Baseball Digest : Mantle/50th

By Marty Appel

The former baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn was dictating his memoir in the mid 1980s, recounting the game’s growth during his tenure, when he suddenly paused and said, “You know, we did all of this without ever finding another Mickey Mantle.”

It was quite a statement.  He wasn’t talking about Mantle’s three MVP awards, his Triple Crown, his home run titles, his retired number or his Hall of Fame honor.  He was talking about the whole package, the whole story, the near-fable-like tale of the teenage sensation stumbled upon by a single scout in rural, Dust Bowl Oklahoma who would go on to be the pinstripe successor to Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Joe DiMaggio, and who would be the national pastime’s poster boy and idol of millions.  It was about what Mantle meant to the baseball industry!

There was no disrespect for Mantle’s contemporary, Willie Mays.  It was just that Mantle (who later admitted Mays was the best player of his generation), went right to center stage, playing in a remarkable 12 World Series in his first 14 years, becoming more of a national figure.  

And now it is 50 years since The Mick played his last game.  A half- century. To Baby Boomers, he will always be the hero of their youth.  But to generations who have followed, he is a more distant historic figure with the alliterative name and movie star looks whose World Series records have been somewhat watered down by the creation of “post-season records” since playoffs were introduced the year he retired.

To those who remember him playing, the essence of Mickey Mantle was his mere presence on a baseball field.  No one, save perhaps for Ted Williams, ever looked better, more imposing, than he did in the on-deck circle, kneeling on one knee, leaning on a bat, uniform fitting perfectly, getting into the pitcher’s head with what lay ahead, one batter away.

Even that lightning bolt looking “7” on his back seemed to say “superhero.”  All that was missing was the cape.

He never showed anyone up, always ran out home runs with steady efficiency – eyes down, elbows up.  He was so respected by opponents that he was hit by a pitch only 13 times in his 18 year career. No one wanted to risk hitting The Mick in the legs.   At the first Mickey Mantle Day in 1965, Detroit pitcher Joe Sparma came down from the mound just to shake his hand in the batter’s box on his first time at bat.  That small gesture was all you needed to know about the respect he had among his peers.

For the last decade of so of his career, he was the undisputed “most beloved player in the game.”  And not just by fans – nearly everyone who was earning a living from the game felt that way.

Did he have it all?

When Casey Stengel first saw him in spring training of 1951, the Yankees manager thought, “They’ve given me Babe Ruth – except my guy can switch-hit and run like a deer!”

Well, he wasn’t Babe Ruth, nor was he was never a 30-30 guy, stolen bases not being a big part of the game in his time.  But when a fuss began to be made about the so-called “30-30” club well after his retirement (stolen bases and home runs), Mick smiled and said, “If I’d known they would make a big deal about it, I’d have done it!”

Even before he peaked and won the Triple Crown in 1956, he was still, at age 20, third in MVP voting in 1952, his sophomore season, just a year after being farmed out for more seasoning.  He won three MVP awards between 1956-1962, and but for a couple of vote shifts, it could have been five. He finished a close second to teammate Roger Maris in both 1960 and 1961. (In 1960 he lost by three points, but had more first place votes than Maris, 10-8.  In 1961 he lost by four points, with six first place votes to Maris’s seven. One first-place switch from Maris to Mantle in each year would have given him five MVPs in seven years).

The number 18 would loom large in his legend.  His 18 World Series home runs will probably always be the record.  He played 18 seasons, all as a Yankee. (Despite his many injuries, he played in more games and had more at bats than any Yankee until Derek Jeter).   He hit 18 home runs in his final season. Today he ranks 18th in career home runs – although he was third all time when he retired, behind only Ruth and Mays.  

His collar size was 18.   The Encyclopedia of Baseball said his nickname was “Muscles” and although he was never really called that, it fit. He was a natural; he did no weight training, no protein diet, no off-season workouts with a trainer.

But there were other significant, long forgotten ways in which he impacted the game, ways that have receded in memory just as his home run ranking has.

