Mickey Charles Mantle was a small-town boy who played inAmerica’s biggest city for the most decorated team at a time when baseball was king.
When Mantle roamed Yankee Stadium’s spacious center field, people said he was a gift from heaven.
“He’s the greatest prospect I’ve seen in my time, and I go back quite a ways,” said Yankees’ Hall of Fame catcher Bill Dickey, who later became a scout. “I’ll swear I expect to see that boy just take off and fly any time.”
And with that, Mantle, a three-time American League Most Valuable Player, reached the big leagues in 1951 as a 19-year-old from Commerce, Oklahoma, where he played shortstop because of his powerful throwing arm.
But the switch-hitter made too many errors, and was shifted to right field because Joe DiMaggio was already in center.
The Yankee Clipper retired after that season, which set in motion Mantle’s stay until he called it quits following the 1968 campaign after smashing 536 homers and driving in 1,509 runs.
More than any player, Mantle, a Triple Crown winner in 1956 after swatting 52 homers, with 130 runs batted in, and a .353 batting average, was a tragic figure.
Despite the good looks and soft-spoken charm, Mantle was often moody. When playing ball, Mantle, who holds the World Series record for homers (18), RBIs (40), runs (42), walks (43), extra-base hits (26), and total bases (123), was fine. Once the press entered, he was all together different.
Like many ballplayers of that era, Mantle drank heavily to ease the physical pain. It began in Game 2 of the 1951 World Series when the New York Giants’ Willie Mays lofted a ball between center and right. DiMaggio called for it, but at the last second, backed off.
Just as he did, Mantle’s right foot went into a drainage ditch, and in the process shredded the knee, and was lost for the rest of the Series.
Mantle drank because he felt his life would be short, just like his father Elvin, or “Mutt” as he was called, who passed away at 39, and his uncle, who also left early.
“If I’d known I was gonna live this long, I’d have taken a lot better care of myself,” said Mantle, who died in 1995 at 63, and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1974.
Longtime sportscaster Bob Costas, a Yankees’ fan, and Mantle devotee, spoke at his funeral.
“Mickey was a fragile hero to whom we had an emotional attachment so strong and lasting that it defied logic,” he said.
Mantle had four sons, and I interviewed Mickey Jr. a few years after his father’s death. Mickey Jr. wore a black Members Only-style jacket with No. 7 on the breast, the number his father made legendary.
He was gracious, and extended me more than enough time. I asked if it was difficult being the great man’s son?
“People don’t know how tough it is,” he said. “I played Little League, and everybody expected me to hit a home run every time, but that’s not possible.”
When I read of his passing in 2000 at 47, I was extremely sad because much of my youth was also lost.
Rick Assad has been a sportswriter for more than two decades. He has a political science degree from UCLA, a journalism degree from CSUN, is a staff writer for diamondboxing.com, and is a columnist for socalboxing.wordpress.com. You may e-mail him at email@example.com.