Mickey Mantle – The Real Natural

December 8, 2018

 

And then? And then when I walked down the street, people would've looked and they would've said there goes Roy Hobbs, the best there ever was in this game.

                        —Robert Redford, The Natural

 

Every boy builds a shrine to some baseball hero, and before that shrine, a candle always burns.

—Kennesaw Mountain Landis, first major league baseball commissioner

 

Mickey graces a 1956 cover of Sports Illustrated magazine during the season in which he won the Triple Crown for hitting the most home runs, most runs batted in, and highest batting average in the American League. Only nine other players in Major League Baseball have won a Triple Crown in the past century.

If you were an Oklahoma boy in the 1950s or 1960s, you knew that America’s most popular sport was baseball. And you probably rooted for either the St. Louis Cardinals or New York Yankees. The Cards because they were (by far) the closest team to us. The Yanks because of Spavinaw native and Commerce-reared Mickey Mantle.

 

Legions of books have lionized and sometimes exposed “The Mick.” Charlie Daniels and others have written songs celebrating him. Simon and Garfunkel intended to use him in “Mrs. Robinson,” but had to settle for Joe DiMaggio to fit the beat. Filmmakers from Clint Eastwood to Oliver Stone have revered him on the silver screen.

"A team is where a boy can prove his courage on his own. A gang is where a coward goes to hide." – Mickey Mantle

His deeds shine through the lengthening years, all the more because of the physical obstacles he overcame. A high school football injury nearly cost him his leg and tormented him his entire two-decade professional career. A terrible knee injury his rookie year multiplied the challenge and necessitated a half-dozen surgeries. Worst of all, the pain of his beloved father’s early passing, his expectation of a young death due to the genetics that took numerous male relatives early, and the pressures of the world’s largest stage on a soft spoken Oklahoma country boy resulted in an even greater affliction—a savage alcoholism that cost him his wife, family, yet more athletic laurels, and ultimately his life.

 

The Natural

He possessed the greatest combination of speed, power, and athletic prowess baseball had ever seen when he came to the Yankees as a nineteen-year-old in 1951. He ran the fastest recorded time from home plate to first base, ninety feet, in the history of the game, 3.1 seconds, from a standstill. No wonder Coach Bud Wilkinson recruited him to play halfback for his own record-setting Oklahoma Sooners.

He is one of only three Triple Crown Winners ever to win a Gold Glove defensive award. In addition to all of this, he was one of the game’s best at both bunting and drawing walks. He won the American League MVP Award three times. The greatest switch hitter baseball has ever known, he is also the only one ever to win the Triple Crown. He literally knocked the ball out of the park in more than one city, including his 565-foot blast at Washington in 1953, which is often credited as the longest measured home run in baseball history. He hit 536 home runs, third most ever when he retired.

 

Yet it is in the scroll of World Series history—best on best—where Mantle separates himself from all others. Here, he perhaps provides a glimpse into why he and not others retains so visceral a hold on the hearts of so many who witnessed his deeds. He still holds seven major individual Series records. These include most runs scored, most runs batted in, most extra base hits, most total bases, most walks, and most home runs, eighteen. He led his Yankees to twelve Series’ and seven world championships.

Mickey and Willie Mays, the “stars of their leagues,” headlined the nationally televised 1960 Home Run Derby TV program. It matched baseball’s greatest hitters head-to-head in nine-inning home run contests. Nine future baseball hall-of-famers, including Mantle, Mays, and Hank Aaron, participated. Mickey hit more total home runs than anyone else. In his celebrated duel with Mays, he fell behind 8-2. In typical Mickey Mantle fashion, he caught up, then won the game 9-8 with a tie-breaking blast in the bottom of the ninth inning.

Even in the twilight of his career, on that greatest stage in sports, well into his thirties, he went out slugging. The last World Series in which he ever played, in 1964 against St. Louis, was tied one game apiece and the third game knotted 1-1 going into the bottom of the ninth inning. Mantle felt guilty for aiding the Cardinals’ one run with an error. Star pitcher Jim Bouton heard him mumble softly in the dugout, “I’m gonna hit it out.”

 

Tim McCarver, the future Hall of Fame Card catcher, knew that Mantle, who had so much tape on him he looked like a mummy without his uniform, was hurting. “He was a shell of the guy that he once was. I could even hear him groaning on some swings.” Mantle proceeded to park the first pitch into the upper right field bleachers to win the game with his legendary “Walk-off Homer.”

