Baseball star Mickey Mantle was born in Spavinaw Oklahoma on October 20, 1931. He came to the Yankees in 1952 and played his entire 18-year career with that team.
His formidable statistics include batting over .300 in ten seasons, hitting 536 home runs and playing in 12 World Series.
An outstanding center fielder, Mantle retired in 1969 and was subsequently elected to the Hall of Fame.
In his later years, he developed liver cancer and was able to obtain a liver transplant, but he died of liver failure in 1995, soon after the transplant.
Mickey Charles Mantle was born on October 20, 1931, in Spavinaw, Oklahoma. Named by his baseball-loving father after Detroit Tigers catcher Mickey Cochrane, Mantle was trained from a young age to be a switch-hitter. A New York Yankees scout saw him play while in high school, and Mantle subsequently signed on for two years in the minors before joining the major league team at the age of 19.
Mantle played his first game for the Yankees in 1951, eventually replacing Joe DiMaggio in center field. During his 18-year career with the Yankees, the switch-hitting slugger hit 536 home runs and was voted the American League&aposs Most Valuable Player three times (1956, 1962). In 1956, he won the American League triple crown with 52 home runs, 130 runs batted in and a .353 batting average.
Throughout his career, Mantle was plagued by injuries and leg pain caused by osteomyelitis, yet he persevered to leave one of the greatest baseball legacies of all time.
Arguably the most significant Oklahoman in major league baseball, Mickey Mantle slugged 536 home runs with a .298 batting average and 1,509 runs-batted-in during his remarkable eighteen-year career as a switch-hitter with the New York Yankees. He started his career as television grew and thrilled millions of fans with an all-time record of eighteen home runs in twelve World Series. Born October 20, 1931, in Spavinaw, Oklahoma, Mantle grew up in Commerce and was known as the "Commerce Comet" and "The Mick." He was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1974.
He was named after Mickey Cochrane, Hall of Fame Philadephia A's catcher who was the idol of Elvin Mantle, Mickey's father. Elvin Mantle was a fire-balling amateur pitcher who also toiled in the lead and zinc mines of northeastern Oklahoma. Mantle learned to switch-hit by playing with tennis balls thrown by his right-handed father and left-handed grandfather.
On the night he graduated from Commerce High School in 1949, Mantle was playing for the Baxter Springs Whiz Kids in a Ban Johnson League against Coffeyville when legendary scout Tom Greenwade of the Yankees first saw him. Mantle hit two home runs and two singles and made three errors at shortstop. Two days later, in a car after a game was called off for rain, Greenwade offered him a thousand-dollar bonus.
In 1949 Mantle hit .313 for Independence in the K-O-M League and then .383 for Joplin in the Class C Western Association in 1950 with 199 hits, including twenty-six home runs. The Yankees called him up to their February pre-camp school in 1950, but he had no money to make the trip to Phoenix, Arizona. The Yankees found out and wired him the money.
Mantle joined the Yankees as a shortstop during that spring of 1950 when Hall of Famer Joe DiMaggio was still playing center field. Mantle hit .402 in spring training with nine home runs and moved to the outfield. He advanced so fast that Yankee Manager Casey Stengel told Sport magazine that he was confused by the young rookie from Commerce. "I know he's not a big league outfielder yet," Stengel said, "and that he should have a year of Triple-A under his belt. That's the only logical thing. But this kid ain't logical. He's a big league hitter and base-runner right now."
Cliff Mapes, who lived in Pryor, Oklahoma, wore number seven that spring. After Mantle was sent to Kansas City of the American Association, the Yankees traded Mapes to Detroit. Mantle returned late that season and was given his trademark number seven. He replaced DiMaggio as the regular Yankee center fielder in 1951, batting .267 in ninety-six games with thirteen home runs, playing in two World Series games. In 1952 he batted .311 with twenty-three home runs and became a World Series star for the first time. He batted .345 during the Series victory over the Brooklyn Dodgers and hit two home runs.
During his eighteen-year career he was named Most Valuable Player in the American League three times and was named to twenty All-Star teams. He won the American League triple crown in 1956 with a .353 batting average, fifty-two home runs, and 130 RBIs, and he hit a 565-foot home run in Washington's Griffith Stadium, leading to the term "tape measure" home run. Five times he nearly became the first to hit a fair ball out of Yankee Stadium. In addition to eighteen home runs, Mantle holds World Series records of forty RBIs, forty-two runs scored, forty-three walks, twenty-six extra base hits, and 123 total bases. He hit fifty-four home runs in 1961, the year fellow Yankee Roger Maris hit sixty-one home runs to break Babe Ruth's previous record of sixty. Mantle often batted behind Maris that year and that was considered one of the reasons Maris got the pitches he needed to break the record. Mantle hit .333 and three homers in his last World Series in 1964.
Outside of baseball, Mantle, second baseman Billy Martin, and pitcher Whitey Ford became known for their off-the-field and off-season escapades and practical jokes. Mantle told one story of trying to climb into a hotel through a window after the team curfew to avoid being caught by Stengel. They climbed on top of garbage cans, and Mantle helped Martin through the window. Then Martin shut the window and left Mantle outside. Mantle said he tore up a two-hundred-dollar suit in the process.
During the 1960s Martin served as coach and then manager of the Minnesota Twins. Mantle came to Minnesota during a cold January week for the Minnesota baseball dinner. They invited Max Nichols, an Oklahoman who was then writing baseball commentary for the Minneapolis Star, to go with them to hunt ducks on a game farm. It was five degrees below zero with snow on the ground, and the ducks were flying low. Mantle put blanks in Martin's shotgun, and Martin began to blaze away at ducks slightly over his head, without success. Mantle kept a straight face as long as he could but finally rolled over in the snow, laughing.
After his retirement from baseball in 1968, he had a short stint as a Yankee baseball coach, worked as a baseball broadcaster, and worked for a Dallas insurance company and for the Claridge Hotel in Atlantic City, New Jersey. He also was a part owner of Mickey Mantle's Restaurant on Fifty-ninth Street in New York City. He died August 13, 1995, in Dallas, having made his home there since 1956.
Baseball Encyclopedia (10th ed. New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc., 1996).
Bob Burke, Kenny A. Franks and Royse Parr, Glory Days of Summer: The History of Baseball in Oklahoma (Oklahoma City: Oklahoma Heritage Association, 1999).
Ralph Houk, Ballplayers are Human, Too (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1962).
"Mickey Mantle," Vertical File, Archives, Oklahoma Sports Hall of Fame, Oklahoma City.
Arch Murray, "Mickey Mantle: Gold Plated Rookie," Sport Magazine (June 1950).
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Once trash, now treasure: The story behind the 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle card
It’s one of the best stories in sports collection history. And it’s what led the 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle to become the “holy grail” of baseball cards.
