Thursday, October 20, 2011

Top 10 Mickey Mantle Moments: An 80th Birthday Appreciation

(Mickey Mantle, as fans of his day knew him.)

Last night, the St. Louis Cardinals defeated the Texas Rangers in Game 1 of the World Series.

Although I wanted neither team to win its League's Pennant, it is somewhat appropriate that they are playing a World Series game against each other today, on the 80th Anniversary of the birth of Mickey Charles Mantle in Spavinaw, Oklahoma.

The Yankee legend grew up in nearby Commerce, in the northeastern corner of Oklahoma, near the State Lines of Kansas, Missouri and Arkansas. In downtown Commerce, population 2,645 -- only a shade more than, interestingly enough, Cooperstown, New York -- U.S. Route 69 is now named Mickey Mantle Boulevard. A statue of him now stands just off a ballfield on 69.

He grew up a Cardinal fan, as they were then the closest major league team -- albeit a whopping 314 miles away, about as far apart as Midtown Manhattan is from Portland, Maine; Johnstown, Pennsylvania; or Rochester, New York. Today, the closest team is the Kansas City Royals, 166 miles away.

Mickey lived most of his off-season adult life in a suburban section of Dallas, Texas, and the Rangers, in Arlington about halfway between Dallas and Fort Worth, are the region's team. So Mickey's "home teams" are playing each other.

Top 10 Mickey Mantle Moments

These will be in chronological order.

1. October 7, 1952. Still 2 weeks away from turning 21, Mickey cranks a long home run out of Ebbets Field and across Bedford Avenue to give the Yankees the lead in the 6th inning, and singles home another run in the 7th, and the Yankees beat the Brooklyn Dodgers 4-2 in a tense Game 7 of the World Series.

My biggest accomplishment in baseball at that age? Having seen games at Wrigley Field and the old Comiskey Park in Chicago in the same day. And this guy was winning World Series.

2. April 17, 1953. Mickey hits a tremendous blast to left field at Griffith Stadium in Washington that clips an auxiliary scoreboard that was used for Redskins games, and lands in the backyard of a house a block away. It was the longest home run in the park's history -- in a major league games, anyway.

Josh Gibson played some Negro League games there, home games as a member of the Homestead Grays (who alternated between D.C. and Pittsburgh), and he may have hit a longer one at Griffith Stadium.

Legend has it that Yankee public relations director Red Patterson -- already the inventor of Old-Timers' Day and the baseball team yearbook -- ran out to where the ball landed, found a kid standing holding it, asked the kid where it landed, and measured the spot off as being 565 feet from home plate. He didn't actually use a tape measure -- he paced it off with his feet, and then found out the width of the stadium bleachers it soared over -- but this gave rise to the term "tape measure home run."

Later in the month, Mantle would add to the longest home run ever hit at Griffith Stadium the longest ever hit at the old Busch Stadium (formerly Sportsman's Park) in St. Louis and what could be (though fans who'd watched Jimmie Foxx of the A's and Dick Allen of the Phillies might have begged to differ) the longest home run ever hit at Connie Mack Stadium (formerly Shibe Park) in Philadelphia.

The April 17, 1953 blast was almost certainly the longest ever hit in any major league game in the Nation's Capital, but it probably was not the longest ever hit, and maybe not even Mantle's longest. Recent attempts to use more scientific methods of measuring it have come up with figures ranging from 498 to 537 feet. And nobody seems to say that it was really "only" 460, because that's how far it went before it hit something, anything -- in this case, the scoreboard at the back of the left field bleachers, before caroming into that backyard. Every eyewitness and newspaper account agrees that the ball hit the scoreboard first. But it became part of the Mickey Mantle Myth.

