1995
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Mickey Mantle, Legend of Baseball, Dies at 63

By Bart Barnes
Washington Post Staff Writer
August 14, 1995

Mickey Mantle, 63, the superstar slugging center fielder of the New York Yankees of the 1950s and 1960s whose baseball feats and golden good looks made him an American legend, died of liver cancer yesterday at Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas.

His life in baseball and afterward was the pith and marrow of a basic American myth, and it reflected high triumph and tragedy. Mantle was the clean-cut country boy from Commerce, Okla. The "Commerce Comet" joined the Yankees at age 19, overcoming adversity early on and taking the big city by storm.

With a telegenic, boyish grin, an aw-shucks Oklahoma drawl and a big No. 7 across his muscular back, he became everyone's idea of what a great baseball player should look and sound like. His Homeric feats on the field and love of play off it endeared him to America. He became bigger than the sport itself.

After he retired, his celebrity status continued, and he drew large crowds to autograph shows and his baseball camps and appeared on TV talk shows and even music videos. But as a Yankees superstar, he had developed a taste for high living and good liquor that only accelerated after his playing days ended, and he eventually became a chronic alcoholic. He was treated for alcoholism, and his damaged liver eventually was ravaged by cirrhosis, hepatitis C and the cancer that led to his death.

Mantle played for the Yankees from 1951 through 1968 and was a vital element in a Yankees tradition and mystique that transcended the boundaries of sports. To millions, the Yankees stood for winning, invincibility and being the best, and Mantle, as the successor to the likes of Joe DiMaggio, Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, was a major force in preserving and enhancing that image.

He played alongside such other legends as outfielder Roger Maris, catcher Yogi Berra and pitcher Whitey Ford. Not only were they teammates but they also were friends off the field. And from the time Mantle joined the Yankees through 1960, his manager was the colorful and eccentric Casey Stengel. Mantle was one of a trio of 1950s New York center fielders immortalized in legend and in the 1980s hit song "Willie, Mickey and the Duke," along with the New York Giants' Willie Mays and the Brooklyn Dodgers' Duke Snider.

For most of Mantle's career, the Yankees dominated major league baseball, and he was considered by many the greatest player on baseball's greatest team. Mantle helped lead the Bronx Bombers to 12 American League pennants and seven World Series titles. His 18 home runs in World Series play still stands as a record.

Mantle was voted the American League's most valuable player three times -- in 1956, 1957 and 1962 -- and finished his career with 536 regular season home runs. When he retired, he was third on the all-time home run list, behind Babe Ruth and Willie Mays, and almost 30 years later, he is still eighth all-time. He hit more than .300 five straight years and hit a career high of .365 in 1957. He ended his career with 1,509 runs batted in. Ten times, he homered from both sides of the plate in the same game.

Injuries plagued Mantle throughout his career. He played more games for the Yankees -- 2,401 -- than anyone else, and for much of that time he played in pain. In the second game of the 1951 World Series, he injured his knee while chasing a fly ball when a cleat on his shoe caught on a piece of the underground lawn sprinkler apparatus in the outfield at Yankee Stadium. He missed the rest of the series and later underwent the first of several knee operations.

Despite his injuries, for several years he was the fastest man on the team and one of the fastest in the American League. As an outfielder, he could outrun a fly ball. When Don Larsen pitched a perfect game against the Dodgers in the 1956 World Series, he got a major assist from Mantle. A line drive by Dodgers first baseman Gil Hodges appeared certain to fall safely in left-center field until a speeding Mantle caught up with it, snaring the ball with a backhand catch.

Mantle was one of the most powerful hitters in baseball, but he also was a good bunter and a brilliant base runner. As a young man, he was timed at 2.9 seconds reaching first base on a bunt. He was a switch hitter, and his swing was described as ferocious. In 1953, against the Washington Senators, he hit a ball 565 feet into the street beyond the left-center-field bleachers at Griffith Stadium. He also struck out often, 1,710 times during his major league career.

"When you keep aiming for the fences, you're bound to strike out a lot . . . ," Mantle said in his 1985 autobiography, "The Mick." "Stan Musial and Ted Williams were both every bit as strong as I am. The difference is that they were always trying to meet the ball, while I always wanted to kill it. If you swing for distance, you almost have to have the bat in motion before the pitch is even released."

He retired with a lifetime batting average of .298, which was a disappointment to many of Mantle's fans and to Mantle himself. Years later, he told friends that he wished he'd retired after the 1964 season, his last year of greatness, when he batted .303 and hit 35 home runs. Had he left the game after that season, Mantle's career batting average would have been well over .300. But his last four years were not good ones. His legs hurt. His knees hurt. And his batting average sank.

In February 1969, Mantle reported for spring training with the Yankees intending to play for one more season. But on March 1, he announced his retirement. "I can't play anymore," he said. "I don't hit the ball when I need to. I can't steal when I need to. I can't score from second when I need to. . . . I never wanted to embarrass myself on the field or hurt the club in any way or give the fans anything less than what they are entitled to expect from me."

