On October 20, 1931, Mickey Charles Mantle was born to Mutt and Lowell Mantle. Mutt, whose real name was Elvin, named his son after catcher Mickey Cochrane. In later years, “The Mick” would often repeat the story that he was glad his father didn’t know Cochrane’s real name was Gordon. It began the path of one of Major League Baseball’s all-time greats. Compare the numbers of today’s superstars – Mike Trout, Miguel Cabrera, Bryce Harper or Giancarlo Stanton – and you will be amazed at the consistency of Mantle’s career.
The Mick would have been 86-years-old today, but sadly he succumbed to liver cancer in 1995. His hard living cost him his life at just 63. In between, Mickey – it feels odd to refer to him as “Mantle” – lived a life many could have only dreamed of living. At least the life that was his public persona, anyway.
If you haven’t read it already, Jane Leavy’s biography of Mickey, “The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America’s Childhood”, is a must read. But be forewarned, it’s not an easy read. It’s not easy to learn less than stellar things about someone who was larger than life and admired. The book goes much deeper into giving you a very good understanding of what made Mickey tick. It weaves a not-so-pretty tale that helps to understand the man away from the game. The womanizing, hard drinking, hard living man-child that didn’t spend much time in the off-season at home with his wife Merlyn and their four boys.
Basically, Mickey was like the rest of us. A person. Except this person could hit a baseball to the moon. What lives on is that he is one of the greatest players to ever play the game of baseball. There are no if’s, and’s, or but’s about that. He was also beloved by his teammates, a good many of whom named sons after him. Tom Tresh, for one. (His son Mickey played in the Tigers’ organization.)
The Major Leagues had never seen a player like Mickey. He was 5-foot-11 and 195 pounds of pure muscle with a sprinter’s speed. He was a player that could hit a 500-foot home run at one at-bat and lay down a drag bunt for a single in his next trip to the plate. Every swing he took was as if it was the last of his life. He had that speed despite suffering from Osteomyelitis, a serious infection in the bone and bone marrow, during his high school football career.
Things only got worse in the 1951 World Series when he stepped in a drain in the Yankee Stadium outfield and tore the ligaments in his right knee. He was only 19-years old at the time, but in the days before arthroscopic surgery, an injury like that was debilitating for the rest of his life. In fact, he played his entire career after the ’51 World Series with no ACL in his right knee.
Despite the pain he endured for his entire career, his numbers were magnificent. His second year in pinstripes began a streak of 14 straight All-Star game appearances. From 1959-1962 that meant two All-Star games a year. He was also an All-Star selection in 1967-1968. Overall, Mickey was an All-Star in 16 of the 18 years he played.
The 1950’s were good to the Mick and the Yankees. They won pennants in eight of 10 seasons and captured six World Series titles. They went on to win the first five AL pennants in the 1960’s and took home two more World Series trophies.
Mickey began to thrive at the plate in ’52. He hit 23 home runs and led the AL with a .924 OPS. He also had a league-high 111 strikeouts, which by today’s standards is nothing. The 1955 season saw the Brooklyn Dodgers win their only World Series against the Yankees while they played in the NYC borough. But, the baseball world caught a glimpse of just what Mickey Mantle could achieve that season. He led the league with 37 home runs, 113 walks, a .431 OBP, a .611 Slugging%, and a 1.042 OPS. (Of course, in 1955 no one talked about OPS.) Mickey also knocked in 99 runs and scored 121.
Mickey’s 1956 season made its predecessor pale by comparison. The center fielder won the Triple Crown with a .365 Batting AVG, 52 HR, and 130 RBI. He put up career-highs in Slugging Percentage (.706), runs scored (132), and total bases (376). Needless to say, Mick took all 24 first place votes for MVP and easily topped the runner-up, his teammate Yogi Berra, for the award. The Yankees also exacted revenge on the Dodgers in the World Series and Mickey was a large part of it. No more so than in Game 5 when his running catch in center field and a home run backed Don Larsen’s perfect game.
A career-year like that would earn a player $20MM per season in today’s market. Back then, Mickey made $32,500 for the 1955 season. After his Triple Crown performance, he asked to double his salary. GM George Weiss reacted by threatening to show his wife private-eye reports about him and Billy Martin and to trade him to Cleveland. Owner Del Webb intervened and Mickey got his money.
After the 1957 season, Weiss, known to hold a grudge, tried to cut Mickey’s salary by $5K. Weiss used Mickey’s drop in home runs (34) and RBI (94) as his argument for the proposed cut. He chose to ignore the fact that Mickey set new career marks with a .365 average and 146 walks, and won a second straight MVP Award. The team came up short in 1957, losing to the Milwaukee Braves in the World Series.
The 1958 season saw Mickey finish in the top-5 of the MVP vote for the fifth time in seven years. He topped the AL with 42 HR, 127 runs scored and 120 walks. He also led the AL in total bases and topped a 1.000 OPS for the fourth straight season. His production was truly remarkable considering how much time he spent in the trainer’s room before and after games. Not to mention the late nights he spent on the town partying.