Back in 1952, Mickey Mantle was a young star who played for the New York Yankees, the team that won the World Series that year (and the three years before). The home run Mantle hit in the 8th inning of Game 6 was the first of his record 18 career World Series home runs.
Mantle and the other Yankees were represented by Jerry Coleman, a man the 29-year-old Sy Berger sought to befriend. In 1951, Berger had started working as a summer intern at Topps Company, which just a year before that had decided to try to increase chewing gum sales by packaging the gum together with trading cards.
Photos courtesy of www.1952toppsbaseballcards.com
“I was just a young kid when I joined the Topps family, and they knew I was a sports nut, and they just let me go. No strings, no binders, just go do it,” Berger, who eventually became vice president of licensing, told Sports Collectors Digest in 2010. “They let me express myself, design wise, what we put in the cards. As far as the relationship outside the cards, how to negotiate with the ballplayers, nobody ever told me how to do it, they just said, ‘Go do it.’”
So Berger hung out in major-league dugouts and became friends with hundreds of ballplayers, signing them to exclusive Topps contracts. “Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford were young guys then, and I sort of gravitated to them. It was a good experience. They had their names in the box scores every day, and now you are walking around among them. Later on, I became a fixture.”
Berger’s work paid off. “The 1952 Topps cards were selling like we were giving away gold. I went to J.E. Shorin (one of Topps’ founding brothers) and said, ‘What do you think about a second series?’ He asked if I could get it out quickly.” They did get the next, much smaller series out fast (especially since the backs included statistics) - but the cards stopped selling.
“The 1952 high series went all over the country, everybody was happy to buy it, but when it didn’t sell that was when we found out what returns meant. It was clogging this warehouse in Brooklyn,” Berger recalled. This was at a time when baseball cards weren’t treated like collectibles, they were purely consumer product. So, at the end of the year they got rid of the cards to make room for the next year’s.
Seven or eight years later, Berger tried his hand at sales, hoping to pawn them off wholesale at carnivals at the bargain-basement price of 10 for a penny. But he still had 300 to 500 cases, including cards featuring Mantle, Willie Mays, and Jackie Robinson, that were simply unsellable.
“I couldn’t give them away. So we said let’s get rid of them. I found a friend of mine who had a garbage scow and we loaded the three trucks-worth on the barge.” A tugboat pulled them off the New Jersey shore and they dumped the cards into the Atlantic Ocean, never to be seen again.
Of course, if they hadn’t, the few that remain wouldn’t be considered the “holy grail.”
“Mickey Mantle’s 535th” 19 September 1968
Detroit Tigers infielder Don Wert watches Mickey Mantle circle the bases after hitting his 535th career home run, Sept. 19, 1968.
In late January, the Tet offensive in Vietnam, striking more than 100 towns and cities in South Vietnam, stunned the U.S. and South Vietnamese armies. Two months later, in late March 1968, President Lyndon B. Johnson, mired in the Vietnam conflict, announced he would not run for re-election. In April, civil rights leader Martin Luther King was shot and killed by an assassin, and in June, Bobby Kennedy, then running for the Democratic presidential nomination, was struck down by a gunman in California.
In August, Soviet and Warsaw Pact troops crushed Czechoslovakia’s “Prague Spring.” Back in the states that month, the Democrats’ National Convention in Chicago became a spectacle of political ugliness, both inside the hall and on the streets, with clashes and confrontations over Vietnam and the nation’s future.
But then, in the midst of all this, there was still baseball, the national pastime the one constant thing an oasis of predictable pace and familiarity apart from the turmoil. Baseball was there in those dark days, in the background perhaps, but doing its thing playing its games, day after day, from April thru October.
One of the game’s old lions at the time, Mickey Mantle of the New York Yankees, was nearing the end of his storied career. On September 19th, as the regular season was winding down, the Yankees were playing the Detroit Tigers in Detroit. The Tigers had already won the American League pennant that year, propelled there in part by ace pitcher Denny McLain, and were headed to the World Series. But in this game, Mantle hit his 535th home run, then putting him on the all-time homer list at No. 3, behind only Babe Ruth and Willie Mays. Mantle hit this homer off Denny McLain, who still picked up his amazing 31st win that year, as Detroit beat the Yanks, 6-2. It was Mantle’s 17th home run of the 1968 season — not the 30 or more he would normally hit each year during his prime. Mantle’s final career homer — No.536 — came the next day on September 20, 1968 off Boston’s Jim Lonborg. Mantle in those games, with his season-ending home runs, was in the last days of his career, though his official retirement announcement would not come until the following year, on March 1, 1969. These were his last games.
'Mickey Mantle: Born for The Majors,' cover story, Time, June 15, 1953.
Mantle had been a baseball sensation when he first came up in the early 1950s, a player with a rare combination of speed and switch-hitting power the game had not seen in years. Through the 1950s and early 1960s, he became one of baseball’s most feared hitters, and his speed on the base paths and in the outfield made him an all-around player, especially in his early years. Mantle played his entire 18-year career with the Yankees, winning three American League MVP titles. He was also selected to play on 16 American League All-Star teams. With the Yankees, Mantle played on 12 pennant winners and 7 World Series champions. As of 2007, he still held the records for most World Series home runs (18), RBIs (40), runs (42), walks (43), extra-base hits (26), and total bases (123).
“The Kid From Joplin”
(From David Halberstam’s October 1964)
The Mantle legend, which began with his signing, grew during a special rookie camp the Yankees had…in 1950. There, some of the old-timers in the organization got a sense that they were seeing something rare a true diamond in the rough. Mantle’s potential, his raw ability, his speed, his power from both sides of the plate, were almost eerie. If his talent were honed properly, they thought they were quite possibly looking at someone who might become the greatest player in the history of the game. There were some fast players in that camp, and one day someone decided that all the faster players should get together and have a race. Mantle, whose true speed had not yet been comprehended, simply ran away from the others. What had made some of the stories coming out of the camp so extraordinary was the messenger himself, Bill Dickey — the former Yankee catcher, a Hall of Fame player, and a tough, unsentimental old-timer who had played much of his career with Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, and [Tommy] Henrich. He was not lightly given to hyperbole. Dickey started talking about Mantle to Jerry Coleman, the veteran second baseman, with superlatives that were unknown for him: “Jerry, he can hit with power righty, he can hit with power lefty, and he can outrun everyone here.”. . .
“He’s going to be the greatest player I’ve ever seen,” Dickey added. A few days later Dickey grabbed his old teammate Tommy Henrich. “Tom, you should see this kid Mantle that played at Joplin. I’ve never seen power like that. He hits the ball and it stays hit. He’s really going to be something.” Even the sound of his home runs, Dickey said, were different, mirroring something Ted Williams would say years later: the crack of the bat against the ball when Mantle connected was like an explosion. Henrich simply shook his head — it was one thing to hear about a coming star from an excited journalist, but quite another to hear it from someone like Bill Dickey.
With Two Good Legs?
