Mickey Mantle was a baseball star of the highest magnitude. When Detroit great Al Kaline was taunted by a youngster who said, “You’re not half as good as Mickey Mantle,” he replied, “Son, nobody is half as good as Mickey Mantle.”
Mantle was a multi-talented offensive threat. He drove in runs with enormous power from either side of the plate. He got on base by hitting well for average and drawing more than 100 walks in each of 10 seasons. And he scored runs with his excellent speed, stealing as many as 21 bases in a season (1959). Overall, he scored more runs than he drove in (1,677 to 1,509), a rarity among power hitters.
Mantle, out of Commerce, Oklahoma, arrived in New York in a whirl of unbridled expectations. He made headlines with great play at an “instructional school” the Yankees conducted in 1951 and then in spring training, which included a highly publicized barnstorming tour of the West Coast. Only 19, Mantle was hot, but he fizzled in New York. The Yankees sent him to their top farm club at Kansas City, but he continued to struggle until his father, Mutt Mantle, came for a visit. After the brief family reunion, Mantle lifted his average to .361 and, in only 166 at-bats, hit 11 homers with 50 RBI. He returned to New York and played alongside the soon-to-retire Joe DiMaggio, and ended up with a respectable (.267,13 HR, 65 RBI) rookie season.
When DiMaggio retired Mantle took over in centerfield, and he played the position from 1952 to 1966. To reduce his outfield running when his injuries – which were many – were severe, he would occasionally play in left or right field. In 1967-68, his final seasons, he played first base to ease the burden on his aching legs.
Mantle and Yogi Berra were the Yankees’ twin engines in Mantle’s early years (1951-55). The centerfielder and catcher each hit 25 homers per season and together produced from 150 to 225 RBI. Then, in 1956, Mantle emerged as a superstar, the greatest switch-hitter in the history of baseball and one of its biggest drawing cards. He hit .353 that year with 52 home runs and 130 RBI to win the Triple Crown. It was the first of three straight years that he led the league in runs scored (132). He received numerous awards for his accomplishments, including the Hickock Belt as the top professional athlete of the year. Mantle capped the year with three homers in the World Series, one in Don Larsen‘s perfect game, in which he also made a saving defensive play.
Even though he was not quite 5’11”, Mantle hit some tremendous home runs. He reached the gothic wrought-iron facade that hung from the old stadium’s roof five times. In addition to his widely remembered shots of May 30, 1956, when only the top 18 inches of the right-field facade kept the ball in the park, and May 22, 1963, when the ball was still rising when it hit the facade a few feet from the top, Mantle struck the same right-field facade on August 7, 1955, against Detroit; on May 5, 1956, against Kansas City; and on June 23, 1957, against the White Sox.
Born to be a ballplayer (he was named after the great catcher Mickey Cochrane), Mantle was the first power-hitting switch-hitter. He also hit for average, peaking at .365 in 1957. He was always a better hitter from the right side, but was capable enough from the left to hit 373 of his 536 career homers. He also used a drag bunt from the left side that made it nearly impossible to throw him out, and he was once clocked at 3.1 seconds from home to first base.
When slugging outfielder Roger Maris joined the Yankees, he and Mickey became known as the “M&M; Boys.” The two got into a friendly home run duel in 1961, which culminated in Maris breaking Babe Ruth‘s 60-homer record by one. Mantle had 54, but again, as happened frequently in his career, physical problems hampered him. In the final month of the 1961 campaign he pulled an arm muscle, contracted a virus infection and developed an abscess inside his hip.
During the first years of his career, Mantle was treated harshly by the fans and press in New York, but in 1960, thanks in part to the press, a different perception of him emerged. He was suddenly seen as someone who played through pain and played to win. Already popular with his teammates, he became enormously popular with the fans.
Mantle’s drawing power was due to his hitting, but when he was healthy he was also an excellent defensive outfielder. He was lightning-fast, with a strong and accurate arm.
Mantle played on 12 pennant winners and seven World Championship clubs. He holds World Series records for home runs (18), RBI (40), runs (42), walks (43), extra-base hits (26), and total bases (123). In his final World Series in 1964 he had three homers and eight RBI and batted .333.
He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1974 in his first year of eligibility.