Mickey Mantle: The Magnificent Yankee

A.J. MartelliSenior Analyst IFebruary 14, 2009

He was one of the most beloved and admired players to ever put on the pinstripes for the New York Yankees.


Mickey Charles Mantle was the epitome of an athlete. Agile, fearless, and courageous. He was looked at as one of the best ever to play the great game of baseball.


Youth and Early Years


Mantle was born in Spavinaw, Okla., and had baseball in his name. His father Mutt named Mickey after Philadelphia Athletics catcher Mickey Cochrane. When Mantle was four years old, the family moved to Commerce, Okla., where he grew up.


The consummate athlete, Mantle played baseball, basketball, and football for Commerce High School. It looked like Mantle would choose football as his sport of choice when he was offered a scholarship to play halfback at the University of Oklahoma.


But football nearly ended his career and his life when he was injured during a game. After being kicked in the shin, Mantle came down with osteomyelitis, a disease that would have crippled him years earlier. There were even thoughts of amputating Mantle’s leg after the injury. Thankfully Mantle was saved with a new drug called penicillin, preventing the amputation and saving his life.


But baseball was Mantle’s true calling, not football. Yankee scout Tom Greenwade took notice of Mantle during a high school game, and offered him a contract of $140 a week and a $1500 signing bonus. Mantle had to wait until after his high school graduation, and signed the day of his commencement.   


He was on his way to becoming one of the all-time greats.


Making it and Struggles


After signing his contract, Mantle reported to the Yankees’ class D organization in Independence, Kan. Mantle, who was a switch hitter, played shortstop in the minors. Nicknamed “The Commerce Comet,” Mantle was a star in the making for the Yankees’ minor league squads. In 1951, he finally made it to the majors.


April 17 was Mantle’s call-up date and he wore the uniform number six in his first game. Everyone said he was the next in line of Yankee greats; Babe Ruth was three, Lou Gehrig was four, Joe DiMaggio was five, and Mantle was six. He went 1-4 in his first major league game against the Boston Red Sox.


But Mantle struggled in his first year and Yankee skipper Casey Stengel sent him down to the minors to re-tool. With the Kansas City Blues, Mantle couldn’t find his swing. Not being able to collect himself, Mantle called his father out of frustration. Mutt came to Kansas City the next day to speak to his son.


“Dad, I just don’t think I can play baseball anymore,” Mantle said to his father.


Mutt began packing his son’s belongings, and told him to come back to Oklahoma to work in the mines where Mantle had worked with his dad during high school.


Mutt then admonished his son, saying, “I thought I raised a man. I raised nothing but a coward.”


Mantle then decided to stick with baseball after being reprimanded by his father, and quickly broke out of his slump. He went back to play 40 games for the Blues, averaging .362 with 11 home runs and 50 RBI. Not long after that, he was recalled back to the Yankees. When he was brought back up, he was given the number seven. He later stated how uncomfortable he was wearing the number six.


Although he was back with the Yankees, his problems still continued.


In game two of the 1951 World Series, Mantle was playing right field. DiMaggio, who was in many ways Mantle’s predecessor, started in center field. Before the game, Stengel urged Mantle to take any fly ball he could get because DiMaggio was basically at the end of his career, while Mantle was young and just starting his career.


In the fifth inning, Willie Mays of the Giants lifted a fly ball to right-center field. Mantle had a beat on the ball and could have easily caught it. At the last minute, he heard DiMaggio cry out, “I’ve got it!” As Mantle stopped to let DiMaggio catch the high fly ball, he tripped on one of the rubber outfield rain drains, spraining his knee and tearing cartilage.


Mantle had to be carried off the field on a stretcher, was sidelined for the rest of the series, and was forced to watch the remainder of the fall classic from a hospital bed. To add insult to injury, his father Mutt was sick with cancer, and died while Mantle was in the hospital.


Breaking Out and Success


Despite obtaining a World Series ring in 1951, Mantle looked to put the ugly end of the 1951 season behind him.


After 1951, Mantle began the better years of his illustrious career. In 1952, he slugged 23 home runs, had 87 RBI, and averaged .311 at the plate. In only his second year, he was third in the running for the American League Most Valuable Player Award, and made the All-Star team for the first time. He would go on to be selected to 15 more All-Star games.


The Yankees faced the Brooklyn Dodgers in the 1952 World Series, in which Mantle dazzled everyone with his outstanding play.


