In 1948, Yankee Scout Tommy Greenwade had taken a trip to Kansas to see a prospect named Billy Johnson who played for a semi-professional team named the Baxter Springs Whiz Kids. During the game, a young, strapping 16 year old boy named Mickey Mantle walloped three long home runs. The next year Greenwade returned, and when he left town, Mantle had signed his first contract to play for the New York Yankees.
“He’s the best prospect I’ve ever seen.” – Branch Rickey
Mantle soon realized his dream, playing next to the legendary Joe DiMaggio in the Yankee outfield. The local papers soon called him the greatest talent in baseball history. However, after a phenomenal start, his play deteriorated to the point that the Yankees demoted him to a Class D Minor League squad, the Kansas City Blues. However, his slump continued. He got one hit in his first 22 at bats. He became increasingly discouraged and homesick. He called his father and told him he wanted to quit baseball. His dad, nicknamed “Mutt”, took the long trip from Oklahoma.
Mickey’s dad knew for a very long time that his son had a special talent. In a moment of prescience, Mutt had named his son after the greatest catcher of his era, Mickey Cochrane. Mutt would work at the mines, breathing in a toxic combination of lead and zinc, and come home and pitch to his son every day. By the age of six, Mickey had learned to switch hit. Unbeknownst to Mickey, Mutt was suffering from Hodgkin’s disease. Mick’s grandfather, Charlie, also a miner, had died due to Hodgkin’s at the age of 40. Doctors told Mutt that he was dying, and that his days were numbered. He had spent his entire adult life in the mines, breathing in lead, which slowly poisoned his lungs. This would be his last trip to see his son play ball. He knew that he needed to complete one final task as a father.
When Mick saw his dad, he was near tears. “Dad,” Mickey Mantle said when he saw his father. “I can’t take it anymore. I’m going to quit. I want to come home.”
Mutt didn’t say a word. He looked his son in the eye, nodded at his request, and quietly started packing his son’s clothes in his suitcase. Mickey was stunned. He asked his dad what he was doing.
“I thought I raised a man,” Mutt Mantle said. “I see I raised a coward instead. You can come back to Oklahoma and work in the mines with me.”
The thought of going back and working in the mines, letting his father down, and giving up the game that he loved more than anything quickly produced a change of heart. “No dad, I want to stay.”
The next day, Mantle would hit two home runs. With his father in the stands, he would hit an amazing .485 for the rest of that home stand, slugging five home runs and batting in 21 RBI’s in the next nine games. A day later, Mantle was called up to the Yankees. That would be his last sojourn in the minor leagues.
“I’m glad,” Mantle would say, “my father knew I was not a failure.”
Mantle’s bat was a crucial component in the Yankees victory in the 1951 World Series against the Giants. It was during that World Series that Mantle tore up his knee, winding up in the same hospital as his dad. Eight months later, his father would die from the ravages of his illness. For many years, the Mick would be haunted by his father’s death, and believed that, like his father and grandfather, that he was destined to perish by the age of 40. Convinced that his fate was inevitable, he began drinking heavily, beginning what was to be a forty year bout with alcoholism.
“He should lead the league in everything. With his combination of speed and power he should win the triple batting crown every year. In fact, he should do anything he wants to do.” – Casey Stengel
How good was Mickey Mantle? The modern myth, ever since the publication of Jim Bouton’s classic “Ball Four”, is that Mantle was an immature alcoholic, more interested in guiding some of his teammates on peeping Tom excursions then leading them to the pennant. It has become fashionable to look at Mantle as something of a tragic failure; even his mentor, Casey Stengel, declined to put Mantle on his All-Time Yankee team. What is often forgotten is that Mantle played in considerable pain for most of his career. While in High School, he was diagnosed with osteomyelitis, an inflammatory disease of the bone. At one point, the treating physician considered amputation as an option, but his leg was saved thanks to the new panacea, penicillin. During the 1951 World Series, Mantle caught his spikes in a drain pipe, and tore his right knee. This injury resulted in him needing to wrap his leg from the hip to the ankle before every game for the remainder of his career, and caused him excruciating pain. Mantle rarely if ever complained of his injuries, and was greatly admired by both teammates and foes alike for his ability to play at a superior level despite enduring a level of pain that was at times almost unendurable.
“(Mickey) Mantle’s greatness was built on power and pain. He exuded the first and endured the second.” – Roy Fitzgerald in the Boston Globe
There may never have been a ballplayer with more natural gifts then the Mick. Mantle was a handsome, muscular man; even so, he was possibly the fastest ballplayer to ever play the game. He was clocked at 3.1 seconds from home to 1st base after his leg injuries, the fastest time ever recorded. On April 17, 1953, Mantle blasted a shot at Griffith Stadium which measured 565’ – the longest measured home run ever recorded. The term “tape measure home-run” came into usage as a result of that homer.
However, on 5/22/63, my father observed a feat at Yankee Stadium that he talked about in wonder for years to come. Bill Fischer of the KC Athletics attempted to pitch a fastball past Mantle in the bottom of the 11th inning. Dad stated that the ball left the Mick’s bat like a frozen rope, and almost instantaneously hit the façade above the 3rd deck of the Old Yankee stadium inches from the top. Incredibly, the ball was still rising when it made contact; the ball was hit so violently that it rolled all the way back to the infield. According to one estimate, using computer simulation, the ball would have traveled 734’ if unimpeded.
Again the question – how good was Mantle? Greatest Switch-hitter of all time – without question. Three times MVP, led the AL in Home Runs 4 times, Triple Crown winner in 1956. Led the league 7 times in Runs Created. Led the league 6 times in Runs Scored, once in BA, once in triples, 3 times in OBP, 5 times in base on balls, 5 times in Power/Speed quotient, 3 times in total bases, once in RBI. Most impressively, led the AL 9 times in OPS+, 9 times in Adjusted Batting Wins (ABW) and 9 times in Adjusted Batting Runs (ABR). According to the Win Shares system, Mantle was the best player in the AL each year from 1954-1964, with the exception of 1959 and 1963. His three best seasons are better then May’s best season. Of course, Mays was a better fielder, and a more complete ballplayer, but one is only left to imagine what an incredible force the Mick might have been if he had played relatively injury free, and spent a bit more time taking care of himself.
“Very few people take your breath away, but that was the effect Mickey had. He was truly a great American hero.” – Billy Crystal