Mickey Mantle: On why “The Mick” will always be my most special Yankee

Mickey Mantle as with many Yankees fans was a boyhood idol. Today, he is simultaneously my hero and anti-hero. How can that be? Let me explain…

Mickey Mantle, more than the 536 home runs, and a Baseball-Reference page that is littered in bold black type indicating a category he led the league in has a hold not only on my youth but even to the day I write these words.

I never met Mickey Mantle. The closest I came was at a Banner Day event at Yankee Stadium on August 4, 1968, when a friend and I carried a make-shift bedsheet drawn on the way down the Major Deegan Expressway to get an up-close view of “The Mick”.

It was in the latter stages of his career and this Mickey Mantle was not the Mickey Mantle we were used to seeing. This man had a noticeable bloodstain on one leg of his uniform, and the days were numbered until the pain was no longer worth it.

Much like his arch-rival Willie Mays, Mantle hung around longer than he should have, finally retiring with a farewell speech at Yankee Stadium on June 8, 1969.

At that moment, Mickey Mantle was still young and virile. But no one can defy the odds.

“If I’d known I was gonna live this long, I’d taken better care of myself”

To me, that embodies the essence of Mickey Mantle. Like most of us, he was vulnerable, and often the life he lived was far removed from the veneer of the athlete we saw roaming the far reaches of centerfield at Yankee Stadium.

The definitive capture of The Mick has been written by Jane Leavy in a book she aptly titles, The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America’s Childhood. 

In an interview with the New Yorker, Leavy would later describe the difficulties she was presented with by the enigmatic personality and character of Mickey Mantle. Here is how her first meeting with Mantle began:

“He puts out his hand and says, ‘Hi, I’m Mick,’ ” she recalled. “And I said, ‘Hi, I’m nervous.’ And he said, ‘Why? Didya think I was gonna pull on your titty?’ ”New Yorker Magazine

What do you do with that?

If you are someone like me, what you do is take this episode in context and from a man who, despite his virility, was uncomfortable in the presence of women.

And for those nights of carousing Manhattan bars with his dual enablers, Billy Martin and Whitey Ford, there was this tension between Mickey Mantle the boy and Mickey Mantle, the clean-up hitter for the New York Yankees.

Mickey Mantle – My Bad Boy Anti-Hero

Mickey Mantle was not Joe DiMaggio or Derek Jeter. He never could be. Instead, The Mick, naively perhaps, put himself “out there” for all to see, even in times when the New York media went out of their way to protect and shield him from Page Six in the New York Post.

The Manhattan Posse - Ford, Mantle, and Martin
The Manhattan Posse – Ford, Mantle, and Martin

And so it was because in those times that was the way of the day. Prophetically, it was the same shielding by the media extended all the way to the White House and the escapades of John F Kennedy.

In later years, I along with many of you learned of Mickey Mantle’s excessive use of alcohol because there wasn’t a person living in New York City who didn’t want to lose an opportunity to be able to say to their friends, “Hey, guess what? I bought Mickey Mantle a drink last night”.

Mickey Mantle – you are not excused for what you did to yourself. But as a fan and more importantly, a fellow human being – I can empathize because – to err is human.

However, as it should, it always returns to the magnificence of Mickey Mantle on a baseball field.

The gazelle roaming the vast territory of centerfield at the “old” Yankee Stadium where dead centerfield stood 461 ft from home plate – that is until Mickey Mantle met with a drain pipe in the fifth inning of the second game of the 1951 World Series.

It occurred on a ball that many believe a declining DiMaggio should have caught, but no one disputes that, from there forward, Mickey Mantle played the rest of his career with a handicap that (at least) negated the lightning speed he exhibited on base.

Mantle’s “Explosive Rotational Movement”

Mantle may have been deprived of speed but no one could take away the power. Listed by Baseball-Reference at only 5-11, 195lb, Mantle hit a baseball with brute force and strength.

He saw no need to develop “loft” in his swing a la today’s power hitters. Watch in this video of The Mick’s 500th home run how he appears to lunge at the ball, bludgeoning the pitch far into the seats…

No one hits like that anymore. Mantle’s hitting technique is called explosive rotational movement. For those interested, his swing is analyzed and broken down in this video.

However, Mickey Mantle is not my hero because of what he accomplished as a ballplayer. To be sure, he’s a man and an athlete who possessed superior skills as a major league ballplayer, and he is enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Instead, he is my hero because of his vulnerability.

Do not make the jump, however, to view this as an excuse for his behavior.

I don’t, and in fact, I am angry with Mickey Mantle, in the same way, I am mad at Dwight Gooden and Darryl Strawberry for not living up to what could have been.

It should have been more. Everything about Mickey Mantle should have been more.

Mickey Mantle – To Err Is Human

But life interferes with all of us. And sometimes we venture into areas we are unfamiliar with as the young boy from Oklahoma did when introduced to the bright lights of Manhattan.

Mickey Mantle with his Dad at work as a coal miner
Mickey Mantle with his Dad at work as a coal miner

And somehow, we lose our way, and there is no one to bring us back. This can be especially true when we choose to surround ourselves with a posse of enablers.

But there is another side to this baseball story – albeit a dark one. And it comes when we realize, “Man, I sure fucked that up”…

Recall, for instance, Mantle’s difficulties began when, in 1952, his father died of Hodgkin’s disease, an illness his son was convinced would result in his death.

Mickey Mantle was wrong in his assessment that he would die at a young age. In his final years, he rued about some of the decisions he made along the way.

Nothing can come close to matching the depth of this touching and revealing interview of Mickey Mantle by Bob Costas.

My hero and my anti-hero – Mickey Mantle – and those tangled webs we weave…

If you feel my conflict, then (regretfully perhaps) I have succeeded.

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Author: stevecontursi

I am an amateur writer with a passion for baseball and all things Yankees and Mets.