After an incredible career filled with triumph and nagging injuries, the iconic Mickey Mantle announced his retirement on this day in 1969, ending one of the greatest careers in Yankee history. At the time, third on the all-time home run list, and he retired as the greatest switch-hitter to ever play the game. Most will argue that Mantle still holds that title. It would be hard to present evidence to the contrary.
“The Mick” remains one of the most compelling figures of baseball’s golden age. Fans watched in awe at his majestic home runs that would sometimes clear stadiums (some experts are still using technology to try and figure out if Mantle ever hit a 600-foot home run). They watched as he battled endless aches and pains throughout his 18-year career, and yet still remained among the best in the game in the same era as Willie Mays and Hank Aaron.
Fans also watched as Mantle suffered from what was arguably his most destructive handicap. His human devotion to a reckless lifestyle likely made recovery from his numerous injuries an even taller order. Had Mantle taken better care of himself during his Hall of Fame career, we may be talking about Mantle as the greatest of all time. Despite his flaws, he should still be viewed as on of the greatest all-around players in league history.
We know about the power and the tape-measure home runs. Mantle slugged 536 career home runs, and his .977 OPS is tied with Joe DiMaggio for seventh all-time among Hall of Famers. Mantle also had speed to complement his power. His 153 stolen bases are more than any of the six Hall of Famers with a higher OPS than Mantle, and he played in an era when they simply weren’t a priority (the AL average for the league leader in the ‘50s was 27 steals). He also grounded into fewer double plays than any of those other elite players. Almost every one of those stolen bases were with some kind of leg injury hampering his full potential.
As previously mentioned, Mantle is widely regarded as the best switch-hitter in history. His career 172 OPS+ is the highest mark ever by a switch hitter, and sixth all-time among any hitters. Mantle hit a home run from both sides of the plate in a single game 10 times in his career, a more challenging feat in his era since pitchers were replaced much less frequently than today.
I know I keep going back to Mantle’s injury bug, but it only makes the consistency of his career that much more impressive. Mantle hit 30 or more home runs in a season nine times (a mark recently tied by Mark Teixeira), including a stretch of eight straight from 1955 to 1962. He also had the average to go along with his power. Mantle hit over .300 10 times in his career, including a batting title in his historic 1956 Triple Crown campaign, when he posted a slash line of .353/.464/.705 (incredibly, Mantle lost out on the batting title the following year despite hitting .365).
Mantle led the league in OPS+ eight times, primarily during the era of 1954-64, when he was the best player in the league each year with exception of ‘63. His ‘56 and ‘57 campaigns are in the conversation for the greatest back-to-back seasons in baseball history. In his prime, it was hard for anybody to eclipse the Mick.
There are enough books on Mickey Mantle to fill a small library. If you talk to any of the older generation about baseball, one of the first names they will mention is Mantle, and just how great he was. People cling to Mantle not just because of his overwhelming talent, but due to his complicated struggles with staying healthy and containing his night life. To think of what might have been for Mantle had he allowed his body to recover from certain injuries is disappointing yet intriguing.
Added consistency to his already stellar numbers would put Mantle on the Mount Rushmore of baseball’s best players of all time. Regardless of all the caveats and what-could-have-beens, Mantle still has to be in the discussion of one of the greatest all-around players the game has ever seen. That’s what made it so difficult for Yankees fans to say farewell 48 years ago today.