Wednesday, February 10, 2010

7 Days Until Spring Training: Mickey Mantle

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 wasn't Cary Grant; it was Archie Leach. Studies have shown that students are excellent at predicting which college professors they will enjoy having before they even hear them speak. But that probably says more about how much first impressions shape our interactions with other people than our powers to judge them based solely on their looks.

Of course, baseball is far more of a meritocracy than Hollywood and its players aren't judged based on the first time they play in front of someone, but there is a certain subjectivity involved in selecting those who are fit for higher levels of the game. There's even more bias involved in determining who becomes a superstar. A prospect must be noticed, scouted, signed and promoted through the ranks. To become a star, a player must be talked about and popularized through the media and by fans. Having a catchy name certainly doesn't hurt in either of those pursuits.

All of this is a long way of saying that Tom Greenwade, the scout who first saw him in Baxter Springs, Kansas in 1948, was probably more intrigued by the name "Mickey Mantle" more than his teammate Billy Johnson, the first time he saw the two listen in a game program.

Greenwade said he was the best Yankee prospect he could remember. Mantle was offered $400 for the rest of the season and a $1,100 signing bonus. Eventually, Joe DiMaggio agreed with Greenwade's assessment and Casey Stengel added, "He's got more natural power from both sides than anybody I ever saw".

Of course, they were right; Mantle's talent was undeniable. He tore through the minor leagues and made his Yankee debut on April 17th, 1951 as a lanky 19 year old, with just 20 games experience above C-ball. After a brief slump punctuated by a four strikeout effort against the Red Sox, Mantle was sent back down to Kansas City. He stayed in AAA for 5 weeks and hit .361 in 40 games before getting called back up to the Bigs.

Mantle spent the rest of the season with the team and was included on the roster when they faced the New York Giants in the Fall Classic. He and Willie Mays actually made their World Series debuts in the same game. Mays went 0-5 and Mantle 0-3. It would be 11 years before those two met in another World Series game and the Yankees would prevail in the 1962 Fall Classic as well.

In his first full season with the Yankees in 1952, Mantle replaced Joe DiMaggio in center field, hit .331/.394/.530, made the All-Star Team and finished 3rd in the AL MVP voting. It was his first of 14 straight All-Star berths and the first of 6 times he'd finish in the top 5 of the MVP voting without winning. He did, however, win three MVPs. They came in 1956, in 1957 when he hit .365/.512/.665 and barely edged Ted Williams in the voting, and in 1962 when he took home the only Gold Glove of his career (the first year they were awarded was '57).

The Mick was also a part of 7 World Series winners during his playing days. The Yanks were still obviously lucky to have him, but his postseason batting line of .257/.374/.535 was not nearly as good as his regular season line of .298/.421/.557.

Mantle had unprecedented power as a center fielder. He was legendary for not only the number, but the length of his home runs, as the term "tape measure home run" was coined for his one of his prodigious blasts.

That shot, perhaps his most famous, came at Griffiths Stadium in Washington D.C. on April 17th, 1953. It was said to have traveled 565 feet, a claim originally made Yankees PR man Arthur "Red" Patterson. There was a breeze blowing out to left field that day and Mantle crushed a pitch off of a middle reliever named Chuck Stobbs off the Natty Boh beer sign and out of the Stadium. Patterson set out to retrieve the ball.

He claimed to have found a ten year old boy at 434 Oakdale Lane by the name of Donald Dunaway in posession of the ball. He offered young Donny $1 and two signed balls in exchange for Mantle's souvenir and claimed to have take a tape measure from the stadium to the ball's landing spot. Peterson admitted later in life that his claim of measuring the home run was less than accurate but insisted the part about Donald Dunaway was true. However, numerous baseball historians have set out to find someone with that combination of age, name and address but come up empty. Still, the term "tape measure home run" was born.

The famous graphic to the right triangulates another legendary home run, with slightly more concrete mathematical calculations. Mantle drilled one off the facade of Yankee Stadium which was still 118 ft high 370 feet from home plate.

For all his swiftness and brawn, Mantle struggled mightily with injuries but usually played through them. 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 Toots Shor's and the Copacabana.

One infamous night at the Copa, a bunch of the Yankees were there with their wives and an especially unruly group of people fresh off of a bowling league victory came in and sat down. Sammy Davis Jr. was performing that night and the bowlers started heckling him. A few of the Yankees took umbrage to that and asked them to quiet down. Words were exchanged and led by Billy Martin and Hank Bauer the group of Yanks were soon involved in a full scale brawl out near the coat room.

While they walked away unscathed, Billy Martin was traded as a direct result of that incident for being a bad influence on Mantle as well as Whitey Ford and Yogi Berra - players who normally stayed out of trouble and meant far more to the team on the field than Martin. They had to go in from of a grand jury, but none of the Yanks were ever brought up on charges.

Eventually, all the partying and all the injuries caught up with Mantle. He was only 36 years old but could barely run when the 1968 season came to a close. His power had finally started to leave him and in his final two years his failing legs kept him exclusively at first base. His career batting average dipped below .300 in his final season and the Yankees finished 5th in the American League.

Years later his wife Merlyn recalled: "When Mick retired, a big chunk of his self-esteem went out the window. I question whether he ever had much to begin with".

Baseball followed, even haunted Mantle after he hung up his cleats:

For years after he stopped playing, Mickey Mantle said, he would dream he was in a taxi, in uniform, late. ''I could hear them saying, 'Now batting, No. 7, Mickey Mantle,' and I'd try to crawl through a hole into Yankee Stadium and I'd always get stuck. Looking through the hole, I could see Casey Stengel and Whitey Ford and all them out there and I couldn't get in. And I'd wake up and I'd be sweating like hell. I had that dream a long time.''

Alcoholism followed Mickey long after his playing career too, 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.

While he was the hero of an entire generation of Yankees fans, Mantle certainly wasn't without his flaws. A character plucked from the cornfields and brought to the big city, the story of Mickey Mantle was something Hollywood might have dreamed up had it not actually happened. His self-perpetuating fight with his inner demons that led to his own demise seemed plucked from a Greek tragedy. Mantle may have appeared to be more of a legend than a man during his playing days. However, as the years wore on, his humanity and mortality became increasingly obvious.

Mantle's tale is both inspirational and cautionary. He got a lot out of his 63 years on this earth, but it' clear that if he had taken better care of himself, he would have got a whole lot more. Even still, he was one of the greatest Yankees of all time.


  1. he was my hero. i was 9 when roger, mickey, and mays chased 60 in 61.

  2. is that picture of the actual home run in question or just a pictures that captures both Mantle and the billboard in question?

    That picture is him hitting lefty and the skeptic in me says it's impossible to hit a ball 565 feet to the opposite way

  3. JGS - It's definitely the latter. Chuck Stobbs was left handed so Mantle was batting righty. Based on the Yahoo article I linked to up there, I don't think it's possible to hit a 565 foot home run at all.

    To be honest, I'm not even positive that's Mantle in the picture, but I found it digging through Google images that was the only view of the sign from inside the park.