Some of Mantle’s teammates and competitors, as well as sports writers and fans, have often wondered what he would have been like had he not been plagued by injuries throughout his career — especially the leg injuries. Mantle had collected some of his injuries early in life, beginning with a leg infection as a high school football player that nearly resulted in an amputation. Still, when he reached the major leagues in 1951, his running speed was among the best in baseball and his power simply awesome. In his early career, some thought him a rare kind of baseball god, possessing both power and speed.
In 1951, when Mantle was first coming up with the Yankees, his prowess was fully apparent. In an exhibition game at the University of Southern California during his rookie spring training season that year, batting left-handed, he hit a home run ball that left Bovard Field and crossed an adjacent football field, traveling an estimated 656 feet. Some cite it as the longest home run in baseball history. Mantle, in fact, hit two home runs that game — a second, right-handed shot cleared the left-field wall and landed on top of a three-story house well over 500 feet away. Throughout his career, Mantle would hit other memorable shots — including a 565-foot home run at Griffith Stadium in Washington in April 1953 (said to have coined the term “tape measure home run”) a 643-foot homer at Detroit’s Tiger Stadium in September 1960 and one that almost left Yankee Stadium, which no hitter has ever done. But those who saw Mantle hit during his rookie spring training year of 1951, remember the distinctive crack of the bat when he tore into the baseball they knew there was something special about this “hayseed from Oklahoma,” as some called him.
Mickey Mantle, 1950s. Photo by Bob Olen.
Still, even with his injuries and impaired performance, Mantle managed to compile a record that most professional players can only dream about.
During his career with the Yankees, he played more games as a Yankee than any other player (2,401), won three Most Valuable Player awards (, and ). In 1956, he won baseball’s Triple Crown with a .353 batting average, 52 homers and 130 RBIs. He led all of major league baseball that year in all three categories. When he retired in 1969, his 536 career home runs was then the third highest ever, ranking behind only Babe Ruth (714) and Willie Mays (587), and the most ever by a switch-hitter.
Mickey Mantle with U.S. Senator Robert F. Kennedy (D-NY) on Sept 18, 1965, ‘Mickey Mantle Day,’ when Mantle played his 2,000th game. Photo, Martin Blumenthal, SPORT magazine.
Indeed, with two good legs, Mickey Mantle might have been a good bet to have broken Babe Ruth’s single-season record of 60 home runs, and perhaps sooner than 1961 when Roger Maris did it. Mantle may have also compiled a career home run total closer to, if not exceeding 600. His career batting average would probably have bettered .300 as well with more runs scored and RBIs up too, and perhaps a Gold Glove or two for fielding. All speculation, of course, and “what might have been.” Yet many of his admirers wish it could have been so that the fair-haired kid from Oklahoma might have had a bit more luck with the health of his legs.
Other stories about Mickey Mantle at this website include: “Mantle’s Griffith Shot, April 1953,” about a monster home run by Mantle in the old Griffith Stadium park in Washington, D.C. “Mickey Mantle Day, September 1965,” when Mantle was honored for his career at Yankee Stadium and, “Keeps on Ticking,” featuring Mantle, among others, in Timex watch advertisements.
Stories on Babe Ruth, Jimmie Fox, Christy Mathewson, Honus Wagner, Yogi Berra, and Sandy Koufax are also found at this website. Beyond those, additional stories can be found at the “Annals of Sport” category page, the Archive, or the Home Page.
Thanks for visiting — and if you like what you see here, please make a donation to help support the research and writing at this website. Thank you. – Jack Doyle.
Date Posted: 18 June 2008
Last Update: 2 September 2019
Comments to: [email protected]
Jack Doyle, “Mickey Mantle’s 535th–September 19, 1968,”
PopHistoryDig.com, June 18, 2008.
Sources, Links & Additional Information
Mickey Mantle – here in his young “Greek god” body – captured by Life magazine during a celebratory locker room scene, October 1952.
Life magazine cover story, June 25, 1956: “The Remarkable Mickey Mantle,” with story inside: “Prodigy of Power: Mickey Mantle Comes of Age As a Slugger.” Click for copy.
Young Mickey Mantle shown here with wife Merlyn and their two young boys. They would have four sons.
1965 Life magazine photo of Mantle throwing batting helmet in frustration – but check out those forearms!
Mickey Mantle on the cover of Life magazine, July 30, 1965, then at age 33 and in his 15th season with the NY Yankees. “Mantle’s Misery,” read the cover tagline, “He faces physical pain and a fading career.” Click for copy.
Mickey Mantle winces in pain during batting practice at spring training, 1967.
Maury Allen, Memories of the Mick, Taylor Publishing: Dallas, Texas, 1997, 183 pp.
David Halberstam, October 1964, Villard Books, New York, 1994, 380 pp.
“The Remarkable Mickey Mantle,” cover photo, and story: “A Prodigy of Power: Mickey Mantle Comes of Age As a Slugger,” Life, June 25, 1956, pp. 99-102, 105-107.
“Mickey Mantle: My Knee Injury in the 1951 World Series,” YouTube.com.
John R. McDermott, “Last Innings of Greatness: Playing on Bum Knees and Courage, Mantle Fades After 14 Brilliant Years,” Life, July 30, 1965, pp. 46-53.
Douglas Duncan, “Mantle’s Breaks—and Yours,” Popular Science, October 1964, pp.100-103.
Roger Kahn, “Remembering Mickey” (cover story), The Sporting News, August 21,1995.
Shirley Povich, “Mantle’s Critics Swing, Miss,” Washington Post, June 19, 1995.
Note: Many of the news stories below mention Mickey Mantle injuries in their headlines, underscoring his hard times with injuries that often took him out of play.
“Mantle to Miss Finale in Boston and Yanks’ Game Here Tomorrow,” New York Times, Monday, May 26, 1952, Sports, p. 28.
“Mantle Rejected for Draft Again Yanks’ Outfielder Ruled Unfit Because of Injury to Knee Suffered in Series,” New York Times, Tuesday, November 4, 1952, Sports, p. 34.
Joseph M. Sheehan, “Mantle Is Lost for Final Drive Skowron Also Sidelined by Injury Suffered Friday. . .,” New York Times, Sunday, September 18, 1955, Sports, p. 2.
John Drebinger, “Ford’s 5-hitter Halts Boston, 7-1 Mantle Clouts 3-Run Homer for Yanks Before Leaving Game With Leg Injury. . .,” New York Times, Saturday, April 21, 1956, Sports, p. 12.
Deans McGowen, “Mantle Injury Held Not Serious, But He’ll Be Out 2 or 3 Days Sprained Knee Ligaments Troubling Yank Slugger Physician Orders New Brace Mickey’s All-Star Role in Doubt,” New York Times, Friday, July 6, 1956, p 24.
“Mantle Hospitalized Five Days For Treatment of Shin Splint,” New York Times, Saturday, September 7, 1957, Sports, p. 27.
