“Maris & Mantle: Two Yankees, Baseball Immortality, and the Age of Camelot” is a brand-new book by Tony Castro from Triumph Books. As one could surmise, it tells the story of the two disparate sluggers from their respective youths, their rise through the ranks, their unforgettable record-breaking season in 1961, and the wear and tear that eventually brought an end to their careers.
The story of Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris is one known to Yankees fans throughout the world. As a Yankee fan of over four decades who writes about the Yankees, I certainly thought that I knew it well. Yet what I learned after reading the book is that a large portion of the legend isn’t quite accurate (to say the least), while other portions haven’t been told. “Maris & Mantle” is a highly informative and fun read that reshapes some preconceived history, while providing a few angles new to most of us.
I’ve learned from experience, that when detailing a part of history that many of your readers were too young to experience themselves, the challenge becomes framing the context. Of course, a player hitting 61 home runs is an intriguing part of baseball history, but it’s difficult to truly appreciate the tale without knowing the backstory of the characters, the circumstances of fate that eventually brought them together, and the aspects of a very different era that were part of an intricate plot. Castro does a phenomenal job of providing that context and really adds to the reader’s appreciation of both the players themselves and their amazing accomplishments.
I was fortunate enough to have a chat with Tony just prior to the book’s release this past Tuesday. We discussed a few things that were in the book, and also a few that weren’t that would still interest most fans.
Initially, I was curious about how the book came about. Mantle in particular has been covered extensively (Castro himself has written other books about Mantle), as has the chase for Ruth’s record.
“A lot of what I had on Mantle and Maris never got into any of the Mantle books I’ve written in the past,” Castro explained. It turns out that he was asked to write a book about Mantle shortly after the legend’s death in 1995, which he did. However, the manuscript ended up being close to 3,000 pages, and books of that length don’t fit on bookshelves very well. As a result, much of the content — particularly the content that included Maris — needed to be omitted. That work makes up the majority of the new book, along with the content of a Maris interview that was never used in print anywhere.
“A great deal of it had to do with Mantle and Maris and their friendship, and trying to bring a different perspective to it,” Castro added.
One of the more enlightening aspects of the book for me was learning that perhaps manager Casey Stengel wasn’t the humorous, mad genius, lovable father figure that he’s often portrayed as being. I’m not going to give away too many spoilers, but mismanagement of Whitey Ford and Clete Boyer, and excessive platooning of players who should have been playing full-time didn’t make Casey many friends in the clubhouse.
“They’ve got horror stories of being platooned under Stengel – and they have horror stories about Stengel,” Castro told me.
The book also details the backstories of how both Mantle and Maris ended up in pinstripes. Again, with limited spoilers, the Yankees scouting department engaged in some subterfuge and collusion with the principal of Mantle’s high school to get Mickey, which per Castro was “quite common – plenty of scouts did the same thing.” With regards to Maris’ acquisition, which was a story in the making over the course of a few seasons involving Cleveland, Kansas City, and the Yankees, Castro added:
“Talk about collusion – how were they able to get Maris before that 1960 season? The Yankees and the Kansas City team were in collusion for several years.”
The scrutiny that Mantle and Maris went through during the 1961 season has been well-covered, but I wondered how they would have handled it today with social media and virtually everybody having a video recorder in their pocket.
“It would have been difficult,” Castro started, “but now you have teams protecting players in ways they were never protected back then.” The Yankees’ policy to the media was that the trainer’s room and the shower were the only things off-limits; otherwise have at ‘em. They also never publicly shielded Maris from criticism and condescension from both commissioner Ford Frick and prominent former players — we’ll return to that in a minute.
Castro continued, “It was obvious that McGwire was protected from the media by the Cardinals (in 1998). That type of protection was never afforded to Maris.”
One of the criticisms of Maris in 1961 may sound familiar to modern-day fans: Whether or not players should have compact, uppercut swings in order to elevate the ball to the pull side versus simply trying to put it play to all fields. In 1961, Maris, who quite obviously favored the former approach, was on the business end of vitriol from one of the best hitters of all time, Rogers Hornsby. Hornsby stated publicly that “a hitter like Maris” has “no right” hitting 61 home runs. (“Like Maris” meant a hitter with a .269 batting average.)
When I asked Castro about Hornsby’s thoughts at the time, he said that he wasn’t in a position to judge someone’s graciousness or lack thereof, but he did add: “No, Maris wasn’t a singles hitter, he wasn’t that kind of hitter – but he did hit 61 home runs – how do you challenge someone on that? He was instrumental in bringing a pennant and a World Series to the Yankees.”
Perhaps somewhat relevant, Castro may not want to judge people, but there’s something I’ve always liked to point out: Hornsby was the best National League player of his era by a light year and in an era before free agency, still managed to play for four different teams while in his prime. That speaks volumes about how much fun he must have been to be around.
That discussion led Castro and me into some modern-day topics not covered in the book, including Shohei Ohtani (Castro lives in Southern California and follows the Angels.) Castro finished with: “The Angels are one of these incredibly mediocre teams where great talent goes to be ignored. Now Ohtani is going on record that he wants to be with a winner, and his contract is up in two years. What does that tell you? The next Yankee…” (To be clear, it was said with a chuckle…)
“Maris & Mantle: Two Yankees, Baseball Immortality, and the Age of Camelot” by Tony Castro is an enlightening and very fun read. Learning how both Maris and Mantle were viewed by their teammates and how they both handled pressure from the media and fans, was particularly interesting given it wasn’t how it’s typically portrayed. Also the impact that their respective upbringings had on their careers was particularly interesting - not in the sense that we’re all molded by our upbringings to a certain extent, but that their play on the field had much to do with how they were brought up.
I highly recommend the book. Even the most devout Yankee fans will finish it realizing there was plenty they didn’t know about Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, and the historical season they had together.