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Mickey Mantle

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by David Zingler

New York Yankees 1951-68

No name in baseball history conjures up more nostalgia than Mickey Mantle. Maybe it's because the Mickey Mantle story represents everything that is American: he rose up from humble beginnings, wowed us with his natural ability, achieved a stardom that was sprinkled with tragedy which led to alcoholism, repented before the end, and was ultimately forgiven. Mickey Mantle is the most beloved sports figure of his time - here is his story.

Mickey Charles Mantle was born on October 20, 1931 in Spavinaw, OK (population 300). When he was about four years old, the Mantles moved to Commerce, OK where Mickey grew up. Baseball was in the young Mantle's blood. Mickey's father Elvin or "Mutt" was a semipro ball player and named him after Hall of Fame catcher Mickey Cochrane.

Mickey began playing baseball at a young age, and grasped it quickly. The right-handed Mutt, along with his left-handed grandfather, Charlie, taught him how to switch hit by alternating in batting practice. By the time Mantle reached high school, he was a local legend excelling in baseball, basketball, and football. Meanwhile Mutt, a lead miner, brought Mickey to the mines in the summers where he served as a "screen ape." As the title suggests, it was not a sophisticated job, basically a "screen ape" spent his day smashing large rocks into smaller ones with a sledge hammer. As a result, Mantle developed a great physique and possessed tremendous strength which translated into the ability to hit titanic home runs.

During football practice his sophomore year, tragedy struck Mantle. He was kicked in the shin, which caused a wound that developed into the bone disease osteomyelitis. Amputation was considered before a recently discovered super drug, penicillin, was applied and saved the leg.

Mickey was first discovered by pro scouts at age 16 as a member of the Baxter Whiz Kids. The Whiz Kids roster was usually reserved for players at least 18 years of age, but the young Mantle had no trouble fitting in. In 1948 the Yankees sent scout Tom Greenwade to watch Whiz Kids third baseman Billy Johnson. Mantle, however, immediately caught his eye, belting home runs from each side of the plate. Greenwade wanted to sign Mantle, but found out that he was only 16. He vowed to return on Mantle's high school graduation day with a contract in hand.

Greenwade held up his end of the bargain and Mantle signed a contract with the Yankees while sitting in Greewade's 1947 Oldsmobile. The contract paid him $400 for the rest of the season along with a $1100 bonus. In the press release following Mantle's signing, Greenwade called him the "greatest prospect he'd ever seen."

Mantle began his pro career in 1949 with the Yankees Class D team in Independence, MO. After leading his team to the K-O-M (Kansas-Oklahoma-Missouri) championship, Mantle spent the 1950 season in Class Joplin, MO. During spring training in 1951, Mantle quickly became the talk of the Yankees camp. He could run with sprinters speed and possessed Ruthian power. Manager Casey Stengel quickly decided that the 19 year old Mantle would head north with the big club. He would be the first Yankee ever to go from Class C to the big leagues.

Mantle was immediately anointed as the Yankees next superstar. Following Ruth (#3), Gehrig (#4), and Dimaggio (#5), Mantle was given #6. At first, he did not respond well and was sent back to the minors in July. Mantle returned to New York a few weeks later a new man with a new number, 7. He hit .361 in 166 at-bats after his return and played in his first World Series that fall. Mantle finished his rookie season with a .267 average, 13 home runs, and 65 RBI - just a glimpse of what was to come.

It was during the World Series that Mantle suffered an injury that would torment him for the rest of his career. In Game 2 he tore his knee after his spike caught in a drainpipe cover. Centerfielder Joe Dimaggio called him off the ball, which caused him to stop abruptly. It was a tough off season for the rehabbing Mantle as his father, Mutt, died from cancer.

After the Yankees defeated the cross-town Giants in the 1951 World Series, Dimaggio retired and Mantle was moved from right to center field, where he would spend most of his career. In 1952, he began to tap into his enormous potential, hitting .311 with 23 HR, and 87 RBI as the Yankees again won the AL pennant and defeated Brooklyn Dodgers in seven games in the Fall Classic.

Although he played in just 127 games in 1953, Mantle still managed to hit 21 home runs and drive in 92. He hit his most famous home run that season, a 565 foot blast in Washington's Griffith Stadium that gave berth to the expression "tape measure home run." The Yankees again defeated Brooklyn in the World Series, this time in six games. Mantle now had three World Series rings in his first three seasons.

