Tuesday, September 18, 2012

WEDNESDAY, January 20 1974, SPORTS


Mantle of Greatness

    Mickey Charles Mantle was born with one foot in the Hall of Fame. Unfortunately, the other one was in a brace.
    If Mickey Mantle had had TWO Hall of Fame legs, he probably wouldn't have had to go through the formality of 18 big league seasons and 12 World Series. He's the first guy who limped his way to the Hall of Fame.
    Mantle probably should be in the Smithsonian, too. He may be the last of a breed, as extinct as the brontosaur — the last of the great New York Yankee myths. Mickey played most of his career on one leg — and in dead silence. I don't think I ever heard him speak above a whisper. He behaved as if a ballpark were a library. He was as shy as a schoolgirl, the only superstar I ever saw blush. He was as private as the pope.
    He was, in the words of one reporter, the Man Who Wasn't Babe Ruth. And it infuriated the fans, the press, the league, the world, the front office, the backroom. He was as aloof as a German spy. He couldn't stand to be laughed at. When he missed a fly ball or a curveball, he went into a raging, silent sulk. But he punched things, not people.
    "Mickey's got a hitting streak of 56 straight water coolers," Whitey Ford once observed.
    Mantle gave the impression on the field he didn't give a damn, that he was just waiting for the 5 o'clock whistle. But Mantle was as competitive as a shark.
    "He hated pitchers that wouldn't give him nothin' sound to hit," ruminated Casey Stengel, who managed Mantle on a more or less friendly basis, mostly less, for 10 years.
    Mantle went from a zinc mine to Broadway, from Oklahoma to Times Square, at the age of 19. "He never seen concrete before," Stengel explained as Mantle stood in frightened silence in right field at Yankee Stadium.
    The Yankee press, used to the gregarious Babe Ruth, for whom the big city held no more terror than a base on balls, resented Mantle's taciturnity and it showed in their copy. I doubt any player that great got that booed. I doubt any player that disabled got that great.
    When Mantle showed up in Arizona as a raw recruit signed for a miserly $1,100 bonus and bus fare, sportswriters retired his number before he had been issued one. "He could have embarrassed my writers if it turned out he could not hit the curveball. They had him in Cooperstown in knickers," grunted Stengel.
    Mantle's career could have been traced in X-rays. He had more cartilage and bone taken out of him than most people have. He was built like something that should have horns. He had to be careful on hunts. Even the moose thought he was one of them.
    He was a haunted figure. The men in the Mantle family, including his dad, Elvin (Mutt) Mantle, died of cancer as young men. A well-bruited story about Mickey concerns the time a TV newsman asked him what his goal was. "Forty," he responded. "Home runs?" asked the telecaster. "Years," said Mantle grimly.
    He played in a World Series once with a hole where the back of a hip should be. He tore a leg apart settling under a Willie Mays fly ball in his first World Series. "He tripped over one of them faucets out there," recalls Stengel.
    Mantle started out his career with a history of osteomyelitis, a bone disease that kept him out of the Army. He was lucky it didn't keep him out of shoes. Playing a game where you run into things with osteomyelitis is like digging tunnels under rivers with tuberculosis.
    "You'd see him, he'd go down the dugout steps and his knees would shake. But he was the greatest hitter for distance I ever managed," recalls Stengel. "The distance of those balls were outstanding. He hit one in Washington one day and they had to send a cab after it as Red Patterson — he was the club publicity man — stepped it off and he says, 'My goodness, what if it was a thousand feet?' And I says, 'What if you have to send a boat after it?' and Griffith — he was the owner of the Washingtons in those days — he put a mark up where the ball went out of the park. But he had them take it down as it was commencing to scare his pitchers."
    Mantle's home runs, 536 of them, laid end to end would probably cross more state lines than Hank Aaron's 713. Mantle struck out more times than any man. But he walked more times than any man except two.
    When he came up out of Oklahoma with hair the color of cornsilk and eyes as pale as a summer sky, the guys in the checkered vests were as glad to see him as the Yankees. Mickey bought more of those tin watches and stocks that existed only in the back pocket of the guy selling them than a guy who just came to town on a tractor.
    "It's a good thing Whitey Ford (a Manhattan street kid) is going to the Hall of Fame with him," cracked a newsman in New York. "Otherwise, Mick would try to buy it from a guy on a street corner up there."
    His bare-bones stats may not compare spectacularly with those who preceded him to Cooperstown. Baseball was an easier game before the night games, the jet port ballparks, the slider, the basket gloves, the nine-second outfielders. Besides, those guys had all their movable parts. They didn't have legs like those zinc mines Mickey used to live over (and in) — apt to cave in on you at any time. They didn't start out life as a spavin from Spavinaw. The Hall of Fame is easier to get into if you dare to slide.

Reprinted with permission by the Los Angeles Times.

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