A COUNTRY BOY WHO MADE GOOD IN THE BIG CITY
Sign in window, Commerce, Okla., 1952, in honor of Mickey Mantle
Mickey Mantle died Sunday, generations later than he thought he would. He succumbed, pale and frail, in a Texas hospital, laughing on the outside, dying on the inside. “You talk about a role model,” the Mick said of himself, sitting up, enervated and brittle as his life ebbed away, tapping his own chest. “This is a role model. Don’t be like me.”
Liver gone, lungs going, the magnificent Mickey Mantle was no immortal after all, except in word and deed.
“The cards and letters, they’re great,” Mantle said on heaven’s on-deck circle. “But if you’d like to do something really great, please, be a donor.”
Bless his soul. Some may contend that prolonging Mickey Mantle’s life with a liver transplant turned out to be unnecessary, inasmuch as his other cancer was terminal, but on the contrary, Mantle saved lives in the last month of his own, persuading people to be organ donors with a tremulous voice heard and respected by millions.
Mickey Mantle, a mythic figure with an Apollo’s body and an Achilles’ heel, lived 63 years of hope, glory and pain.
In his teens, Mantle listened to Harry Caray broadcast the 1946 World Series between the St. Louis Cardinals and the Boston Red Sox from a bed inside the Crippled Children’s Hospital of Oklahoma City, where he was being treated for osteomyelitis, an infection in the bone marrow. Kicked in the shin at a football scrimmage, young Mickey’s entire leg turned purple.
Turning 20 a few weeks after playing in the 1951 World Series, he took a taxi to Lenox Hill Hospital in New York accompanied by his father. Stepping from the cab, Mickey leaned against his dad to support himself . . . and it was his dad who collapsed, an old miner who had coughed up black phlegm for years from a lifetime of coal dust and cigarette smoke. He died six months later. He was 39.
Mickey Mantle lived on, as he will in baseball lovers’ hearts.
“During my 18 years, I came to bat almost 10,000 times,” this self-effacing Hall of Famer would say. “I struck out about 1,700 times and walked maybe 1,800 times. You figure a ballplayer will average about 500 at-bats a season. That means I played seven years in the major leagues without even hitting the ball.”
For New Yorkers in particular and for others everywhere who followed what yesteryear’s lingo would allude to as his exploits, Mickey Mantle was both country boy and golden boy. Babe Ruth embodied self-indulgence and sass, Lou Gehrig fortitude and courage, Joe DiMaggio dignity and athleticism. Mickey Mantle? He was a rawboned, rugged, flaxen-haired, heroic hick, resented at first for being Joe D’s replacement, worshiped later as someone himself irreplaceable.
Quoting an old prizefighter, Mantle said, “Very few ballplayers are able to recognize the exact moment when their skills start slipping. Willie Pep once said there were three ways to tell: ‘First, your legs go. Then, your reflexes go. Then, your friends go.’ ”
The friends with whom he associated on the Yankees were usually Whitey Ford and Billy Martin, elbow benders both, and with bemusement and regret Mantle once said that if he had never met those two, he would have lasted five more years. Together, though, they played peerless baseball, historic and mighty.
As for Mantle’s fans, they are loyal and eternal.
We see that today, with Billy Crystal mentioning Mantle in more than one of his films, or with sportscaster Bob Costas still lugging around in his billfold that 1958 Topps All-Star card of Mantle, the one with the Yankee sun god swinging right-handed, under an awning of gold stars.
It was Costas who, as a boy fixated on Mantle kneeling in the on-deck circle, that “7" on his broad, pin-striped back, later observed, “No one kneels in the on-deck circle anymore.”
This is a vision of Mickey Mantle worth remembering, one of the Mick in his prime, ready, willing and able to do what he did best. This was Mickey Mantle’s model role. This was the mythic, mighty, immortal Mickey Mantle that we will take to his grave.
* MANTLE DIES: Five weeks after receiving a liver transplant, the Hall of Famer succumbs to lung cancer in Dallas. A1
* REACTION: A day of mourning for the world of baseball. C12
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The Stuff of Legends
Where Mickey Mantle ranks in baseball history: *--*
Category Rank Number Games 56th 2,401 Runs 22nd 1,677 HR 8th 536 RBI 35th 1,509 Walks 5th 1,733 Strikeouts 9th 1,710
Where Mantle ranks with the Yankees: *--*
Category Rank Number Games 1st 2,401 Runs 3rd 1,677 Hits 3rd 2,415 Doubles 5th 344 HR 2nd 536 RBI 4th 1,509 SB 8th 153
Career World Series records set by Mantle:
Most home runs--18.
Most runs scored--42.
Most runs batted in--40.
Other Mantle milestones:
Won AL Triple Crown--1956.
AL MVP--1956, 1957, 1962.
Led AL in home runs--1955-56, 1958, 1960.
Career grand slams--9.
Pinch-hit home runs--7.
AL All-Star Game--1952-1965; selected to both games, 1959-1962.
Elected to Baseball Hall of Fame--1974.