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Mickey Mantle

Mickey Mantle

National Baseball Hall of Fame

Position(s):
OF, 3B, SS, 2B, CF, RF, LF, 1B
Nicknames:
The Mick, The Commerce Comet, Muscles
Born:
October 20, 1931
Bats:
Left
Throws:
Right
Height:
5' 11"
Weight:
195 lbs
Major League Debut:
4-17-1951 with NYA
Allstar Selections:
1956 ML, 1956 MVP, 1956 TC, 1957 MVP, 1962 GG, 1962 MVP, 1965 HA
Hall of Fame:
1974

"a fragile hero to whom we had an emotional attachment so strong and lasting that it defied logic." Costas added, "In the last year of his life, Mickey Mantle, always so hard on himself, finally came to accept and appreciate the distinction between a role model and a hero. The first, he often was not. The second, he always will be. And, in the end, people got it."

A series of debilitating injuries prevented Mickey Mantle from ever fully living up to the enormous potential he displayed when he first joined the New York Yankees in 1951. Nevertheless, even at less than 100 percent, Mantle had a brilliant 18-year career with the Yankees that clearly established him as the greatest switch-hitter in baseball history, and as one of the most exceptional players ever to play the game.

Biography:

Born in Spavinaw, Oklahoma in 1951, the son of Elvin Charles Mantle (more commonly known as "Mutt"), Mickey Mantle was bred to be a baseball player. Shortly after Mantle's family moved to the nearby town of Commerce, Oklahoma when Mickey was four, he was taught to switch-hit by his father and grandfather, who pitched to him righthanded and lefthanded, respectively. Mickey developed into an outstanding all-around athlete at Commerce High School, excelling in both football and basketball, in addition to his first love, baseball. Mantle's athletic career, though, almost ended prematurely when he sustained a life-threatening injury on the football field. Kicked in the shin during a game, Mantle's leg soon became infected with osteomyelitis, a crippling disease that would have been incurable had penicillin not been made available just a few years earlier. Although the drug saved Mantle's leg from amputation, Mickey suffered from the effects of the disease for the rest of his life, and it probably led to many other injuries that eventually robbed him of much of the blinding speed he had during the early stages of his professional career.

After being signed by New York Yankee scout Tom Greenwade at the tender age of 17 in 1949, Mantle spent two seasons in the Yankee farm system before finally joining the club in 1951. The shy 19-year-old immediately had huge expectations thrust upon him by both Manager Casey Stengel and the New York media. Considered by most people to be the heir apparent to the aging Joe DiMaggio in centerfield, Mantle was built up by Stengel as someone who eventually would become DiMaggio, Babe Ruth, and Lou Gehrig all rolled into one. Observing the switch-hitting outfielder's blinding speed and awesome power from both sides of the plate, the Yankee manager proclaimed, "He (Mantle) should lead the league in everything. With his combination of speed and power, he should win the triple batting crown every year. In fact, he should do anything he wants to do." Adding to the pressures placed on Mantle was the uneasiness the insecure country boy felt over being in the big city for the first time in his life.

Unable to live up to his advanced billing early in his rookie season, Mantle found himself striking out frequently and often being booed by Yankee fans, who believed everything they had read and heard about the talented youngster. Before long, the struggling outfielder was sent down to the minor leagues, where he eventually righted himself. Returning to New York later in the year, Mantle finished his rookie season with decent numbers, hitting 13 home runs, knocking in 65 runs, and batting .267 in 341 at-bats. However, he experienced the first in a series of crippling injuries in that year's World Series that ended up severely limiting his playing time and robbing him of much of his great speed throughout the remainder of his career.

Playing rightfield in Yankee Stadium, Mantle moved towards right-center to catch a fly ball hit by the Giants Willie Mays. With Mantle all set to make the play, centerfielder Joe DiMaggio called off his teammate at the last moment. Stopping abruptly to avoid a collision, Mantle caught his right foot in an outfield drainage ditch, seriously injuring his leg and causing him to be carried off the field on a stretcher. The injury prevented Mantle from ever again playing at 100 percent capacity.

Yet, even at less than 100 percent, Mantle had enough natural ability to become a truly great player. He was thick throughout his 5'11", 200-pound frame, extremely muscular, and also exceptionally fast, even after losing some of his great speed. Although Mantle always maintained he was a better righthanded hitter, he had equal power from both sides of the plate, possessing the ability to drive the ball more than 500 feet either as a lefthanded or righthanded batter.

Returning to the Yankees at the start of the 1952 campaign, Mantle took over the starting centerfield job from the recently-retired DiMaggio. Although he continued to strike out regularly, fanning a total of 111 times, Mantle had a very solid second season, hitting 23 home runs, driving in 87 runs, scoring 94 others, batting .311, and making the All-Star Team for the first of 11 straight times. He also performed quite well in each of the next three seasons, averaging 28 home runs, 98 runs batted in, and 118 runs scored from 1953 to 1955, and batting over .300 in two of those years. Mantle led the American League with 129 runs scored in 1954, and he topped the circuit with 37 home runs, a .433 on-base percentage, and a .611 slugging percentage in 1955. Yet, disappointed by Mantle's frequent strikeouts and the slugger's inability to reach the lofty level that had been predicted for him when he first arrived in the big leagues, Yankee fans continued to often voice their displeasure towards the slugger by booing him whenever he failed to fully live up to their expectations.

