By Marty Appel
This year marks the 50th anniversary of Mickey Mantle’s final season in the Major Leagues.
1968 was the Year of the Pitcher, and his .237 average, embarrassingly, reflected that. To Baby Boomers, the idea that a half century has passed since he played the game must seem extraordinary. After all, if they were standing back in 1968, a half century before would have put us in 1918, Hughie Jennings last year. Were fans of a certain age talking about Hughie Jennings (a star infielder for the 1890s Baltimore Orioles) the same way we talk about Mantle?
I know. We play these games with ourselves all the time, wondering how the years go by so quickly.
But remember, in 1968 (also the final year for Roger Maris, Elston Howard, Rocky Colavito, and Eddie Mathews), players still wore flannel uniforms, the leagues were not split into divisions, the pennant winners went right to the World Series (which was played in the afternoon), the majority of games were not televised, and teams played about 15-20 doubleheaders a year. It was very much a different time.
Mantle himself was 36 years old, and in truth he had not been “Mickey Mantle” for four years. His last big season was 1964 when he was only 32, and while fans knew about his long history of injuries, they did not know about his lack of self-discipline in taking care of himself. It caught up with him at age 33, and while Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks, and Frank Robinson, kept going until they were 40 or so, Mick couldn’t keep pace. Not until Jim Bouton’s book “Ball Four” was published to great fanfare in 1970 did fans first get a hint that Mick occasionally broke curfew. And other stuff.
Still, he was and remains the player of our dreams from the innocent 1950s, a wonderful time for baseball when 16 teams divided players from all races among them, maximizing the talent pool. Mantle was the one whose very name evokes memories of a wondrous athlete who could seemingly do it all.
When Casey Stengel first saw him, he thought, “My God, I’ve been handed the new Babe Ruth – except mine can switch-hit and run like a deer!”
To those who grew up in the fifties, it was hard to avoid reading his biography, whether in books, magazines, or on-air narrative. His father named him for his favorite player, Mickey Cochrane. His father and grandfather taught him to switch hit. He was scouted and signed by Tom Greenwade in Commerce, Oklahoma and came to the Yankees at 19, designated as successor to no less than Joe DiMaggio. He won three MVP awards, a Triple Crown, and twice challenged Ruth’s record of 60 home runs. He hit the most home runs in World Series play, breaking Ruth’s record. And he “invented” the so-called “tape-measure home run,” thanks to Yankee publicist Red Patterson allegedly walking off a long-distance shot in Washington, DC. He was a first ballot Hall of Famer, had his number 7 retired and has a monument in Yankee Stadium’s Monument Park.
He was so respected and admired by opponents, that he was hit by a pitch only 13 times in his 18 year career. You just didn’t hit the Mick; you respected those bad legs and the trouble he would have getting out of the way.
Some of Mantle’s achievements can only be fully appreciated through the prism of 50 years.
He was baseball’s first television star. And when you think of the intersection of baseball and television and how important its revenue is today, think of what Mantle gave the sport in TV’s first decade.
Mantle may not have been a better player than Willie Mays (he thought Mays was better), but he was in the World Series 12 times in his first 14 seasons – a national spotlight in the days when everyone paid attention to the World Series. And so from 1951-1964, when he only missed twice, there was that handsome face and powerful forearms on the covers of TV Guide and all the World Series preview magazines.
For NBC, which televised the World Series, it was their fondest dream. It was fall preview season for the network, and there was Mick with Bonanza, Bob Hope, Wagon Train, Dinah Shore, Milton Berle, Perry Como, and Eddie Fisher. Having the great Mickey Mantle as part of their fall lineup was the best thing NBC could hope for. And with the exceptions of 1954 and 1959 in that span, he was theirs to promote as part of their rights deal with Baseball, every October. No extra fee for the use of his image.
Mick sold more than a few RCA television sets.
Then there is the placement of his home run achievements in context.
Because he has dropped to 18th among all-time home runs hitters, few younger fans today appreciate that at the time of his retirement, he was third on that list, behind only Babe Ruth and Mays. Struggle though he did at the end, he did manage to pass many legendary players with his final homers, notably Jimmie Foxx, whom he passed in his final days on the field. (Denny McLain may have kindly “grooved one” for him enabling him to pass Foxx, after he hadn’t homered in 25 games. But he hit one more unaided for good measure, the next day off Jim Lonborg.)
Then there was the matter of Mick being a switch-hitter.
Today, big league rosters are loaded with switch-hitters. But when Mantle emerged on the scene, it was a rarity. The Yankees had not had a switch-hitter in their regular lineup since Mark Koenig, the shortstop on the 1920s “Murderer’s Row” teams. At the time of Mantle’s arrival in 1951, there were barely a handful playing, none of them stars. Mantle brought glamour to the oddity. The fact that he could hit prodigious home runs from either side of the plate was enthralling. Most people can’t properly hold a pencil in their “wrong hand.” Mantle displayed incredible strength from either side of the plate, while possessing great speed. That combination had never been seen on a baseball diamond.
Historically, there were few switch hitters in the game for Mantle to emulate. But the St. Louis Cardinals, in their Gashouse Gang days, had two – Frankie Frisch and Rip Collins – and it was the Cards’ radio broadcasts that made their way into the Mantle home in northeastern Oklahoma. Mantle’s father must have listened.
And when Stengel brought his platoon system of baseball to the Yankees, a switch hitter could be immune. Mantle would play everyday, no matter which arm the pitcher threw with.
And so while there were few switch hitters in the game when Mantle arrived, suddenly, by the ‘60s, there emerged many. And it is not a stretch to suggest that many of them were somehow influenced by the glamour – and the results – Mantle brought to the novelty.
Roy White, a “next-generation” switch-hitting Yankee (he arrived in 1965 as a Mantle teammate), remembers growing up in Compton, California and “being” Mickey from both sides of the plate.
“We’d pretend to be Ted Williams, Stan Musial, all the big hitters,” he recalls, “but I loved to pretend to be Mickey and hit from both sides of the plate. It was cool.”
By 1968, there were five switch-hitters in the Yankees lineup – White, Horace Clarke, Gene Michael, Tom Tresh, and Mantle himself. Tresh even named his son Mickey.
Ken Singleton grew up in Mt. Vernon, New York, just north of Yankee Stadium. He watched Mickey on TV all the time. He went on to be a switch-hitting power hitter himself.
“Mickey was a definite influence on my decision to switch-hit,” he said, recalling amateur games he played right across the street from Yankee Stadium in Macombs Dam Park. “Scouts liked the fact that I could hit from both sides of the plate.”
Mantle’s 536 home runs remains the most by a switch-hitter. His 18 home runs are the most in World Series history.
The number 18 appears often. His collar size was 18. He played 18 seasons. He hit 18 World Series homers. He hit 18 homers in his final season. He ranks 18th today in home runs.
Mick’s final season was painful – both for him, and for his fans. His lifetime average fell under .300. All of his illustrious teammates had moved on. He must have looked around the clubhouse and wondered “who are these guys?”. He didn’t even stick around for the last game of the season, flying home after the Saturday game in Boston after popping out in the first inning. When people suggested to him in later years that the DH rule might have kept him in the game, he’d tell them, “no, I couldn’t hit anymore.”
So the Mantle era ended 50 years ago, but to Baby Boomers, he will always be the poster boy for the years in which they came of age and fell in love with baseball.