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Pinstripe Alley Top 100 Yankees: #2 Mickey Mantle

As a player, the Mick’s achievements transcend all eras and put him right up there with the very best players in history. The legend, however, endured his fair share of suffering and pain in his life.

Mickey Mantle in Crown with Casey Stengel

Full Name: Mickey Charles Mantle
Position: Center Fielder
Born: October 20, 1931 (Spavinaw, OK)
Died: August 13, 1995 (Dallas, TX)
Yankee Years: 1951-68
Primary Number: 7
Yankee Statistics: 2,401 G, 9,910 PA, .298/.421/.557, 2,415 H, 536 HR, 344 2B, 72 3B, 1,509 RBI, 1,733 BB, 172 OPS+, 170 wRC+, 110.2 bWAR, 112.3 fWAR

Biography

Born to play baseball and trained from a very young age to be the best, Mickey Mantle was the idol of an entire generation of fans due to his extraordinary long home runs, his ability to switch-hit, and his sheer charisma and winning aura. A three-time AL MVP, Mantle won seven World Series and was the most important player on the greatest team in MLB for almost 20 years in the most successful period in franchise history.

Growing Up In Oklahoma

Mantle was born on October 20, 1931 in Spavinaw, Oklahoma. He was named after another Hall of Famer in catcher Mickey Cochrane, his father’s favorite player (Mantle often joked late in life that he was glad his father didn’t call him Cochrane’s actual name, Gordon). Cochrane was at the top of his career back then, fresh off his third consecutive World Series appearance with the dynastic Philadelphia Athletics.

Baseball was a big part of Mantle’s life from a very young age: Mutt, his father, made sure his son grew up to play baseball professionally, and by the age of five, he had taught him to be a switch-hitter. There weren’t many back then, but Mutt had a feeling that platoons would soon be popular around the game.

Mutt was a miner in the lead and zinc mines. He was very busy there for most of the day, but his after-work routine involved baseball practice with the young Mickey. The two of them would throw and hit next to a barn at home, with the company and help of Charlie, his grandfather. His mother was named Lovell Thelma.

The world got to know Mickey as a center fielder, but you would be surprised to know that he was, as a kid, a catcher according to his website. Of course, he had to be like Cochrane! He played that position at 10 years old in the Pee Wee League in Douthat. Then, at 15, he took part in a semi-pro league, playing for the Baxter Springs Whiz Kids. The circuit allowed players up to 21 years old, but Mickey was a special athlete and wasn’t fazed by the competition.

Lovell Mantle & Her Son, Mickey
A young Mantle and his mother, Lovell
Photo by Transcendental Graphics/Getty Images

He went to the Commerce High School and was a three-sport star, playing baseball, basketball, and football. That last discipline intrigued the University of Oklahoma enough to scout him for college play, but was actually the cause of the worst injuries of his career.

Overcoming Injuries And Adversity

In 1946, when he was 14, Mantle was kicked in the shin in a football practice. That injury led to the development of a severe bone infection called osteomyelitis. Amputating his leg was in the cards, but the Mantles decided to try a relatively modern invention: penicillin. That drug saved his leg, but he would be bothered by the pain for many years. That’s how, from a very young age, Mantle started battling pain and injuries. He was rarely 100 percent pain free during his playing career, and who knows what kind of numbers he would have gotten if not for that condition and for the severe knee injury he suffered in 1951, but more on that later.

Mickey’s childhood was filled with sexual abuse, mostly by his half-sister Anna Bea and her friends, according to Jane Leavy, who got the information from Merlyn Mantle, Mickey’s wife. Per Leavy, Merlyn “had disclosed it in passing, in a family memoir. And what she said was that she was not sure whether she should have mentioned it but, because it gave her the first time of feeling that she really understood her husband, she thought it was important to disclose.”

It is believed that this trauma partially shaped Mantle’s adult behavior and may have contributed to his problems with alcohol abuse.

Joining The Yankees

Back to baseball, though. Mantle had been playing, as stated, for the Whiz Kids semi-professionally when he was spotted by a Yankees scout in 1948. This scout, Tom Greenwade, was actually at the spot watching third baseman Willard “Billy” Johnson, but that was Mantle’s game: he hit two tape-measure home runs, one from each side of the plate. Greenwade came back, in 1949, to sign Mantle to a minor league deal with the Yankees after the impressive baseball talent graduated from high school. The team agreed to pay him $140 per month and gave him a $1,150 signing bonus.