The Yankees came back from a 3-1 deficit to the Braves in the 1958 World Series and won it. Bob Turley won games five and seven and picked up a save in Game 6. In 1959 the Yankees missed out on winning the AL for just the second time in the decade. Unlike the 1954 team, which won 103 games but couldn’t catch the 111-win Cleveland Indians, the Yankees managed just 79 wins. It was the first time since 1946 that the team won less than 90 games, and the first time since 1925 that they won less than 80. Mickey had a subpar year as well.
That winter, the Yankees and KC Athletics swung a deal that included the acquisition of Maris. It was a move that paid immediate dividends. Maris’ 39-HR, 112-RBI, Gold Glove Award-winning season got him the AL MVP. Mick bounced back with 40 dingers and 94 RBI. In what was Casey Stengel’s last season at the helm, the Yankees lost a wild seven-game World Series to the Pittsburgh Pirates. The Yankees routed the Pirates in their three wins, two of them shutouts by Whitey Ford. The Pirates four wins were all close games, including the heartbreaking finale. The Yankees scored twice in the top of the 9th to tie Game 7 at nine apiece, but Bill Mazeroski’s walk-off home run in the bottom of the 9th won it. It was the Pirates first championship since 1925.
Remarkably, Mickey wasn’t completely beloved among Yankees fans until his 1961 duel with Roger Maris to break Babe Ruth‘s single-season HR mark. He often heard the boo birds from the Yankee Stadium faithful as he was trying to replace a legend, Joe DiMaggio, in center field. But, when sides were taken in ’61, the native of Oklahoma felt the fans’ unabashed love for the rest of his life. The media and fans made Maris the bad guy, not knowing that the “M & M boys” were great friends and roommates.
Ralph Houk stepped in as the Yankees’ new manager in the magical 1961 season. The team was one of the greatest of all time. Of course, nobody remembers much other than the chasing the ghost of the Bambino and the infamous asterisk that would follow. In addition to the amazing years by the M & M boys, the Yankees also got 20 or more home runs from Elston Howard, Bill Skowron, Yogi Berra and Johnny Blanchard. Whitey Ford won 25 games and continued his amazing scoreless streak in the five-game World Series win over the Cincinnati Reds. Reliever Luis Arroyo won 15 games and saved another 29.
The team ran roughshod over the rest of the AL and won 109 games. The second-place Detroit Tigers knew exactly what the Yankees felt like in ’54. They won 101 games but fell woefully short of the pennant. The story of the season was, of course, the Ruthian home run chase. Maris emerged on top with 61, while Mickey belted 54. For all intents and purposes, Mickey’s season was over as soon as he went to the doctor for what was described as the flu. The vaccine he was given caused a large infection in his leg. It limited him to just two games and six at-bats in the World Series.
The final title of Mickey’s career came a year later when he captured his third MVP award. Old and new injuries became more and more debilitating and the Mick played in just 123 games in 1962. He still managed to hit 30 home runs and batted .321. He was tops in the AL with 126 walks, a .486 OBP, a .605 Slugging% and the second-best OPS of his career, 1.091. He also won the only Gold Glove Award of his career. (The award began in 1957.) The Yankees beat the San Francisco Giants in seven games.
Due to a broken foot in June and his long-standing injuries, Mickey played in only 65 games in 1963. Then Sandy Koufax and the LA Dodgers swept the Yankees in the Series. Mickey had one more big year in him and one more AL pennant, the team’s 12th in Mickey’s 14 years. He hit 35 HR, drove in 111 runs and put together a split of .303/.423/.591. He finished second in the MVP voting to the Baltimore Orioles’ Brooks Robinson.
The World Series went the full seven games before the St. Louis Cardinals came out on top in the finale, 7-5. Mickey hit three home runs in the Series, giving him a record-high 18. It’s a feat that still stands today. It was the last pennant and World Series for the Yankees until 1976. The Yankees greats (Mickey, Ford, Maris, etc.) were either physically breaking down or retiring early (Bobby Richardson, Tony Kubek, etc.). An era was over.
Mickey played four more seasons, the final two partly at the behest of ownership to try to keep fans in the stands. He later admitted it bothered him that those last two seasons cost him a .300 lifetime batting average. (He finished at .298). In May of 1967, Mickey hit his 500th home run and finished his career with 536. At the time of his retirement, he trailed only Babe Ruth and Willie Mays on the all-time list. He is still the all-time leader in home runs by a switch-hitter.
The Yankees retired Mickey’s #7 and he was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame, along with his pal Ford, in 1974. The last few years of Mickey’s life may have been some of the most rewarding. It was a time of redemption and healing. He made peace with his estranged wife Merlyn. He strengthened his bond with his four sons and he sought treatment for alcoholism. Sadly, his son Billy died of a heart attack while in rehab in 1994. (Three of the four Mantle boys had alcohol and/or drug addictions, and Merlyn was an alcoholic as well; drinking was the one way they could spend time with Mickey.) His son Mickey Jr., who tried to play pro ball, passed in 2000 from cancer.
Mickey Sr. had a liver transplant in June 1995, but it couldn’t prevent cancer from spreading throughout his body. He was gone two months later. Many of us only got to see Mickey play the last couple of years of his career and on Old Timers Day. He will always be a Yankees’ idol and larger than life to many fans, despite his well-documented flaws.