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The Post's Shirley Povich

Shirley Povich Tribute

  Mantle's Critics Swing, Miss

By Shirley Povich
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, June 19, 1995; Page C01

The stories haven't been fair to Mickey Mantle. Here the poor guy is, in deep crisis in a Dallas hospital; one of the greatest ballplayers of all time, badly diseased and with death's door ajar, and relying now on the last roll of the dice, a liver transplant that may or may not work. Often it doesn't.

And what is being said about him? That he was one of the biggest baseball drunks of all time, and yes, he was not always friendly to kids, including his own, and he did louse up his family somewhat and — draw your own conclusions — he wasn't a nice guy. In other words, what a bum, they said.

That was the drift of so much written about him. The shame here, and the regret, is that two of the many borderline to-hell-with-Mickey Mantle pieces appeared consecutively in The Washington Post. Why?

Why at this time dwell on the dark side of Mickey Mantle, particularly since he had denied none of this in a full confession of his career weaknesses and misbehavior in a Sports Illustrated article last year? He hadn't ducked it. It wasn't exactly news anymore after his own bare-all gutsy admissions.

Where was the appreciation of Mickey Mantle's exciting contributions to the game on the playing field, particularly his eminence with his bat with all those pennant-winning Yankees teams? His many spectacular deeds that made him a super performer for most of 20 years are rating no priority for those writers who denounced his drunken binges.

And now the talk shows and others have made a big deal of the preference Mantle got on the waiting list for a liver transplant; how they promoted him to the top of the list. Ye Gods, did Mickey have anything to do with that? Was this desperately sick man able to prevail on his doctors and the whole organ transplant apparatus to jump in front of the others? At this point Mickey was virtually on life support.

It was long known that country boy Mickey Mantle couldn't cope with life in the Yankees fast lane in matters not connected with his bat or his glove; he never was an intellectual giant.

Let me repeat the lead on a story I wrote for the Saturday Evening Post issue of Feb. 2, 1957:

"On that April 1 day in 1951 when Mickey Mantle arrived in New York for the first time he was an unsmiling and suspicious 19-year-old who detrained from the South with the rest of the New York Yankees. And already he was being acclaimed as the new wonder boy of the Yankees, called up from Joplin, Mo., where he hit .383 with 26 big home runs. . . .

"But the rookie was also remembering bits of a going-away advice he had from home folks in Commerce, Okla.: The big city is full of traps for country boys,' they told him. Don't talk to strangers.'

"Yet one week later in a New York hotel lobby there was this man saying he could help Mantle get very rich from endorsements and personal appearances. Then Mickey bought what was a version of the Brooklyn Bridge reincarnate. He signed his name to a curious document in which he acquired 50 percent of himself. The other 50 percent of his earnings outside of his baseball salary was delegated to his personal representative."

Mickey was years getting unhooked from that one.

In a later year Mickey Mantle bought 100 shares in an Oklahoma insurance company at a cost of $3,500. But the company had one glaring weakness. It was nonexistent, and Mantle again was the chump. All of this is being noted to record that Mantle was often afflicted with an economy of good judgment that led him into so much of his tsoris.

I was Mickey Mantle's friend. We golfed. As a baseball beat writer I traveled with him on those Yankees trains in the years of all those pennants. I knew his weaknesses, and it often came through that he did want to be a nice person. I knew his drinking companions — among them Whitey Ford and Billy Martin.

Unlike Mantle, the country boy from small-town Oklahoma, they didn't fall into the same prolonged traps that captured Mickey. Whitey Ford and Billy Martin had the city smarts. Unlike Mickey, they were aware the drinking was not a way of life, to begin the next binge before Bacchus was back in the bottle. They could quit, he couldn't and would pay for it dearly. Mickey Mantle had given all of the writers and columnists so much to write about in his 18 years with the Yankees. Why didn't it occur to them to emphasize that for 18 years this guy who won so many games for the Yankees, who hit the ball farther than all the players of history except Babe Ruth, was baseball's rare example of physical courage.

For 18 years, he played hurt. In deep pain. Consider it.