3. May 30, 1956. A 7-year-old boy from Long Beach, Long Island, New York, named William Edward "Billy" Crystal, was attending his first Major League Baseball game at the old Yankee Stadium. He described what Mickey did as follows: "Mickey hit a home run that day, off the facade. This thing was up longer than Alan Shepard was up. It just kept going and going and going." (Shepard, the first American launched into space, 5 years later, spent all of 15 minutes on his mission. When Billy met Mickey, he said the ball went "all the way to my grandmother's house on Long Island.)

The facade -- actually known in architectural circles as a frieze -- was that thing on the roof that surrounded the old Stadium prior to its 1973-76 renovation, and was then replicated over the bleacher wall, and then replicated again on the roof of the new Stadium. Mickey had already hit it earlier in the month, and would do so again in 1963. This was to right field. Supposedly, 2 guys did it to left field, Mickey in 1957 and Frank Howard at some point, but darkness and fog place those suppositions into question.

This home run was the hallmark of Mickey's Triple Crown season: He batted .353, hit 52 home runs, and had 130 RBIs. Although Frank Robinson and Carl Yastrzemski have won the Triple Crown since, Mickey remains the last player to lead both leagues in all 3 categories. He also had an on-base percentage of .464, a slugging percentage of .705, an OPS of 1.169, and an OPS+ of 210 -- meaning he was 110 better (at least, at getting on base and piling up bases) than the average hitter in baseball that season.

(UPDATE: Miguel Cabrera won the Triple Crown in 2012, but only led the AL in all 3 categories, not both Leagues like Mickey did.)

To put this into perspective: In the 1956 season, Hank Aaron of the Milwaukee Braves led the NL in batting average, with .328 (a fine figure in any era, but .025 behind Mickey); Duke Snider of the Dodgers led the NL in on-base, with .399 (.065); Duke led in slugging, with .598 (.107); Duke led in OPS, with .997 (.172); and Duke led in OPS+ with 156 (54). Next-best in the AL in OPS+ was Ted Williams of the Boston Red Sox, with 171. Meaning that Mickey Mantle, in 1956, was 39 percent better than the next-best hitter in all of baseball that season.

Needless to say, Mickey was named the Most Valuable Player in the American League that season. And he was just short of 25 when he finished the season. Steroids? Hell, no. The chemicals Mickey was ingesting that season were hardly performance-enhancing.

You'll notice I mentioned 2 of the 3 New York center fielders of the 1950s. Willie Mays, in 1956, had an OPS+ of 146. Great, but not enough to catch the Duke for the NL lead. It's easy to forget that Mays was only a New York center fielder for 5 seasons: 1951, '54, '55, '56 and '57. In '52 and '53, he was in the Army, serving in the Korean War. After '57, the Giants moved. And in those last 2 seasons with the Mets, 1972 and '73, he played exactly 95 games in center field. It's also easy to forget that, from 1951 to 1955, the Duke was better than the Mick (at least statistically), and at least comparable to Mays in '51, '54 and '55. In terms of career numbers, Willie is easily 1st, Mickey 2nd, and the Duke far behind in 3rd. But at the time, the comparison between the 3 of them was a fair one.

For a career, The Duke's was OPS+ was 140. Willie's was 155.  Mickey's was 172.

4. October 8, 1956. Mickey made the greatest catch of his career, a one-handed, backhanded snare of a 420-foot drive by Gil Hodges of the Dodgers. It preserved Don Larsen's perfect game. He also homered to give Larsen the lead he needed to nail down the greatest pitching performance in baseball history.

5. September 26, 1961. Mickey plays his last game of the season, sidelined by a cold, an allergic reaction to a phony remedy, and a pulled forearm muscle. He hit a career-high 54 home runs. He tells his teammate Roger Maris to go ahead, without him, and break Babe Ruth's single-season home run record of 60. Maris does it on October 1, hitting Number 61.

"When I died, I wanted on my tombstone, 'A GREAT TEAMMATE,'" he often said. Those words are now inscribed on his Monument at Yankee Stadium. He was always proud of his teammate Maris, and was never jealous of his achievement, frequently saying, "That was the greatest thing I ever saw in baseball."