In 1954 the Yankees did something amazing, they didn't make it to the World Series, Mantle hit 27 home runs and drove in 102. In 1955 the Yankees returned to the Fall Classic behind Mantle's 37 home runs and 99 RBI. However, it was finally Brooklyn's turn, as the Dodgers defeated the Yankees in seven games.

The 1956 season was Mantle's best. He hit .353, blasted 52 home runs, and drove in 130 runs en route to the AL Triple Crown and MVP. The Yankees returned to their throne as baseball's best team, avenging their loss to Brooklyn the previous year. Mantle followed up his Triple Crown season with another MVP in 1957, hitting .365 (2nd in the AL) with 34 home runs and 94 RBI. The Yankees captured the AL Pennant again, but lost to the Milwaukee Braves in seven games in the World Series.

Mantle hit 42 home runs in 1958 and led the Yankees to a World Series rematch with the Braves. This time the Yankees defeated the Braves and Mantle received his 5th World Series ring. The Yankees failed to advance to the post season for only the second time in Mantle's career in 1959, and made a blockbuster trade in the off season with the Kansas City Athletics in which they acquired righ fielder Roger Maris.

Maris and Mantle quickly jelled as the pair led the Yankees back to the Fall Classic where they lost in seven games to the Pittsburgh Pirates on Bill Mazeroski's dramatic home run. Mantle led the AL with 40 home runs in 1960, but was the runner up to Maris in one of the closest MVP races in history.

The 1961 season was the most memorable of Mantle's career as he and Maris engaged in a historic home run race. The M & M boys' assault on Babe Ruth's single season record of 60 home runs captivated the nation. While Maris was the villain, Mantle became a universally loved hero. He received standing ovations all around the country and the boos he had heard years earlier faded for good. Maris eventually captured the record after Mantle bowed out with an injury. He finished with 54 home runs, a career high. The team, meanwhile, won 109 games and ran away with the AL pennant before disposing of the Cincinnati Reds in five games in the World Series. Mantle again finished second to Maris in the MVP voting.

In 1962 Mantle hit .321 with 30 home runs and 89 RBI, good enough for AL MVP honors, while leading the Yankees to another AL Pennant. The Yankees defeated the San Francisco Giants in seven games in the Fall Classic. It was Mantle's seventh, and final, world championship.

A broken bone in his left foot limited Mantle to 65 games and 172 at-bats in 1963, but he still managed a .314 average and 15 home runs. The Yanks reached the World Series again, but were swept by the Los Angeles Dodgers. Mantle returned to play 143 games in 1964, hitting 35 home runs with 111 RBI and the Yankees captured their 12th AL Pennant in 14 years. This time the Yankees faced the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series and fell in seven games. It would be Mantle's final World Series appearance.

Nagging injuries limited Mantle to 122 and 108 games in 1965 and '66. Although, he returned to play 144 games at first base in 1967 and '68, respectively, he was never the same. Mickey Mantle officially retired on March 1, 1969 with 536 career home runs and an all time record 18 in World Series play. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1974.

Just as legendary as Mantle's exploits on the field, however, was his partying off of it. During an era when drinking with the boys was seen as manly and generally excepted, it was becoming apparent the Mantle was an alcoholic. He lived the way he played - all out. He would often show up for games hung over, but was looked out for by his teammates who often acted as enablers, allowing him to feed his addiction. Although his career accomplishments are impressive, one can only wonder what he might have done had he been able to control his consumption of alcohol.

Mantle remained in the public eye following his career. He was involved in several business ventures, and made millions in the sports memorabilia industry. During that time he kept drinking, and eventually checked into the Betty Ford Center for alcohol rehabilitation in 1993. By 1995 Mantle was in need of a liver transplant to remain alive, and on June 8th he received it at Baylor University Hospital. Although it would add little more than two months to his life, Mantle spent those days appearing on various television shows explaining the error of his ways and the importance of becoming an organ donor.

Mickey Mantle died on August 18, 1995 of cancer. He was 63. Today Mickey Mantle is more popular than ever, his cards and autograph are the most sought after on the memorabilia circuit. He is universally regarded as a hero by an adoring public that has forgiven him for his earlier transgressions.

-David Zingler, July 2002

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