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The Early Years of Mickey Mantle

In part 6 of this series, Jason Turbow recounts the wobbly rise of teenager Mickey Mantle in 1951, from Class C minor league shortstop to center fielder for the New York Yankees, alongside the impending retirement of Joe DiMaggio.

By Jason Turbow, July 17, 2017
Mickey Mantle’s father taught him to bat from both sides of the plate, lessons which helped the boy, in the opinion of many, to become the greatest switch-hitter of all time.

On January 6, 1951, it was announced that Joe DiMaggio—36 years old, perpetually injured, and hardly certain about his long-term future with the Yankees—would be offered the same $100,000 salary that he had received in 1950. Little effort was made to obscure that the figure was based largely on past performance, or that the marginalization of the Clipper had already begun.

The minor leaguer most prominently mentioned to replace DiMaggio was a 19-year-old from northeast Oklahoma named Mickey Mantle.

“Mantle is a shortstop on the Binghamton roster,” reported the New York Times in announcing DiMaggio’s 1950 contract, “but, in the opinion of Tom Greenwade, veteran scout, ‘might be a great center fielder.’ This means that the Yankees are looking to the day when DiMaggio hangs up his glove.”[1] So eager was the Times to anoint the next coming that their assumption about Mantle having played with New York's Single-A farm club was not close to accurate. In fact, Mantle had spent the previous season two levels below Binghamton, and five below the big leagues, with the Joplin Miners of the Class-C Western Association.

The Yankees provided tacit agreement with Greenwade’s assessment when, in spring training, they assigned Mantle uniform No. 6, an obvious progression from Ruth’s No. 3, Gehrig’s No. 4, and DiMaggio’s own No. 5. The rumors gained veracity when the Times called Mantle “the most promising young man to enter big-league baseball since the ascension of Joe DiMaggio.”[2]

The guy was a natural, all the way down to being named after Hall of Fame catcher Mickey Cochrane. Upon arriving at spring training, Mantle—coming off a season in which he led the Western Association with a .383 batting average—set Phoenix afire, hitting .402 with nine homers and 31 RBIs over the Cactus League schedule. (It was New York’s lone season in Arizona, the Yankees having enacted a temporary swap of springtime headquarters with the Giants, who set up camp in St. Petersburg.) Mantle won intrasquad footraces by such wide margins that coaches suspected he’d somehow cheated. “He has more speed than any slugger,” enthused Manager Casey Stengel, “and more slug than any speedster. And nobody has ever had more of both of them together.”[3]

Mantle would jump from the low minor leagues to make the roster, and was still trying to figure out how to transition from shortstop to outfield—not to mention big-city media pressure and an avalanche of demands from promoters and New York socialites. When DiMaggio made things official on March 1 by announcing that 1951 would be his final season, Stengel promptly appointed Mantle heir apparent. The kid was still a teenager.

On top of all that, he was sitting on a 4-F designation from the Army due to a bone infection in his left ankle called chronic osteomyelitis, the result of a high school football injury. That left Mantle’s draft status up in the air for the early part of the summer, during which the slugger was roundly criticized by a vocal segment of the fan base about what they felt was shirked patriotic duty.

Mickey was groomed to replace Joe DiMaggio, and became the Yankee Clipper’s successor in 1951. Thankfully, Mantle didn’t disappoint.      

None of it seemed to faze him. Mantle started the season in right field, alongside DiMaggio in center, and went 1 for 4 with an RBI in an Opening Day victory over Boston. Eight hits and five more runs driven in over his first six games had him batting .320, inspiring Jimmy Cannon of the New York Post to shout, “I’m all out of breath hollering it up for this kid.”[4] Mantle, opined New York Mirror sports editor Dan Parker, “hit New York like fifteen simultaneous earthquakes.”[5]

By May 18, he was hitting .316 with four homers (two right-handed and two left-handed), and led the American League with 26 RBIs. Still, Stengel couldn’t help but notice the early wear, and pinned much of the blame on the overwhelming nature of the surrounding publicity. “Here he is with all those interviews,” he said, “trying to enlighten other people about himself rather than tending to baseball business.” A ballpark is a player’s home, Stengel noted, and Mantle “ought to stay home and use it.”[6]

Mantle, however, was still only two years out of high school, and had never earned more than $250 a month. The previous winter, at home in Commerce, Oklahoma, he had received $40 a week as an electrician’s assistant in a lead mine. When he first showed up in New York he looked every bit a kid from the Plains, with a straw suitcase, cuffed blue jeans, white sweat socks, a tweed sport coat, and a wide tie with a painted-on peacock. When promoters came calling with offers of quick cash, Mickey answered.

