"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice

Card Corner: The Mick in 1969


Topps issued this card, its final regular card for Mickey Mantle, during the spring of 1969. The listed position of “first base” doesn’t seem quite right for an all-time great outfielder, but “The Mick” looks good here, still handsome and his weight under control. Yet, he didn’t play that season. After reporting to spring training, Mantle decided that his aching knees, along with the rest of his diminishing skills, simply mandated that he call it quits. I wish that Mantle had played a little bit longer, if only to allow me to have remembered seeing him play.

Even thought I have no first-hand recollections of Mantle, that doesn’t mean that I never saw him take the field. Quite the contrary. My family occasionally delights in telling me how I used to walk up to our black-and-white television set as a small child, and then begin jumping and screaming when I saw Mantle step up to the plate. This would have been in 1967 or ’68, when I was either two or three years old. So you can see how I wouldn’t remember these episodes. But my family assures me that they actually did happen.

What can a three-year-old know about baseball? I suppose I could have recognized a home run when it was hit, but my knowledge of secondary leads, the roles of middle relievers, and the intricacies of the infield fly rule must have fallen a bit short of diehard standards. I’m not even sure how I knew Mantle was the man on those Yankees. After all, he was at the end of his career, struggling to play a new position at first base, and merely a shell of the five-tool ballplayer who had helped center field become the position of glamour in New York City during the 1950s. Perhaps my father clued me into Mantle’s importance. I can just hear him whispering to me, “One day, this guy will be in the Hall of Fame.”

In spite of my early obsession with Mr. Mantle, I somehow lost touch with his legacy. During the 1970s, I had little interest in Yankee history; I was far more concerned with Bobby Murcer (and then Bobby Bonds), along with Thurman Munson and Mel Stottlemyre, followed by the wave of winning that came to town in the form of Jim “Catfish” Hunter, Ron Guidry, and Reggie Jackson. By then, the Yankees of the 1960s had become forgotten. I had no memories of those teams; if anything, I was tired of hearing that the Yankees’ last period of glory had come to an end in 1964.

In truth, I did not start to care about Mickey Mantle again until the mid-1990s. That is roughly the same time that I left the world of radio and joined the staff of the National Baseball Hall of Fame as a researcher. Baseball history had started to become important to me by then, influencing me to leave Utica for Cooperstown and start a new career path. My interest in Mantle began to intensify in 1995, just a few weeks after coming to the Hall of Fame, when we first heard reports that The Mick was badly in need of a liver transplant. Years of alcohol abuse, along with a general failure to keep tabs on his health, had resulted in a diagnosis of cirrhosis and hepatitis. In the midst of the transplant operation, doctors discovered that Mantle had inoperable cancer of the liver. Two months later, as I watched the beginning of a Yankee broadcast, I heard the news that had long been anticipated: Mantle had passed away.

I never met or interviewed Mantle and was well aware of the way that he destroyed his body while also failing in his personal role as a husband. Yet, I still liked the guy. Whenever Mantle appeared on television interviews, especially in his later years, he willingly admitted to his failures as a husband and family man. He criticized himself for his inability to fulfill his status as a role model. He never bragged about his enormous abilities on the field, but preferred talking about other Yankees that he held close to him, be they Billy Martin or Casey Stengel or Whitey Ford. He always spoke with a down-home sincerity that Yankee stars of earlier and later eras, like Joe DiMaggio and Reggie Jackson, seemed to lack. Mantle’s teammates also praised him universally. They never ceased talking about him as the best of teammates, a superstar who didn’t act line one, a player who supported anyone that needed help within the confines of the clubhouse.

My appreciation of Mantle only grew when I looked at his numbers. He could have won the MVP Award just about every year from 1955 to 1962. If not for the presence of Roger Maris, and the desire of sportswriters to spread the wealth, he might have done just that. Some of the slugging percentages, like .705 and .687, are just sickening. The on-base percentages, like .512 and .486 are just as stunning. When Mantle took the field during the late fifties and early sixties, he simply controlled the game.

Wow, if only I have could have watched this guy in his prime, and if only I was old enough to have remembered it. I guess I’ll have to settle for seeing Mickey toward the end—without any real memories. With some help from my baseball books and interviews with his surviving teammates, that will just have to do.

Categories:  Bronx Banter  Bruce Markusen

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1 The Mick536   ~  Dec 18, 2009 2:18 pm

Someday, somebody will write a real bio on him. 1967, the year of Boston's impossible dream, the Yankees finished 9th. Don't remember a shout of Yankees suck. The Mick played 144 games. Painful memories. The games at the end of his career should be looked at as closely as some of the early ones, not just the power years.

I watched him from the earliest year when he played with JoeD. Still love him. Have ten books about him. But I don't know who he is or, other than the trite stories that have already been told, why he did what he did. But you just cannot know how big he was unless you were there. Only others I followed like I did The Mick were Reggie and ARod, very heady company, no doubt, and very disparate players.

