REMEMBERING MICKEY : Mantle’s Home Runs Transcend Time, Space
It was at this point in spring training, 20 years ago, that he stood before the microphones set up I in the Yankees’ hotel suite and said: “I can’t hit the ball anymore, and I can’t steal second when I need to anymore, and I can’t go from first to third anymore . . . and I think it’s time to quit trying.”
He also might have said, and he wouldn’t be lying, that no more would he be hitting the league’s most and longest homers, or winning any more MVP awards of which there were three, and he wouldn’t be scoring the most runs anymore, or driving in the most, and no more would he be the best drag bunter in baseball. Things like that.
This, of course, was Mickey Mantle, saying goodby to the game that made him famous, and vice versa. He was telling the Yankees’ management and the rest of the world that, at 37, he was packing it in, surrendering at last to the enemy of all his baseball years, his sorely abused, crybaby knees.
They had plagued him since his rookie year with the Yankees when, in the second game of the 1951 World Series, he stepped into a drainage hole, twisted a knee, and was carried from the field on a stretcher, never to return to that series.
He would later hit more World Series home runs, 18, than any man of his time, or before, or since. This was the Mickey Mantle who was now saying he couldn’t play the game anymore. A giant was leaving the baseball scene.
Always there were discussions about who hit the longest homers, usually with the agreement that Babe Ruth was No. 1. It was Walter Johnson who once put Ruth’s homers in perspective when he was asked to compare Ruth and Jimmie Foxx and Hank Greenberg. Whose hits were the longest? Said Johnson: “All I can say is that the balls Ruth hit out of the park got smaller quicker than anybody else’s.”
So where did Mantle fit in? In all his years Ruth never hit one over the high, concrete bleachers in left center field in Griffith Stadium in Washington. But of course he hit left-handed. Greenberg and Foxx had their shots at it, and it never happened. But one April afternoon in 1955, against the Senators’ Chuck Stobbs, Mickey Mantle made it happen. By yards and yards his swat cleared those bleachers and sailed into Fifth Street beyond. After a measuring they came up with the opinion it was a masterly 565-foot production.
The late Clark Griffith, owner of the Senators, put the Mantle homer in perspective when it was suggested to him that a prevailing wind helped the shot. “Consarn it, I don’t care about that,” Griffith said. “That same wind has been blowing for 100 years, and nobody else ever hit one out of there.”
When Mantle quit he didn’t say that another Yankee dynasty had ended, because he didn’t talk in those terms, but he could have. His had been the latest of the Yankee eras, in which one majestic performer had carried the team. First, it was the Babe Ruth era, then the longtime Joe DiMaggio phase of the Yankees. To whom would the torch be passed? Who could qualify for the greatness of the role? He would answer to the name of Mickey Mantle.
He had come to the Yankees as the shy kid from the Oklahoma sandlots, with a blond cowlick, and offering his uncommon combination of muscle plus speed. He had also licked, he thought, a boyhood bout with the bone disease, osteomyelitis. In high school he had played football, too, and in later years a teammate who had remembered him then said of Mantle’s speed, “Despite his good weight, he was lightfooted. It seemed he ran on top of the grass.”
Four times he led the AL in homers, but ironically he didn’t in his most productive year when he slammed 54. That was when teammate Roger Maris hit those 61 to break Ruth’s record. Some folks tried to make a thing of rivalry between Mantle and Maris that season, but Mickey was having none of it. “Roger is my friend,” he said. “If I don’t hit 61, I hope he does.”
He didn’t need a home run to establish him as the home run giant of his times. Remembered is the 1956 World Series against Brooklyn, when a total of 16 homers were hit by all the players. Three were by Mantle. Those three were the longest three of the Series.
He was the rarest combination of home run slugger and deft bunter who ever hit the big leagues. His specialty was the drag bunt, a thing of beauty in itself and now threatening to become a lost art. He could manage it with his hands and speed, when, as a switch hitter he chose to bat left-handed. From manager Casey Stengel, he had a blank check to drag one whenever he liked. On a two-strike count even. It would be risky, if not damn foolishness, for anybody else.
A few years ago Mickey arrived in the Yankees’ camp as a hitting instructor, met an old friend, and inquired about his golf game. In turn, Mantle, now a golf fanatic, was asked about his own game. “I’m hitting the ball well but I can’t score,” he said. What was wrong? “It’s my putting,” Mantle said.
In a bases-loaded, two-strike situation in the ninth with the 60,000 in the park on the edge of their seats in high excitement, Mantle always seemed the calmest fellow in the place with the bat on his shoulder.
“So, Mickey, what’s wrong with your putting?” he was asked. “Hell,” Mickey said, “I’m gutless.” In addition to making a commentary on golf, he seemed to be saying baseball was his game.