Matt Musico is a college counselor by day and baseball writer by night. He's enjoyed writing about sports for the past 10 years, even though he's mostly talking about the Mets. Find him on Twitter @mmusico8 to talk baseball.
“Mickey Mantle was baseball.”
It’s Game 3 of the 1964 World Series. The New York Yankees and the St. Louis Cardinals entered the tilt tied at one victory each. The winner of this game walks off the field with the momentum, the upper hand, the Fall Classic mojo.
Heading into the ninth inning, the game’s knotted up. The Yanks should’ve been leading. But they weren’t.
Thanks to Mickey Mantle.
To fans, teammates, and opponents alike, the Mick is still a living legend. After all, he’s an MVP, a Triple Crown winner, a five-tooler, a guy who frightened pitchers, baffled managers, and entranced anybody who’d ever had the good fortune to see him perform.
But that was then. Now, today, in October of 1964, the Oklahoma-bred superstar isn’t quite as scary as he was even two years prior, thanks to a myriad of injuries that left his lower body a mess. From his head to his belly, Mantle is (more or less) a teenager; from the waist down, he’s an old man. His ravaged legs are why this crucial World Series game is tied, because good ol’ number 7 had let a routine ground ball go through his wickets. He’s embarrassed, pissed, and aching to clean up his mess.
It isn’t like Mick and his crew haven’t been here before. For Mantle and the Yanks, playing in the World Series almost a given. Between Mantle’s rookie season in 1951 and 1964, there were only two years in which the Yankees weren’t seen in the Fall Classic—1954 and 1959—and of those 12 appearances, they won seven. Dynasty, thy name is Bronx Bombers.
Mick was one of the main reasons—if not the main reason—this iteration of the Yanks was so dominant in the postseason. To this day, Mantle holds a handful of the juiciest World Series records, among them most home runs, most RBI, and most runs scored. Here in 1964, yeah, Mantle is still one of the game’s premier sluggers, but those injuries have turned him into just another player. A really, really good just-another-player, mind you, but he isn’t the celestial being who’d destroyed pitchers for over a decade.
Still, the man they call the Commerce Comet was a proud, proud person, and that error gnawed at him. But baseball is baseball, and in baseball, you always have a chance. And if anybody know about chances, it was Mickey Mantle.
So it’s the bottom of the ninth inning, and Mick is in the dugout, jonesing to make something happen. Yankees pitcher Jim Bouton tells us what happened next:
“[Mantle] was standing there with the bat on his shoulder watching [relief pitcher] Barney Schultz. His warm-up pitches were coming in about thigh high and breaking down to the shin, to the ankles—two or three in a row. Mickey said, ‘I’m gonna hit one outta here.’ It wasn’t a big announcement. He wasn’t like that. He wasn’t a grandstander. He understood that Barney Schultz was the wrong guy for them to bring in.”
Cards catcher Tim McCarver knew Mantle wasn’t MANTLE anymore— “[He was] a shell of the guy that he once was. I could even hear him groaning on some swings. A swing and a miss were real bad,” said the backstopper—but McCarver was also aware that there was still plenty of magic left in that bat. “Squatting just a few feet from where he stood,” McCarver said, “you could just feel the power resonating from him. When he hit in the cages before a game, you stopped what you were doing and you watched. You stopped playing catch. You stopped running. You stopped stretching. You stopped doing a lotta things. And when he was through, you resumed whatever you were doing.”
To recap: Mantle’s in the box, pride wounded and legs aching. Schultz is on the mound, hoping to fool Mantle with his knuckleball. McCarver’s behind the plate, quaking in his spikes…especially when he gets a gander of Schultz’s first knuckler.
“Nothing good was gonna come of this pitch,” McCarver winced. “There are a lotta pitches that don’t do anything during the course of a game. There are fastballs that aren’t fast. There are fastballs that are meant to hop in on a lefthander and they don’t hop. There are breaking balls that are meant to break and guys pop ’em up, foul ’em back, or pull ’em foul, or hit ’em for a single, or hit ’em for a home run. But nothing like this.”