Not a day when he took his glove to center field or his bat to the plate that Mickey Mantle was not spavined by one damaged knee or the other, or by a formerly broken foot that visited him with some old pains, or by a calf that was ripped on a high school football field back in Oklahoma. Another of his companions was the gnarled hamstring, almost ever-present. He had that arrested case of osteomyelitis that set in early in his career but kept breaking jail.

To understand how much Mantle was contorted by pain, yet kept playing, is to listen to the medical report of the Yankees' team physician, Sidney Gaynor:

"1951, right knee cartilage operation; 1952, right knee again; 1954, knee cyst removed; 1955, pulled groin muscle; 1956, left knee sprained; 1957, right shoulder injury; 1959, broken finger; 1961, hip abscess; 1962, left knee injury; 1963, broken metatarsal bone left foot; 1965, right shoulder surgery, right elbow and left knee injuries."

Also for more than the last 10 years Mickey played with elastic bandages wrapped around his right leg from mid-calf to upper thigh, and in the last few years he wrapped his left leg in the same way for support.

Gaynor was asked whether Mickey was "brittle."

"No. It was just the demands he made on himself. He wanted to play every day and he'd minimize things to get to play."

Didn't some of this deserve mention in the hour of Mantle's desperation to stay alive, ahead of all the carping about his longtime battle with the bottle? So many of his injuries were by invitation, his own, so great were these surges he gave to the game while running down fly balls, or chugging from the batter's box to first base in 3.1 seconds, a landmark clocking.

He could run. That was an anomaly. When did it ever happen, before Mantle, that the biggest hitter on any team, the guy who hit the farthest in the league, was also the fastest man on his team and its best bunter? Never.

A Mantle specialty was the drag bunt that let him break from the left side of the plate. The drag bunt is an art of the game and none captured it like Mickey. You lay it down to a spot that gives both the pitcher and the first baseman a fit. Who fields it? No matter. They wouldn't get Mickey, who was already surging toward the bag.

When did Mickey Mantle bunt? Whenever he felt like it. From Casey Stengel he had a blank check. Bunt when you feel like it. Drag bunting on the count of 3 and 2 when a foul tip would get you out was rejected as a tactic until Mantle made it one of his specialties. You could do it if you had Mickey's supreme ability to do it.

Could Mantle play the outfield? When Joe DiMaggio quit and Mickey took over in center field there was no lowering of standards. What a compliment. Maybe he didn't quite have DiMag's arm, but he had more than Joe's speed. He, too, could outrun a fly ball.

For many years a thought has occurred to me. I covered Willie Mays's great catch of that steamer Vic Wertz hit in the 1954 World Series. Mays took one look at that zinger toward deepest center in the Polo Grounds, turned and caught up with the ball and speared it with his back to the plate, a wondrous catch. Who else could have made it? Mickey Mantle. Many years ago on the pro golf tour there was a player of some prominence named Bo Wininger. Because I learned he had played football and baseball on the same high school team with Mantle in Oklahoma, I asked him about Mickey. "Gawd, he was fast," said Wininger. "Mickey ran on top of the grass."

I saw an example of that in 1956 in Yankee Stadium the day hell froze over and Don Larsen pitched a perfect game in the World Series. There would have been no perfect 2-0 game for Larsen without what Mantle did to Gil Hodges' line drive that was headed to the empty reaches in left-center. That ball was certain to fall in until a flying Mantle reached the scene from nowhere and speared it backhanded. Larsen should have blown him a kiss.

What a luck-ridden club the Yankees were to have a switch hitter such as Mantle. No way to pitch around him. He hit those 536 home runs, but more spectacularly he hit 18 more in World Series games to beat Babe Ruth's record.

It is not remembered that there were any miniature home runs by Mantle. That ferocious swing from either side of the plate would not permit the cheap homer. He was the man who came closer than anybody else to hitting a fair ball out of vast, rearing Yankee Stadium. He missed against Kansas City's Bill Fischer in 1963 when his swat failed by inches to clear the facade and everything else in right-center. One scientist said that ball might have gone 620 feet. Before that he barely missed against the Senators' Pete Ramos.

And of course there was the history-maker that day in Griffith Stadium in 1954 when Chuck Stobbs threw that pitch and Mantle swatted it a measured 565 feet onto the street beyond the left-center bleachers. My god, nobody before him had ever put one out of the park over those bleachers stretching from the left field foul line to deepest center.