For the series, he hit .345 overall with 10 hits, three RBI, and two home runs. Behind Mantle, the Yankees went on to beat the Dodgers in seven games.


With two World Series titles already under his belt, Mantle resumed his fine play on the field in 1953. He cracked 23 homers, knocked in 92 runs, and averaged .295 at the dish. His stock would rise in 1953, and one of his more amazing feats came on April 17.

In a regular season game against the Washington Senators at Griffith Stadium, batting from the right side of the plate against Chuck Stobbs, Mantle absolutely murdered the offering for a home run. But it wasn’t just a typical round-tripper. The ball traveled an incredible 565 feet, cleared the 60-foot-high scoreboard in left-center field, and literally left the Stadium. It was just one of Mantle’s many career tape measure home runs, but also his longest.


The Yankees once again made it to the World Series in 1953, and again met the Dodgers in a rematch from the previous year. Mantle averaged .208 during the series, hit two more homers, had seven RBI, and added another five hits to his World Series resume. The Bronx Bombers beat the Dodgers again in the ’53 series, and Mantle collected his third World Series ring.


It was through all these accomplishments that Mantle became the face of the Yankees’ organization, and was the most popular and idolized player in the game.


Continuing Success, the Triple Crown, and the 1961 Home Run Race


Mantle pieced together a good year for himself in 1954, setting a career best in the RBI category with 102. He added 27 more home runs in ’54, and batted .300 for the year.


1955 was the year Mantle set a career-high in home runs, smashing 37 for the campaign. He knocked in 99 runs and averaged .306, but the Yankees failed to win the World Series. The Dodgers finally got their payback, beating the Yankees four games to three.


With his personal numbers climbing, Mantle was about to have the best year of his life.


In 1956, Mantle set the baseball world on fire. He hit home runs at an alarming rate, and clobbered some of the most spectacular shots ever seen.


Playing the Senators at Yankee Stadium on May 30, Mantle stepped up to the plate against Pedro Ramos. Batting left handed, Mantle turned on Ramos’s offering, hitting the ball 525 feet and off the frieze, or façade, of Yankee Stadium in right field. Mantle was and still is the only man to drive the ball and nearly leave Yankee Stadium.


Later in the season on September 18, the Yanks met the Chicago White Sox at Comiskey Park. Mantle, hitting from the right-hand side of the plate, massacred a pitch off ChiSox hurler Billy Pierce. The ball journeyed 550 feet, and cleared the left field roof.


Smacking 52 home runs, knocking in 130 runs, and averaging a ridiculous .353, Mantle led the league in every major offensive category. For his leading statistics, he won the Triple Crown Award in 1956, becoming only the 12th man in history to accomplish the feat. He was also the first Yankee to capture the award since Gehrig did so in 1934, respectively.


Not only did Mantle win the Triple Crown Award, but was also named AL MVP in ‘56 for the first of three times in his career.


The type of season Mantle had in 1956 could only be capped off in one way: a World Series title. And the Yankees made sure it happened, defeating the Dodgers in seven games and getting revenge for the series loss in ’55.


For the World Series in ’56, Mantle hit three homers, had four RBI, scored six runs, and averaged .250.


1956 was Mantle’s best career year thus far. But no one knew what was to happen in the 1961 baseball season.


Collecting his second AL MVP award in 1957 and his fifth World Series ring in 1958 en route to 1961, Mantle was in for a ride. The two Yankees, Roger Maris and Mantle (dubbed “the M & M boys”), pushed each other home run for home run during the 1961 season.


Both sluggers were expected by the fans and media to break Ruth’s home run record of 60 homers in a single season. The media, and more importantly MLB commissioner Ford Frick, were very protective of Ruth’s record, and did not want to see either player shatter it.


Injuries were an integral part of Mantle’s career, and he could not stay healthy enough to finish the 1961 season. Suffering an abscess of his right hip, and countless other injuries through out the year, Mantle’s ‘61 campaign—and bid to shatter the home run record—was ended early. Mantle finished with 54 Home Runs, 128 RBI, and a .317 batting average. He watched Maris break Ruth’s record and hit his 61st home run on Oct. 1—from a hospital bed.


The Yankees made the World Series in 1961, and Mantle was able to return to the team for the Fall Classic. He did not fare well, as he only had six at-bats, one hit, and no homers. Despite the faulty numbers, he still played through the intense pain with heart and dignity.


The Yankees beat the Cincinnati Reds in five games that series, giving the Mick his sixth World Series title.