There’s little that makes a batter happier than seeing a knuckleball that doesn’t knuck. The pitch was so damn slow that Mick probably has a chance to run figure out his postgame dinner plans before it crosses the plate.
But it never crosses the plate.
As the ball floats towards him, Mick’s eyes probably widen. He might’ve even let a smile cross his lips. He turns his hips and shoulders just so and swings that magical swing.
Boom, walk-off dinger, game over, mic drop, Mantle out.
It was awesome. But for the Yankees, the remainder of the 1964 World Series itself wasn’t.
In past seasons, when Mantle was healthy—or at least healthier than he is now—the Yanks likely would’ve held on to the Series lead. In 1964, not so much. St. Louis won it in seven, and that’s when things started to go downhill for both Mantle and the Bombers.
In 1965, despite being favored to again take pennant, the Yankees finished 25 games out of first. Mantle, as usual, appeared in the All-Star Game, plus he finished 25th in AL MVP voting, but most of those All-Star and MVP votes were likely for sentiment’s sake, as he only suited up for 122 games and hit a blah .255/.379/.452. In the midst of that tumultuous 1965 season, the Mick, recalling the big-as-a-watermelon Schultz knuckleball and the ensuing dinger, told one of his teammates, “I shoulda quit right there.”
But he didn’t. Because if there was a ballfield, Mickey Mantle wanted to be on it.
“No man in the history of baseball had as much power as Mickey Mantle. No man.”
-Billy Martin, former MLB manager
“Somebody once asked me if I ever went up to the plate trying to hit a home run. I said, ‘Sure, every time.’”
Mickey Charles Mantle was great at many things on the baseball diamond, but nothing topped his ability in the batter’s box. He was one of the best switch-hitters to ever play the game—if not the best—racking up 536 home runs in his 18-year career. And those jacks were legit. He rarely got cheated out of hitting a tape-measure shot.
Case in point, his first home run as a professional baseball player. It was June 30th, 1949, and Mantle was playing for the Class-D Independence Yankees, a member of the creatively-named Kansas-Oklahoma-Missouri League. Mantle knocked his maiden round-tripper at Shulthis Stadium, the Yankees’ home park. The ball he torched went over the centerfield fence, a whopping 460-ish feet away from the batter’s box.
Once he made it to The Show, fans and teammates didn’t have to wait long enjoy Mantle’s absurd power, as he made jaw-dropping home runs a regular part of his routine. To that end, he’s the player who begat the term “tape-measure home run,” when, in 1953, the Yankees’ traveling secretary literally measured a 500-plus foot Mantle moon shot in Washington D.C. Mantle also hit a ball that cleared the right-field roof at the old Tiger Stadium, along with banging the third deck façade of Yankee Stadium on multiple occasions.
Little wonder he appeared in All-Star games in all but two years of his career, and won three American League MVP’s. His number 7 sits retired in Monument Park at Yankees Stadium, and he was a first-ballot Hall of Famer.
As phenomenal as his numbers were, his teammates were equally impacted by his presence, both on the field and in the clubhouse. One-time Yankee Clete Boyer described Mick as a “…celebrity in his own clubhouse” raving that he was, “…super in everything.”
Mantle was a celeb from the get-go. When the then-19-year-old debuted for the Yankees in 1951, he appeared in 96 games and collected 386 plate appearances for yet another World Series winner. (Fun fact: One of the biggest differences between rookie Mick and veteran Mick was his number. In year one, Mantle wore number 6, as veteran Cliff Mapes owned 7.) Mantle played 1,742 of his 2,290 career games as a center fielder, but only three of those CF games were in ’51, as Joe DiMaggio was still patrolling the middle of the outfield.
Among the many things Mantle did consistently for the Yankees was suit up to play on a daily basis. His 2,401 career games played for New York were most in the organization from the time he retired in 1968 up until Derek Jeter passed him in 2011.
