It is nearly impossible to explain how popular Don Mattingly was during his time with the Yankees from 1982-1995. He was the finest slugging first baseman to don the pinstripes since Lou Gehrig, and in his prime, he was the most fearsome hitter in baseball. He played on some great Yankees teams, but unfortunately, the team's 14-year playoff drought coincided with his career. Despite the multiple managers, pitching struggles, and meddling owner, the fans were almost always able to enjoy Mattingly's hitting. He burst onto the American League scene in '84 by winning the batting title over superstar teammate Dave Winfield with a .343 average, and then took home the '85 AL MVP after leading the league in total bases (370, courtesy of 35 homers and a league-leading 48 doubles and). He almost won the award again in '86 after arguably a better season that featured a franchise-record 238 hits and 53 doubles.
He had another great season in '87, but unfortunately spent some time on the Disabled List with the first of many back injuries that would plague him for the rest of his career, likely shooting down any Hall of Fame hopes his fans had for him. Regardless, he eteched his name onto two MLB records during the '87 season. In a baseball oddity, "Donnie Baseball" never hit a grand slam before the season and he would never hit another one after, but in this '87 season, he hit six grand slams, breaking Ernie Banks and Jim Gentile's previously shared record of five apiece in '55 and '61, respectively. Mattingly also tied a major league record by hitting a home run in eight consecutive games, matching the mark set by Dale Long in '56. His efforts reaching both milestones coincided on a summer evening in Texas, when Mattingly had a career game.
Mattingly's home run streak began in Yankee Stadium on July 8th, when he hit two homers against the eventual World Series champion Twins. Mattingly homered in each of the Yankees' next four games against the White Sox, moving his streak to five straight games with a home run. In one of the four games, on July 10th, Mattingly hit his third grand slam of the season, against Chicago's Joel McKeon. His home run streak was really starting to gain attention throughout baseball, as another game with a homer would tie the American League record of six, set by six previous players (Ken Williams in '22, Gehrig in '31, Roy Sievers in '57, Roger Maris in '61, Frank Howard in '68, and Reggie Jackson in '76). Furthermore, another grand slam would give Mattingly four for the season, which would tie a Yankee record shared by Gehrig (four in '34) and Tommy Henrich (four in '48). Mattingly would face the ageless knuckleballer Charlie Hough at Arlington Stadium on the evening of July 16th.
The game was delayed by rain for over an hour and a half before Rickey Henderson finally stepped into the batter's box to lead off the game against Hough. The greatest leadoff man in history singled to left, then quickly began to wreak havoc on the bases. Future Yankee catcher Mike Stanley was a rookie with the Rangers in '87, and he had problems handling Hough's knuckleball, leading to two passed balls that put Henderson on third with one out. Mattingly came to the plate and rolled a grounder toward second base that gave the Yankees a 1-0 lead, as Henderson scored on the groundout. It was a quiet beginning to a huge day for Mattingly.
He received another RBI opportunity in the next inning when the Yankees loaded the bases on a single by Mike Pagliarulo and walks to likely-forgotten Yankees Mark Salas, Wayne Tolleson, and Claudell Washington (the last of which pushed across the Yankees' second run). Hough's knuckleball was clearly not behaving for him, and Mattingly came to the plate with a chance for his fourth grand slam of the season. He lined the first pitch down the first-base line which appeared as though it might go for a double, but it landed a few feet foul. Mattingly surely would have been content with a two or three-run double, but he was undoubtedly much happier with the results of Hough's next pitch. Mattingly slugged a bad knuckleball "well beyond the right field fence" for his fourth grand slam of the season, tying both records that were on the line. Mattingly had now homered in six consecutive games to tie the AL record, and his fourth grand slam of the year tied the Yankee record. As great as these accomplishments were, Mattingly's day was not over.
Later in the game, the Yankees tacked on another run after a few more passed balls by Stanley as he continued to catch Hough's knuckleball. Yankees starter Ron Guidry began to tire after four scoreless innings though, and allowed a couple runs to bring the Rangers back in the game at 7-2. Rick Cerone countered with a two-run pinch-hit single in the seventh, but the Rangers came back with another run against reliever Tim Stoddard (aided by a rare Mattingly error on a ground ball) in the bottom of the seventh to make the score 9-3. Rangers reliever and future World Series goat Mitch Williams was in the game already for the top of the eighth, and he got two quick outs before issuing a walk to Washington. Mattingly came to the plate, and he sent a drive to the opposite field down the left-field line that hooked just inside the foul pole for his second homer of the game. The score was now 11-3 Yankees, effectively ending the game. Mattingly finished his day with two homers in five at bats, totaling a career-high seven RBIs on the night. He never matched that mark again in his great career.
The next day, Mattingly set the AL record with a homer in seven straight games by hitting a solo homer against Rangers reliever Paul Kilgus, and the day after that, he tied Long's major-league record with a fourth inning opposite-field homer against Rangers starter Jose Guzman. In '93, Ken Griffey Jr. would match Mattingly and Long's streak of homers in eighth straight game, but neither Griffey or Long had as many homers as Mattingly did during their respective streaks. Mattingly hit ten in eight games, as opposed to eight apiece for Griffey and Long. Mattingly went slam-less through late-September, and it appeared as though he would stay tied with Gehrig and Henrich for the Yankee record. However, he hit a grand slam on September 25th against the Orioles' Jose Mesa to break the team record and tie the major league record, and four days later, he broke the record against Boston's Bruce Hurst. In the 25 years since Mattingly's six-slam season, only Travis Hafner of the Indians has matched his performance. Hafner had five grand slams by the All-Star Break in '06 to set a baseball record for first-half slams, but he managed only one the rest of the way (a broken bone in Hafner's hand from a hit by pitch forced him to miss September, curtailing his seven-slam season hopes). Mattingly's name remains in the record books for these marks, and a career game helping him reach them took place 25 years ago today.
More Mattingly highlights (sixth slam at 1:38).
Game recap source: Moran, Malcolm. "Mattingly Blasts 8th in Six Games." New York Times, July 17, 1987.