Mantle began in the Yankees system as a shortstop, and while he was a horrible infielder, hitting was clearly not the problem. As a 17-year-old in Class-D, Mantle hit .313/.408/.468 with a .876 OPS and seven home runs in 89 games in his first taste of minor league baseball. The next year, in 1950, he would club 26 round-trippers and slug .638 in 137 games in Class C. He also won the batting title with a .383 average.

Struggling And Being Picked Up By His Father

The year 1951 would be full of ups and downs for The Mick. He earned a spot on the Yankees with a solid spring training and was the Yankees’ right fielder because a certain guy who was on his farewell campaign, Joe DiMaggio, was the center fielder.

Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle Holding Bats

The relationship between DiMaggio and Mantle through the years was rocky, to put it lightly. The well-behaved DiMaggio couldn’t forgive Mickey for living life the way he did and not conducting himself in a more dignified manner to the public.

Back to 1951, though. Mantle struggled badly to the point he was sent down in July. He even questioned whether he had what it takes to be a professional baseball player. His father, however, played a huge role in helping him correct course. When he was struggling in Triple-A Kansas City, Mickey told Mutt that he didn’t think he could play baseball anymore.

Mutt would show up to Mickey’s hotel room the very next day and started throwing his son’s things in a suitcase. “What are you doing?”, Mickey asked. “Packing. If you are giving up, you can come home with me. We’ll work in the mines together.” He also told him he “raised a man, not a coward.”

That was all Mickey needed to hear to snap out of his funk. He would get hot in Kansas City, to the tune he had a 1.096 OPS in 40 games, and was called back up in August. Mantle finished that debut season with a .267/.349/.443 line, 13 home runs, 65 RBI and eight stolen bases in 386 plate appearances, with a .792 OPS. The 19-year-old would go on to play in the World Series and win it in his rookie campaign: the Yankees prevailed against the New York Giants, a team that had just won the pennant after Bobby Thomson’s “Shot Heard ‘Round The World.”

That Fall Classic win did come with a cost for Mantle. He suffered torn cartilage in his right knee when he fell due to an exposed drain in Yankee Stadium’s outfield in Game 2. That injury would sap some of his legendary speed.

Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle

But there was even worse news on the immediate horizon for the phenom. A day after that injury, Mutt was rushed to the hospital and received a terrible diagnosis. His Hodgkin’s disease would end his life in 1952, leaving Mickey without his father and mentor.

Despite the tragedy, 1952 marked a turning point for Mantle. At age-20, he erupted for a monster season batting .312/.394/.530 with 37 doubles, seven triples, 23 home runs, a .924 OPS, and a 158 wRC+. He finished third in AL MVP voting, opening eyes around the league. The Yankees won yet another pennant, and in the Fall Classic, he was an absolute beast. The “Commerce Comet” batted a .345 batting average, 10 hits, two home runs. and a 1.061 OPS. He hit a key eighth-inning blast that saved the Yanks in Game 6 and homered again in Game 7.

At this point, there was no doubt: Mantle could definitely play baseball professionally. Not only that, but he was arguably one of the most powerful players in the game, routinely hitting balls at insane distances.

Another World Series triumph would be added to his resume in 1953; he was 3-for-3 at that point! That year, his OPS went down to .895, yet he was still a force with 21 home runs, 92 RBI and a .398 OBP. Some of his highlights of that year included a mammoth blast at Griffith Stadium — or out of Griffith Stadium, to be clear:

Despite finishing with their highest win output in years at 103, the 1954 Yanks didn’t win the pennant. Chalk it up to randomness or fate if you will, but they wouldn’t be shut out for long. The 1955 campaign would mark Mantle’s ascent to legendary status. He finally broke the 1.000-OPS barrier with a 1.042 mark that led the league, which he also did in walks (113), triples (11), home runs (37), OBP (.431), slugging percentage (.611) and OPS+ (180). The Yankees would return to the Series, but lost to the Brooklyn Dodgers in an exciting all-New York matchup.

