Thursday, October 20, 2011

Rant #600: The Mick

Today would have been Mickey Mantle's 80th birthday if he would have lived. He died in 1995, and although gone for 16 years, he remains the quintessential American sports hero.

Mantle had humble beginnings in Commerce City, Oklahoma. He was the son of a miner, and he was destined to become one too ... although his dad thought otherwise.

As the story goes, seemingly from birth, Mantle was pegged as an athlete. He was named after Hall of Fame catcher Mickey Cochrane, and as a youth, excelled at just about every sport he tried.

He played high school football, was tackled hard, and the injury was something far worse: Mantle had osteomyolitis, a bone disease that could be fatal. He lived with intense pain in his legs the rest of his life.

Couple that with the fact that men in his family often didn't live past 40 years of age, and Mantle believed he was on borrowed time, and that seemed to define his life.

A Yankees scout, Tom Greenwald, saw him play baseball after he recovered from the football injury, signed him to a contract, and Mantle toiled in the minor leagues, where people couldn't believe their eyes. This then-scrawny kid could hit a baseball a country mile. He couldn't field at all, and was moved from the infield to the outfield during his minor league days, but he could hit--and run like the devil.

Joe DiMaggio wasn't a spring chicken anymore in 1951, and the Yankees felt his days were numbered. They brought Mantle up to be his successor.

DiMaggio didn't like it, didn't like it one bit. He was not going to give up his position without a fight, and Mantle played the other outfield positions while DiMaggio toiled in centerfield during his last days.

When DiMaggio retired, Mantle took over centerfield, and he was the Yankees' centerfielder through the 1967 season, when he himself was moved to first base to make way for another comet out of nowhere, up and comer and fellow Oklahoman Bobby Murcer.

Anyway, from 1951 to 1968--and particularly from 1951 to 1964--Mantle was one of the best players in baseball. He could run, he could hit, he could throw, he could play defense, and he had the look of the All-American boy.

And he didn't let anyone down, winning several MVP awards, winning the Triple Crown, and leading the Yankees to several championships.

Off the field, he also led the Yankees. As chronicled first in Jim Bouton's mammoth tome of the times, "Ball Four," Mantle was a drunk, a carouser, committed infidelity pretty openly, and could be extremely nasty.

Although the sportswriters of the time covered up a lot of his personal life, some incidents stood out, including his participating in the legendary Copa incident, where Sammy Davis Jr. was being heckled for being black and Mantle, Whitey Ford and Billy Martin got into a skirmish with the heckler.

After that well-publicized incident, the hard-drinking threesome was broken up, with Billy Martin traded away.

Although Mantle was the All-American boy on the outside, he was far from it from the inside. He drank constantly, by his own later admittance playing in several games when he had hangovers from hardy partying the night before.

He had a mistress, although the press made his family into the All-American family, with a loving wife and a gaggle of sons who adored him.

All told, he hit 536 home runs, just missed hitting .300 for his career, and was probably the most popular player of his generation. Think of Derek Jeter today, and Mantle was magnified 100 times more than that.

When people think of the 1950s, they think of Eisenhower, Monroe and Mantle. He typified the era.

When I got interested in baseball when I was seven or eight years old, all the years of playing, and partying, had seemingly caught up with Mantle and the rest of the Yankees. They were a sorry shell of their former selves, but I was a kid, and I loved them.

I have told this story many times, and I will tell it again.

My dad bought tickets to a Yankees game in May 1967, and he took my two friends with us. It was a birthday present to me, a little late one since I was born in April, but I anxiously waited for the game.

The problem was, my mother was not happy, because my father unwittingly bought the tickets for a game on the holiest day of the year, Mother's Day.

Well, we went anyway.

Mantle's Yankees were playing the Baltimore Orioles. My father had had Oriole Manager Earl Weaver in his cab a day or two before, and the two got to talking. The Yankees were destined for a ninth-place finish that year, and my father asked the seemingly inebriated Weaver if his pitchers could groove a pitch to Mantle during Sunday's game, the game we were going to be at, so we could be there when Mantle hit his 500th home run.

Weaver gave some unintelligible answer, and it was left at that.

Well, Mantle hit his 500th homer during that game, and the 25,000 or so in attendance--including me, my dad, and my friends--saw history that day. The place rocked and rolled for the rest of the game, with those in attendance cheering and yelling and screaming as if twice as many people were there.

Mantle, who was, by this time, a weary first baseman, made an error during the game, but the Yankees held on to win.

So did my dad have a part in Mantle hitting his 500th home run that day? Who knows, but it's fun to think about it that way.

And the next year, during bat day, I got (or my sister got) a Mickey Mantle bat. I got a Bill Robinson bat, but I used the bat she received for years in Little League and on the playground, and I still have it.

Mickey Mantle was "The Mick," "The Oklahoma Strongboy," but to many pitchers, he was poison.

In his private life, he may not have been the All-American boy, but he was as close to one as that generation had seen.

So, on what would have been his 80th birthday--he's as old as my parents--the dawn of another World Series, and my 600th rant, I found it fitting to cover Mickey Mantle, my first favorite baseball player and the idol of millions during his career.

He was the real American Idol.


  1. I loved the Mick, he's still my favorite baseball player with Hank Aaron a close second. I still have my official Mickey Mantle bat too.

  2. He was the true "All-American Boy," almost mythological on the outside but in turmoil on the inside. If he would have taken better care of himself, I am sure he would have gotten to the 600 homer mark. He missed hundreds of games during his career with assorted ailments, probably numerous hangovers too, but although Bouton kind of skewered him in his book, he also celebrated him too, especially when describing how he had to have his legs wrapped before each game to minimize the pain he had from the miles on those legs. Fascinating stuff.



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