2 hiscross   ~  Dec 18, 2009 3:23 pm

I saw the "Mick" play at Fenway Park in 1961*. In the 1st inning Roger Maris hit a home run
into the Red Sox bullpen. Mantle then hit a home run deep into center field bleachers. In the next
inning Yogi hit one into the left stands. Whitney Ford was the winning pitcher. The year I was at
Fenway again and before the game some Dad was telling his son how Mick was all taped up from
ankle to his hips. Mick stolen second that day. Elaston Howard won the dame for the Yanks by
hitting a homerun into the green monster net in the 9th. Ralph Terry was the winning pitcher.

1961* Maris 61

3 gary from chevy chase   ~  Dec 18, 2009 3:56 pm

It's hard to talk about your childhood hero. Mickey Mantle was who I wanted to be. Growing up in NYC during the 50's, it was just amazing to watch him.

Bruce's listing of stats don't begin to tell the real story. He was just magical; if the Yanks were behind by 1 in the 9th and he was in the 3 slot, you prayed that somebody (Richardson or Kubek, usually) got on base, because you KNEW the Mick would hit one out and win the game.

Was he better than Willie or the Duke? Probably better than Snider, for sure, and Willie was more spectacular, maybe a better 5 tool player (although not when the Mick was healthy). But even Willie Mays lacked that certain magic that came with the Mick's assumption of Joe D's legacy and place in center field.

We tend to think of him as a huge physical speciman. Look it up - by today's standards, he certainly was no giant (maybe 6'1" 200 lbs in his prime). But he had the strongtest arms this side of Ted Klezewski (probably spelled wrong!).

In retrospect, it's interesting that he was not universally loved - even by Yankee fans - until Roger beat him to the record in '61. Before that, Yogi or Whitey was the fan favorite; the Mick tended to disappoint the fans because he didn't do miracles every day (just once or twice a week). But after Roger beat him in '61, the fans really began to ralley behind him. (Some knuckleheads took out their anger against Roger, which was absurd, of course).

I'll always remember his catch in Don Larson's perfecto, and watching him hit the ball farther than anybody ever.

I felt bad that he continued to play in those last couple of injured seasons, and lost his career 300 average.

As he said, "If I'da known I was going to live this long, I woulda taken better care of myself."

4 Steve Flack   ~  Dec 18, 2009 4:01 pm

My father worshiped Mickey Mantle. He once told me that he used to wish ill on people who said bad things about The Mick. For years, in his six room baseball shrine, my Dad had an excellent portrait of Mantle hanging in the place of honor. As a kid, we'd always go to this big baseball card convention every year out in White Plains, and Mantle was always there. I'd beg my dad if we could go meet him, and he'd always say "No." I always wondered why my father was so against meeting his hero. Years later, my Dad,, who was 21 when Mantle retired, went to the first couple of Old Timer's Days when Mantle started attending, and the sight of seeing his childhood hero out there, in bad shape, really turned him off. "That wasn't Mickey out there," he'd say, "That was someone else."

My Dad never met the Mick, despite my begging to go when we'd hear on WFAN that Mickey was at his restaurant. Seeing his childhood hero fall almost turned him off of the sport, until around the time I was born in the early 80's. Together, we suffered through the 80's, and he saw my enthusiasm for Donnie Baseball, and it reminded him of his love for The Mick. He told me though, that I should never want to meet my heroes, that they would just let you down. Of course, being told that all my life has led to me actually going out of my way to meet all of my heroes, including Donnie Baseball.

On my right arm, I got tattooed the interlocking NY, not only as a reminder of my love of the sport, but also of my home. And underneath it, I have the numbers "7 23 2", the numbers of the favorite players of my Dad, me, and my little sister. The closest I've ever come to seeing Mantle play was last year, when I I took my Dad to go see a special screening of Don Larsen's perfect game. Sitting there with my Dad, watching his favorite player out there in his prime, it was special.

5 Raf   ~  Dec 18, 2009 5:55 pm

The closest I’ve ever come to seeing Mantle play was last year, when I I took my Dad to go see a special screening of Don Larsen’s perfect game. Sitting there with my Dad, watching his favorite player out there in his prime, it was special.

That's awesome. Thanks for sharing

6 The Mick536   ~  Dec 19, 2009 8:59 am

Here is a question for The Mick's family. Did Joe's arrogance lead to the grate injury. Are we in agreement that Joe nonchalanted the ball, making The Mick accelerate thinking Joe would not get to it before he hit the grate. Joe allegedly didn't like him. Think Joe made some comment, also, as The Mick was carried off the field.

I used to almost cry when the fans booed him. My father encouraged me to cheer as loudly as I could to drown them out. Many did. People despised him for not fighting in Korea, arguing that if he could play baseball, he could be a soldier. He didn't even enlist to do non-combat work.

Another point that has been covered in a book about his series appearances is that he may well hold a record for homers that will never be broken, but he wasn't always a force.

And as [5] said, thanks for sharing.

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