Ask fans from my generation who their favorite Yankee is, and you get a healthy mix of answers. Many people would say Derek Jeter, and nearly as many would say Mariano Rivera (that’d be my choice). There’d also be a smattering of Paul O’Neill, Andy Pettitte, and even Don Mattingly for those in their early- to mid-30s.
But ask members the Boomer generation to name their favorite Yankee ever and you invariably get the same answer: Mickey Mantle. When my father, or my family friends, or even my podiatrist talk about the Mick, they do so in reverential tones, as if describing a force of nature or demigod. One friend even gushed about the games where Mantle “went 0-4 with all of his flyouts going at least 400 feet”. Nearly everyone who grew up with the Yankees dynasty of 1949-1964 (nine World Series titles and 14 pennants in 16 years) say Mantle was and is their all-time favorite Yankee. It’s not as if Mantle was playing with scrubs either; his teammates included Whitey Ford, Yogi Berra, and even Joe DiMaggio for a year. But for an entire generation of fans, Mantle is the guy.
So what is it about Mickey Mantle? He’s perhaps the most popular player in baseball history this side of Babe Ruth. He was undeniably great, but wasn’t one of the two greatest center fielders of all time and was not even the best of his era, squarely behind Willie Mays in terms of five-tool baseball production. He was a fresh-faced Oklahoma boy with preternatural gifts and an aw-shucks nature, sure, bucking the trend of silent/standoffish superstars like DiMaggio and Ted Williams. But was that really enough to turn Mantle from man to baseball god in the eyes of so many?
To really answer that question, let’s try to tackle a different one: How good could Mantle have been? In his autobiography, The Mick, Mantle makes his feelings on the matter crystal clear:
When I was playing at my best, I was certainly as good as Willie. But he played at 100 percent all the time.
I did a few things [Mays and Dodgers center fielder Duke Snider] couldn’t do. I hit from both sides. I hit the ball farther. I ran faster. At full strength I thought I was as good as Mays or Snider or anyone.”
In his 18-year career, Mantle played exactly 98 games at full physical strength. All of them came before his 20th birthday.
Mantle was brought up to the Yankees as a fresh-faced 19-year-old outfielder, undisciplined but super-talented, a force of nature on the basepaths who had yet to harness his baseball gifts at the plate. In 96 regular-season games in that 1951 season, Mantle hit .267/.349/.443, solid numbers for a kid still in his second decade on Earth. Yankee skipper Casey Stengel had so much faith in the young Mantle that he put him in the leadoff spot for the first two games of the World Series against the Giants. Mantle was shifted to right field so DiMaggio could have one last World Series in center before riding off into the sunset.
Mays led off the sixth for the Giants and hit a pop fly to right center. According to The Mick, Stengel had told Mantle to help save DiMaggio’s ailing heel by taking any balls in between them. But as Mantle raced for the ball, DiMaggio called him off. As Mantle recounts:
That’s when I slammed on the breaks. My spikes caught on the rubber cover of a drain hole buried in the outfield grass. Pop. The pain squeezed like a vise around my right knee.
The Yankee team doctor said after the game that Mantle had a sprained knee. But a 2010 biography of Mantle by Jane Leavy suggests that Mantle suffered the exact injury it sounds like he suffered: a torn ACL.
When Mantle had surgery two years later, there was no established procedure to fix a torn anterior cruciate ligament, which she believes Mantle played on for the rest of his career.
The orthopedic surgeon who analyzed the case history that Leavy compiled said it was likely that Mantle compensated for the torn A.C.L. with what the orthopedist called “neuromuscular genius.”
Neuromuscular genius or not, Mantle likely played on a partially torn/poorly rebuilt ACL for his entire career. His entire career. The man who would win the Triple Crown in 1956 (with ridiculous splits of .353/.464/.705, 52HRs and 130 RBIs), hit 536 career homers and finish with a .421 career OBP, 16th all-time — all with a mashed jumble of scar tissue and degeneration where a healthy knee ligament should have been.
Then there’s the literally constant drinking and carousing that Mantle claims to have done in his autobiography, much of it with nefarious troublemaker/crazy person Billy Martin. I read The Mick twice, and each time I came away from it with the same initial thought: If this guy did half the stuff in this book, he was the GREATEST BASEBALL PLAYER OF ALL TIME. Seriously, how many people have multiple stories of showing up to a game hung-over and half-dead, then blasting a 500-foot home run?