John Drebinger, “Braves Have Health and Hitting Yanks Face Series, With Doubts About Mantle, Skowron,” New York Times, Monday September 30, 1957, Sports, p. 49.
Louis Effrat, “Bombers Face Prospect of Losing Mantle for Fifth Series Contest Shoulder Injury Handicap to Star Mantle’s Inability to Throw with Usual Strength Leads to Removal in Tenth,” New York Times, Monday, October 7, 1957, p. 31.
Louis Effrat, “Mantle to Stay out of World Series Opener Unless His Condition Improves Yankee Slugger Weak and in Pain Club Doctor Says He Thinks Mantle Can Play, However Houk Also Confident,”New York Times, Tuesday, October 3, 1961, p. 47.
“Mantle’s Thigh Injury Expected to Sideline Him 2 to 4 Weeks Star Center Fielder Resting Comfortably but Bombers Are Uncomfortable Injured Mantle Out 2 to 4 Weeks,” New York Times, Sunday, May 20, 1962, Sports, p.1.
“Mantle on Bench With Knee Injury Yankee Star Doesn’t Know When He Can Play Again,” New York Times, Tuesday, July 31, 1962, Sports, p. 21.
Louis Effrat, “Mantle Is Forced to Quit in Third Injury Still Hobbles Star Bombers Get 14 Hits off 4 Hurlers Lopez Excels,” New York Times, Saturday, August 4, 1962, Sports, P 13.
John Drebinger, “Mantle Is Hurt in 6-to-1 Victory Yank Ace Reinjures Muscle in Side,”New York Times, Sunday, April 14, 1963, Sports, p. 167.
Gordon S. White Jr., “Mantle Fractures Left Foot in Yank Victory at Baltimore 4-3 Game Marred by Star’s Injury Mantle Crashes into Fence Chasing Oriole Homer and Will Be out a Month,” New York Times, Thursday, June 6, 1963, Sports, P. 56.
Leonard Koppett, “Mantle Sidelined Indefinitely with Knee Injury Yanks Bow to Angels, 5-0 Star Could Miss Rest of Season Loose Cartilage in Mantle’s Knee Probable Aftermath of Foot Injury on June 5 Injuries Plague Career,” New York Times, Friday, July 26, 1963, Sports, P. 17.
Leonard Koppett, “New Role for Mantle? Full Time as Pinch-Hitter Is Urged For Ailing Slugger of the Yankees,” New York Times, Sunday, January 23, 1966, Sports, p. 182.
Leonard Koppett, “Mantle Suffers Pulled Muscle after Hitting His 475th Homer Yankees Bow, 4-2 Mantle Injured,” New York Times, Sunday, May 15, 1966, Sports, P.1.
Joseph M. Sheehan, “Mantle Suffers Injury to Left Leg as Yankees Are Beaten by Red Sox, 5-2 Bomber Slugger Is Hurt Sliding Injury Termed Not Serious but First Baseman Will Miss Couple of Games,” New York Times, Thursday, March 23, 1967, Sports, p. 41.
“Mantle Ends 18-Year, Injury-Ridden Baseball Career,” New York Times, Sunday, March 2, 1969, p.1.
A graphic of Mickey Mantle’s injuries from:“Mantle's Breaks—and Yours,” Popular Science, October 1964, pp.100-103.
Mickey Mantle joined the Yankees in 1951.  Roger Maris joined the Yankees, becoming Mickey Mantle's teammate in 1960, when the Kansas City Athletics traded Maris with Kent Hadley and Joe DeMaestri in exchange for Marv Throneberry, Norm Siebern, Hank Bauer, and Don Larsen.   Mantle played center field, while Maris played right field.
During the 1960 season, Mantle led the American League (AL) with 40 home runs, while Maris finished with 39.  Maris led the AL with 112 runs batted in (RBI) and a .581 slugging percentage. He also had a .283 batting average, the highest of his career, and won a Gold Glove Award.  Maris won the 1960 AL Most Valuable Player (MVP) Award  with 72% of the vote, while Mantle finished runner-up in the vote, placing just behind Maris with 71%. 
Near the beginning of the season, New York Yankees manager Ralph Houk decided to switch Mantle and Maris around in the batting order, having Maris bat third and Mantle cleanup instead of vice versa.  This is cited as an advantage for Maris, as opposition pitchers were reluctant to pitch around him, as this would result in Mantle coming up to the plate to bat.  As a result, pitchers gave Maris better pitches to hit for fear of walking him.  At first, the batting order switch appeared to have little effect on Maris, who hit only one home run in April.  However, he gained momentum in the home run race in May and June, slugging 11 and 15 home runs, respectively.  On the other hand, Mantle started off the season strong, hitting 14 home runs by the end of May and 11 homers in June.  At the end of June, it became clear that both M&M Boys were on pace to challenge Babe Ruth's 1927 single-season home run record.  However, their chances of breaking Ruth's record were dealt a heavy blow on July 17, when Ford Frick, the Commissioner of Baseball, ruled that a player would have to hit more than 60 home runs in 154 games [b] in order to break Ruth's record.    Frick, who was a good friend of Ruth and served as his ghostwriter,   added that a "distinctive mark" would have to be added should the record be broken after 154 games.  
With the pressure intensifying over the newfound need to break the record within the time limit,  Maris passed Mantle on August 15 for the final time that year and led the home run race for the rest of the season.  Maris then became the first player in history to join the 50 home run club by the end of August.  At the start of September, the race for the single-season record was still extremely close, with Maris having hit 56 home runs to Mantle's 53.  However, Mantle was forced to pull out of the race after succumbing to an abscess in his hip joint  caused from an injection that was supposed to cure him of a flu.  Though most fans supported Mantle  and vociferously rooted against Maris,    it was the latter player who was now left to break Ruth's record alone.
Maris had a total of 58 home runs when the Yankees' played their 154th game of the season against the Baltimore Orioles.  He homered just once in the game, falling two short of setting a new and recognized single-season home run record. Ironically, Maris hit his 60th home run in fewer plate appearances (684) than Babe Ruth (689).   This made Frick's ruling nonsensical, since games played "matter less" than the number of opportunities presented to a batter.  On October 1, the final day of the season, only 23,154 people were in attendance at Yankee Stadium to see Maris hit his 61st home run of the season against Tracy Stallard of the Boston Red Sox.  Frick's ruling back in July, coupled with the Yankees' reluctance to highlight the event, are cited as reasons for the surprisingly low attendance. 
Sal Durante, the man who caught Maris' 61st home run ball, offered to return it to Maris.  Maris politely declined and even encouraged Durante to sell the memorabilia in order to earn some money.  Durante sold the ball for $5,000 to a restaurateur, who gave the ball to Maris. Maris donated the ball to the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in 1973. 