I asked the Senators' owner, Clark Griffith, for his comment on that swat, suggesting also that a slight wind was blowing that day. His answer was conclusive: "I don't care about that. That consarned wind has been blowing for 100 years and nobody else ever hit one out of this ballpark like that."

Why didn't they write about things like that, or about the wonderful, the distinctive feats of the boy from Oklahoma who was the seventh player in history (other than the original inductees) to make it to the Hall of Fame on the first ballot? As a person he was not all bad. He was shy, and comfortable only with his friends. Some years ago when the Alexandria Grandstand Managers club invited him to appear as an honored guest, he agreed with a stipulation. He said he would be there if I was the master of ceremonies. He wanted a friend in view. If Mantle wasn't quite as shy as DiMaggio it was nevertheless a tight fit. It could be pointed out that Mickey was less disagreeable than shy.

He hit the golf ball a ton. The power that sped all those homers to uncharted distances could be imagined on the golf course. But he bemoaned his short game. That was the day he checked into the Yankees' Fort Lauderdale clubhouse for spring training, greeting me with, "Hi ya, Shirley, how you hitting? Let's play."

Now I am talking to one of the great men of baseball, who, with 60,000 fans in the park, the bases full, bottom of the ninth, the count 3 and 2, is the calmest guy in the place.

But Mantle is saying, "I'm hitting the ball but I can't score." I asked him why he wasn't scoring and he said "It's my putting. Hell, Shirley, I'm gutless." It was a commentary both on golf and Mantle's self-demeaning modesty.

Why didn't they write about his magnanimity toward teammate Roger Maris when in 1961 they were both trying to break Babe Ruth's record? When he fell behind Maris it was Mantle who led the cheers for his teammate, willing to stand for all those friendly poses with Maris and smiling his friendship for the man winning the race. Who could say those smiles were phony? Not from an uncalculating, uninhibited Mickey Mantle, incapable of jealousy.

Or they could have written about Mickey and his gallant, gutsy performance that day in a Fort Lauderdale hotel when after reporting for spring training he suddenly announced it was no use anymore and said he was retiring.

He made it a bare-bones announcement, leading off with "I can't play anymore and I know it." I don't have my notes of that March 1, 1969, scene in the Yankee Clipper hotel but I have those of St. Louis Post-Dispatch Hall of Fame writer Bob Broeg. More from Mickey: "I'm not going to play any more baseball. I was really going to try but I didn't think I could. . . . I have had three or four bad years in a row and have received my biggest disappointment by falling under .300 {.298 career average} and I was actually dreading another season."

Also: "I can't hit. . . . I can't go from first to third when I want to. I can't steal second when I want to. . . . I can't score from second when I want to . . . these things break me up and I figure it's best for the team that I stop now." With that statement Mantle showed quality. There was a temptation here to say that he showed class, but remembered is the caution of Post writer Myra McPherson, who rebuked those who use that bromide, saying that "those who use class' don't have much."

Mickey talked about steals, but he never stole with much frequency. On the Yankees in those years there were too many guys to knock you around — DiMaggio, Hank Bauer, Yogi Berra, Tommy Henrich, Roger Maris, Gil McDougald. Stealing was not a big thing with the Yankees.

But Mickey did hang up those great batting averages of .365, .353 and .321 plus a career slugging average of .557. He was a big league star before he was 21.

During the Mantle years none in baseball could match him for distance. Four times he led the league in homers. They voted him the league's MVP three times, three times he finished second.

With Mantle back in the news as a very sick man, why did they not write of his many feats and his dauntless physical courage? They also could have said something about Mickey Mantle and Lou Gehrig, who is now causing such a hoo-rah with Cal Ripken bearing down on Lou's magnificent record of playing 2,130 consecutive games.

But Lou Gehrig goes not hold the record of playing more games than anybody else in Yankee pinstripes. Who does? Mickey Mantle. More than Gehrig, more than Ruth, more than any other Yankee. None can match Mantle's 2,401 games in those pinstripes.

Was this not worthy of note when Mantle bounced back in the news last week, a very sick man with his life at high risk? Whatever happened to sentiments and judgments in our business? How did we get trapped in that mentality of the checkout racks? When are they going to call off the dogs? It's time.

© Copyright 1995 The Washington Post Company

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