The Most Valuable Player In The American League

The Bombers would get sweet revenge next year in 1956, winning the Fall Classic 4-3 against the Dodgers. That year would bring Mantle his first AL MVP award, and he was otherworldly: he would win the prestigious Triple Crown, cementing his legend with a .353 batting average, 52 round-trippers, and 130 RBI. He also scored 132 times and had a 1.169 OPS. He hit a trio of long balls in the Fall Classic triumph over Brooklyn, and the future Gold Glove winner notably saved Don Larsen’s perfect game in Game 5.

In 1957, New York would lose the World Series, but it certainly wasn’t because of Mickey. He won his second straight MVP with a jaw-dropping .365/.512/.665 line, 34 homers and a 1.177 OPS. He chipped in a nice 16 steals as well, and his 10.5 fWAR with a 217 wRC+ was roughly the same as his much more famous ‘56.

The Yankees would be back on top in 1958, once again led by Mantle. Then in 1960, he would have one of his best World Series performances: he slashed .400/.545/.800 with three homers, 11 RBI and a 1.345 OPS in seven games, but New York lost anyway.

But 1960 was nothing compared to what happened in ‘61.

The next year brought forth an incredible season for both the Mick and the Bombers as a whole. He was in the middle of the storm that was the 1961 campaign in Yankees universe. While his friend Roger Maris was the one breaking Babe Ruth’s old single-season home run record with 61, Mantle was in the race with his teammate until his side abscessed due to a, shall we say, unconventional, treatment for a flu. He still ended up with a career-high 54 dingers.

Chicago White Sox V New York Yankees Photo by TPLP/Getty Images

Mantle was the favorite of New York’s media — and his personality was loved by both the press and fans. Maris, on the other hand, was seen as the villain in the story by some and had a rough time that year despite his on-field success. The Mick himself was always quick to quash any notion that there was animosity between them. He was one of many Yankees to be frustrated with the treatment Maris received from fans and the press. Mantle might have been down for the count late in ‘61, but he rooted for Maris the whole way. 1961 might have been hell in Maris’ life, but at least he secured a place in history and the Yankees won the World Series over Cincinnati.

The spotlight was back on Mantle in 1962, when he won his third and final AL MVP award with another brilliant campaign: .321/.486/.605 with a 1.091 OPS in just 123 games. He had 30 four-baggers and also won his first and only Gold Glove award. That year, Mantle would also lift his last World Series trophy, his seventh in total, when the Yankees dispatched the Giants in seven.

1963 was a mixed bag of a year. He had a 196 OPS+ and annihilated perhaps the longest homer ever hit at Yankee Stadium high off the façade in right field, but he played in only 65 games due in part to a broken foot. The Yankees won the pennant, but they were swept by the now-Los Angeles Dodgers.

The 1964 campaign was the last gasp of glory for this generation of Yankees. Old friend Yogi Berra was now managing, and as Andrew recounted last week, the team needed a bit of a hot streak to get back into form late in the season. Mantle finished runner-up for the AL MVP with a .303/.423/.591 line, bashing 35 homers with a league-best .423 OBP and a 177 OPS+. He closed out his World Series career by setting the all-time mark for most Fall Classic homers with 18, and his walk-off blast off Barney Schultz won Game 3.

Had the Yankees managed to survive the finale, Mantle might have won the World Series MVP trophy that eluded him* since he posted a 1.258 OPS in seven games. But Game 7 slipped away, and the dynasty came to a close.

*1952 might have earned him this honor had the award existed then.

The Decline Years And Retirement

After 1964, the Yankees finished sixth, tenth, ninth, and fifth in those four last campaigns of Mantle’s career. The party was definitely over, and No. 7 almost felt like he was teammates with strangers by the time he neared the end himself. Indeed, during the game in the clip above of Mantle’s 500th homer on May 14, 1967, he had started at first base in an infield featuring Horace Clarke, Ruben Amaro, and Dick Howser.

From 1965 until retiring in 1968, Mantle would definitely decline as well as he moved to first base to go easier on his legs. On the surface, his numbers didn’t pop. But people often forget that this was an incredibly difficult time to hit, likely MLB’s worst since the Deadball Era. So this past-his-prime version of the Mick was much better than he’s often remembered. He posted a 151 OPS+ in those four seasons combined, and he might have hit .237 in his ‘68 swan song, but with a .385 OBP and 33 extra-base hits that was still good for a 143 OPS+.