I’m loathe to get overly quantitative with Mantle, because his ineffable greatness came from the way he played and carried himself, not the final tally on his stat sheet. That said, here’s a quick rundown of his career numbers:
.298/.424/.557 (14th-best OBP all-time, 21st-best slugging all-time)
536 home runs (16th all-time)
OPS+ of 172 (sixth all-time)
WAR of 105.5 (20th all-time, 15th among position players)
3 MVP awards (finished in the top five in voting eight times)
7 World Series titles
Remember, this is a man who spent his teenage summers working in a hard-rock mine in Oklahoma, who drank so much that his liver finally killed him in 1995 with a combination of cirrhosis and liver cancer, whose idea of a workout regimen was three sets of blondes and booze in one night. I’m sure the Babe took similarly bad care of his body during his career, though he never suffered an injury as bad as Mantle’s torn ACL in ’51. But taken together, the cadre of health and lifestyle obstacles to a productive baseball career makes Mantle’s lifetime numbers mind-boggling.
Angels center field phenom Mike Trout, who turned 20 this year, has been drawing Mantle comparisons because like the Mick, he hits leadoff, makes spectacular plays in the field, is super-fast, and has become one of the game’s best players before his 21st birthday. To which I say: Mike, go develop a drinking problem, blow out your knee in a freak outfield accident, wait to get crappy reconstructive surgery for two years and spend the offseason working in a West Virginia coal mine. Do that, and come back next year playing just as well, and the Mantle comparisons would be well-deserved.
Of course, any Mantle fanatic will tell you that the numbers were ancillary to his true appeal — witness my friend’s gushing over an 0-4 day with four majestic flyouts. What drew so many people to Mantle (outside of his appeal at baseball’s Great White Hope, which held sway for the pre-war generation especially), was the larger-than-life way that he played and lived. Mantle’s legend grew with every home run that went clear out of the park, from his 565-foot bomb that landed outside Washington’s Griffith Stadium to a home run that cleared the left field roof at Tiger Stadium in Detroit and was found some 604 feet from home plate (it probably bounced and rolled a little, but still). He remains the only Yankee to come close to hitting one out of the Stadium; his torpedoed home run off Kansas City Athletics pitcher Bill Fischer hit the facade behind the upper deck in right field while the ball was still rising.
Most of that information in based on secondhand accounts or fan retellings, and undoubtedly some of it is apocryphal. But that’s the point. As good as Mantle the baseball player was, it was MANTLE: THE LEGEND that enthralled a generation of young boys and girls. Mantle hit one 30 rows back in the upper deck?! COOL!! Whether Mantle went 1-4 or 4-4 that day didn’t matter, just like it didn’t matter when Mantle took the field so hung over that he could barely see. Mantle played six hours after finishing a nine-hour drinking and carousing binge with Billy at the Copa?! WHAT A MAN!! For better or worse, Mantle did everything larger than life, while at the same time maintaining his hard-scrabble, “down-home American boy” appeal that every youngster tried to emulate in a stick ball game or Little League contest. Mantle had a 10,000-watt smile, 100,000 watts of talent and maybe 10 watts of self-preservation. In the return to normalcy that was the 50s and early 60s, when cigarettes could be smoked anywhere and two drinks with lunch was a light meal**, Mantle’s ability to play hard, work just hard enough and still be effortlessly great at our national pastime was enough for a legion of kids to worship him the way our tweens worship Justin Bieber today.
**At least that’s what I’ve seen on Mad Men.
Finally, Mantle looked the part. The chiseled jaw, the wide smile and muscular physique made him appear as a man ripped from the hero pages of the comics, a red-blooded American male with an affable demeanor and a preternatural ability to excel at a child’s game for a living. At five years old, or 8, or 13, what boy doesn’t want to grow up like that? As destructive as it was in the long term, Mantle appeared from the outside looking in to have the perfect life, at least to children like my father, a Long Island native who was hooked on baseball from age 6. To the kids of what would become the largest generation in our history, Mantle had it all. Hell, he was it all.
There are darker aspects to Mantle’s story, from his flagrant cheating on wife Merlyn to his description of an “outstanding experience” at Yankee Stadium. But they are not what my father, or his friends, or anyone that caught the Mick live, remembers about Mantle. They remember the guy who still holds the World Series career record for home runs, RBIs, runs scored, extra-base hits, walks and total bases. They remember the mammoth home runs, the mighty cuts that appeared to start from Oklahoma and end in the Bronx. They remember the man who cherished having the fans on his team and always tipped his cap, the man who ended his autobiography with: “Your teammate, Mickey Mantle”, the name signed in his trademark handwriting. They remember the Mick.