As a kid, I became a baseball encyclopedia – I clipped baseball statistics from newspapers, read baseball cards, and even knew all the names of the baseball stadium. Today, with online access to anything ever known about baseball available within seconds, it’s no longer important to be such baseball nerd (or historian). Even then, however, for whatever reasons, I was not such a big fan of Mickey Mantle. Perhaps because he didn’t have the homerun record like the Babe. He didn’t have a crazy hitting streak like Joe DiMaggio. Or maybe it was simply because he was a Yankee, and I was a Giants fan.
This started to change when I watched 61, a great movie about Mantle and Roger Maris’ chase of the single season home run record in 1961.
And then last year, I read Jane Leavy’s The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America’s Childhood, a great look at the real (a great friend, terrible husband and father) man, as well as the player that he was (amazing) and the player that he could have easily been (if not for Joe DiMaggio), through both his faults and brilliance.
Here are 10 things worth remembering from the book about Mickey Mantle:
1) When he retired, Mantle’s 536 career home runs placed him third in major league history. Thirteen of them were game-ending homers. His 1964 World Series home run off Barney Schultz, a “walk-off” home run in the current vernacular, broke Babe Ruth’s series record. Ten times, he collected more than 100 walks; nine straight seasons, he scored 100 or more runs; four times, he won the American League home run and slugging titles. He collected 2,415 hits, batted .300 or better ten times, won three MVP Awards, and appeared in twenty All-Star Games. He scored more runs than he drove in (1,677 to 1,509).
2) Compounding Stengel’s befuddlement was the disconnect between Mantle’s power and his actual size. At only five feet eleven and maybe 185 pounds, he wasn’t big at all. Yankee pitcher Eddie Lopat was first to observe, “That kid gets bigger the more clothes he takes off.”
3) His teammates barely recognized him when he reported for spring training with the Class C Joplin Miners in 1950. “What the hell did you do?” demanded Steve Kraly. He looked like a blacksmith and sprinted like a cheetah. “The ground shook when he ran by,” Jack Hasten said.
4) He knew what his doctors could not— he was never the same after the 1951 World Series [his rookie season]. Straightaway, he could still fly down the line, his fanny getting lower with each step. But he knew he had lost lateral movement, the ability to change directions, to cut and run. And he didn’t tell Frank Sundstrom, the young surgeon who took the preoperative history, how much pain he was in until after the operation.
5) Yankee bon vivant Don Larsen summed up the big league ethos: “You got to have a little fun, for God’s sakes. You’re going to play in big cities and watch TV? Or go to movies? Those weren’t even invented.”
6) No one in baseball thought Mantle’s drinking was exceptional because it wasn’t. He could quit when he wanted to and “handle it”—baseball’s ultimate praise—when he had to. He always took Stengel’s preseason admonition to heart: “Son, you’re the Yankees now.”
7) Every day, Mickey would go by DiMaggio’s locker, just aching for some word of encouragement from this great man, this hero of his. But DiMaggio never said a word. It crushed Mickey. He told me he vowed right then that if he ever got to be a star, this never would be said of him.”
8) But when Mantle’s monument was unveiled in center field in 1996 at a ceremony emceed by Billy Crystal, DiMaggio actually punched him in the stomach because he failed to introduce Joe D. as “Baseball’s Greatest Living Player.”
9) He told her that often when Mutt and Lovell went out to a Friday-night barn dance, her teenage daughter, Anna Bea, babysat for her half siblings. He was four or five years old when she began molesting him, pulling down his pants and fondling him while her friends, “teenagers and older,” giggled and smirked. “They started playing with him,” Merlyn told me. “And, of course, he got an erection. They laughed at him. He remembered how embarrassed he was.” That was the only time they ever spoke about it. “It could have been why he turned out the way he did,” she told me.
10) He was more energy-efficient as a right-handed hitter but his posture, batting left-handed, was more classical. Right-handed, he stood upright; left-handed, he assumed a feral crouch. Right-handed, his swing was compact; left-handed his swing was like a storm, a vicious prairie updraft.