MICKEY MANTLE COULD HAVE BEEN THE GREATEST
05/14 – Words: Will Stern
Growing up in Commerce, a small mining town tucked away in the northwest corner of Oklahoma, Mickey Mantle’s father, Mutt, worked a grueling job at the town mines.
A former semi-pro ballplayer, Mutt’s love of the game was boundless — a passion that dominated his life. Before Mickey’s birth, Mutt had already decided the name of his first son would be an ode to his favorite player, Hall of Fame catcher Mickey Cochrane.
Mutt’s long hours toiling away at the mines didn’t prevent him from giving his boy the chance to achieve his lost baseball dreams, molding Mickey into one of the most tantalizing prospects in the game’s history. Convinced that the future would place a premium on switch-hitters, the right-handed Mutt would pitch to Mickey, pressing the naturally right-handed Mickey to bat lefty while Mutt’s lefty father pitched to Mickey from the other side of the plate.
The result would create the greatest switch-hitter in baseball history.
As a freshman in high school, Mickey almost lost his leg to a football injury. He recovered, but this early brush with his body’s vulnerability was a sign of things to come.
By his senior year of high school in 1949, “Little Mickey Mantle” had outgrown his nickname by putting on 20 pounds in a year, beginning to resemble the hulking man known for launching Ruthian homeruns into the stratosphere. Yankees scout Tom Greenwade took notice and drove to Commerce to sign the kid the same weekend he graduated high school.
Mantle blazed his way through the minor leagues, first for the Class D Independence Yankees, then in Class C in Joplin, where whispers grew to roars extolling the legend of the teenager blasting homeruns “that never came down: they were still aloft over southern Missouri.”
“There’s never been anything like this kid… He has more speed than any slugger and more slug than any speedster — and nobody has ever had more of both of ’em together.”
In 1951, Mantle’s arrival to Yankees spring training was a spectacle — a circus of fawning media, excited team execs, and curious teammates.
Adding fuel to the fire was Pete Sheehy, the long-time Clubhouse Attendant who had witnessed the sequential greatness of Babe Ruth (No. 3), Lou Gehrig (No. 4), and had picked well by giving Joe DiMaggio No. 5. Now, before Mantle had seen a single pitch in the big leagues, he was entrusted with No. 6.
The pressure almost destroyed Mantle’s career before it could begin. Sent back to the minors in the summer of ’51 after a slump, Mantle’s woes at the plate worsened, going 0-22 to start off his assignment. Things got so bad he wanted to quit the game altogether. His father drove up to Kansas City to set him straight: “I thought I raised a man. I see I raised a coward instead. You can come back to Oklahoma and work the mines with me.”
That seemed to do the trick, and Mantle turned things around once he returned to the big leagues, batting a much improved .284 for the remainder of the season. Though his early blunders would be overshadowed by his years of excellence, a reminder would be affixed to the back of his jersey, which was permanently replaced with the No. 7.
Playing in his first World Series in 1951, Mantle led off the game with a bunt single for his first career post-season hit. The mid-season slump was long forgotten, and the rookie was once again the heir apparent to lead the next Yankees dynasty.
Giants Rookie of the Year Willie Mays stepped to the plate and lofted a high fly-ball to right-center field, splitting the difference between Mantle and the elder statesman Joe DiMaggio. Both the star center fielder and the impulsive rookie gave chase.
DiMaggio had no clue that Stengel had instructed Mantle to cover for DiMaggio in centerfield thanks to the veteran’s aching heel, but even if he had known, it wouldn’t have mattered: as long as Joltin’ Joe wore his Yankees uniform, he would never consider deferring to some upstart kid.
Despite what his aging body may tell him, the fading torchbearer of Ruth’s legacy refused anything less than total command of the sprawling outfield where he had spent his youth baffling batters by gliding under flyballs to turn no-doubt doubles into routine pop-outs.
“I got it!” DiMaggio called out, sailing under the ball with his famous poise.
Mantle, his 200-pound brawny frame running at full speed, obeyed his teammate’s order to stand down, stopping short at the last minute.
As the ball came to rest in DiMaggio’s glove, onlookers remember the scene of Mantle suddenly falling to the Earth as if he had been shot. The spike of his cleat had caught on an exposed drainpipe covering, and his right knee exploded. Mantle would play the rest of his career encumbered by injury and chronic pain.
The next year Mantle would take over for the retiring DiMaggio in centerfield — a transgression that Joe could never forgive.
Even as Mantle took the league by storm, fans booed him, believing he should have been better than DiMaggio… even better than Ruth. Though a Triple Crown in 1956 silenced the detractors for the most part, the gap between Mantle’s potential and his accomplishments would never be fulfilled. His injuries and rough living made it so that no matter how great Mantle played, he would always be trailed by disappointment and the haunting question of what could have been.
It wasn’t just the fans, it was another strike against Mantle in the eyes of DiMaggio, who took particular umbrage with his drinking. Mantle was a living contradiction to the statesman-like example set by DiMaggio for how a ballplayer should behave.
In 1995, as Mantle began to succumb to liver cancer — almost certainly a result of his alcoholism, which only worsened with age — DiMaggio still held on to his decades-long animosity.
DiMaggio would later tell his biographer that Mantle brought it upon himself and that he felt no sympathy for him.
“I don’t really feel sorry for the guy. He did it to himself.”
Mantle knew it more than anyone. Even as a 3-time MVP and a 7-time World Series winner who waltzed into the Hall of Fame with a first-ballot welcome, a sense of melancholy was ever-present.
He was “bred to play baseball,” Mantle used to say. And when he looked back at his career as he entered retirement, he could only see what he squandered. He remembered his father’s dreams and what Casey Stengel had said when he was first coming up, that he was going to be better than DiMaggio and Ruth.
“It didn’t happen. I never fulfilled what my dad had wanted, and I should have… And I blame a lot of it on alcohol.”
As Mantle’s liver started to falter for good and it was clear his time was winding down, he called a press conference, seemingly to address the kids out there who looked up to the humbled hero.
“Don’t be like me. God gave me a body and the ability to play baseball. I had everything and I just . . .”
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