#10 Mickey Mantle
Mickey Mantle, born during the heart of the Great Depression was named for one of baseball's most popular players in a difficult time -- the A's great catcher, Gordon Cochran. Lucky for the Mick, his father didn't know that Mickey wasn't Cochran's real name. It was the first of many things Mutt Mantle did right as a father.
Before his Major League career started, though, his health put everything in doubt. On January 10, 1951 the 18 year old prized prospect went in for a routine doctor's visit. In that visit, Mantle learned that the Osteomyelitis he suffered from that resulted from a high school football injury and almost caused him to have his leg amputed was causing problems in his ankle. The Yankees issued an optimistic, but foreboding statement, "Mickey's locomotion is hampered only slightly, but we can't tell now what effect this condition will have on his baseball future." It, unfortunately, proved to have far too profound of an effect on his career, leading to persistent health problems.
Later that year, Mantle supplied a solid rookie campaign, playing right field beside the great Joe DiMaggio in his farewell tour. The Yankees weren't entirely please with his play, though. He spent a portion of it in AAA with the Kansas City Blues, but he still posted a .792 OPS, knocking 13 home runs and stealing 8 bases in 96 games. It was one of the great Yankee teams, featuring Hall of Famers DiMaggio, Berra and Rizzuto along with Mantle. They cruised to 98 wins and cruised into the World Series. Game 2, however, changed Mantle's life. The game started well. Mantle bunted his way on and two singles later he crossed the plate to give the Yankees an early 1-0 lead. A 2nd inning home run would give the Yankees a 2-0 lead, which they would never give up. Mantle's season was almost over, though. He was injured in the fifth inning, while backing up DiMaggio on a Willie Mays fly ball. "I thought he had been shot," DiMaggio answered when asked what he thought had happened. The Yankees went on to win the game and the series, without Mantle. Baseball, though would soon be the farthest thing from Mantle's mind. When arriving at the hospital with his father, he recalled, "I leaned on him for support when I got out of the cab, and he just crumpled to the ground. That's how we found out." Both Mantles were admitted to the hospital. Mickey was diagnosed with a sprained knee. Mutt was diagnosed with Hodgkin's Disease and died a year later at the age of 40.
Mutt with the help of Mickey's left handed grandfather taught him to switch hit in brilliant anticipation of the coming focus on platoon splits. "He foresaw the platooning that managers like Casey Stengel used years before it happened. He told me I had to be a switch-hitter if I was going to play," Mickey recalled. Mantle regarded his father as the bravest man he had ever known and said that "no boy ever loved his father more." It was one of his great regrets, though, that he never told his father that.
The rest of the story, though, is one that we all know pretty well. Mantle quickly became arguably the best player in the game. With DiMaggio's retirement, Mantle took over Center Field batting .311, knocking 67 extra base hits and leading the league with a .924 OPS (162 OPS+), finishing third in the MVP voting, behind pitchers Bobby Shantz and Allie Reynolds. He also led the Yankees to their fourth consecutive World Series Championship, hitting 2 home runs and posting a 1.061 OPS as the Brooklyn Dodgers took the Yankees to seven games.
The next three years were rather ho-hum by Mantle's standards. He started every All-Star game and led the Yankees to their fifth consecutive title, as well as a loss to the Dodgers in the '55 series. He also finished in the top 5 in OPS each year, including leading the league in 1955.
And then 1956 happened.
Mickey Mantle had a pretty good season in 1956. You'll forgive me if that was among the greatest understatements of all-time:
He won the MVP award -- by a unanimous vote
He won the Triple Crown, with 52 Home Runs, 130 RBIs and a .353 batting average
He also led the league in slugging, OPS and Runs, finishing second in walks and OBP
Finally he led the Yankees to yet another championship, beating the Dodgers in 7 games, thanks in large part to 3 home runs and a 1.067 OPS from Mantle.
What's amazing is that Mantle sort of predicted the season he had, when asked if he could break Ruth's record that year, he responded, "This year I'd rather lead the league in home runs, runs batted in and hitting." His main competition for that triple crown was Ted Williams, who was a bit less than congratulatory after Mickey took the batting average race on the last day of the season, saying, "If I could run like Mantle I'd hit .400 every year!"
He may have been even better in 1957. He didn't have as sexy of triple crown stats -- and because of that he won his second MVP award over Ted Williams by the slimmest of margins. Mantle only slugged 34 home runs -- but he posted an OBP of .512 and slugged .665. That's pretty incredible and he was only twenty five years old.