Considering how many games he played, it may seem incongruous to say, “Mantle had trouble staying on the field.” But he did. Big trouble.
“Always within Mantle is the knowledge that any game he plays could be his last – one throw, one swing, one slide could write the end of his major league career. Yet Mick players every game to the hilt, a tremendous tribute to his courage.”
– Tom Meany, Hall of Fame sportswriter
“He was the best one-legged player I ever saw.”
“I always loved the game, but when my legs weren’t hurting it was a lot easier to love.”
You can’t tell Mickey Mantle story without discussing his injuries. You just can’t. To wit:
- 1947: Osteomyelitis of the left ankle
- 1951: Cartilage operation to the right knee
- 1952: Second right knee operation
- 1955: Pulled right thigh muscle
- 1956: Tonsillectomy/sprained left knee
- 1957: Injured right shoulder
- 1959: Fractured right index finger
- 1961: Abscess of right hip
- 1962: Undefined left knee injury
- 1963: Rib cage injury/broken left foot metatarsal bone
For Mantle, pain was an issue from birth. Mantle dealt with an infantile paralysis that weakened his legs, and then in 1947, he was diagnosed with Osteomyelitis, a chronic bone infection that impacts the ankle and shin. Neither ailment prevented him from signing with New York right after graduating high school, but there was undoubtedly some concern from the Yankee brass.
After the injuries began piling up, Mantle said,
“Hitting the ball was easy. Running around the bases was the tough part.”
That was quantified by the fact that he stole 153 bases in his career, but just 29 of those came after he turned 30.
Arguably his most devastating injury came in Game 2 of the 1951 World Series against the New York Giants. Willie Mays (also a rookie—it was a good year for young ballplayers) hit a rocket to right. While giving chase, one of Mantle’s spikes got caught in a drainpipe covering and rrrrrip, there went his right knee. Brutal.
As if the Baseball Gods needed to pile on more obstacles, Mantle needed another operation on that same knee the following year. So by the time Mantle entered his age-21 season in 1953—when he should’ve been in the best shape of his life—he was already hobbled.
But that didn’t stop him. Hell, based on what he did between 1955-62, it might not have even slowed him down.
During this eight-year span, Mantle averaged 45 home runs, 113 RBI, and 113 runs scored per 162 games played. (Averaged!) (Did we say averaged?) (Yeah, well we’ll say it again: Averaged!) And he did it all with a sparkling .315/.445/.616 line. He won back-to-back MVPs in 1955 and 1956, and in the ’55 campaign, he became Major League Baseball’s 12th Triple Crown winner. And even while playing on just one leg, Mantle’s 536 career dingers had placed him third on the all-time list at the time of his 1969 retirement.
Baseball fanatics of a certain age have had dozens, if not hundreds of “What if Mantle had remained healthy” discussions, but they’re unnecessary. The Mick was a one-legged wonder, and that’s good enough.
“When I was growing up, I wanted to be a baseball player for the New York Yankees. Mickey Mantle was my hero.”
-Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys
Whether they know it or not, today’s MLB players sit under Mickey Mantle’s shadow.
Mike Trout has garnered Mantle comparisons since breaking into the league, and Bryce Harper has said time and again that he constantly tries to emulate The Mick. Whenever a hitter jacks a tape-measure dinger that surpasses 500 feet, Mantle’s name is brought up, along with the legend of his 600-plus foot homer in Detroit. And when Josh Hamilton tried to hit a ball literally out of the stadium during the 2008 Home Run Derby, was again discussed.
Those players who do worship at the mantle of Mantle tend to play the game more subtly. Mick once said, “After I hit a home run I had a habit of running the bases with my head down. I figured the pitcher already felt bad enough without me showing him up rounding the bases.” The guy wouldn’t have flipped a single bat. Ever.
Major League Baseball hasn’t seen a true legend enter the league since Mantle hung up his spikes. His otherworldly talent, his ability to play thorough pain, his obsessive desire to be the best, his on-field humility, and the manner with which he related to his teammates all added up to an entity the likes of whom will never be seen again.