Mantle was just 36 by the time he retired. But his body had been through enough between the myriad of injuries he suffered and excessive partying and drinking through the years. Despite the obstacles, Mantle was arguably the most admired player of his time. He was idolized by fans, and players envied him. His natural talent to play baseball was absurdly impressive, even mind-blowing, and his achievements are amazing.

He retired with a .298/.421/.557 line, a .977 OPS, 536 home runs, 1,509 RBI, 1,676 runs, and 153 stolen bases. The vast majority of players would die for a .977-OPS season, and Mantle maintained that over an 18-year career. To this day, no switch-hitter in the history of the game has more homers than “The Mick.”

Over his storied, colorful career, Mantle won seven World Series titles, three AL MVP awards, played in 20 All-Star Games, won a Triple Crown, a Gold Glove, and paced the American League in home runs four times.

As you can obviously expect, the Yankees have his No. 7 retired and a plaque for him at Monument Park. He is also a member of Major League Baseball’s All-Century Team and was a first-ballot Hall of Famer in 1974. Mantle was inducted with his longtime teammate and friend Whitey Ford.

Casey Stengel with Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford
Mickey, Casey, and Whitey in Cooperstown

After retiring, Mantle would become a businessman, although he wasn’t particularly successful, suffering more than his fair share of failures in that world (still, the memorabilia industry did give him some joys in his last years). He also had brief gigs as a sports commentator for NBC and also as a part-time coach with the Bombers.

Struggling With Alcohol

Mantle was never fully happy, though, and the alcohol was mostly to blame. His marriage was heavily affected by it, and even some of his sons were alcoholic. His self-destructive behavior can be partially explained by his belief he would die young. His grandfather, his dad, and two of his uncles passed away with cancer, all relatively young (some, like Mutt, before even turning 40). Mickey did ultimately succumb to the illness as well, at 63 years old.

Mantle received the diagnosis on January 7, 1994: hepatitis, cirrhosis of the liver, and liver cancer. All of them were caused by many years of alcohol abuse, and he spent the last final year or so of his life doing his best to caution people against living their lives like him.

Former baseball player Mickey Mantle (R) and son D Photo credit should read PAUL BUCK/AFP via Getty Images

On August 13, 1995, the Mick passed away in Dallas and the baseball world mourned the loss of an icon.

The tales of his “tape-measure” home runs, his on-field feats, his playoff heroics (he hit 18 home runs in October, a number of them in critical situations), and his charming, easy-going style with the press made him a true legend and one of the best players to ever step on a baseball field.

Mickey Mantle in quotes

“He has more speed than any slugger, and more slug than any speedster – and nobody has ever had more of them together.” - Casey Stengel

“A superstar who never acted like one. He was a humble man who was kind and friendly to all his teammates, even the rawest rookie. He was idolized by all the other players.” - Whitey Ford

“You could have chopped it up into 15 singles.” - Yankees reliever Bob Kuzava, when Mantle hit a ball out of Griffith Stadium that allegedly traveled 565 feet.

Mantle is the strongest man in baseball. He hits the ball so hard, he knocks the spin off it.” - Outfielder Jim Busby, 1955.

“If I knew I was going to live this long, I would have taken better care of myself.” - Mickey Mantle

“I always wondered how a man who knew he was going to die could stand here and say he was the luckiest man in the world. Now I think I know how Lou Gehrig felt.” - Mickey Mantle upon his number retirement

Staff Rank: 2
Community Rank: 3
Stats Rank: 3
2013 Rank: 3

References

Adomites, Paul, Saul Wisnia, and Bruce Cassidy. Sluggers! History’s Heaviest Hitters. New York: Publications International, 2001.

Baseball Reference

FanGraphs

Golenbock, Peter. Dynasty: The New York Yankees, 1949-1964. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, Inc., 1975

Leavy, Jane. The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America’s Childhood. New York: Harper Perennial, 2011.

Mickey Mantle website

National Baseball Hall of Fame

Ray, James Lincoln. SABR Bio

Previously on the Top 100

3. Lou Gehrig
Full list to date