"The Mick," switch-hitting Mickey Mantle (1932-1995) won four home-run championships, a Triple Crown, and three most valuable player awards during his 18-year career with the New York Yankees.
Mickey Charles Mantle was born in Spavinaw, Oklahoma, to Elvin ("Mutt") and Lowell Mantle. A former semi-pro baseball player, Mutt Mantle was so fond of baseball he named his first child after Detroit Tigers catcher Mickey Cochrane. Mickey was barely out of diapers before he was practicing baseball with his father. Mutt believed that the only way to excel in the major leagues was as a switch-hitter, so he taught his son to swing from both sides of the plate. Mickey would use his natural right-handed swing against his left-handed father, then would turn around and bat left-handed against his right-handed grandfather.
Signed with the Yankees while in High School
Mantle played baseball and basketball at his high school in Commerce, Oklahoma and was also a star halfback on the football team. During one game, however, he was kicked in the leg and developed osteomyelitis, a bone marrow disease that would affect his future baseball career. While playing high school baseball, Mantle impressed New York Yankee scout Tom Greenwade, who signed him to a contract of $140 a week with a $1500 bonus—a bargain even in the days of low salaries in professional sports.
Mantle reported to the Yankees' minor league team in Independence, Kansas, in 1949 as a switch-hitting shortstop. After two years in the minor leagues, the Yankees invited him to their major league spring training camp. He earned a place on the roster, and the New York media soon began comparing him to Babe Ruth and other past Yankee greats. Only 19 years old and two years out of high school, Mantle did not immediately live up to the public's high expectations. He started slowly in his new position—right field—and was sent back briefly to the minors. Mantle's first year in the majors was marred by inconsistent play and jeering from fans both in New York and around the league. His difficulties continued when, early in 1952, Mutt Mantle died of Hodgkin's disease at the age of 39. Mantle had been very close to his father, and he took the death hard.
Mantle was moved to center field when Joe DiMaggio retired from the Yankees following the 1951 season. He began to adjust to big-league play, and in 1952 batted .311 with 23 home runs and 87 runs batted in (RBIs). That season Mantle began to establish himself as one of baseball's premier power hitters. During one game against the Washington Senators, Mantle hit a ball completely out of Griffith Stadium in Washington, D.C. Measured at 565 feet, the home run is believed to be the longest ever hit. The New York Yankees won the American League pennant and World Series during each of Mantle's first three seasons, from 1951 to 1953. During the 1952 World Series against the Brooklyn Dodgers, Mantle batted .345 with two home runs. In the 1953 Series, again against the Dodgers, he batted only .208, but hit two more home runs.
Led the Yankees in the 50s
Mantle's talents led the Yankees as they dominated the American League throughout the late 1950s. They won the pennant each year from 1955 to 1958, taking the World Series in 1956 and 1958. Mantle became a genuine super-star in 1956 when he won baseball's Triple Crown, with a. 353 batting average, 52 home runs, and 130 RBIs. He was also selected the American League's most valuable player (MVP). In 1957 he hit .365 and was again named the league MVP.
Mantle's success at the plate continued as the Yankees remained strong well into the 1960s. After losing the pennant to the Chicago White Sox in 1959, the Yankees came back to win it the next five seasons, joined by new stars such as Tony Kubek, Bobby Richardson, Ryne Duren, Bill Skowron, and Roger Maris. Mantle captured the home run title again in 1960 with 40 round-trippers, and he led the competition for the title again in 1961—the most dramatic home run season in the history of the game. By early August Mantle already had hit 43 home runs and Maris 42. The record for home runs in a season was held by the legendary Baby Ruth, who had blasted 60 in 1927. Although Mantle ended the year with 54 home runs (his all-time high), Maris hit 61 homers and established the new all-time record.
Mantle continued to excel even though his legs hurt most of the time from the osteomyelitis and other injuries. In 1962 he was named American League MVP for the third time. Although the Yankees continued to win pennants, their days of glory were waning. They lost the 1963 World Series to the Los Angeles Dodgers and were swept in the 1964 World Series by the St. Louis Cardinals. By 1965 the Yankees' heyday was finished. Mantle became frustrated with his pain and with his many strikeouts. During the 1965 season he said, "It isn't any fun when things are like this. I'm only 33, but I feel like 40." Mantle continued to play through the 1968 season; he announced his retirement in the spring of 1969.
Elected to Hall of Fame
Mantle left the Yankees with many great achievements. In addition to hitting 536 lifetime home runs, he led the American League in homers four times and was chosen as its most valuable player three times. He is one of only a few players to win a Triple Crown. He played on 12 pennant winning and seven World Series-winning teams. He still holds the all-time record for home runs in World Series play (18) as well as numerous other World Series records. As much as DiMaggio before him, Mantle symbolized the Yankees and their dominance of baseball. In 1974 Mantle was elected to baseball's Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility, an honor bestowed on few players in the history of the sport.
After retiring from baseball, Mantle pursued a business career, opening a restaurant franchise and dabbling in public relations for an Atlantic City casino. He also made appearances to sign autographs and play in celebrity golf tournaments. His experience in television commercials and small film roles led to occasional stints providing color commentary for televised Yankees games. His career and personal life had been marred by alcoholism, however.
Years of Heavy Drinking Took Their Toll
Mantle had married Merlyn, who was a bank employee, in the 1950s and had they four sons—David, Danny, Billy, and Mickey, Jr. Mantle was absent for much of their childhood, however, and had a reputation for his drinking and all-night carousing. He and his wife separated in 1988. Their son Billy died of heart failure in March of 1994 after being diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease, the same illness that had taken Mantle's father and grandfather at an early age and that Mantle thought would eventually afflict him as well. He would face a different fate, though. Earlier in 1994 Mantle had stayed at the Betty Ford clinic to treat his alcoholism, but it was too late—his liver was damaged from years of heavy drinking. He was diagnosed with cirrhosis, hepatitis, and cancer of the liver. Although he underwent a liver transplant in June of 1995, the cancer had spread to most of his internal organs and Mantle died on August 13, 1995.
Epitomizing home run power greater than any man's since Babe Ruth, Mantle's name was on the lips of every would-be slugger on the sandlots of America during the 1950s and 1960s. Mantle's outstanding abilities and courage in the face of pain made him a hero to a generation of youngsters and adults alike.
Further Reading on Mickey Mantle
Gallagher, Mark, Explosion! Mickey Mantle's Legendary Home Runs, Arbor House, 1987.
Mantle, Mickey, Education of a Ball Player, Simon & Schuster, 1967.
Mantle, Mickey, and Herb Glick, The Mick, Doubleday, 1985.
Mantle, Mickey, and Ben Epstein, The Mickey Mantle Story, Holt, 1953.
Schaap, Dick, Mickey Mantle: The Indispensable Yankee, Bartholomew House, 1961.
Schoor, Gene, Mickey Mantle of the Yankees, Putnam, 1959.
Silverman, Al, Mickey Mantle, Mister Yankee, Putnam, 1963.
Life, July 30, 1965, pp. 47-53.
Look, February 23, 1965, pp. 71-75; March 18, 1969, pp. 29-32.
Newsweek, June 25, 1956, pp. 63-67; August 14, 1961, pp. 42-46.
New York Times, August 14, 1995, p. 1A.
People, August 28, 1995, p. 76.
Washington Post, August 14, 1995, p. 1A.