Mantle finally became the darling of the fans in 1956, when he put together the kind of season most people always believed he was capable of having. Mantle won the American League triple crown by leading the league with 52 home runs, 130 runs batted in, and a .353 batting average. He also topped the circuit with 132 runs scored and a .705 slugging percentage, en route to being named the league's Most Valuable Player for the first of three times, and being awarded the Hickock Belt as the top professional athlete of the year. Mantle had another great season in 1957, hitting 34 home runs, knocking in 94 runs, batting .365, winning his second consecutive MVP Award, and leading the Yankees to their sixth pennant in his first seven years with the team. However, even though Mantle was among the league's best players in both 1958 and 1959, his numbers fell off somewhat, causing fans of the team to once again boo him at every opportunity. The attitude of the fans towards Mantle began to permanently change the following season, though, after New York's disappointing third-place finish in 1959 prompted the team to acquire Roger Maris from the Kansas City Athletics for five players.

Mantle and Maris engaged in the first of two consecutive home run races in 1960, with Mickey edging out his new teammate for the league lead, 40 to 39. Mantle also knocked in 94 runs, batted .275, and topped the circuit with 119 runs scored. But Maris finished just ahead of Mantle in the league MVP voting, winning the award for the first of two straight times. And, as the season progressed, fans of the team began to develop a strong connection with Mantle. Even though they realized that Maris's contributions were criticial to the success of the team, the rightfielder began to draw their ire as he challenged Mantle for the league lead in home runs. Since they considered Mickey to be a "true" Yankee, fans of the team rooted for the centerfielder to win the home run crown, and they correspondingly rooted against Maris whenever he stepped to the plate. Mantle subsequently became their hero, something he remained the rest of his career, while they begrudgingy accepted Maris as a necessary evil.

The feelings of the fans towards Mantle and Maris intensified the following year, when the two men waged an epic battle in pursuit of Babe Ruth's single-season home run record, en route to leading New York to its first world championship since 1958. As the Yankees systematically devastated their opponents on the way to capturing the 1961 A.L. pennant, fans of the team expressed their affection for Mantle more and more, since they felt that, as a "true" Yankee, he should be the one to break Ruth's record. Maris was cast as an interloper, while Mantle was cheered wildly every time he came to the plate. The fans also believed that Mantle was the better all-around player of the two men, even though Maris was the one who eclipsed Ruth's record, edging out Mantle for league MVP honors for the second consecutive year in the process. Nevertheless, the numbers posted by Mantle over the course of the campaign would seem to justify the feelings of the fans. He finished second in the league to Maris in home runs, with 54, placed among the league leaders with 128 runs batted in, a .317 batting average, and a .452 on-base percentage, and topped the circuit with 132 runs scored and a .687 slugging percentage.

Even the press, much fonder of the now more gregarious Mantle than the shy and, at times, uncooperative Maris, chose sides. Far more comfortable in the big city than he was earlier in his career, Mantle now spoke freely to the members of the media, fully understanding the types of answers they appreciated, and taking every opportunity to oblige them. Reporters began writing stories that praised Mantle for the courage he displayed as he continued to play through more and more pain as his career wore on. Their articles helped to make Mickey a folk hero of sorts, enabling him to reach iconic-like status, not only in New York, but throughout the entire country. In subsequent seasons, Mantle experienced the kind of popularity enjoyed by few players in the history of the game.

Mantle captured his third MVP trophy in 1962, leading the Yankees to their third straight pennant and second consecutive world championship. Although he missed almost 40 games and compiled only 377 official at-bats, Mantle's 30 home runs, 89 runs batted in, 96 runs scored, .321 batting average, and league-leading .488 on-base percentage and .605 slugging percentage enabled him to edge out teammate Bobby Richardson for league MVP honors.

Mantle's 1963 season was cut short by one of the most serious injuries he sustained during his career. Playing in Baltimore, the centerfielder ran into a wire fence in the outfield, breaking his left foot and tearing the cartilage in his left knee. Mantle appeared in only 65 games for the Yankees that year, hitting 15 home runs, driving in 35 runs, and batting .314, in just 172 official at-bats.

Mantle returned to the team's everyday starting lineup the following year, and he helped lead the Yankees to their fifth consecutive pennant. Despite limping noticeably and playing in constant pain, Mantle finished among the league leaders with 35 home runs, 111 runs batted in, a .303 batting average, and a .591 slugging percentage. He also led the league with a .426 on-base percentage. The centerfielder finished second to Baltimore's Brooks Robinson in the league MVP voting. The Yankees lost the World Series to the Cardinals in seven games, but Mantle batted .333 during the Series, drove in eight runs, and hit the final three of his World Series record 18 home runs.

