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Mantle, Mickey Charles

Mantle, Mickey Charles

(b. 20 October 1931 in Spavinaw, Oklahoma; d. 13 August 1995 in Dallas, Texas), baseball superstar who played center field for the New York Yankees in succession to joe DiMaggio, earning fame for his “tapemeasure” home runs and as the best power-hitting switch hitter (right-and left-handed) in the history of the game.

Mantle’s mother, Lovell Richardson, was a homemaker. His father Elvin, known as “Mutt,” was a part-time baseball player and a fanatical fan of the St. Louis Cardinals. He named his eldest child (there would be four others) for an idol of his youth, Mickey Cochrane, the renowned catcher-slugger of the Philadelphia Athletics and later player-manager of the Detroit Tigers. Mutt Mantle lost his job with a paving company as the Great Depression deepened. After a stint as a tenant farmer, he moved the family from Spavinaw to Commerce, Oklahoma, where he found work as a shoveler for a zinc and lead company. Beginning when Mickey was only a toddler, Mutt Mantle would come home before nightfall and patiently teach his son how to swing a baseball bat—both right-handed and left-handed—until it was too dark to see. He aimed to make Mickey the player he wished to have been himself. Meanwhile, Mickey’s approving mother waited with dinner on the table. Mantle liked to recall that his mother sewed every baseball uniform he wore until he was fitted for Yankee pinstripes.

Mickey played Little League baseball as a shortstop, and in a few years was on the baseball and football teams at Commerce High School. In a football game there in 1946, he was kicked in the left shin and suffered a bruise that led to osteomyelitis, a fulminating bone disease that eventually required five operations to control. The affected limb, however, had been permanently weakened, and the long series of leg injuries that would plague his professional career had begun.

While playing semiprofessional baseball with the Baxter Springs Whiz Kids, Mantle drew the attention of Tom Greenwade, a scout for the Yankees who was riveted by the home runs he saw fly off Mantle’s bat—from both sides of the plate. When Mantle graduated from high school in 1949, Greenwade signed him to a Yankee contract. The eighteen-year-old Mickey received a bonus of $1,100 on top of $400 for the remainder of the summer. The prize prospect was sent to the Yankees’ Class D team in Independence, Kansas, where he continued to play shortstop. While hitting .313 in eighty-nine games, he committed forty-seven errors. Still, his speed on the bases as well as his slugging earned him a promotion the following year to the Yankees’ Class C team in the Western Association, the Joplin (Missouri) Miners. There he batted .383, with 199 hits and 326 total bases, but he continued to field erratically, committing fifty-five errors in 137 games, mostly by making wild throws. In September 1950 the Yankees called him up to “The Show,” as the big leagues were familiarly known, and he joined the team in St. Louis at Sportsman’s Park. He was touted as the likely eventual successor to Phil Rizzuto, the team’s sterling shortstop. By design, Mantle did not get into a single game. He was simply to sit on the bench to watch and learn. Mantle was awed by his new teammates; he barely could bring himself even to look at DiMaggio, whom he had worshiped for most of his young years, let alone talk to him.

In 1951, at the age of nineteen, Mantle was in Phoenix for spring training with the Yankees, and on opening day at Yankee Stadium, Casey Stengel, the manager, stationed him in right field, alongside DiMaggio in center field. “Joltin’” Joe was starting what would be the final season of his scintillating career. The visiting team was the Boston Red Sox, whose right fielder was Ted Williams, the incomparable “Splendid Splinter.” Mantle felt keenly the intense pressure of both the company he was in and the cheering fans who had heard he was a kind of superman. Two months into the season, because he was striking out too much—in one game he fanned five times—the team sent him down to their top farm team, the Kansas City Blues, in the American Association. There he was assigned to play center field, in anticipation of his succeeding DiMaggio. Mantle burned up the American Association with his home run hitting. After forty games the Yankees called him up, and he finished his rookie season with a .267 batting average and thirteen home runs in ninety-six games.

On 23 December 1951 Mantle and Merlyn Louise Johnson, his long-time steady girlfriend, were married at her parents’ home in Picher, Oklahoma. They had four children. Nationally, the war in Korea was holding public attention, and Mantle was eligible for the military draft. Eyebrows were raised—and he felt the criticism deeply—when he was excused as 4F because of his osteomyelitis, even though on the diamond he seemed as fit as anybody.

As the regular center fielder in 1952, Mantle quickly established himself as worthy of comparison with the other luminous New York center fielders, Duke Snider of the Brooklyn Dodgers and Willie Mays of the New York Giants. Mantle combined power at the plate with outstanding speed on the bases. A teammate said: “With his one good leg he could outrun everyone.” In 1952 he hit .311, including twenty-three home runs in 142 games. His prowess was only just developing. In 1955 Mantle led the league in home runs with thirty-seven. The following year he won the Triple Crown, leading the league in average (.353), home runs (fifty-two), and runs batted in (130). Three times he was the American League’s Most Valuable Player (1956, 1957, and 1962), and four times he led the league in home runs (1955, 1956, 1958, and 1960). In 1961, driving out fifty-four homers, he was second to Roger Maris, his teammate, who broke Babe Ruth’s long-standing record of sixty homers by striking sixty-one.