He was given $50 to endorse a bat. He got two free gloves to tout their manufacturer, and a watch to lend his name to some bubble gum. He moved into a midtown Manhattan apartment above the Stage Delicatessen with teammates Hank Bauer and Johnny Hopp, and under Bauer’s direction revamped his wardrobe—including a $35 sharkskin suit.

“Everybody’s got a different way of making money up here,” Mantle marveled about New York. “Down where we live, all we got is mining and a rubber company.”[7]

In mid-April, Mantle allowed himself to be sweet-talked by an agency promising to secure him endorsements and speaking fees while pocketing half of the proceeds for itself. Yankees GM George Weiss had specifically counseled Mantle against such contracts, informing him that the team could set up similar packages at no cost to the player. It wasn’t until teammates weighed in on the imbalanced nature of the deal that Mantle enlisted Weiss’s assistance in trying to extricate himself from the situation. Negotiations for his freedom began in mid-May.

In 1956, Mantle won the Triple Crown and was named the American League Most Valuable Player. When he retired in 1969, his 536 career home runs ranked third on the all-time list. 

As it happened, that was also the point at which American League pitchers began to figure out the young hitter’s primary weakness: high fastballs. Already a free-swinger, Mantle began hacking madly at whatever he saw, and his numbers tumbled. He batted .175 without a homer over his final 11 games that month, and followed up with a .234 batting average through late June. After whiffing in all five of his plate appearances during a doubleheader in Boston—and being pulled before each game ended—Mantle broke down in tears on the bench.

His struggles at the plate affected his performance in the field, and he failed to reach balls that teammates thought he should have caught with ease. “You want to play?” pitcher Eddie Lopat screamed at him in the dugout after one such miscue. “If not, get your ass the hell out of here. We don’t need guys like you. We want to win.”[8]

Soon, Stengel dropped Mantle from the starting lineup. The Yankees were chasing league-leading Chicago, and he could no longer afford to carry the floundering rookie.

The manager hoped that the All-Star break would help Mantle clear his head, but in the team’s second game back, on June 13, Cleveland’s Bob Lemon struck out the rookie three times. Frustrated, Mantle splintered two bats against the dugout wall, a display that inspired Stengel to farm out the putative franchise savior to Triple-A Kansas City, with instructions that Mantle play nothing but center field.

The teenager, devastated and adrift, went 3-for-his first-18, and sunk into a state of deep depression. He called his father, Mutt Mantle, and sobbed about quitting the sport entirely. Mutt drove the five hours from Commerce to help his son pack, but the visit did not include a shoulder upon which to cry. As Mutt threw his son’s belongings into a suitcase, he castigated the cowardice necessary for a man to quit on his team. He reinforced his position by prepping young Mickey for his only professional alternative: life in the Oklahoma mines.

It was exactly what Mantle needed to hear. Newly focused, he rededicated himself to baseball and hit .385 over his next 148 at-bats, with 11 homers and 50 RBIs, and was recalled to New York in late August. First, however, the team had him travel to Oklahoma City, where army doctors put him through a thorough, three-day examination that confirmed their initial diagnosis that he was unfit for inscription. Mantle’s 4-F status reaffirmed, he returned to the Yankees with a completely clean slate.

Mantle—now wearing No. 7—was not quite the world-beater he’d been early on, but neither did he drag on New York’s lineup. The youngster batted .284 with six homers and 20 RBIs in the team’s remaining 27 games as the Yankees charged into the World Series, and then beat the Giants for their third championship in a row.

Mantle shredded his knee in Game 2, catching his cleat on a rubber drainpipe cover in the Yankee Stadium outfield while pulling up in the process of ceding a fly ball to DiMaggio. Still, he recovered in time to start the 1952 season for New York.

On December 11, 1951, DiMaggio retired. Mantle shifted to center field the following May and didn’t look back, finishing third in the American League’s MVP voting while the Yankees won their fourth—and, the next season, fifth—straight championship.

Mantle’s stats would have been even more impressive had he not struggled with injuries through his 18-year career.

 


[1] New York Times, January 6, 1951.
[2] New York Times Magazine, June 3, 1951.
[3] Mickey Mantle with Mickey Herskowitz, All My Octobers (New York: HarperCollins, 1994).
[4] New York Times Magazine, June 3, 1951.
[5] New York Times Magazine, June 3, 1951.
[6] New York Times Magazine, June 3, 1951.
[7] New York Times Magazine, June 3, 1951.
[8] Peter Golenbock, Dynasty: The New York Yankees, 1949–64 (New York: Prentice Hall Trade, 1975).

 

 

 

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