Mantle, Mickey (1931-1995)

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Mantle, Mickey (1931-1995)

In 1951, nineteen-year-old Mickey Mantle joined the fabled New York Yankees. In the ensuing decade—a time when baseball was still America's Pastime, representing all that was good in sports and in the nation—Mantle would evolve into a legend. This innocent boy from Oklahoma became one of the most beloved players in the history of the game. Known as a genuine and humble young man, the kid whose mother had sewn all of his baseball uniforms for him came to evoke the soul of baseball.

It was Mantle's father, Mutt, who directed his son's life toward baseball from birth when he named him after his favorite player, Mickey Cochrane. A natural right-handed hitter, Mickey was taught by his father to become a switch-hitter, making the young man a double threat at the plate. A powerful batter from either side, Mantle switch-hit with great success. When his career with the Yankees ended, he had hit 536 home runs, batted in 1,509 runs on 2,415 hits and had 10 out of 18 seasons when he hit.300 or better. He also, however, struck out a record 1,710 times. Three times he was named the Most Valuable Player in the American League—in 1956, 1957, and 1962—and he was unanimously inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1974. His greatest single-season achievement came in 1956 when he won the triple crown—with 52 home runs, 130 runs batted in, and a.353 batting average.

But Mantle is probably best remembered for just one season—1961—when he and teammate Roger Maris (1934-1985) matched each other homer for homer as they attempted to break Babe Ruth's record of 60 home runs in one season. That Ruth was also a Yankee added a certain poignancy and excitement to the competition. When the popular Mantle did not win—Maris hit a record 61 homers that year—the public never threw their support behind Maris; thereafter, the record became a burden to Maris while Mantle's popularity only grew.

Television helped make Mantle a figure of popular culture. He joined the Yankees when baseball was at the peak of its popularity: television had begun broadcasting games, thus increasing the audience for the sport. Mantle played centerfield for the New York Yankees at a time when Willie Mays played centerfield for the New York Giants and Duke Snider played centerfield for the Brooklyn Dodgers. All three were great players playing in the same city, which also happened to be the media capital of the world. Everyone could follow their exploits. People who didn't have television sets in the early to mid-1950s would stand outside appliance store windows in October to watch the World Series—and Mickey Mantle was a hero in many of those games.

But being a hero came with a burden. Mantle not only hit with the best, he also drank with the best. Most of his off-field exploits with alcohol and women never made the sports pages and so his good-boy image went virtually untarnished. As he once said after one of his sons, then 8, fixed a bicycle he had assembled incorrectly: "Even eight-year-olds made excuses for me." He and his wife eventually separated and the entire family battled alcoholism.

It was not until 1994 that Mantle confronted his alcoholism and checked himself into the Betty Ford clinic. At first it appeared Mantle had hit another home run. But it was too late. He had damaged his liver beyond repair and eventually he became ill with cancer. A liver transplant buoyed everyone's hopes—family and fans alike—that he had won the latest battle. But the cancer had spread. The soul of baseball died on August 13, 1995, remembered for his innocence, his exploits, his honesty. He was 63.

—R. Thomas Berner

Further Reading:

Allen, Maury. Memories of the Mick. Dallas, Texas, Taylor Publishing Company, 1997.

Faulkner, David. The Last Hero: The Life of Mickey Mantle. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1995.

Honig, Donald. Mays, Mantle, Snider. New York, Macmillan Publishing Company, 1987.

The Mantle Family with Mickey Herskowitz. A Hero All His Life. New York, Harper Collins, 1996.

Mantle, Mickey, and Phil Pepe. My Favorite Summer, 1956. New York, Doubleday, 1991.