on Sept. 19, 1968, it led to a special moment neither player — nor longtime baseball fans — would ever forget.
McLain was in the midst of an historic season, going 31-6 with a 1.96 ERA to win the Cy Young Award, the AL MVP and lead the Tigers to the World Series.
Mantle, meanwhile, was wrapping up his final season, putting the finishes touches on his legendary Hall of Fame career. In his final at-bat at Detroit’s Tiger Stadium, McLain decided to give Mantle what many referred to as “a gift.”
McLain, who won his 31st game that day, grooved a batting practice fastball to Mantle in the eighth inning of a 6-1 game. Mantle hit into the upper deck for his 535th career home run, passing Jimmie Fox for third on the all-time home run list.
Though there have been numerous stories shared over the years about McLain’s “charity pitch,” the most definitive came from Mantle himself, who relived the moment in a video late in his life.
Mantle recalled stepping to the plate just as McLain called timeout for a meeting with Detroit catcher Jim Price (Mantle mistakenly said it was catcher Bill Freehan). Mantle remembered overhearing McLain tell his catcher, “Let’s let him hit one, this is probably his last time in Detroit.”
“I heard him say that, but you never know whether to believe him or not,” Mantle said in the video. “When [Price] comes back by, I said, ‘Did I hear what he said, he wants me to hit one?’ [Price] said, ‘Yeah, he’s not going to work on you, he’s just going to throw you fastballs.’ I said, ‘Great,’ but I was still a little leery.”
Sure enough, Mantle says he indeed got “a gift” from McLain.
“The first pitch he threw was right down the middle and I took it and he goes like, ‘Hey, what’s the matter?’ So, then of course, I knew he really wanted me to hit one, so the next pitch I swung a little too hard and I got under it and popped it up as a foul ball. [Price] gets another ball and throws it back out to Denny, and the next pitch he threw me, he really grooved it and I really hit one good into the upper deck.”
Mantle and McLain then had a little fun with each other.
“I’m going around first and second and I kind of peeked out at him and he’s looking and grinning,” Mantle said of McLain. “I come around third and I looked right at him and he kinda gives me a big wink.”
The New York Yankees road jersey Mantle was wearing that day has been auctioned off twice in recent years, selling for $486,000 at Heritage Auctions in February 2017, and then again for $850,000 at Heritage in August 2020.
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Heritage is now offering the Mantle jersey again in its Feb. 26-27 Winter Platinum Night Sports Auction, but it is now expected to top $1 million. The jersey has not only been photo-matched to Mantle’s 535th home run and the special Mantle-McLain moment but also to the final game Mantle’s career.
A day after his home run at Tiger Stadium, Mantle hit his 536th — and final — home run off Boston’s Jim Lonborg at Yankee Stadium. A week later, he made the final plate appearance of his career at Fenway Park in Boston on Sept. 28, 1968. After popping up to Boston shortstop Rico Petrocelli in the top of the first, he took a seat in the Yankee dugout and was replaced in the lineup by Andy Kosco, officially ending one of the greatest careers in baseball history.
The Mantle jersey has been authenticated and photo-matched to the Mantle-McLain moment and Mantle’s final game by MEARS Memorabilia Evaluation and Research Services. The authentication, Heritage says, is the result of “a difficult and painstaking study of the limited photography and television footage from the Mick's last stand.”
“We, along with many collectors, long suspected this jersey saw far more action than that penultimate homer,” says Chris Ivy, founder and president of Heritage Sports. “That alone made it historic. But to find out that it saw action in the final game of The Mick’s storied career makes it even more significant, and we’re thrilled to bring it back to auction alongside the stunning example of the ’52 Topps card that remains one of our hobby’s holiest grails.”
MEARS photo-matched the unique arch of the "NEW YORK" lettering on the chest and the positioning of the fabled number "7" on verso to establish a definitive match. Numerous documents confirming the authentication are included with the jersey.
The interior collar is embroidered with a "Mantle" swatch, while the lower left front tail holds twin "Wilson" brand labels with size "42" and "1968 Set 2." The jersey shows moderate game wear and is in 100 percent original and unaltered condition, garnering the highest possible rating from MEARS.
It also features an inscription on the upper right chest to Tom Catal, a hobby expert and the former president of the Mickey Mantle Museum in Cooperstown. The inscription reads: "To Tom, A Great Friend Always, ‘The Mick.'"
The jersey comes with a letter from Catal, who Mantle told about the jersey’s connection to his historic home run off McLain.
Heritage estimates the value of the jersey at more than $1 million.
“It's a true challenge to adequately express the towering significance of this jersey in the history of the New York Yankees, of Major League Baseball and of America itself,” Heritage’s description of the jersey states.
“Simon and Garfunkel got it wrong when they asked Joe DiMaggio where he'd gone. It was Mickey Mantle that closed out the dynasty, wearing this jersey, and there could never be another one like it.”