Friday, February 6, 2009

Number of Days Until Spring Training: Mickey Mantle (#7)

Mickey Mantle. Just has a nice ring, doesn't it? Even if you flipped their career numbers, they weren't writing that song about Moose Skowron.

There's a reason Rodney Dangerfield changed his name from Jackie Roy, Kirk Douglas wasn't satisfied with Issur Danielovich, John Wayne didn't go by Marrion Marrison, and Cary Grant's real name Archie Leach. Of course baseball is far more of a meritocracy than Hollywood, but a player must be noticed, scouted, signed and promoted through the ranks. It's human nature that Tom Greenwade, the scout who first saw him in Baxter Springs, Kansas in 1948, was probably intrigued by "Mickey Mantle" more than his teammate Billy Johnson, the first time he saw the two names on a line-up card.

Part of the reason I don't have the burning desire to be famous is that even if I was President, people would still mispronounce my last name. In Italy it's pronounced "Gar-jou-low" but over here we generally dumb it down to "Gar-jew-low" so people at least have a chance. I used to have an oaf of a homeroom teacher named Mr. Wareing at CBA who would pronounce it "Gar-ge-you-low" no matter how many times I corrected him. The only upside to having a unique, somewhat oddly-spelled and foreign-sounding last name is that telemarketers don't have a shot.

Me: Hello
Caller: Can I speak to Mr. or Mrs. um, Gaar-
Me: (hangs up)

Anyway, Mickey Mantle was signed the day he graduated high school for $400 for the rest of the season and a $1,100 signing bonus. The scout, Greenwade said he was the best Yankee prospect he could remember, Joe DiMaggio agreed and Casey Stengel added, "He's got more natural power from both sides than anybody I ever saw".

Mantle made his Yankee debut on April 7th, 1951 as a lanky 19 year old, yet to grow into his sturdy frame. He was sent back down the the minors shortly thereafter, where he hit a blistering .361 in 40 games, and was then called back up to the Bigs. He and Willie Mays actually made their World Series debuts in the same game. Mays went 0-5 and Mantle 0-3.

It didn't take long for Mantle to live up to his star studded name.

In his first full season with the Yankees in 1952, Mantle replaced Joe D in CF, hit .331/.394/.530, made the All-Star Team and finished 3rd in the MVP voting. It was his first of 14 straight All-Star berths and he placed in the MVP voting 14 out of the next 15 years as well.

During that time, Mantle won three AL MVPs, finished second to Roger Maris in 1960 & 1961, to Brooks Robinson in 1964 and finished in the top 5 three times more. In 1957, he hit .365/.512/.665 and barely edged Ted Williams in the MVP race, who hit .388/.526/.731.

He had unprecedented power as a center fielder. Mantle was legendary for not only the number (536 career), but the length of his home runs, as the term "tape measure home run" was coined for his prodigious blasts. The famous graphic to the right triangulates a shot he drilled off the facade of the Stadium which was still 118 ft high 370 feet from home plate. He also hit a ball clear out of Tiger Stadium that was said to have traveled 463 feet. There were rumors of another at Griffith Stadium 565ft long, but this included the distance the ball traveled after it landed.

For all his swiftness and brawn, Mantle struggled mightily with injuries, missing an average of 18 games a year after his rookie season. He had both acute and chronic ailments in the bones and cartilage in both of his legs. In his World Series debut mentioned above, he and DiMaggio both sprinted towards a fly ball, but Joe called him off, causing Mickey to stop short. Mantle tore the cartilage in his right knee as his cleat got caught on a drainage cover hidden in the outfield grass. To mitigate the damage he might cause after that, he applied thick tape wraps around each knee before games.

In addition to injury, Mickey battled alcoholism. His father died when Mantle was 20 years old and he was nagged by the dread of his own mortality. As a result, he lived hard. He gave incredible effort on the field, but also partied recklessly away from the Stadium. Mick, Whitey Ford and Billy Martin frequented Toot Shur's and the Copacabana, where they would carouse with ladies despite their wives at home and get into their fair share of scuffles and scrapes.

Alcoholism followed Mickey long after his playing career, right up until he died at age 63 in 1995. He had checked into the Betty Ford Center in 1994, but by then, the damage had been done. Upon his examination, a doctor from the BFC told his that his liver was so damaged that "his next drink could be his last". Before he died, Mantle acknowledged his alcoholism and was able to reflect on the harm it had caused him and more importantly those around him.

Today, you can visit Mickey Mantle's on Central Park South. It has a replica version of Yankee Stadium and some awesome memorabilia. Despite the name and the location, beers are pretty reasonable and the wings aren't bad either.

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