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.