Lets fast forward now to 1960. Mantle had another great season, second in the MVP voting, behind teammate Roger Maris, led the league in home runs with 40 and OPS with a .957. But it was the World Series that he would remember. The Yankees, led by Mantle, Maris, Berra and Ford rolled into the series as heavy favorites over Roberto Clemente's Pittsburgh Pirates. The Yankees had a rough start in game one, as starter Art Ditmar was chased in the first inning and the Pirates took a 1-0 lead, by a score of 6-4. Order was quickly restored to the world, though, as Mantle slugged two home runs in game 2 and another in game 3 as the Yankees cruised to 16-3 and 10-0 victories to put the Yankees up 2 games to 1. Pitching dominated game 4 and the Pirates got just enough in a 3 run fifth inning to tie up the series and won game 5 5-2 to head home with a 3-2 lead. The Yankees got their offense going in game six, as Whitey Ford recorded his second shutout, 12-0.
This set up a game seven show-down that could only disappoint the most ardent fans of pitcher's duels. Pittsburgh's Vern Law squared off with Bob Turley. Both pitchers gave up three runs before being chased. Law made it into the sixth -- Turley only the second, as the Pirates took an early 4-0 lead. The Yankee bullpen managed 5+ innings of scoreless baseball, though, allowing the offense, led by Mantle's RBI single followed by Berra's three-run jimmy jack, to take a 5-4 lead in the 6th. The Yankees would score 2 more in the top of the eighth to give them a three run lead, a lead that was not long for this world. RBI singles by Groat and Clemente were followed by a three run Hal Smith homer to give the Pirates a 2 run lead. No lead was safe on this night, though, as Mantle and Berra knocked in a run each in the top of the ninth to tie it up. Bill Mazeroski led of the bottom of the ninth. Moments later, the slick fielding second baseman was celebrating with his teammates after his game winning walk-off home run to deep left field. Mickey's wife tried to console him, saying, "Mickey, it's only a game." It wasn't only a game to the Mick, though, who recalled, "In 1960 when Pittsburgh beat us in the World Series, we outscored them 55-27. It was the only time I think the better team lost. I was so disappointed I cried on the plane ride home."
But, as is the beauty of baseball, every spring it begins anew. 1961 was a pretty big year in the career of Mickey Mantle. Lets skip the trivial stuff, yada yada yada ... the team won 109 games and cruised through the World Series, four games to one over the Reds.
We all know the story and Billy Crystal did it better justice than I could, anyway, so lets just see what Mantle had to say:
"The best team I ever saw, and I really mean this, was the '61 Yankees."
"I never got to see the '27 Yankees. Everyone says that was the greatest team ever. But I think it would've been a great series if we'd have had the chance to play them."
"Well, I beat my man. Now it's up to you to beat yours." (After Maris topped Gehrig's 1927 HR total)
"The strain on Roger (Maris) was unbelievable. After I dropped out the reporters only had one guy to go to. They surrounded him everywhere he went. He had big clumps of hair falling out. That he went ahead and did it was unbelievable."
"It was the single greatest feat I ever saw."
"Roger Maris was as good a man and as good a ballplayer as there ever was."
"I don't know why Roger (Maris) isn't in the hall of fame. To me, he was as good as there ever was."
Mick won his third MVP the next year, in 1962, but at 30, his body was starting to seriously break down. He played only 123 games that year, a number he would only top once in the next four years before finishing his career at first base. When he was healthy, he was still among the best in the game and he managed to play another six seasons and went to two more World Series before he retired in 1968 at the age of 36. At the time, he was third on the all-time home run list at 536. How much have things changed?
In retirement, he was a first ballot Hall of Famer -- but was a poor business man and was having significant financial trouble until the memorabilia craze of the 1980s restored his wealth.
Mantle had lived a hard life, figuring he was destined for an early exit, as had happened with most of the men in his family. In 1994 he checked himself into the Betty Ford Clinic to finally treat the alcoholism that had hurt his playing career, his personal life and was destroying his liver. Despite family tragedies, Mantle managed to stay sober for the rest of his days. Sadly, they were far too few, he had quit too late.
A year later, Mantle was diagnosed with liver cancer and received a liver transplant to treat it. It was too late, though. The cancer had spread throughout his body and he died two months later, on August 13, 1995. "This is a role model: Don't be like me," he warned fans everywhere. He had become a hero, though, establishing the Mickey Mantle Foundation to raise awareness for organ donations, raising money with former teammate Bobby Murcer after the Oklahoma City bombing and living the last years of his life in a very public way.
"Somebody once asked me if I ever went up to the plate trying to hit a home run. I said, 'Sure, every time.'"
Of course a recommend is always appreciated.