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Mickey Mantle: The Sports Profile

"I figure I got all the breaks. Otherwise I'd have been in the mines."

The news that that Mickey Mantle's memorabilia will be auctioned off in the near future brought back into focus the life and times of the great one they called "The Mick" 

In 1949, there were not a lot of scouts watching the semipro Baxter Springs, Oklahoma Whiz Kids. But super scout Tom Greenwade of the Yankees was all over the Whiz Kids' shortstop from Commerce, Oklahoma, Mickey Mantle, named after the great catcher Mickey Cochrane.

"I now know how scout Krichell must have felt the first time he saw Lou Gehrig," Greenwade said. "Mickey possessed tremendous power from both sides of the plate, had blinding speed and a great arm."

Greenwade and Mantle's father Mutt worked out a deal sitting in the scout's 1947 Oldsmobile in parking lot during a rain delay one day. Mantle was signed for a bonus of $1,150 and a salary of $140 a month.

In two minor league seasons, the kid they called the "Commerce Comet" made 102 errors. But he hit .317 in 1949 and .383 with 26 homers and 136 RBIs in 1950.  He was clocked running from home to first base in .3.1 seconds. "You should time him going from first to second," Bill Dickey said. "That's when he's really moving."

"He was a real country boy," Whitey Ford recalled. "All shy and embarrassed. He arrived with a straw suitcase and two pairs of slacks and one blue sports jacket that probably cost about eight dollars."

"Mickey Mantle came into the 1951 Phoenix rookie camp as a young phenom," recalled Andy Carey who was also a young phenom on the scene. " He came up as a shortstop but in this game he was playing centerfield and he lost the ball in the sun and fell down. There was a big scurry of scouts and trainers. They thought they lost the damn franchise."   

In spring training 1951 Casey Stengel switched Mantle to the outfield and said: "I never saw a player who had greater promise. That young fellow has me terribly confused. He should have a year in Triple A ball but with his combination of speed and power he should win the triple batting crown every year. In fact, he should do anything he wants to do."

Only 19 years old, Mickey Mantle made his major league debut on April 17, 1951 playing right field next to Joe DiMaggio in center. It was an exciting time for him, but he had difficulty adjusting to big league pitching. Sent down on July 15th to the Yankee Kansas City farm team, Mantle continued to struggle and toyed with the idea of quitting.

"I thought I raised a ballplayer," his father Mutt told him." You're nothing but a coward and a quitter." Then the father started packing the son's bags. Mantle changed his mind.

In the very next game Mantle broke out of his slump after 40 games and 50 RBI's with Kansas City, Mantle was back with the Yankees. His rookie numbers were respectable: .267, 13 home runs, 65 RBIs.

In Game 2 of the 1951 World Series, running down a fly ball hit by Willie Mays that was caught by DiMaggio, Mantle's spikes caught in a drainpipe covering, and he tore up his right knee. The mishap foreshadowed the tough luck and injury bug that would haunt Mantle through the 2,401 games he played in his 18 year Yankee career. 

In 1952, with DiMag retired, Mantle moved to centerfield. The Yankees became his team, and he became the most feared hitter on the most successful team in history. Able to run like the wind until the injuries finally had their way with his body, Mantle hit tape measure home runs and also hit for average. He was the first power-hitting switch-hitter, the greatest switch hitter of all time.

In ten seasons Mantle collected more than 100 walks, nine straight seasons he scored 100 or more runs, four times he won the American League home run and slugging titles. He collected 2,415 hits, batted .300 or more ten times, won three MVP awards and was on an astounding 20 All Star teams. He scored more runs than he drove in (1,677 to 1,509), a rarity among power hitters. He pounded 536 homers.

"He was fairly amazin' in several respects," Casey Stengel noted.   

"I used to limp around my neighborhood imitating him," said comic Billy Crystal. "I did my Bar Mitzvah with an Oklahoma drawl."

"He hit balls over buildings," said Stengel.

They still talk about the 565-foot blast he hit off southpaw Chuck Stobbs in Washington in 1953, the first of the tape-measure homers.  A year later only 18 inches was the margin of his hitting the first ball out of Yankee Stadium - his drive off right-hander Pedro Ramos hit the top of the right field upper-deck façade and stayed in the park.

"After I hit a home run," Mantle said, "I had a habit of running the bases with my head down. I figured the pitcher already felt bad enough without me showing him up rounding the bases."

"Even in his declining years when he would come up to bat, you would stick around to watch him because you never knew what was going to happen," said restaurateur Tracy Nieporent.  "I was at the game when he hit his 500th home run. It was against the Orioles. I think it was Bat Day. We stood on the seats and waved the bats at him."

In his final four years (1965-68), the Mick batted .255, .288, .245 and .237.  Injuries and drinking contributed to the decline.  "Falling under .300," Mantle said, "was the biggest disappointment of my career." 

"Sometimes," Mantle said in retirement, "I sit in my den at home and read stories about myself. Kids used to save whole scrapbooks on me. They get tired of them and mail them to me. I'll go in there and read them, and you know what? They might as well be about  Musial or DiMaggio. It's like reading about somebody else.

"When I retired," Mantle said, "I was probably an alcoholic but didn't know it. God gave me a body and the ability to play baseball and I just wasted it." 

On August 13, 1995 in Dallas, Mickey Mantle died of liver cancer. He was 63 years old.

#   #   #

You can reach Harvey Frommer at:   

Email:  harvey.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU 

About the Author:

Harvey Frommer is in his  38th year of writing books. A noted oral historian and sports journalist, the author of 42 sports books including the classics: "New York City Baseball,1947-1957" and "Shoeless Joe and Ragtime Baseball," his acclaimed REMEMBERING YANKEE STADIUM was published in 2008 and his REMEMBERING FENWAY PARK: AN ORAL AND NARRATIVE HISTORY OF THE HOME OF RED SOX NATION was published to acclaim in 2011.  The prolific Frommer is at work on When It Was Just a Game, An Oral History on Super Bowel One. 

His work has appeared in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, New York Daily News, Newsday, USA Today, Men's Heath, The Sporting News, among other publications.

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Harvey Frommer along with his wife, Myrna Katz  Frommer are the authors of five critically acclaimed oral/cultural histories, professors at Dartmouth  College, and travel writers who specialize in cultural history, food, wine, and Jewish history and heritage in the United States, Europe, and the Caribbean. 

This Article is Copyright © 1995 - 2014 by Harvey Frommer.  All rights reserved worldwide.

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