As Americans began to purchase television sets the way we buy smart phones today, there was Mantle and his Yankees, seemingly an annual part of NBC’s Fall Lineup.  There were Bonanza, Wagon Train, Bob Hope, and Uncle Miltie in prime time, but October afternoons were Yankee afternoons, and Mickey was the key-attraction. He probably did as much to sell television sets as any paid spokesperson.  Yes, there was Casey and Yogi and Whitey, but Mickey Mantle was just what an ad agency would have dreamed up to tell consumers why they needed to get on board and own a TV. He was baseball’s first television star.

Three times he was the savior of the baseball card industry; first, when his rookie card was so coveted; second when that same rookie card opened the door to card shows and the high cash values of vintage cards; third when reprints of his cards revived the slumping industry after the 1994-95 player strike.  And yes, his carefully penned, iconic autograph, was worth waiting hours for on line.

Then there was his switch-hitting.  He became so well known for it that he would come to influence generations of future players who saw it as a way to overcome the lefty-righty advantage held by pitchers.

One such player was Chipper Jones, a 2018 Hall of Famer.  Jones’s father Larry would watch Mantle on the NBC Game of the Week and then take his son outside and have him hit both ways.   

In 1992, the 20-year old Jones met Mantle at an autograph show near Atlanta.   “It was one of the only times where I found myself, the night before, practicing how I was going to meet somebody in the mirror,” Jones recalled.

Mantle had been retired for 24 years.  But he still mattered. He was still a hero.

Today, big league rosters have plenty of switch-hitters.  In 2017, there were 90 position players who switch-hit. 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.  (A brief exception was wartime player Hershel Martin, in 1944-45).

Koenig was only a spray hitter – 15 homers in his Yankee career – and hardly inspired others to take up the craft.  Mantle on the other hand, was both awesome to witness, and an inspiration to those coming generations of baseball players.

Historically, there were few switch hitters in the game for Mantle to emulate.  But the St. Louis Cardinals, in their Gashouse Gang days of the 1930s, 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 listened. (Collins and Frisch were two of only four switch-hitters, the others being Roy Cullenbine and Augie Galan, who had 100 career homers when Mantle arrived on the scene).

At the time of Mantle’s arrival in 1951, there were only seven other switch-hitting position players in the Major Leagues – 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 pen in their “wrong hand” but Mantle displayed incredible strength from either side of the plate, and hit historic tape-measure drives both ways.  (Yes, the term “tape-measure home run” was invented for Mickey by the team’s PR chief Red Patterson and the beat reporters who covered him).

Early in his Triple Crown season of 1956 – May 18 to be exact, Mick became the Major League’s all-time leading switch-hitting home run leader, belting his 136th career homer in Comiskey Park off Dixie Howell to pass Collins.  (The feat went largely unnoticed, such milestones being fairly obscure at the time.)  And Mick has stayed atop the list for more than 60 years now, despite the arrivals of Jones, Eddie Murray, Carlos Beltran, Ken Singleton, Bernie Williams, Lance Berkman, and Mark Teixeira, long-ball hitters all.  

Mantle also homered from both sides of the plate in the same game ten times, and headed that list for 55 years, until Teixeira got his 11th such game in 2011.  (Teixeira and Nick Swisher, with 14, are the current leaders).

And so while there were not many switch hitters in the game when Mantle arrived, by the ‘60s, there began to emerge 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.  As Mantle’s father heard of Frisch and Collins, so too did the parents of future Major Leaguers who watched Mantle’s star rise.

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 29 switch-hitters in the Majors, five of them in the Yankees lineup – White, Horace Clarke, Gene Michael, Tom Tresh, and Mantle himself.   

But by then, it was time for Mickey to leave.

“I just couldn’t hit anymore,” he told reporters.

His “All-American Boy” reputation took some hits in retirement, but those who idolized him could not easily shed their hero worship.  “There was a greatness about him,” said Bob Costas at Mantle’s 1994 funeral. “…but vulnerability too. He was our guy. When he was hot, we felt great.  When he slumped or got hurt, we sagged a bit too. We tried to crease our caps like him; kneel in an imaginary on-deck circle like him; run like him, heads down, elbows up.”

His time may have passed, a half-century since his last game has gone, but his influence, seen in the switch-hitters who keep coming and the marriage between baseball and television, has been a lasting legacy.