Oklahoman Mickey Mantle was one of the greatest clutch performers in any sport. He won three league MVP titles with the New York Yankees and played in sixteen All-Star games, on twelve American League pennant winners, and on seven World Series Championship teams. Despite a career full of painful injuries, he hit 536 home runs, third highest in history when he retired. He still holds the records for most World Series home runs, RBIs, runs, walks, extra-base hits, and total bases. He was perhaps the greatest switch hitter of all time, and he won the rare Triple Crown of batting in 1956.

Then, in the dramatic seventh and final game of the epic duel, with the Yankees trailing 6-0, he smashed a three-run homer against Series MVP pitcher Bob Gibson late in the contest. The blast launched a rally which nearly won the game and the series for New York. Though the Cardinals outlasted Mantle’s Yankees in a 7-5 thriller, he hit .300 for the series, and led all players in most other major hitting categories, including RBIs.

 

Final Rally

Mantle’s post-baseball life was a long, sad descent into alcoholic brokenness and loss, pierced by shattering anxiety attacks.

 

He wrote in a famous 1994 Sports Illustrated memoir:

 

It got to the point where I was worrying so much about everything—what was happening to my memory, how awful my body felt, how I hadn't been a good husband or a good father—that I was even afraid to be alone in the house. I'd ask my youngest son, Danny, to please stay at home with me.

 

In the end, though, Mantle staged the greatest of his many ninth-inning rallies. He overcame his alcoholism and declared in that SI article, “I'd rather put a gun to my head than have another drink.” He did neither. Always a humble and self-effacing man when sober, he trusted in Christ in the final weeks of his life. According to devout Christian and Yankee teammate Bobby Richardson and others, the Commerce Comet’s last days were among his happiest.

Mickey and his four sons: Danny, Billy, David, and Mickey Jr.

“In the last year, Mickey Mantle, always so hard on himself, finally came to accept and appreciate the distinction between a role model and a hero,” famed sportscaster and lifelong Mantle fan Bob Costas eulogized the Oklahoma country boy in 1995 at his funeral. “The first he often was not, the second he always will be.”

 

Fellow Oklahoman and Yankee teammate and star pitcher Tommy Sturdivant once related to the author the essence of Mickey Mantle as he saw it:

 

One time after I had retired and was back living in Oklahoma City, I called Mick, who was still playing for the Yankees in New York. He was still probably the most famous player in the game. I asked him to come speak for our annual Boy Scouts banquet on the (poverty-stricken) Southside. He chewed me out and asked how I expected him to come back to Oklahoma for such a thing with his demanding schedule. Then he hung up on me.

 

A few weeks later, he called me and chewed me out some more for asking him to come do something for some boys that he could not do. Then he asked me when and where it was, and he hung up.

 

I didn’t hear anything more from him until the day of the Scout banquet. About an hour before it started, I got another call from him: “Where the **** did you say that Scout deal is?” After I told him, he growled, “Well alright then, I’m on my way from the airport. I’ll be there right before it starts.”

 

That was Mickey Mantle. There was no one else like him, and I have never heard of anyone like him since.

“Sometimes he was in pain. I used to say to him, ‘For God’s sake, don’t play. Let that thing heal.’ But he’d say—and look, there’d be nobody around, he wasn’t making a grand gesture—he’d say: ‘Tony, maybe there’s a guy out there with his kid, and it might be the only ticket he can afford all season, and he brought his kid to see me. So I better be out there.'”

—Tony Kubek, All-Star New York Yankee shortstop and Mantle teammate

Finding a Mickey Mantle baseball card in your Topps bubble gum pack was one of the great thrills of boyhood in the 1950s or 1960s.

Mickey’s legendary walk-off homer (ending a game immediately in the bottom of the ninth inning or an extra inning with a home run) that beat St. Louis in Game 3 of the epic 1964 World Series.

 

Debate continues over who hit baseball’s longest home run ever—Mickey Mantle or Babe Ruth. Both hit astounding blasts that measured well over 550 feet in distance.

The author remembers that “we all wanted to be Mickey Mantle” when we played baseball while growing up. Also, that the “Commerce Comet’s” bobble-head purchased new in 1964 somehow survived all my moves and living the past half century-plus since my mother bought it for me. It stands sentinel still, on the book shelf near my desk , if a bit chipped and worn.

 

 

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