It was 17 years ago today that the baseball world lost the legendary Mickey Mantle. Mantle was 63-years-old and suffering liver cancer from all the years of alcohol abuse at his time of death in 1995.
Mickey Charles Mantle was born October 20, 1931 in Spavinaw, Oklahoma. Mickey’s father, Elvin Mantle, better known as “Mutt”, was a big baseball fan, and named Mickey after the Hall of Fame catcher Mickey Cochrane.
As a teenager, Mantle played football, baseball, and even Basketball at Commerce High School in Commerce, Oklahoma. His dreams of being an athlete were almost shattered at a young age. Mantle was kicked in the shin during a game and his leg became infected with osteomyelitis, and nearly had to be amputated. Luckily, they were able to treat Mantle’s leg with penicillin.
In 1948 a New Yankees’ scout named Tom Greenwade had come to Baxter Springs to watch a teammate of Mantle’s play. In the game Mantle hit three home runs, which got the attention of Greenwade and the Yankees. In 1949 the Yankees signed Mantle for a $140 dollars per-month, with a $1,500 dollar signing bonus.
Mickey quickly went through the Yankees farm system, and by 1951 was making his debut in Yankee pinstripes. Mantle had a rough start to his career. So much pressure was put upon the 19-year-old shoulders. He was supposed to be the next Babe Ruth, who had power from both sides, had speed like a gazelle, and was going to be the heir apparent to the aging Joe DiMaggo. The Yankees were so confident in the young Mantle’s skills they gave him the number six, so when he retired they could have Ruth’s number three, Lou Gehrig’s number four, and DiMaggio’s number five, and Mantle’s number six all in numerical order.
Mickey struggled so much he was sent down by mid-season and was thinking about giving up baseball. Calling his father for comfort, telling Mutt he didn’t think he could play baseball. His father showed no remorse. He went to pick up Mickey from his hotel telling him he thought he raised a man, not a coward. Telling Mickey about the life in the lead mines. His words hit home. By the end of the season Mantle was back up in the big leagues. Now sporting the number seven across his big back.
In the 1951 World Series, the Yankees were playing the New York Giants. Manger Casey Stengel had told Mantle to help the aging DiMaggio out in the outfield. Another rookie outfielder, Willie Mays, hit a fly ball between Mantle and DiMaggo. The speedy Mantle made a dash for the ball but at the last second DiMaggo called Mantle off. Trying to not crash, Mantle stopped but got his leg caught up in an exposed drain pipe and blew out his knee. The first of many injuries.
In 1952 the star was born. DiMaggo had retired, and Mantle had taken over the team. Hitting .311 with 23 HRs and 87 RBIs in his first full year.
During the 1950′s, Mantle would hit 280 home runs, collect 841 RBIs, a Triple Crown and two MVP’s before the turn of the decade in 1960. By the start of the 60′s Mantle was at his peak. In 1960 he hit 40 home runs, batted .275 and drove in 94 RBIs, while finishing second in the MVP voting to teammate Roger Maris.
In 1961 the league had expanded, and added eight more games. With expansion teams, and lack of talent on some teams, there was a great shot for Mickey and Maris to both break Ruth’s single season home run record.
Maris and Mantle had one of the greatest home run chases of all time. Mantle had hit 54 home runs before injuries claimed the rest of his season by late 61′, but Maris, under the pressure of disgruntled Yankee fans and New York media, beat the Babe’s record. But did not do it in the allowed time commissioner Ford Frick had set. Which lead to the asterisk, that was later removed in the 90′s.
By the mid 1960′s, years of injuries and drinking had caught up with Mantle and he called it a career in 1969. Mantle finished with 536 home runs (most ever by a switch hitter), 20 All Star appearances, seven World Series titles, three MVP’s, and a Gold Glove. The Yankees retired his number in 1969, and five years later was enshrined into the baseball Hall of Fame.
By his career end, Mantle had become a hero, a legend, to Yankee and baseball fans everywhere. His career inspired thousands of baseball players. Even though the Mick has been gone for 17 years now, his name is a still a house hold name that is known by every baseball fan, no matter what team you root for.
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