Down Years, Milestones, Retirement, and Mickey Mantle Day


Coming off his outstanding but shortened 1961 season, Mantle returned in ’62 to a solid year. He hit 30 homers, knocked in 89 runs, and averaged .321 at the dish. He once again won the AL MVP for his modest numbers.


Once again the Yankees were the last team standing, beating the San Francisco Giants in six games in the Fall Classic. Mantle averaged only .120 for the series, hit no homers, and had three hits and two runs scored. This marked Mantle’s last World Series ring, finishing his career with seven World titles.


Mantle entered the twilight of his career after the 1962 season, but numerically still had some incredible years. In 1964, he hit 35 homers, drove in 111 runs, and averaged .303. He was the runner-up in the MVP voting, and the Yankees made the World Series for the last time with Mantle as a member of the ball club.


The Yankees may have lost the 1964 World Series to the St. Louis Cardinals, but Mantle showed that he was still a warrior of the game. In the bottom of the ninth in game three, he blasted a solo home run off Barney Schultz into the upper deck in right field of Yankee Stadium, giving the Yankees a 2-1, walk-off win.


On May 14, 1967, Mantle reached a pinnacle in his career. Playing at home against the Baltimore Orioles, he smacked his 500th career home run, becoming the only player since Ruth to hit 500 homers in pinstripes. Hurting from past injuries, Mantle stayed on board until 1968, and after the ’68 campaign finally called it a career.


Mantle played 18 seasons in the MLB, all for the Yankees. He finished with 536 career homers, a lifetime batting average of .298, and 1,509 RBI. He collected seven World Series rings, three MVP awards, and a Triple Crown award. But most importantly, he captured the hearts of the Yankees and their fans.


The year after he retired, the Yankees had no choice but to honor Mantle the way they had honored all past Yankee greats.


On June 8, 1969, the Yankees held Mickey Mantle Day at Yankee Stadium. With former teammates of Mantle’s, dignitaries, and fans on hand, the Yanks retired the number seven along with numbers three, four, and five. DiMaggio was also there, and presented Mantle with the plaque that hangs today in Monument Park at Yankee Stadium.


Mel Allen introduced Mantle that day as, “A magnificent Yankee, the great number seven, Mickey Mantle.”


With emotions running high, Mantle addressed the capacity crowd, “When I walked into this Stadium 18 years ago, I felt much the same way I do right now. I don’t have words to describe how I felt then and how I feel now, but I’ll tell you one thing: baseball was really good to me. And playing 18 years in Yankee Stadium is the best thing that could ever happen to a ballplayer.”


But his baseball honors were not yet done.


The first year he was eligible, Mantle was given another enormous honor. He was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1974.


Death and Legacy


Although retired, Mantle would still come out to Yankee Stadium as an honored guest for Old Timer’s Day, a tradition where the Yankees bring back the retired players for a ceremony over the summer. But alcoholism reigned in his family blood, and soon ravaged Mantle.


Being an alcoholic for so long, Mantle was told “his next drink could be his last.” His liver was deteriorated from the years of heavy drinking, and he needed a liver transplant in order to preserve his life. He was given a new liver on June 8, 1995: 26 years to the day that the Yankees retired his number.


Mantle always said about his alcohol problems, “I am the perfect role model of what not to be.” The regret for his alcohol usage was evident in his remaining days.


He would not live much longer, however. On Aug. 13, 1995, the Yankees lost the Mick. He was 63 years old.


During the first Yankee home game, Eddie Layton, the then-organist at Yankee Stadium, played “Somewhere over the Rainbow” for Mantle on the Hammond organ, as Mantle once said it was his favorite tune.


The Yankees paid homage to Mantle wearing black armbands around the sleeves of their uniforms, along with a small number seven above the band.


Mantle was interred in Dallas, Texas. Many members of the Yankee organization, longtime Yankee fan and actor Billy Crystal, and sports journalist Bob Costas were among the many people whom attended Mantle’s funeral.


Costas, who gave the eulogy, described Mantle as “a fragile hero whom we had an emotional attachment so strong and lasting, it defined logic.”


Mickey Mantle: seven time World Series Champion. 536 career home runs. 16 time All Star. Three MVP awards. A Triple Crown award. A lifetime of achievement.


He always told others what he wanted on his tombstone: “Mickey Mantle: A Great Teammate.” While that may not be what it says on his tombstone, it is what it reads on his monument in Yankee Stadium.

Whatever is he called he will always own one title: Mickey Mantle: The Magnificent Yankee.