Mantle returned from injury later that season, thus enabling both M&M Boys to participate in the 1961 World Series. Though Maris and Mantle's batting averages throughout the series were a mere .105  and .167,  the Yankees were able to defeat the Cincinnati Reds,  4 games to 1.  At the end of the season, Maris won the AL MVP Award for the second consecutive year. The voting points and percentage of votes for the M&M Boys were exactly the same as in 1960, with Maris garnering 202 points to Mantle's 198 points. 
Mantle was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1974 on his first ballot appearance.  On the other hand, Maris never met the 75% threshold required for induction into the Hall and was eliminated from future BBWAA voting in 1988, his 15th and final time on the ballot, where he garnered 43.1% of the vote (the highest vote percentage he received).   Nevertheless, the Yankees honored both Mantle and Maris by retiring their numbers and presenting them with plaques that hang in Monument Park.  
In 1991, thirty years after Maris hit 61 home runs, commissioner Fay Vincent ruled that there be only one single-season home run record and that any notation beside Maris' record (denoting that he hit 61 home runs in a 162-game season) be eliminated.  Maris died six years earlier in 1985.  Thus, he never knew the record was his.
During their record-breaking season of 1961, the M&M Boys became the only teammates to join the 50 home run club in the same season, hitting a combined 115 home runs to break the single-season record for home runs by a pair of teammates.   This record was previously held by Yankee sluggers Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, who hit 60 and 47 home runs, respectively, in 1927.  In addition, Mantle and Maris combined to record 269 RBI. 
Contrary to popular belief, the M&M Boys were actually close friends and no hostility existed between the two of them.    The two shared an apartment in Queens with fellow outfielder Bob Cerv during the 1961 season  and when Mantle suffered an injury towards the end of the season, he openly rooted for Maris from his hospital bed in the latter's quest to break Ruth's single-season home run record.   The stories of a feud developing between the M&M Boys during the 1961 season were inspired due to the media hype surrounding their quest to break Ruth's record. 
Mantle and Maris engaged in a business partnership. The two endorsed Mantle–Maris wear, a line of clothing apparel for men and boys.  They appeared in Safe at Home!, a movie released in April 1962. 
The M&M Boys are viewed as one of the greatest offensive pair of teammates in the history of the game.  Furthermore, the combined 115 home runs between the two during the 1961 season is considered a "bona fide untouchable" record.  This is due to the fact that the likelihood of two teammates performing exceptionally well in a season is "surprisingly rare." 
|Elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame|
|Yankee team leader|
|American League record|
|#||Position in the lineup|
|RBI||Runs batted in|
|3||Roger Maris||Right fielder||161||590||159||61||141||.269||.372||.620|||
|4||Mickey Mantle||Center fielder||153||514||163||54||128||.317||.448||.687|||
The movie 61* was directed by avid Yankees fan Billy Crystal and released in 2001, the 40th anniversary of Maris' record-breaking season. It recounts both Mantle (portrayed by Thomas Jane) and Maris' (depicted by Barry Pepper) journey during the 1961 season in their quest to break Babe Ruth's single-season home run record of 60. 
Kevin McReynolds and Carmelo Martínez, starting outfielders for the 1984 San Diego Padres, were dubbed the "M&M Boys" after the Yankees duo.    The Padres that season reached the World Series for the first time in the franchise's history, with McReynolds sharing the team lead with 20 home runs and Martinez adding 66 RBIs. 
The usage of the nickname has resurfaced and has been utilized by broadcasters, analysts, and the print media to refer to the Minnesota Twins 3 and 4 hitting tandem of Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau,  who won the American League MVP Award in 2009 and 2006, respectively.  Mauer's batting prowess (uncharacteristic of a catcher) earned him three batting championships (2006, 2008 and 2009)  and four Silver Slugger Awards (2006, 2008, 2009 and 2010),  while his stellar defense enabled him to win three consecutive Gold Glove Awards from 2008 to 2010.  This has been complemented with the power of Morneau, which has earned him a spot at the 2008 Home Run Derby (which he subsequently won)  and runner-up in the 2008 American League MVP voting.  The success of both Mauer and Morneau has begun to garner comparisons for the two teammates to the old Yankees tandem. However, Morneau has expressed some minor disdain for the term, feeling the comparison is being applied too soon. 
Victor Martinez and J. D. Martinez starting for the 2014 Detroit Tigers were dubbed the "M&M Boys" by Tigers broadcaster Rod Allen. [ citation needed ]
MICKEY MANTLE INJURIES
Mickey Mantle hit 536 – many of them gargantuan – home runs in 18 seasons.
He drove in 1,509 runs. And scored 1,677 runs.
As great as Mantle was – as legendary as he remains – injuries robbed The Mick of a Ruthian standing in baseball’s history.
With bulging shoulders and arms and Popeye-like forearns, Mantle hardly looked the part of an injury-prone player. As teammate Jerry Coleman once observed, The Mick had “the body of a god. Only Mantle’s legs were mortal.”
As a youth, Mantle suffered from a form of infantile paralysis that weakened his legs.
In 1947, four years before his freshman season with the Yanks, Mantle was diagnosed with Osteomyelitis – an acute or chronic, and extremely painful, bone infection of his ankle and shin.
Then, in Game 2 of the 1951 World Series, the rookie Mantle – playing right field in deference to Joe DiMaggio in center – took off after a fly ball off the bat of fellow rookie Willie Mays of the Giants, caught one of his spikes in a drainpipe covering, and ripped up his right knee.
He would never play another pain-free game.
There were pulled muscles and sprains, fractures and abscesses. He even had a tonsillectomy in 1956.
The frequent surgeries robbed him of his blazing speed. Mantle legged 49 triples in his first seven years in the majors – and just 23 in his last 11. He stole 124 bases before the age 30, and just 29 bases until his retirement at 36.
But he never stopped hitting. Indeed, his Triple Crown year and his 54 HR season came well after his legs failed him. And he remains the Yanks’ career leader in games-played with 2,401.
“He is,” manager Casey Stengel once marveled, “the best one-legged player I ever saw play the game.”
Share All sharing options for: Mickey Mantle’s Pyrrhic career: Winning the battle but losing the WAR
JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score system), as explained by Baseball Reference, is a career-rating metric derived from, “…their career WAR averaged with their 7-year peak WAR.” This metric is particularly useful for evaluating Hall of Fame candidates from a historical perspective by enabling the game’s brightest stars to rise above the more ubiquitous, steady workmen. While WAR does an excellent job of telling you exactly how valuable a player was over the course of his career, averaging it against his WAR7 weights the number towards his peak performance.
Roger Maris’ Hall of Fame candidacy is a non-conversation from a WAR perspective, but he did post 14.4 WAR over a two-year stretch. While even that, along with his long-held home run record might not be enough to vault him into the hall, it’s a clear demonstration that some players reach a level of greatness that few players, even those enshrined in the Hall, never even sniff. When Maris was in the midst of his peak, posting back-to-back MVPs in 1960 and ’61, his inferred rival and greatest slugging teammate, Mickey Mantle, was putting up arguably even better statistics, and was at the tail end of one of the greatest multi-year offensive tirades of any batter in the history of baseball.
