Baseball Digest : Mantle Last Season

By Marty Appel

Bill Kane, the 28-year old statistician of the Yankees, enjoyed hunting for stories behind the numbers, even before pocket calculators came along to make the lives of statisticians easier.

This was 1968, and Mickey Mantle had begun the season at .302.  He had had three straight years under .300, and a fourth was clearly looming, his once great skills fading.

It was Friday, July 5 and Kane rose from his desk in what had once  been Mel Allen’s small office and approached the Yankees PR team of Bob Fishel, Bill Guilfoile and me, a rookie.  

“This weekend,” he said, “Mickey’s lifetime average is going to drop under .300.”

Those were painful words to hear.  It was the batting average that separated the elite hitters from the good ones; a Mendoza Line for the very good.  To baseball people, including fans, the single point between .299 and .300 mattered.

“Can’t he get back over it?” I asked.

Kane shook his head.  “Not going to happen, not the way things are going,” he replied.

It had been four years since Mickey Mantle was “Mickey Mantle.”  He was only 33 as the downhill portion of his career began, and only 36 as he concluded it.  

He could look around the Yankee clubhouse in 1968 and know few teammates.  He was the last player from the Casey Stengel era remaining. He seldom took batting practice.  He hurt all over.

His contemporaries – Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Frank Robinson and Ernie Banks among them – would continue on into their 40s.  But Mick was done at 36, the “Year of the Pitcher” treating him unkindly, as he fell to .298 lifetime.

“That was my biggest regret,” he said.  

He didn’t announce his retirement until spring training of 1969, giving the Yankees an opportunity to still promote him over the winter in their ticket brochures.   And even though the team was prepared to pay him another $100,000 for 1969, he knew it was time to say goodbye.

So it was a sad journey to retirement, but his final season, while lacking a “farewell tour” as future players would enjoy, did have its moments.

There was, remarkably, a 5-for-5 performance against the Washington Senators on Memorial Day – only the second of his career.  The day included two homers, 12 total bases and five runs batted in. The New York Times called it “his best day in the big leagues.”

It was as improbable as Babe Ruth hitting three home runs for the Boston Braves in one game, in his final days as an aging player, having done it only once before in the regular season as a Yankee.

It was downhill from there.

Attention turned to Mantle’s climb up the lifetime home run chart.  He had begun the season in fifth place with 518. Ruth (714) and Mays (564 and counting) held positions one and two, but number three, Jimmie Foxx’s 534 was reachable.  On April 26 he tied Ted Williams with 521, and then he passed him on May 6, to rank fourth.

He tied Foxx on August 22 with 534, but by then, there was little left in the tank.  He went 25 games without homering, despite swinging like he was back in Wrigley Field, Los Angeles, playing Home Run Derby as he had done eight years before for a TV series.  

But nothing came.  Frustration mounted.

In Tiger Stadium on September 19, he faced Denny McLain, who would win his 31st game of the season that day.  In the eighth inning, Detroit led 6-1, and by all accounts, McLain “honored” Mick by grooving one right to his sweet spot with no one on base.  To McLain’s satisfaction, Mantle hit it out and could take a sigh of relief as he rounded the bases. He had passed Foxx.

For good measure, as though to remove the asterisk that would, in people’s minds, accompany the McLain shot, he hit one more – the very next day back in Yankee Stadium, a homer off Jim Lonborg of Boston for #536.  The last home run for the Commerce Comet. (He hit 266 home runs at Yankee Stadium and 270 on the road).

The Yankees finished their season in Boston with a weekend series, September 27-29.  Mick went 0-for-3 with a walk on Friday night off Dick Ellsworth and Lee Stange. On Saturday afternoon, again facing Lonborg, he cracked his bat with a first inning pop up to shortstop Rico Petrocelli in short left field.  It left him with an embarrassing .237 mark for the season.

Then he took himself out of the game, packed his gear, and had the clubhouse man get him a taxi to Logan Airport.  Destination? Retirement. He didn’t stay until the end of the game, and he wasn’t there on Sunday. Perhaps some fans bought tickets to see him one last time, even though he hadn’t announced anything.  Perhaps some fans drove up from New York for the finale. But there would be no “last game” fanfare. His season – and his career – had ended.

Marty Appel is the author of 24 books including Pinstripe Empire, Casey Stengel and Munson.  The former PR Director of the Yankees began his baseball career in 1968, Mantle’s final season, as Mickey’s fan mail assistant.