From 1952 to 1965 Mantle was named to the league’s All-Star team. In two All-Star games he smacked homers. In 1962 he won the Gold Glove Award for his fielding. In his eighteen-year career he hammered out 536 home runs, placing him eighth on the all-time list (373 were struck left-handed and 163 right-handed). He had delivered 2,415 hits—including 344 doubles and 72 triples, and had averaged .300 or better at bat in each often years. His lifetime batting average was .298. He would always regret that he had not corralled enough additional hits to be a .300 lifetime batter. Five times he topped the American League in walks and six times in runs scored. In his first fourteen seasons with the Yankees, Mantle helped lead the team to twelve World Series, serving as the anchor of the most successful team in the history of American sports. His eighteen home runs in the sixty-five World Series games in which he played is the Mount Everest of slugging achievement. Moreover, his forty-two runs scored, forty-three bases on balls, 123 total bases, and forty runs batted in are also World Series records.

The heights Mantle might have reached had he not been injury-prone can only be conjectured. No one ever loved to play baseball more than he did, but practically from the beginning of his professional life he played with his knees or legs bound in bandages. The first injury came in the World Series of 1951, when Mantle was a rookie. Running after a fly ball that Willie Mays had hit, he stopped short to allow DiMaggio to catch it and tripped on a lawn sprinkler head, ripping up ligaments in his right knee. In his years as a Yankee he had seven operations, six on his knees. In 1963 in Baltimore he broke his left foot scaling a mesh fence in pursuit of a hit ball. His shoulder also once required serious surgical repair. Despite his considerable infirmities, however, Mantle holds the record for Yankee games played (2,401) and times at bat (8,102). In his last years as a Yankee, Mantle played first base to help save his ailing legs.

No longer able to bear the pain and punishment of regular play on damaged knees, Mantle decided to quit during spring training in 1969. He was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1974, the first year of his eligibility. The Yankees retired the number 7 he had worn so brilliantly, enshrining him in succession to the team’s royal lineage: Babe Ruth (number 3), Lou Gehrig (number 4) and DiMaggio (number 5).

Mantle threw right-handed, and although he made an asset of his remarkable speed, he was only somewhat better than average with the glove. Still, he thrilled crowds everywhere with the power he generated at the plate and the distance his best blows traveled. Batting right-handed in 1953, he drove a ball 565 feet over a fifty-five-foot fence at Griffith Stadium in Washington, D.C. No one has ever driven a ball out of Yankee Stadium, yet twice, batting left-handed, he sent prodigious wallops crashing off the filigree facade in right field at the top of the famous ballpark, 500 feet away and 108 feet high—only a few feet short of clearing the roof. An unassuming, even naive man who never crowed about his skills, he said in self-deprecation at his induction into the Hall of Fame: “I also broke Ruth’s record for strikeouts. He struck out only 1,500 times. I struck out 1,710 times.”

In retirement Mantle lent his name and prestige to a restaurant and sports bar in New York City, where he often could be seen responding to the endless questions of his admirers. Located on Central Park South near the St. Moritz Hotel where he had stayed when he played ball, it provided a substantial income for him. An earlier enterprise, a chain of restaurants named Mickey Mantle’s Country Cooking had failed in 1969 because his partners apparently cheated him. When he took a well-paying job in 1983 as a greeter in an Atlantic City casino, as Willie Mays had done, he, like Mays, was suspended from baseball by the commissioner of baseball because their duties suggested they were associated with gambling. Both suspensions were lifted after two years.

“The Mick,” as his fans and friends referred to him affectionately, stood just under six feet tall and at the zenith of his career weighed 195 pounds. In addition to beingwellmuscled, he had been a blond, freckle-faced, handsome young man made to order for a matinee idol. Still, he was no all-American type: there was too much Peck’s Bad Boy in him, and his behavior could be embarrassing and dismaying. Beginning early in his career, more often than not in the company of Whitey Ford, the peerless pitching star of the Yankees, and Billy Martin, an irrepressible infielder of the team, Mantle was carousing in the nightlife of New York and other cities on the American League circuit. Bearing playground-sounding first names, the three nevertheless went around calling one another “Slick,” as if to seal their friendship like a band of adolescent pranksters. They drank heavily and incessantly, oftentimes arriving at Yankee Stadium notably hungover. After Billy Martin was involved in a drunken brawl at the Copacabana, a popular nightclub in Manhattan, he was traded away. The Yankee management regarded him as exerting a bad influence on his two buddies. Mantle’s willingness to live on the edge may have owed something to his conviction that Hodgkin’s disease, the genetic debility that had taken the life of every male Mantle before the age of forty—including his father—would claim him early, too. In the event, it was his third son, Billy, who fell victim to the ailment and subsequently died of a heart attack at the age of thirty-six.