The 1964 campaign was Mantle's last big offensive year. He missed huge portions of both the 1965 and 1966 seasons with injuries, and he was shifted to first base prior to the start of the 1967 campaign to alleviate the pressure on his aching legs. Playing in great pain until finally retiring in 1968, Mantle never again put up huge offensive numbers. But he remained a productive player whenever his ailing body enabled him to take the field. Mantle ended his career with 536 home runs, 1,509 runs batted in, 1,677 runs scored, 2,415 hits, a .298 batting average, a .423 on-base percentage, and a .557 slugging percentage. His 536 homers were the third most in baseball history at the time of his retirement. Mantle led the league in home runs four times, reaching the 50-homer plateau on two separate occasions. He also topped the circuit in runs scored six times, walks five times, slugging percentage four times, on-base percentage three times, and runs batted in, triples, and batting average one time each. Mantle scored more than 100 runs nine consecutive seasons, from 1953 to 1961. He batted over .300 ten times, was named to the All-Star Team in 16 of his 18 seasons, and won a Gold Glove. In addition to winning three Most Valuable Player Awards, Mantle finished in the top five in the balloting on six other occasions. He helped lead the Yankees to 12 pennants and seven world championships in his 18 years with the team.

As popular as Mantle was with the fans, he was equally beloved by his teammates. In his book Few And Chosen, former teammate and close friend Whitey Ford refers to Mickey as: "...a superstar who never acted like one. He was a humble man who was kind and friendly to all his teammates, even the rawest rookie. He was idolized by all the other players."

Ford also says, "Often he played hurt, his knees aching so much he could hardly walk. But he never complained, and he would somehow manage to drag himself onto the field, ignore the pain, and do something spectacular."

Clete Boyer once expressed his admiration for his teammate by saying, "He is the only baseball player I know who is a bigger hero to his teammates than he is to the fans."

Roy White, who only played with Mickey during the latter stages of Mantle's career, talked about the inspiration he was to him: "I was really impressed with the way he played the game, how hard he played the game, and the way he hustled, especially with the bad legs he had. I have a vivid memory of him in DC Stadium, after a doubleheader on a Sunday. It was something like 120 (degrees) down on the floor of the DC Stadium, in July. Looking at him afterwards wrapping the tape off his legs…just sitting there totally exhausted. He had played both games. Mickey would hit a one-hopper over to second base, and he would run all-out to first base. How could you give any less watching a guy like that play the game?"

Opposing players also had a tremendous amount of respect for Mantle because they knew the effort he had to go through late in his career just to be able to take the field to start a game. They also admired his sense of fair play, which prevented him from ever trying to embarrass the opposition. Early in his career, the Yankee front office suggested to Mickey that he do something colorful, such as tip his cap to the fans, whenever he hit a home run. However, Mantle rejected the notion, preferring instead to circle the bases with his head down for fear of embarrassing the opposing team's pitcher. Explaining his actions, Mantle later said, "After I hit a home run I had a habit of running the bases with my head down. I figured the pitcher already felt bad enough without me showing him up rounding the bases."

It was Mantle's humility and courage that made him a hero to opposing players, as well as to his own teammates.

Hall of Fame outfielder Carl Yastrzemski once said of Mantle, "If that guy were healthy, he'd hit 80 home runs." Former Chicago White Sox second baseman Nellie Fox stated, "On two legs, Mickey Mantle would have been the greatest ballplayer who ever lived."

Injuries prevented Mantle from ever realizing his full potential. But Mickey's accomplishments were also diminished somewhat by the frivolous lifestyle he led, which was prompted by his fear of dying young. The men in his family had all passed away at an early age, and Mantle believed the same fate awaited him. Stating, "I'm not gonna be cheated," Mantle lived life just as hard as he played baseball. He drank, stayed up until all hours of the night, and was frequently unfaithful to his longtime wife Merlyn, who he married in 1951. Had Mantle taken better care of himself, he likely would have been able to add significantly to the extremely impressive numbers he compiled during his career. And, as Mickey later said, "If I'd known I was gonna live this long, I'd have taken a lot better care of myself."

Unfortunately, Mantle realized his transgressions too late in life. After being treated for alcoholism at the Betty Ford Clinic in 1994, Mickey discovered that the manner in which he abused his body through the years had left him with inoperable liver cancer. The idol of millions, Mantle displayed dignity and humility in his final days, telling all those fans who had looked up to him as a role model through the years, "This is a role model. Don't be like me."

Mickey Mantle died on August 13, 1995, at the age of 63. At his funeral, sportscaster Bob Costas eulogized his lifetime hero by describing him as "a fragile hero to whom we had an emotional attachment so strong and lasting that it defied logic." Costas added, "In the last year of his life, Mickey Mantle, always so hard on himself, finally came to accept and appreciate the distinction between a role model and a hero. The first, he often was not. The second, he always will be. And, in the end, people got it."

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Tagged:
1974 Hall of Fame, AL MVP 1956, AL MVP 1957, AL MVP 1962, Center fielder, Mickey Mantle, New York Yankees, Triple Crown Batting, switch hitter
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