When Mickey Mantle proved that Judge Learned was not perfect

Many of you know that I am a great fan of baseball, John Q. Barrett, Professor of Law, St. John’s University, and Barrett’s Jackson List. So far as I am concerned, Professor Barrett has outdone himself with this offering dated April 6, 2015:

By the end of this evening, the Major League Baseball season will have opened in the United States and Canada for every team. Fans are smiling again…

Baseball was not, alas, one of Robert H. Jackson’s passions. When MLB tried in 1951 to persuade him to retire from the Supreme Court to become the Commissioner of Baseball, Jackson declined. He claimed not to know left field from right field and viewed an afternoon at the ballpark as wasted time. He preferred other seasonal, outdoor activities, including long walks, horseback rides, skiing, skating, gardening and fishing—activities where no one kept score. (Okay, sometimes Jackson’s fishing mates, including on a couple of occasions President Franklin D. Roosevelt, did keep precise score of who caught what.)

Baseball also seemed not to appeal to Judge Learned Hand. He served on the federal bench in New York City from Jackson’s youth and outlived him by almost seven years. Judge Hand was one of Jackson’s contacts in the law, an often kindred spirit and, to a degree, his friend.

In spring 1959, Judge Hand, then age 87 and a Senior Judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, demonstrated publicly some baseball obliviousness. The occasion was the annual dinner meeting of the American Law Institute, held at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C.

Judge Hand made his baseball disclosure in a comment following Attorney General William P. Rogers’s remarks at the dinner. Rogers recounted that his son Doug, age 12, had recently answered two telephone calls to their home. One was from President Eisenhower. The other was from Vice President Nixon. William Rogers reported that he had explained afterward to Doug that although these calls did not mean much to him now, they would one day. Doug had listened politely to his father and promised to remember the calls. Then, with great excitement, he had asked, “Did you ever meet Mickey Mantle?” To that boy and many, many others, the centerfield of the New York Yankees was the leading national figure.

The ALI audience of course laughed. Then Rogers noticed his predecessor, former Attorney General Herbert Brownell, Jr., in the audience. Rogers described Brownell as “a Yankee fan” and waved to him, provoking more laughter and his wave back at Rogers. He then turned serious and commented, “Of course I realize that my story about Mantle right now is not timely.”

Judge Hand, seated at the head table, was being honored at this dinner for his fifty years of federal judicial service. During Rogers’s remarks and then his byplay with Brownell, Judge Hand was visibly perplexed. He whispered to his neighbor but appeared unsatisfied with the reply he received.

Then Judge Hand rose to speak. He thanked previous speakers for their many tributes to him. Then he volunteered that he did not know the “name” that Attorney General Rogers had mentioned.

The audience at first sat silent, unbelieving. Then gasps of astonished laughter broke out.

Judge Hand then addressed Rogers directly. “Mantle?,” he asked. “I don’t know what Mickey Mantle is or does. Is it a man or a thing?”


No one, except occasionally a pitcher, is perfect.

(Italics added by Kopf)


9 responses

  1. I understand that when Learned Hand served on the Second Circuit alongside his cousin, Augustus, lawyers would say, “Quote Learned, but follow Gus.” Of course, I don’t know if Augustus was a baseball fan.

    I wonder whether Learned Hand would have known what was meant by “Three strikes.” I suspect that he did, although he might not have known where it came from. After all, today almost everyone still knows what “Lock, stock and barrel” means, though few could describe its derivation. So baseball permeates society, even for those who aren’t fans. (Go Red Sox!)

  2. Jon,

    Of course you are right. But you and I are old enough to remember that not knowing of Mickey Mantle in 1959 was the equivalent of being unable to name the President. It required work to remain that uninformed.

    All the best.


  3. Alzheimer’s is the only plausible explanation. You could say that Ike was forgettable, but Mickey Mantle? In 1959?? IN NEW YORK???

  4. Judge:
    It is true that in Spring, 1959 Mickey Mantle, as the star of the New York Yankees during the nascent television era, was easily the most famous athlete in America. I can only assume that Judge Hand did not know this because he spent so much time reading and writing decisions and not: a) watching television; b) reading newspapers, and c) attending sporting events. Before one laments such an ascetic life one should also recall that: a) Judge Hand was a member of the federal judiciary for nearly half a century; b) Judge Hand has been quoted by the U.S. Supreme Court more often than any other lower court judge; and c) in the eyes of legal scholars some of Judge Hand’s decisions have risen to the level of being considered legal literature. My point? There is a price to everything in this life and Judge Hand clearly paid It (even if it meant being embarrassed in public by not knowing the identity of the great Mickey Mantle!).

  5. Robert,

    All good points. And to be clear, neither Professor B. nor I intend this whimsical piece as a criticism of the great man. It is, however, and as you put it correctly, a window into the world of the ascetic life.

    All the best.


  6. True story. About ten years ago I was getting ready to argue an appeal in the First Circuit. The case right before mine was being argued and one of the attorneys used the expression “opposing counsel is attempting a Hail Mary.” Judge Coffin had a quizzical look, and asked him “what’s a Hail Mary.” The look on the judge’s face sitting to his left was priceless.

  7. My favorite story about Learned Hand was from Prof. Louis Loss (of Loss on Securities Regulation) for whom I worked chasing citations the summer between my first and second year. He related how, fresh from Yale Law, he had written a brief in which he had quoted Hand. But the quote had a grammatical error, so he put “[sic]” at that spot. When his chief went over it, the man calmly rearranged the judge’s words to make them correct. He looked up at Loss, who was horrified at this breach of all that was holy, and said, “Around here, we don’t sic Learned Hand.”

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