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Bidding Mantle Farewell: A Day of Recollection

By Jennifer Frey
Washington Post Staff Writer
August 14, 1995

NEW YORK, AUG. 13 -- The flags hung at half-staff at Yankee Stadium this afternoon, and the players wore black armbands on the left sleeves of their pin-striped jerseys. Don Mattingly, the heart of the Yankees for more than a decade, delicately sketched the number seven on the back of his cap.

It was a perfect day for baseball, the sky cloudless, the sun bright, the field so green it seemed to sparkle when the players ran on to it. It was also a day on which a huge part of Yankees history passed away.

Mickey Mantle, the golden-haired center fielder who epitomized a Yankee dynasty, died this morning at the age of 63. The hero for an entire generation, Mantle won 12 pennants during his 18-year career with the Yankees, seven world championships, three most valuable player awards and hit 536 home runs.

He also inspired countless kids to beg for number seven when they signed up for Little League -- including Buck Showalter, the current Yankee manager, who today recalled how he used to stand in front of his television when he was 6 years old and attempt to emulate the great Yankee's swing.

"It's almost like a part of your childhood has been taken away," Showalter said in an emotional pregame interview with the local Yankees radio broadcasters. "I don't care if you're from the South, the North, the East or the West -- kids grew up wanting to be a switch-hitting outfielder for the New York Yankees. I know I did."

To a generation of Yankees fans, New Yorkers and lovers of baseball everywhere, Mantle represented all that was great about the game, and with his good looks and mighty swing, he seemed to be a superstar straight from Central Casting. Today, legions of his fans came to Yankee Stadium in his honor, and many of them admitted their eyes misted when they saw the message -- "Mickey Mantle -- A Yankee Forever" -- on the board on the outside of the building, where the daily schedule usually is displayed.

The crowd totaled 45,866, the second-largest this season, behind only Opening Day. Many of the spectators wore Yankees jerseys bearing the number seven, or had the number stenciled in the brim of their baseball caps. One woman plastered "7" on her white tank top with duct tape she had found in the junk drawer at home.

"You knew it was coming, you knew it," said Tracy Spellman, running her fingers over the tape on her shirt. "When you heard how bad the cancer had spread. But that doesn't mean I didn't bawl like a baby this morning. I wasn't going to come to the game today, but after that, I had to. There wasn't any other place to be."

It was a day for memories, some displayed in a pregame video tribute, some recounted by Mantle's old teammates, some shared in the right field bleachers between a father and his 5-year-old son.

Adam Till, who will start kindergarten in September, seems barely big enough to grip a baseball, and he was born more than two decades after Mantle played his final game in fall 1968. His father, and his grandfather, have told him stories about the man they, like so many others, called simply, "The Mick." Today, his father, David, brought him to Yankee Stadium to pay tribute to one of the greatest ever to play the game.

"I've never cried in front of my son before," said David, who is 45 and wore the number seven when he played Little League in northern New Jersey more than 30 years ago. "But when I saw his face up there on the screen, when I remembered what he meant to my father . . ." His voice broke off. David's father, also named David Till, died in February.

Till was not the only grown man to weep when the Yankees played a tribute to Mantle on the DiamondVision screen before the first pitch. The montage included his most famous catch -- the one Mantle made on Gil Hodges' line drive to preserve Don Larsen's perfect game in the 1956 World Series. There were clips of his famous home runs and of the speech he made on June 8, 1969, when he was honored with his own day at Yankee Stadium.

"Before, I said that I couldn't understand how a man who knew he was going to die stood here at home plate and said he was the luckiest man on the face of the earth," Mantle said that day. "Standing here now, I know what Lou Gehrig meant."

Mantle once told a reporter that he wanted the epitaph on his tombstone to read, "A great teammate." Today, several of his fellow Yankees -- including Whitey Ford, Bobby Murcer and Gene Michael -- paid tribute to Mantle's character as well as his prodigious baseball skills. Michael called him "one of the most honest people I know." Ford called him "a truly wonderful person."

And Murcer, a fellow Oklahoman, broke down three times before he was able to speak publicly about his friend.

"I don't think to this day that Mickey realized how people felt about him and how he touched the lives of so many fans," Murcer said. "I'm so grateful that I was able to play a few years with him, that we were friends.

"I think the reason people loved him so much is he portrayed the innocence of what we all wanted to be," Murcer continued. "He was a good-looking, young, blond-headed kid out of Oklahoma. . . . Today, we lost not only an American hero, but a person who portrayed the innocence and honesty we all wished for in our own lives."

Aug. 31, 1956: Even President Eisnehower was pleased to meet Mantle, in Washington before a Senators game.

Feb. 27, 1963: Mantle became the highest-paid player in the American League by signing a $100,000 contract.

Sept. 18, 1965: Joe DiMaggio, whom Mantle replaced in the Yankees outfield, joined Mantle at his 2,000th game.

Sept. 20, 1968: Mantle gets his 536th--and last--home run against Boston in Yankee Stadium.

Sept. 17, 1964: Manager Yogi Berra helped celebrate Mantle's 2,000th hit--the 450th home run of his career.

Winter 1951: An unproven prospect from Oklahoma hoped to become one the Yankee's big guns.

© 1995 The Washington Post Company

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