Friday, January 14, 2011

The Mick

He came out of Commerce, Oklahoma in 1951, this shy, blond, strapping hick of a boy who would soon lay claim to the job then held by my idol, the legendary Joe DiMaggio of the New York Yankees. The Yanks, already blessed with an embarrassment of riches player-wise, got Mickey Mantle for the price of a train ticket to their Spring training camp. When you think of the signing bonuses paid to players today of far less ability, you wonder how much Mickey could have commanded if he was more savvy. Having already made a name for himself on the ball fields of Oklahoma, Mick was known for his two great abilities, normally mutually exclusive abilities in mere mortals: his blinding running speed and his home run power from either side of the plate.

After two years in the minors, Mantle burst on the scene in a Spring training game while the Yankees were on a west-coast swing through California, ironically Joe DiMaggio's home state. That day he hit two home runs over 500 feet, tripled with the bases loaded, and beat out an infield single that would have been an out for anyone else. Four hits and nine RBI's...not a bad day for the kid who would soon make Yankee fans forget Joe D. Mickey was a wild-throwing shortstop when he came to the Yankees. Casey Stengel, the great Yankee manager, drafted Tommy Henrich, a pretty fair outfielder himself, to teach Mantle how to play center field. A few weeks into the regular season, Mantle threw out a runner on third base who wandered too far off the bag after a routine outfield fly, thus completing the rare 9-6 double play. "I think my work here is done" said Henrich.

Mantle came up at a time when the aging, aching DiMaggio was on his last legs. Joe D. resented the new kid a bit, and made no bones about it. I learned later in life that DiMaggio had a dark side, but as a kid he could do no wrong in my eyes. I didn't think there was a ball player alive who could step into the Yankee Clipper's spikes, but Mickey soon proved me wrong. His talents were prodigious, impressing even the veteran Yankee players for whom winning was a habit. They had never seen the likes of Mantle, and gathered around the batting cage like little kids to watch him launch balls over the wall. Branch Rickey, the man who would later bring Jackie Robinson to the Brooklyn Dodger organization, was a part owner of the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1951. He sent a joking telegram to Yankee owner Del Webb asking him to name his price for Mantle. Webb wired back: "Ralph Kiner and half a million dollars."

There is no point in rehashing Mickey Mantle's stats with the Yankees; they are well known in baseball lore. Still, fans in bars everywhere argue how much better he could have been had he not been forced to play in debilitating pain for much of his career after catching a spike in one of the outfield drains in Yankee Stadium. Such an injury would probably have ended the playing days of ordinary men, but Mantle was far from ordinary. He slowed a bit, but continued to put up numbers that helped carry the Yankees to ten pennants and seven World Series crowns during his years with the team. People came to Yankee Stadium to see Mickey play, period. Whether he was flying from first to third on a base hit, running down a hard liner to right-center, or blasting baseballs into the stratosphere, Mickey rarely disappointed.

Later in his life The Mick showed a dark side that fueled a dozen tell-all books about him. His off-the-field exploits with teammate hell raisers Billy Martin and Whitey Ford were well documented on sports pages everywhere. Soon Mickey led the league in chasing women and trashing bars, but at the time all that mattered was what you did on the field. Maybe Mick got too many passes from fans and writers alike. Had he been held more accountable for his behavior he might be alive today. After becoming 'Sports Director' for an Atlantic City casino in 1983, and later owning a bar of his own in Manhattan, Mantle's ongoing battles with booze eventually caused his death from alcohol-related liver cancer.

Shortly before he died in August 1995, Mantle, now no more than a husk of a man, delivered a handwritten speech on national television. Mantle thanked fans for their cards and flowers, and urged youngsters to avoid the temptations faced by athletes. "To all my little teammates out there, please don't do drugs and alcohol," Mantle urged. "God only gave us one body. Take care of it." We don't want to remember our idols with feet of clay, and so I will remember Mickey as the muscular, boyish farm boy who roared out of Commerce, Oklahoma and set the baseball world on its ear. That 100-watt grin that lit up the room, the rippling muscles developed not in a gym but working in the oil fields, and those gimpy, heavily taped legs that carried his body around the bases after smacking another tape-measure home run...those are the things that will stay with me. The Mick may have been a flawed hero, but he was our hero.


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