Though he put up an obscene 110.2 career WAR, great enough for 21st all-time, Mickey Mantle’s dominance was particularly pronounced during the ten-year stretch between 1952 and 1961. During those years, he compiled 83.2 WAR, or 75.5% of his total WAR in just 55.5% of his 18-year career. Before his declining defense began to eat up his superior offense, Mickey Mantle amassed a few of the greatest seasons in baseball history, including the 14th, 17th, and 36th all-time greatest seasons by WAR. During the aforementioned decade, he posted a cumulative OPS and OPS+ of 1.017 and 179 while batting over .300, recording over 1600 hits, slugging over 300 homers, and clubbing nearly 1000 RBI.
Surely, a decade like this must be among the greatest in baseball history. However, I wanted to know if it was the very best. Without a WAR10 metric to rely on, I had to start with WAR7 and extrapolate outwards.
Here’s where Mantle’s seven-year stretch ranked on the all-time WAR7 leaderboard:
Mantle jumps from 21st to tenth when looking at players’ seven best seasons as opposed to their entire career, but could he take another leap into the game’s ultimate tier when considering the game’s greatest ten-season stretches? Though he certainly couldn’t pass the Babe, as his 84.8 WAR in seven years topped even Mantle’s ten-year mark, spots two through nine remained up for grabs.
Theoretically, someone ranked below Mickey Mantle in WAR7 could jump him in WAR10. To pass the Mick in WAR10, that player would have to have accumulated more than the 18.5 WAR Mickey added in his three additional years, a huge obstacle to jump for someone already ranked behind him in WAR7. However unlikely that is, there’s no way for me to definitively prove that didn’t happen without counting out every WAR10 on the nearby WAR7 leaderboards, or developing my own WAR10 database and algorithm, two activities beyond my grasp at this very moment. Moving forwards under the presumption that Mickey’s only contention comes from above, let’s see how many spots he can rise:
(1900-1909) Honus Wagner’s 65.3 WAR7 increases to an 85.8 over ten years, just eclipsing Mickey’s mark of 84.8. However, as a shortstop in the dead-ball era, a sizable portion of Wagner’s value was derived from his defense, whereas Mantle never posted more than 1.1 dWAR, and ended up finishing his career nearly ten wins in the red. With the defensive edge, Wagner maintained his WAR advantage over Mantle despite his slight oWAR deficit.
(2011-2020) Having played just eight years in the bigs in addition to a pre-rookie campaign and a pandemic shortened season, Mike Trout is at an unfair disadvantage, but nonetheless falls about ten wins short of Mantle’s mark (74.6 WAR10). However unfair, Mantle eclipses Trout on this list.
(1939-1951) Ted Williams’ ten best consecutive seasons, even when allowing for the gap between ’42 and ’46 due to WWII, amounts to 82.6 WAR, also shy of Mantle’s total. Williams’ oWAR actually edges Mantle’s, but was even worse on defense, leading to the overall deficit. Mantle leapfrogs Williams, gaining more ground on the WAR10 board.
(1927-1936) Despite his defensive disadvantage, being a first baseman, Gehrig’s gargantuan offensive output carried him to a 90.9 WAR10, holding off Mantle by a full high-level All-Star season’s worth of production.
(1909-1918) Ty Cobb’s ten best consecutive seasons, like Mantle, contained three years of double-digit WAR, leading to a slightly superior mark (87.8 WAR). During those years, he led the American League in batting average in each season except one, when Tris Speaker’s .386 outpaced his own obscene .370 average.
(1995-2004) While he had two distinct peaks, at first in Pittsburgh and then towards the tail-end of his career as a Giant, Barry Bonds’ best consecutive ten years all came in the orange and black, leading to an 88.4 WAR10. Barry holds off Mantle in the ten-year department, but also posted one of the greatest four-year stretches in baseball history between 2001 and 2004, when he accumulated 43.4 WAR, more than all but 38 left fielders in the history of baseball.
(1957-1966) Willie Mays just barely skims past Mickey’s oWAR mark by less than a win, but blows him out of the water on defense, as arguably the greatest defender at the same position in the history of the game. In total, Willie’s 96.9 WAR10 dwarfs any modern player’s best ten seasons on this list.
(1920-1929) Rogers Hornsby’s decade of excellence led to 93.5 WAR, again outpacing Mickey’s mark. During Hornsby’s decade of dominance, he led the National League in OPS in every season minus one.
(1919-1928) The greatest batter of all time, Babe Ruth, posted 103.4 WAR in his best ten seasons. Despite posting just 3.5 WAR during an injury-shortened 1925, Ruth more than made up for it by finishing seven of his ten seasons with greater than ten WAR, including the preposterous 14.1 he posted in 1923. Sorry Mickey, this one was over before it even started.
The final WAR10 leaderboard of selected contenders looks like this:
Due to defensive deficiencies too great to overcome anyone above him in the prior ranking without wartime service (Williams) or lacking service time (Trout), Mickey Mantle climbed just two spots from tenth to eighth between the WAR7 and WAR 10 leaderboards. Though his hitting actually improved beyond the end of his best decade, his fielding, along with his general health, rapidly declined. With a predilection for copious drinking, it’s anybody’s best guess as to what Mantle could have maintained for even longer had his off-the-field habits not unnaturally shortened his peak.
While I expected a bigger jump from Mantle’s best ten, my biggest takeaway from this list, aside from Babe Ruth’s predictably comic offensive statistics, is Willie Mays’ complete dominance over anyone remotely near his era of play. The only more recent player on the list, Mike Trout, has already fallen short of Mays on either side of the ball, and has already fallen off towards average on defense while Mays was a positive contributor on defense until his age-38 season.
Mays didn’t lead the league in any one category as often as some of his all-time great peers like even Mantle, Williams, Hornsby, or Cobb, but he finished in the top-six of MVP voting in 11 out of his 12 best consecutive seasons, and finished four straight seasons with at least 10.5 WAR. With variance being such an essential piece of the pie that is baseball, true greatness is the ability to outperform any regression with unwavering elite performance, something Mays was able to do better than any of the ten men I examined, including Mantle.
Yankees History: Mickey Mantle an American Icon and Hero
This August will mark 25 years since Mickey Mantle passed away. Those who never got to see him play and are unaware of his achievements on the diamond will be surprised to find out just how terrific a baseball player he was.
Before we delve into Mickey Mantle’s record and baseball career, here is some background information on the Yankees legend.
Mantle’s early years
Mantle was born in 1931 in Spavinaw, Oklahoma and moved to Commerce, Oklahoma as a young child. When he was a little boy, his father and grandfather forced him to bat righthanded and lefthanded depending on which one of them was pitching the ball to him in the backyard. As a consequence, he became a natural switch hitter at a very early age.
