By Opening Day 1967, it was apparent that time – the undefeated enemy of all athletes – was approaching its ultimate victory over Mickey Mantle. The Yankees legend was 35 when he stepped into the batter’s box for the first time that season, and was on the tail end of a magnificent career while approaching one of baseball’s most hallowed milestones: 500 home runs. But three of his previous four seasons were marred by injury and (relative) underperformance, and it was clear the curtain was falling on Mantle’s time as a big leaguer, especially with limited motivation given the product around him. Age-35 might not seem ancient for a veteran today, but given Mantle’s lifestyle, it was an old 35.
The Commerce Comet entered 1967 with 496 home runs, looking in at an extremely exclusive coterie of players who had hit 500. Babe Ruth (in 1929), Jimmie Foxx (1940), Mel Ott (1945), Ted Williams (1960), and Willie Mays (1965) were baseball’s only sluggers who could claim admission to the 500 Club as Mantle prepared to make his charge at immortality.
It ended up less of a charge and more of a long haul. Coming off 23 homers in 108 games in 1966 — a nice pace for a player on the back nine of his career — Mantle came out of the gates in a bit of a drought as the pitcher-friendly late-’60s dragged on. After 10 homerless games to start the season, he finally knocked off Nos. 497 and 498 on back-to-back days at the end of April against the Angels’ Jack Sanford and Minnie Rojas (a walk-off shot in the bottom of the 10th). Then, on May 3rd, a solo shot in Minnesota off Dave Boswell put him one shy of the coveted plateau.
Seven dinger-free games after that meant Mantle went into May 14, 1967, Mother’s Day, with 499 career round-trippers as the Yankees prepared to face the Baltimore Orioles. The Mick came to the plate in the first inning, hitting third, with runners on first and second and no one out in a scoreless game — a great time for No. 500. Alas. Mantle had to settle for reaching via an E5 on a groundball, loading the bases. He later scored and the Yankees led 3-0 after one inning.
Mantle came to the plate again in the third and fifth innings. He rapped a single to center in the former at-bat, and popped out to first base in the latter. Then, in the bottom of the seventh with the Yankees up 5-4, The Mick batted for the fourth time, facing reliever Stu Miller. And on a full count, Mantle cashed his ticket to the 500 Home Run Club, with former teammate Jerry Coleman in the broadcast booth.
Watching Mantle, who infamously played almost his entire career after an undiagnosed and untreated catastrophic knee injury when he was a rookie, limp around the bases on that home run trot drives home what a spectacular career he went on to have despite that.
After the game, Phil Rizzuto, another former teammate-turned-broadcaster, interviewed Mantle. Asked about how he felt to have hit the milestone, The Mick told Rizzuto “It felt… like when you win a World Series – a big load off your back.”
Whitey Ford, close friends with Mantle and also at the tail end of his career, was asked if he was close to any of the other sluggers who had hit 500 career home runs. Ford responded that “Willie Mays ought to be a good friend of mine, the way he always hit me… or maybe he’d call me a cousin. I had some drinks with Jimmie Foxx in Toots Shor’s a few times, and I worked out for Mel Ott when he was managing the Giants and I was in high school, and I knew Ted Williams to pitch to. But I never met Babe Ruth.”
Exclusive, rarified air populated exclusively by legends. And now Mantle joined their ranks. Over the next few years, Mantle was joined by some others. Exactly two months after Mantle, Eddie Mathews hit number 500. Hank Aaron (1968), Ernie Banks (1970), and Harmon Killebrew (1971) also joined the club in the ensuing seasons.
Mantle’s 500th home run, at Yankee Stadium on Mother’s Day, was almost certainly the high point of a humdrum season. The Bronx Bombers finish 72-90, a distant 20 games behind the hated Red Sox, in the midst of their “Impossible Dream” year.
Mantle himself went on to finish the campaign with numbers that look better in retrospect than they probably did at the time. His .245/.391/.434 slash line might seem unimpressive by Mantle’s mythic standards, but it was good for a 150 OPS+ and he put up 3.9 bWAR. His 144 games played were his most in a campaign since his monstrous 1961 season, when he was 29 years old. Not bad for the 35-year-old Mantle, who’d played a decade and a half on a bum wheel. He played one final season in 1968, and then retired, his place in baseball lore assured. Final home run total? 536. Still the second-most by a Yankee and the most ever by a switch-hitter.
Fifty-five years later, no Yankee since has clubbed 500 home runs all in pinstripes, and it is not particularly close. Alex Rodriguez reached No. 500 in New York* but smashed 351 during his tenure alone, while Bernie Williams and Derek Jeter managed 287 and 260, respectively. Aaron Judge, with 169, is the Yankees’ active leader. I’m sure we’ll all be rooting for Judge to get to that milestone, and to do it in pinstripes. But until another Yankee manages the feat, having Mantle be the last player to hit over 500 dingers in pinstripes sits just fine with me.
*Fingers crossed that Giancarlo Stanton joins A-Rod in this slightly-varied club. He’s under contract through at least 2027 and has 143 homers to go as of writing.