Five years later, in 1974, he was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Mickey Charles Mantle was born Oct. 20, 1931, in Spavinaw, Okla. He was named for Mickey Cochrane, the great hitting catcher of the Philadelphia Athletics and the Detroit Tigers. His father, Mutt Mantle, was a lead and zinc miner who had played semiprofessional baseball, and his grandfather Charles Mantle had played baseball on a mining company team.

The two men drilled the boy in the fundamentals of baseball from an early age, and it was at their insistence that he learned to be a switch hitter. By the time young Mickey was a teenager, he was playing baseball 12 to 14 hours a day, day after day. At high school in Commerce, where the family had moved when he was 4, Mantle played on the football, basketball and baseball teams.

During a football practice in 1946, he was kicked in the left shin while carrying the ball, an accident that caused a chronic bone infection called osteomyelitis. At one point, Mantle's doctors thought his leg might have to be amputated, but Mantle's family refused to consider that, and the condition was arrested after several operations. It would cause his draft board to reject him four times as physically unfit for military service.

While still in high school, Mantle also played baseball for a team called the Whiz Kids in a league for players younger than 21. He was noticed by a scout for the Yankees' organization named Tom Greenwade, who signed him to a minor league contract the day he graduated from Commerce High School. He received a $1,150 signing bonus and a salary of $140 a month to play for the Independence, Kan., team in the Class D Kansas-Oklahoma-Missouri League.

Two years later, as a 19-year-old shortstop, he joined the Yankees at spring training, widely publicized and eventually heralded as the replacement for the aging DiMaggio. Stengel, the manager, called him "my phenom." In spring training that year, he hit several monumental home runs, including one against the University of Southern California that was said to have traveled more than 600 feet. That only fueled the already intense media interest.

At shortstop, Mantle was an atrocious fielder, so the Yankees switched him to the outfield, where he began the 1951 season. After slumping badly, he was sent down to the Yankees' farm club at Kansas City, Mo., but he returned to the Yankees near the end of the season and ended with a .297 batting average and 13 home runs in 96 games. He was in the starting lineup for the World Series against the Giants and played until he injured his knee in the second game.

The day after that momentous game, Mantle's father accompanied the young outfielder to the hospital. Mutt Mantle, then in his late thirties, told his son to rest his knee by leaning on him as they entered the hospital. Mantle's father collapsed under the weight, both men crashing to the pavement in pain.

Hospitalized in the same room, the outfielder was treated for torn knee ligaments and the father was diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease, which killed him less than a year later. Mickey Mantle's grandfather and an uncle both had died young of the same ailment, and in his thirties he also would lose a son to Hodgkin's. Mantle admitted that he always feared that he, too, would die young of Hodgkin's.

He once spoke of the pain of losing his father. "I was devastated, and that's when I started drinking," he said. "I guess alcohol helped me escape the pain of losing my dad."

The next year, his first full season as a Yankee, Mantle hit .311 with 23 home runs in 142 games. Four years later, in 1956, he won the first of his three most valuable player awards and also captured the Triple Crown by leading the American League in batting, at .353; in home runs, with 52; and in runs batted in, with 130. He was MVP the next year, also, batting .365.

In 1961, Mantle and Maris battled each other for the home run title, with Maris winning and breaking Ruth's record, with 61. Mantle hit 54 home runs that year, his career best. The 1961 team set a major league record with 240 home runs and included six players who hit 20 or more.

Off the field, he developed a reputation as a late-night carouser, which he later admitted had likely shortened his career. In his dealings with the public, he could be gracious or callous, depending on his moods. Jim Bouton, a pitcher with the Yankees in the early 1960s, described Mantle in his book "Ball Four" as equally capable of shoving autograph-seeking children out of his way or taking time to mingle with, talk to and sign autographs for hundreds of admirers.

In retirement, Mantle participated in managing a variety of businesses, including restaurants and clothing stores. In 1983, baseball's commissioner, Bowie Kuhn, banned him from baseball for doing public relations assignments for an Atlantic City casino. Two years later, Kuhn's successor, Peter Ueberroth, reinstated Mantle. Early in 1994 -- warned by doctors that his next drink might be his last -- Mantle checked himself into the Betty Ford Center in Rancho Mirage, Calif., for a 28-day program of rehabilitation from alcohol abuse. He later wrote about that experience in a cover story for Sports Illustrated magazine. "God gave me a great body to play with, and I didn't take care of it. And I blame a lot of it on alcohol," he declared.

After leaving the Betty Ford Center, Mantle remained sober, but the damage to his body from years of heavy drinking had been done. He developed liver cancer, and a long-dormant hepatitis C infection flared up. On June 8, he underwent a liver transplant, which appeared to have been successful.

Early in August, the cancer from Mantle's diseased liver was detected in his lungs, and he was readmitted to Baylor Medical Center. Doctors soon discovered that it had spread to other parts of his body. Drugs he had taken to prevent his body from rejecting the new liver had weakened his immune system, making it easier for the cancer to spread, doctors said.

At a news conference several weeks before his death, the man idolized by millions for his grace and power expressed remorse for his years of heavy drinking. He declared that he was no role model for America's youth. "Don't be like me," he warned.

Survivors include his wife of 43 years, Merlyn, of Dallas; and three sons, Danny, David and Mickey Jr.

© 1995 The Washington Post Company

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