Although his main passion was baseball (he grew up rooting for the St. Louis Cardinals), the Commerce Comet was an all-around athlete in high school, playing football, basketball, and baseball. He excelled at football, and he received a scholarship from the University of Oklahoma to play halfback. However, he was seriously injured in his left shin during his sophomore year and said adios to football.
The Mick played in the minor leagues between 1948 and 1950. He initially played shortstop for the Yanks’ Class-D Independence Yankees team. During a bad slump, he called his dad to tell him he wanted to quit baseball and go home. His father immediately jumped in his car, drove to Independence, Kansas, and convinced his son to hang in there and keep playing, which he did.
He hit his first professional home run well over the center-field fence in June 1949, which was 460 feet from home plate. He was only 17 years old at the time. Those attending the minor league game were astonished to witness so much power from such a young player.
In 1950 the Mick was promoted to the Class-C Joplin Miners of the Western Association. While he hit extremely well for both power (26 home runs) and average (.383) and drove in 136 runs, he had difficulty playing shortstop.
After an outstanding spring training, Yankees manager Casey Stengel immediately promoted him to the majors and put him in right field. Catcher Bill Dickey said the Mick was “the greatest prospect I’ve seen in my time, and I go back quite a ways.” Stengel remarked, “He’s got more natural power from both sides than anybody I ever saw.”
Once again, the Mick hit a slump and was sent down to the minors. His slump continued, and he quickly grew frustrated. He once again called his dad and said he wanted to quit baseball and go home.
And once again his father jumped in his car and drove up to Kansas City to talk to his son. He told his son that he was a coward after he arrived. He also told him that if he wasn’t going to play baseball, he would have to come home and work in the mines like his dad. Presented with that alternative, Mantle decided to be patient and give baseball another chance.
The Legend of Mickey Mantle
History professors Roberts and Smith recently co-authored A Season in the Sun: The Rise of Mickey Mantle (Basic Books), from which this essay is adapted. The book traces Mantle's ascendance as an icon of the 1950s and baseball's place in American culture.
Mickey Mantle on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
Look at the determination on Mickey Mantle’s face—the resolve in his fierce blue eyes, his flexed jaw, and the hardness around his mouth. Look at the power—the prizefighter’s cheekbones, the bull’s neck, and the hint of a slugger’s shoulders. Is it the face of weakness, the look of a man fragile enough to crack into a million pieces?
Mantle’s chiseled physique looked like the ideal body of a power hitter, a creation of Michelangelo sculpted out of marble. Wonderstruck by his muscled, compact frame, sportswriters and teammates tried not to stare when he ambled through the locker room, nearly naked, wearing only a towel, his perfectly V-shaped torso, barreled chest, hard stomach, and wide back on display. Built like a lead miner, with broad, sloping shoulders, bulging biceps, and Popeye forearms, Mantle was, in baseball parlance, country strong.
Hy Peskin’s 1956 Sports Illustrated cover photo reveals the intensity and rugged strength of baseball’s most famous player. In that season—branded the “Year of the Slugger” by the magazine—his career held only great possibilities baseball immortality itself was within his reach. His physical gifts—power, speed, and agility—made it seem like there were no limits to what he could do on a baseball field.
Yet, for all of his attributes, Mantle’s biographers have emphasized his overriding weakness. Too often they have presented his life as seen darkly through a rearview mirror, interpreting many events during his baseball career as a way station along the road to alcoholism. “Mickey Mantle’s life was spent waiting for a death that seemed just around the corner,” biographer David Falkner wrote. Similarly, in her fine biography, Jane Leavy observed, “Mantle fit the classical definition of a tragic hero.”
The Colorado History Center recently displayed the "Holy Grail" of baseball cards, a 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle valued at more than $10 million, as part of a baseball memorabilia exhibit in Denver.
By the summer of 1995, alcohol-induced cirrhosis of the liver, hepatitis C, and cancer had left him a shell of the man he had been in the 1950s, when, strong and tanned, he had graced the cover of American magazines and thrilled baseball fans on the diamond. Only later would his heavy drinking define the arc of his life.
This focus ignores much of the joy of his life—the joy he discovered in the game and the joy spectators experienced watching him play. To fully understand the man, his impact on baseball, and what he meant to America, it is necessary to look at his life as he lived it, not as a study in retrospection. That means returning Mantle to the 1950s, when he became the most celebrated athlete in the country and reigned as the king of the National Pastime.
In 1956, only injuries stood between Mickey Mantle and greatness. The Mantle the fans knew—the one they saw at Yankee Stadium, watched on television, and read about in Sports Illustrated—was not a drunk. He was a latter-day legend. In the lore of Mickey Mantle, it is an often-told tale. As well it should be. It’s a story of two of the greatest players—and arguably the two most iconic—of the early post–World War II era, set against the backdrop of the excitement and pageantry of a Subway Series between the New York Yankees and the Brooklyn Dodgers, at a time when baseball was still the king of all American sports. It is fitting that virtually every book on Mantle pays homage to “the play.”
Before the 1952 World Series, Yankees manager Casey Stengel cornered his young center fielder for a lecture on the wily habits of Dodgers star Jackie Robinson. Jackie, Stengel explained, was the most aggressive base runner in the game. He was known for stretching a single into a double or blazing around second to turn a double into a triple. In a primal sense, he challenged the manhood of outfielders, calling into question whether they had the talent and the nerve to throw him out. Mickey listened, knowing he had the arm. But the nerve . . . that was another matter.
In the eighth inning of Game Three, with the Dodgers leading the Yankees 2–1, Robinson ripped a low line drive into center field. Charging down the first base line, he reached full speed in three strides. Rounding first, his spikes kicking dust, he challenged Mantle, who fielded the ball on one hop. Suddenly the game became a chess match, a test of wits between the young outfielder and an experienced, daring base runner.
Mickey Mantle poses for a photo circa 1951. Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia
Holding the ball shoulder high, Mantle eyed Robinson, who had slowed to a dance between first and second. Mickey cocked his arm as if he were going to fire it toward first, daring Jackie to make a move. Robinson hesitated, then streaked toward second. Mantle had conned him into running for the extra base and then threw him out by what seemed like half a city block. When it was over Jackie smiled and tipped his cap. Mickey grinned. He had outsmarted the great Jackie Robinson.
On the game’s greatest stage, Mantle demonstrated that he had the intelligence, instincts, and ability to make “the play.” No wonder he recalled it as one of his most treasured memories. No wonder his biographers and a legion of sportswriters have fondly recounted the episode. Some consider it one of his greatest World Series plays. As much as his tape-measure home runs, it signaled the arrival of Mickey Mantle, the Wonder Boy of the 1950s.
