Mike Trout is having a phenomenal year for the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. The sort of year that John Grisham’s Calico Joe would have had if he hadn’t been beaned. The sort of year that makes people talk about the AL’s Most Valuable Player also being its Rookie of the Year. The sort of year that takes the heat off other young phenoms like Bryce Harper. The sort of year that conjures up visions of another Willie Mays, or another Mickey Mantle. That’s a pretty good year.
As of the end of play on August 18th, Mike Trout had appeared in 98 games. He lead the league in stolen bases with 39, lead the league in batting with .343 average, and lead the league in runs with 95. He’s hit 23 home runs, has 69 RBI, and an OPS of 1.010.
Did I mention that his 21st birthday was less than two weeks ago? Since he did not have enough official at bats to qualify as a rookie last year, 2012 is his official rookie season. So how does he stack up against Mays and Mantle? Let’s look at the easy comparisons first, the ones that are grounded in baseball’s beloved stats.
Willie’s rookie year was 1951. He turned 20 in May of that year, so he was a bit younger in 1951 than Trout is. In 464 official at bats over 121 games he hit .274 with 20 home runs, 7 stolen bases, and 59 runs. That’s a solid rookie year by any measure, but with all due deference to perhaps the greatest baseball player of all time, it pales in comparison to what Trout has already put together.
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Mickey’s rookie year was also 1951. He turned 20 a month after the regular season had ended, so he was more than a year younger than Trout is. In 341 official at bats over 96 games he hit .267 with 13 home runs, 8 stolen bases, and 61 runs. Again, another solid rookie year, and the beginning of a career that would include a Triple Crown, three MVP awards, and election to the Hall of Fame. But, not nearly the kind of year that Mike Trout’s putting together.
Trout has the offensive tools that Mays and Mantle had, and he has them in abundance. On defense, he’s a solid outfielder, but as yet he hasn’t, in my view, shown the brilliance in centerfield that characterized Mays’ entire career, and Mantle’s career before injuries hobbled him. But defense takes longer to master, and we may yet see him play centerfield the way Willie and Mickey played it in their prime.
Statistically, then, there is every reason to believe that Mike Trout’s career, barring injury, is one that will eventually take him to Cooperstown. But the stats are only part of the story. What may be really interesting here is that it seems that he is starting his career without the additional hurdles that Mays and Mantle had to face.
When Willie Mays came to the New York Giants, baseball had only been integrated since 1947. That process was in its infancy. There were still legions of idiot fans who jeered and harassed African American ball players. African Americans were still discriminated against by restaurant and hotel owners in America. And it wasn’t just private institutions that were segregated. When Willie broke in to the bigs, many of the nation’s schools were legally segregated. It would be three more years before the Supreme Court declared segregated schools in violation of the Constitution in its monumentally important Brown v. Board of Education decision. Public transportation was still segregated, too, as were lunch counters, waiting rooms, public restrooms, and public parks. The list is long and depressing, and it helps to remember that this was the world a 20-year old Willie Mays found himself in as he began his major league career.
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Mantle’s world seems to have been affected more by his own demons and insecurities than by any institutional barriers. Many have documented his struggles when he first started playing professional baseball, his homesickness, and his early failures. Mantle’s fear of dying young like the other men in his family haunted him. The damage that alcohol did to his body, and as he eventually admitted the damage it did to his career, ultimately killed him.
I don’t know much about Mike Trout. I’m learning about him along with the rest of baseball’s faithful. But, it is certainly the case that the world he grew up in and functions in as a young man is vastly different from 1951, and that he does not face the same cultural challenges, to put it too politely, that Willie Mays faced. And from where I sit, it seems to be the case that he’s well-grounded, and that he doesn’t carry the sort of emotional baggage that wore down Mickey Mantle. If that’s the case, then it’s all good news. Mike Trout might be able to just play baseball, and we might be able to just sit back and watch him, for the better part of the next 20 years.