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Mantle Hit Home With Power, Grace

By William Gildea
Washington Post Staff Writer
August 14, 1995

He was baseball's greatest switch hitter, a blend of offensive and defensive brilliance who was known for his titanic home runs and his perfectly placed drag bunts as well as his speed and grace in the outfield. Mickey Mantle, who died yesterday in Dallas at the age of 63, was a small-town boy from Commerce, Okla., who succeeded Joe DiMaggio as the New York Yankees' center fielder and hit 536 home runs in an 18-year career that earned him a place in the Hall of Fame and the hearts of countless fans.

Three times the American League's most valuable player, Mantle socked signature home runs almost everywhere he played and none was better known than the one he hit on April 17, 1953, at Washington's Griffith Stadium. Batting right-handed against left-hander Chuck Stobbs, Mantle hit a ball over the bleachers in left-center field, ticking a beer sign as it left the park. The ball, which was retrieved by the Yankees publicist, was said to have soared 565 feet. It was the only ball ever hit over those distant bleachers.

Mantle said numerous times that he enjoyed playing in Washington, especially on Opening Day, and mentioned several times in later years his re gret that Washington no longer had a major league team. After President Eisenhower threw out the first ball to start the 1956 season, Mantle as a left-handed hitter hammered two mammoth home runs over Griffith Stadium's 31-foot fence in center field. Those hits, which touched off a Triple Crown season, disappeared near a tree beyond the fence in center, where Mantle hit a number of home runs during his career.

What he called "the hardest ball I ever hit" was a line drive that was still rising when it crashed off the facade of the third deck in right field at Yankee Stadium on May 22, 1963. He was quoted after the game as saying: "I knew it was going places. I wouldn't have been surprised if it had gone out of the joint." Frank Crosetti, the Yankees' veteran third base coach, said at the time: "That's the hardest I've ever seen anyone hit a ball. Jimmie Foxx, Ruth, anybody."

Mantle was similarly adept at getting on base with hits that traveled merely a few feet, the master of the drag bunt. Batting left-handed, he could drop a bunt, explode out of the batter's box and streak to first as well as anyone who ever played. He used his speed to good advantage chasing down drives in the outfield, and the far reaches of Yankee Stadium provided him plenty of room to roam for his thrilling catches.

Mantle said that his greatest catch, and certainly his most important, was a backhanded grab of a long drive by Brooklyn's Gil Hodges in the fifth inning of Game 5 of the 1956 World Series that saved Don Larsen's perfect game. Mantle raced back deep into left-center field at Yankee Stadium to rob Hodges.

Mantle had great expectations to live up to. His father, Mutt, named him after Hall of Fame catcher Mickey Cochrane. Mantle's first Yankees manager and mentor, Casey Stengel, announced his arrival in the big leagues by predicting that he would be Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and DiMaggio all in one. If he wasn't all three in one, Mantle resembled each in some way -- with Ruthian power, Gehrig-like determination to play and rare excellence in center field that maintained the standard set by DiMaggio.

Mantle was the centerpiece of a bygone era when teams still rode trains, players carried their own suitcases and sluggers did not stand at home plate admiring their home runs. He ran out his homers quickly with head bent so as not to show up the pitcher. On the famous blast out of Griffith Stadium, he circled the bases so fast that he crossed home plate just behind his best friend, Billy Martin, who had been on third base and gone back to tag up before realizing the ball was leaving the park.

Mantle and Martin were as close as two players can be and well known for their high jinks, which included a raucous night out with several teammates in May 1957 at the Copacabana nightclub. A month later, the two were separated when Martin was traded to Kansas City for his part in the incident. But they remained fast friends until Martin's death in 1989.

As great as he was, Mantle himself in recent years fueled speculation about what more he might have accomplished had he lived moderately off the field. Mantle confessed that a lifetime of heavy drinking and an inattention to physical conditioning and rehabilitation from injuries took their toll on his career. At a news conference in July, after being stricken with liver cancer and receiving a new liver in a transplant operation, Mantle referred to his drinking when he advised youth: "Don't be like me."

People, particularly those who remembered him as a great player, were shocked when they saw him recently looking so gaunt and frail. He is better remembered for the short blond hair and gleaming smile of his youth, and all those portraits real and stored in memory of him swinging from a wide stance, his shoulders turned, the No. 7 stretched across his broad back, the bat fully extended. With two strikes, Mantle was just as likely to hit a prodigious home run as on any other count -- he believed in taking three cuts fully.

Teammates considered him courageous for playing despite various injuries and illnesses that plagued his career. Typically, in 1962, he hit five home runs in four games against the Kansas City Athletics despite pain from a wrenched knee.

"I wish Mantle had been in better health all his career," catcher-outfielder Elston Howard once said. "You'd have seen all the records in the world broken -- 61 homers, stolen bases, everything. It seems he has always played under handicaps."

Yet he delivered, whether it was on a clear autumn afternoon in New York during a World Series or a weekday afternoon game in Washington. On one of those occasions at Griffith Stadium in 1957, three boys slipped into empty seats in the first row next to the visitors' dugout. "Hit one out, Mickey," one called to Mantle, kneeling almost within reach in the on-deck circle. He did, batting left-handed, over the center field fence. It didn't really come as a surprise, because he was Mickey Mantle.

© 1995 The Washington Post Company

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