It’s a marvelous story. There is only one small problem with the tale. It never happened. Mickey did not bait and trap Jackie. Robinson did not attempt to reach second. In fact, he advanced to third base on a single by Roy Campanella and then scored on a hit by Andy Pafko. The Dodgers won the game and took a 2–1 lead in the series. Anyone reading the New York newspapers the next day on October 4, 1952, would have seen it recorded that Robinson crossed home plate. The following spring, writing a magazine profile of Mantle, Milton Gross, an eyewitness reporter, noted that after Robinson hit the ball into center field and rounded first base, he “stopped, stumbled, got to his feet again, and then scrambled back to first.”
The significance of “the play” is not that it didn’t happen but that it is remembered as if it did. Years later, Mantle confidently recalled throwing out Robinson. “I’ll never forget it,” he said. Perhaps Mickey confused the play with a similar one in another game. But a close inspection of every Yankees and Dodgers World Series contest that Mantle and Robinson played in 1952, 1953, 1955, and 1956 reveals that Mickey never threw Jackie out at second. It turns out that Mantle was an indifferent student of his own career. In that regard he was like his teammate Yogi Berra, who once commented, “I never said most of the things I said.”
Journalists and biographers have retold Mickey’s tale, perpetuating a mythology that started with his own hazy memories. Discerning the truth of Mickey’s world, especially during the 1950s, demands casting a skeptical eye on his many ghostwritten autobiographies and the popular reminiscences of the era. According to the conventional baseball narrative, Mantle played during a more innocent time. After he died in 1995, Sports Illustrated’s Richard Hoffer wrote, “Mantle was the last great player on the last great team in the last great country, a postwar civilization that was booming and confident, not a trouble in the world.” In the introduction to Mantle’s memoir of the 1956 season, coauthor Phil Pepe wrote of the era that it was “a wonderful time in this country when everyday life was much less complicated.”
Yet romanticizing Mantle’s place in the “golden age” of baseball and the “happy days” of the 1950s distorts reality. Only when we ask how the Cold War and the culture of New York shaped American attitudes toward Mantle can we begin to understand why baseball needed a hero like him. In the making of Mickey Mantle, context was as important as his outsized talent.
With the help of the very best sportswriters in New York—the capital of baseball—he emerged as an American icon. In the decade after World War II, when New York’s three major league teams dominated baseball, the city was still very much a newspaper town. The papers connected baseball fans to Mantle throughout the day. Drinking their morning coffee, sports fans read Arthur Daley and Gay Talese at the Times or Red Smith of the Herald-Tribune the Daily News’s Dick Young and the Daily Mirror’s Walter Winchell entertained readers on their subway rides to work the Post’s great columnists, Jimmy Cannon and Milton Gross, absorbed their attention during the ride home and Frank Graham at the Journal-American or Dan Daniel of the World-Telegram and Sun helped them relax after dinner, offering the latest gossip and baseball news. The most influential New York scribes shaped Mickey’s popular image through their writing in Sports Illustrated, Sport, The Sporting News, Baseball Digest, Saturday Evening Post, Newsweek, Time, and Look. In 1956 Mickey Mantle became baseball’s cover boy, publicized and photographed from one coast to another.
Yet the writers did more than report feats they fabricated baseball’s myths and produced American heroes. “Most mythology,” David Halberstam wrote, “is manufactured in New York about American virtues thus the mythologists are from New York, but the mythologized are preferably from Commerce, Oklahoma, or”—in the case of Joe DiMaggio, the son of Italian immigrants—“Fisherman’s Wharf.”
If Mickey Mantle had not existed, sportswriters and Yankees publicists would have invented him. And in a quite literal sense, they forged the Mickey Mantle Americans adored. Since 1920 sportswriters had helped create New York baseball legends. They transformed George Herman Ruth, a loud, boorish man, into the Babe, a jovial idol who loved children, candy, and soda pop as much as he did hitting home runs. They turned a distant, laconic DiMaggio into the incomparable Yankee Clipper, a reserved, classy paragon of excellence. They made Lou Gehrig, the reclusive son of German immigrants, into “the Pride of the Yankees,” a sentimental favorite who battled a debilitating and ultimately terminal disease with unmatched and unwavering courage.
Mickey Mantle signs the baseball card of an adoring fan, Preston Mesarvey, in Marietta, Georgia in 1988. Photo Courtesy of Preston Mesarvey
The Yankees and their supporters in the press promoted baseball stars because New Yorkers demanded excellence from the team that embodied the city’s competitive values. In 1968, Mantle’s final season, historian Bruce Catton recognized as much, writing, “The Yankees perfectly represented what might be called the New York Idea, which held that New York had and was the best of everything. No matter what line of work a man was in—finance, industry, communications, the arts, sports, or fashion—he was not really in unless he was in New York. New York made the pace it led the way, and everybody else had
to follow and like it.”
Mickey Mantle, the ball player from rural Oklahoma, was next in the assembly line of New York creations. It was all planned from his first glorious spring training camp when he began knocking the ball prodigious distances. That was in 1951, but his anointment was premature.
Over the next four seasons, he struggled to fulfill the expectations thrust upon him by the city’s hero makers. Instead of a wunderkind, he was an enigma. Fans questioned his character and determination. Then, in 1956, it all came together. After years of disappointments, frustration, and a variety of injuries, in 1956 he confirmed his greatness. It was his best season ever. He performed magnificently, pounding tape-measure home runs into the bleachers of Yankee Stadium, making crucial plays during the World Series, and winning the Triple Crown, a rare achievement that marked his ascendance as the best player in the game.
That season Mantle joined Ty Cobb, Rogers Hornsby, Lou Gehrig, and Ted Williams as the only players who had led both leagues in home runs, batting average, and runs batted in (RBIs) in a single season. During their Hall of Fame careers Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, Stan Musial, and Willie Mays failed to qualify for this elite club. This shortlist represents something more significant than the answer to a trivia question. The Triple Crown is at the very heart of baseball’s hold on America. A testament of his greatness, Mantle’s statistical feat garnered his permanent place in history. More than other sports, baseball, Halberstam observed, depends on statistics because they give meaning to the game’s mythology. A player’s “performance is not fulfilling enough,” he wrote. “It must be shown in quantified heroics, records to be set and broken, new myths and heroes to replace the old.”
And in 1956 Mantle stepped out of the shadows of Ruth, Gehrig, and DiMaggio. For the first time in his career, the sun-bathed stage of Yankee Stadium truly belonged to him. There may have been a player who had a year close to Mickey Mantle’s perfect season, but none had a more euphonious name or better looks or was so well suited for the television age. He was unlike any other baseball star in America, the realization of Bernard Malamud’s protagonist in The Natural, a blue-eyed, blond-haired boy from the heartland whose raw power and mythical purity made him a hero.
Of course, there were always two Mickey Mantles—the man and the image—and New York’s celebrity-making culture shaped and eventually eroded both.