Mickey was a great teammate in other ways, too. He went out of his way to welcome rookies to the team. He accepted black teammates as much as white ones, despite having grown up in segregated Oklahoma. (He had no problem posing for photos and World Series highlight reels with black players like Mays or Aaron, either.) Even years later, when he came to Old-Timers' Days, he would have time for younger players. He and Joe DiMaggio had never been close, but he went out of his way to let Reggie Jackson know he respected him. I don't think he ever met Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez, but I'll bet he would have been just fine with those guys.

6. August 4, 1963. Two months after getting his foot caught and broken in the chain-link fence -- no joke, in 1963 a big-league park had a chain-link fence in the outfield -- at Baltimore's Memorial Stadium, Mickey returns to the lineup as a pinch-hitter, again against the Orioles, losing 10-9 in the bottom of the 9th. The ovation he gets is overwhelming: "Even if I was deaf, I could have heard them," he said years later.

Batting righthanded, he sends a 400-foot drive into the left-field stands. The Yankees went on to win in extra innings. "I got goose bumps," he said in that later interview. "I still get goose bumps, just thinkin' about it."

7. October 10, 1964. For the first time since he came to the Yankees, they're playing the team he grew up supporting, the Cardinals, in a World Series. The Series is tied 1-1, and so is Game 3, in the bottom of the 9th. Barney Schultz, a knuckleballer, comes in to relieve for the Cardinals.

Much has been made of Ruth's "called shot" in the 1932 World Series. Mickey calls this one: He turns to Elston Howard, in the on-deck circle, and says, "You can go sit down, Elston. This game's over."

Mickey was as good as his word: Schultz threw him one pitch, a knuckler, and Mickey crushed it into the upper deck in right field. Yankees 2, Cardinals 1. Somehow, Mickey managed to get around the bases, take his slap on the back from 3rd base coach Frank Crosetti, cross the plate, and get into the dugout without the fans that rushed onto the field overwhelming him, or needing to throw football-style blocks like Chris Chambliss did after his Pennant-winner in 1976 or Reggie did after the final out a year later.

It was his 16th home run in World Series play, breaking Ruth's record. Mickey would hit a 17th in Game 6 and an 18th in Game 7 -- the 17th being the only time Maris and Mantle hit back-to-back homers in World Series play -- but the Yanks would lose the Series. Years later, Mickey would call this his greatest thrill as a player. He would also say he called his shot about 500 times, and most of them were strikeouts.

8. May 14, 1967. Mickey hits his 500th career home run, at The Stadium, off Stu Miller of the Orioles, on a 3-2 pitch. It's not a long one, especially by his standards, but it counts just the same.

At that point, only Ruth, Foxx, Mel Ott, Williams and Mays had reached 500 homers. Over the next 4 years, it would be reached by Aaron, Eddie Mathews, Ernie Banks, Frank Robinson and Harmon Killebrew. But in 1967, before DHs, before expansion "watered down the pitching," when there were a lot more knockdown pitches, and when the 162-game schedule had only been in place for 6 years, 500 homers was a lot tougher to come by. Did I mention Mickey didn't use steroids? They were around in the Sixties, but it's certain he wouldn't have known where to get them.

He should have trotted into the dugout and not come back out until it was time to retire his number. Surely, those last 36 homers and the extra year and a half of stress, of wear and tear, did him no good. He was going to the Hall of Fame anyway, and, at that point, even Mickey Mantle couldn't make the difference between a bad team and a contending team.

9. June 8, 1969. Mickey Mantle Day at the old Yankee Stadium. A crowd of 61,000 comes out to see the Yankees retire his Number 7. At that point, only Ruth's 3, Lou Gehrig's 4 and DiMaggio's 5 had been retired.