As the years passed, Mantle continued his boozing and lived as an alcoholic in a constant haze. Nonetheless, after the death of Billy and perhaps also the realization that he was not going to die as he thought he was fated to, Mantle seems to have recognized that continuing his life with the bottle was going to kill him. At the urging of his surviving children, David, Danny, and Mickey, Jr., and his friend Pat Summerall, a well-known sports broadcaster, he turned himself in for addiction treatment at the Betty Ford Center in Rancho Mirage, California. He emerged determined never to drink again, and in the next year and a half he seemed a new man.

Mantle’s resolve, though, came too late, for his once powerful body had begun to come apart. His doctors determined that his liver, which his heavy drinking had put under constant strain, was now ravaged not only by cirrhosis, but also by hepatitis and cancer, and that if he was to survive he required a liver replacement. He underwent transplant surgery on 8 June 1995 at Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas. A question that remained unanswered was whether this beloved national figure had received preference for the donor liver over other eligible candidates. Many people wondered also why a man whose disability was largely self-inflicted should have had access to a scarce organ. He developed anemia as a result of the chemotherapy that he underwent, and when he was hospitalized again on 28 July, it was discovered that the cancer had invaded his entire body. His surgeon said that had he known the cancer had spread beyond the liver, he would not have allowed the transplant.

In the days remaining to him, Mantle directed that a Mickey Mantle Foundation be established to encourage the donation of tissue and organs for transplants. He involved himself, too, in a fund-raiser for children affected by the Oklahoma City bombing. In a news conference on 11 July 1995, Mantle confessed that he was a poor role model for the country’s youth, although he had never posed as one. He had squandered his body, he confessed ashamedly. “God gave me the ability to play baseball. God gave me everything. For the kids out there … don’t be like me.” He died with his wife and three surviving sons at his bedside. Mickey and Merlyn Mantle had been estranged from each other for many years, with him living with his agent Greer Johnson, said to be his mistress. After funeral services—televised nationally—at Lovers Lane United Methodist Church in Dallas on 15 August 1995, Mantle was buried in a crypt near his son in Sparkman-Hillcrest Memorial Park, also in Dallas.

The continued enthusiasm for Mantle memorabilia in the years following his death testifies to the hold he had on the American imagination. Recognizing the value of his name and reputation, his family created Four M Enterprises to license products bearing his picture and signature. In a publicized court action, the Mantle family failed to prevent Greer Johnson from auctioning off some of Mantle’s intimate personal possessions. Mickey Mantle had realized in his life story the dream that millions of youngsters of his time had of becoming a stellar player on the country’s premier baseball team, leading it to victory year after year, and electrifying the nation each fall with herculean feats performed before awed World Series crowds. That dream will always remain a bright and shining piece of Americana to which Mantle’s name must always be attached.

Mantle produced a spate of autobiographical accounts of his life. The first was Mickey Mantle, as told to Ben Epstein, Mickey Mantle Story (1953). Then came Mickey Mantle and Robert W. Creamer, The Quality of Courage (1964, reprint 1999). The best is Mickey Mantle with Herb Gluck, The Mick; Mickey Mantle (1985). Additional tidbits are in Mickey Mantle and Phil Pepe, My FavoriteSummer (1956); Whitey Ford, Mickey Mantle, and Joseph Durso, Whitey and Mickey: A Joint Autobiography of the Yankee Years (1977); and Mickey Mantle, with Mickey Herskowitz, All My Octobers: My Memories of Twelve World Series When the Yankees Ruled Baseball (1994). Throughout his career Mantle was the subject of a stream of hagiographic sportswriting. Examples are Gene Schoor, Mickey Mantle of the Yankees (1959); Dick Schaap, Mickey Mantle: The Indispensable Yankee (1961); Milton J. Shapiro, Mickey Mantle: Yankee Slugger (1962); and Al Silverman, Mickey Mantle: Mister Yankee (1963). The year Mantle died came David Falkner, The Last Hero: The Life of Mickey Mantle (1995); Mickey Herskowitz, Mickey Mantle: An Appreciation (1995); and Robert Creamer, Mickey Mantle Remembered: Stories Excerpted from the Pages of Sports Illustrated (1995). The flow of books continued: Gene Schoor, The Illustrated History of Mickey Mantle (1996); Maury Allen, Memories of the Mick (1997); Phil Berger, Mickey Mantle (1998); Larry Canale, Mickey Mantle: The Yankee Years, The Classic Photography of Ozzie Sweet (1998); and David S. Nut-tall, Mickey Mantle’s Greatest Hits (1998). A revelation of some of the unsavory hijinks of Mantle and his cohorts is in Jim Bouton, Ball Four (1970, reprint 1990). A collective appreciation of New York City’s greatest center fielders is Donald Honig, Mays, Mantle, Snider: A Celebration (1987). An FBI file of documents on Mickey Mantle was released in 1998. Steve Wulf, “Superman in Pinstripes, 1931–1995,” Time (21 Aug. 1995), is a sentimental appreciative evaluation. An obituary is in the New York Times (14 Aug. 1995).

Henry F. Graff

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