LIFE Magazine Covered 500 HRC Members... features Ted Williams, Honorary 500HRC members Jackie Robinson, Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays
Looking back through the archives of LIFE Magazine covers offers an unmatched glimpse of Americana, but a surprisingly few faces from America’s Game. The majority of MLB baseball players featured on the cover of LIFE were chosen because they were both icons in U.S. history and the greatest hitters of all time…the members of the 500 Home Run Club.
The first 500 HRC member to be honored with a LIFE Magazine cover was “The Splendid Splinter” Ted Williams, who stood smiling with a bat on his shoulder on the front of the September 1, 1941 issue – the year he became the last major league hitter to finish the season with a .400+ batting average (.406).
Inside the article, entitled Ted Williams: The greatest hitter who ever lived, read “The most sensationally consistent hitter in big league baseball is a gangling, 22-year-old outfielder named Ted Williams of the Red Sox. Williams is a great hitter for three reasons: eyes, wrists and forearms. He has what ballplayers call ‘camera eyes’ which allow him to focus on a pitched ball as it zooms down its 60-ft. path from the pitcher's hand, accurately judge its intended path across the plate, and reach for it. He even claims he can see the ball and bat meet…which happens four out of every ten times Williams comes to bat.”
The second great American slugger featured on the cover of LIFE was honorary 500 Home Run Club member Jackie Robinson, on May 8, 1950. The cover photo was taken during the filming of the biographical movie The Jackie Robinson Story, which is heralded as one of the best and most convincing baseball biopics ever filmed.
The Brooklyn Dodgers second baseman plays himself, and quite well indeed. The film traces Robinson's career from his college days, when he excelled as a track star at Pasadena College and as UCLA's All-Sports record holder. Upon his graduation, Robinson tries to get a coaching job, but this is the 1940s, and most doors are closed to black athletes. After serving in the army, Robinson plays with the Negro Baseball League, where his uncanny skills attract the attention of Branch Rickey, general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Anxious to break down the "color line" that existed in major-league baseball, Rickey chose Robinson in 1946 to play for the Brooklyn farm team in Montreal. But he warns him that he only wants a black ballplayer "with guts enough NOT to fight back."
Robinson agrees to ignore all racial epithets for the first two years of his Brooklyn contract. Despite the unabashed hatred to which he is subjected during his year with Montreal, Robinson steadfastly continues to turn the other cheek, and in 1947 he graduates to the Dodgers lineup. The rest is history…
Mickey Mantle graced the cover of LIFE magazine three times (June 25, 1956, August 18, 1961, and July 30, 1965), which is more than any other baseball player ever. The reason for this is simple. For 90% of baseball fans around the globe, The Commerce Comet was the face of baseball during the late 50s and early 60s. Much like Tiger Woods is far and away the greatest – and best-known – golfer in the world today…Mickey Mantle’s switch-hitting exploits at the plate, on the base paths and in the outfield for the world’s best known and most highly publicized major league team, The New York Yankees, made him the logical choice for LIFE to feature.
Perhaps his most memorable appearance in LIFE magazine came in the 1961 appearance with fellow Yankee homerun sensation Roger Maris. What made the cover story even more remarkable is that it featured the Gotham duo standing in front of a picture of Babe Ruth with the headline “Will Yank Sluggers Smash 60 Homers? The Real Odds.”
Mantle and Maris dominated the news with their pursuit of Babe Ruth’s single season home run record of 60 (set in 1927). Although it was Maris who eventually claimed the homerun mark by hitting 61 home runs, Mickey Mantle was the fan favorite who received the majority of media attention and fan adoration.
Editor’s Note: The single season record stood for 37 seasons before Mark McGwire (70) and Sammy Sosa (66) re-ignited the two-man race to the top of the Home Run mountain during the 1998 season. Both men swapped the home run lead throughout the final month of the season before “Big Mac” went on an unmatchable tear hitting four circuit blasts in each of his last two games of the season to reach 70. While the record stood for only three years (Barry Bonds hit 74 in 2001), Sosa and McGwire’s “Great Home Run Chase” was credited with "saving baseball," by both bringing in new, younger fans and bringing back old fans soured by the 1994 Major League Baseball strike.
The Mick’s final appearance on LIFE’s cover came towards the end of his career on July 30, 1965 under the headline “Mantle’s Misery.” According to the story inside the issue, “The great Yankee slugger plays his 15th season in New York on bum knees and courage as his career fades. While his chronic injuries have diminished his on-field play, his popularity with baseball fans worldwide is still unmatched by any other player…”
Rounding out this short and extremely prestigious list of major league sluggers featured on the cover of LIFE magazine was “Say Hey” Willie Mays. The March 28, 1958 cover showed the Giants’ phenom arriving in California like a movie star in the back of a convertible riding in a ticker tape parade. The headline Willie Mays Leads Giants Into San Francisco said a great deal about his prominence with the team and with major league baseball.
LIFE magazine ceased publishing in 2007.