DiMaggio gives Mickey a Plaque to hang on the center field wall at the pre-renovation Stadium. Joe must've been wondering, "What about me?" An arrangement had been made, a surprise to Joe but divulged to Mickey beforehand: Mickey was to give a Plaque to Joe, "the greatest ballplayer I ever saw," and says, "His oughta hang just a little higher than mine." Joe is genuinely moved by the gesture.

"Baseball has been very good to me," Mickey says, "and playing 18 years in Yankee Stadium for you folks is the greatest thing that could ever happen to a ballplayer." Those 18 years are still a team record -- although, barring tragedy, it will be matched by both Jeter and Mariano Rivera next season.

(UPDATE: They did each play in a 19th season, and Jeter in a 20th.)

Derek also just surpassed Mickey's team record for games played. In spite of all his injuries, Mickey still played in 2,401 games as a Yankee. "Nobody knows that," he would say. Derek now has 2,426, and that particular milestone wasn't celebrated at all -- certainly not the way his team record 2,722nd hit (surpassing Gehrig for the most by a Yankee), his 3,000th hit, A-Rod's 500th and 600th home runs, and Mariano's record 602nd save was.

10. April 18, 1994. Shortly after checking himself into the Betty Ford Center, and shortly after the death of his son Billy (named for Billy Martin), Mickey appears on the cover of Sports Illustrated with this date, with the headline, "I was killing myself." The title of the article was "Time In a Bottle."

Shortly thereafter, he gives an interview to NBC's Bob Costas, in which he laments how his lifestyle had hurt himself, and hurt his family.

I saw Mickey 3 times, on Phil Rizzuto Day in 1985 and on Old-Timers' Day in 1991 and 1994 -- the last time he appeared at a big-league ballpark. When I got home from the 1994 edition, I ran back the videotape, and saw that he spent an inning in the broadcast booth. He said that his old pal Whitey Ford had gotten his knees replaced, and he would get his own knees replaced, "As soon as the doctors tell me my liver's okay."

It got me to thinking: Maybe, in a few years, before he gets really old, I can not just see Mickey Mantle, I can see Mickey Mantle play baseball.

It was too late. His liver was ruined. Cirrhosis and cancer. He needed a transplant. He got it.

"You talk about a role model," he said in a press conference after his surgery. "This is a role model: Don't be like me."

But he spoke out against drugs, and against underage drinking. He promoted organ donation. He and ex-teammate, fellow Oklahoman, Bobby Murcer, spoke out for the fundraisers for the recent bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building. He was doing more good in the 64th year of his life than he had in the first 63.

But shortly thereafter, the cancer was found to have spread -- which would have taken him off the transplant list, had it been known. He died on August 13, 1995. He was just 63.

After his death, some of the seamier stories got out, including about his womanizing. Apparently, it wasn't all just, as ex-teammate Jim Bouton said in his book Ball Four, "beaver-shooting."

At his eulogy in Dallas, Costas hit the nail on the head, every bit as hard, and as beautifully, as Mickey hit a baseball:

In the last year, Mickey Mantle, always so hard on himself, finally came to accept and appreciate the distinction between a role model and a hero. The first he often was not, the second he always will be.

And, in the end, people got it. And Mickey Mantle got from something other than misplaced and mindless celebrity worship. He got something far more meaningful. He got love. Love for what he had been, love for what he made us feel, love for the humanity and sweetness that was always there mixed in the flaws and all the pain that racked his body and his soul.

(Mickey Mantle, as my generation knew him.)

No, he wasn't perfect. Who is? He hurt some people. He brought joy to so many more.

That should be enough.

Happy Birthday, Mick.

1 comment:

Danny said...

Hi Mike. Saw your post from a few years back. I was at the 1994 Old Timer's Day when I was seven. It was my first Yankees game.

I remember seeing Mickey Mantle's name go up in lights after he hit a home run. I believe it to be the last home run he ever hit. Despite extensive searching, I can find little to no account of what happened during the Old Timer's game.

My father doesn't remember from twenty years ago, and my younger brother was too young to have any memories of the game.

Do you have any recollection of this?