To young folks (people born since 1960), the media attention given Mickey Mantle during his final weeks may have been hard to grasp.
Here, for Pete's sake, was a fellow whose lifetime batting average was .298. And although he was renowned for home runs, his career 536 ranks only eighth, far behind Hank Aaron's 755. Moreover, his greatest "tape-measure" home run traveled a mere 374 feet. (More on that later.)How is it that someone with such numbers could have once been heralded as a man with the attributes of Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb rolled into one?
For insight, let's turn back the calendar.
When the small-town Oklahoma boy joined the New York Yankees in 1951, he didn't exactly slip into the big city unnoticed.
At a time when the word awesome still meant awesome, his power - from either side of the plate - was awesome. Mantle had such speed as a rookie that some called him the fastest man in baseball. A teammate described his throwing arm as "a cannon." And with all that power and speed, he had finesse - some of his bunts were so deft that infielders often didn't even try to throw him out.
In a sport where gangly, scrawny or pot-bellied men can excel even while slobbering tobacco juice and battling acute itches, Mantle, fair-haired and with a physique that appeared to be chiseled from granite, looked the way we (well, Hollywood, anyway) expect heroes to look.
That's why the Yankee slugger, more than any other player before or since, seemed to have a crack at becoming the incarnation of the mythological Frank Merriwell. In a word, Mick could have been incom-par-able.
But the burden of enormous talent and high expectations wasn't all that separated Mantle from other players of his era.
Sometime in the early 1950s, a familiar cry again was heard throughout the land: "Beat the Yankees." No one really knows when the refrain resumed. Perhaps it was in 1951, after the Yanks won their third straight World Series. Maybe it was in 1952, after they'd won number four. Or in 1953 after their record fifth in a row.
The fact is this: The arrival of Mickey Mantle to the Yankees in 1951 coincided with the most dominant era of the most dominant and hated dynasty in baseball history. From 1949 to 1964, the Yankees won 14 pennants and nine world championships. Mantle was the standard-bearer most of that time. (Joe DiMaggio retired after the '51 season.)
And, besides, it seemed downright unfair for such an affluent franchise - the one that fielded Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, etc. - to land another player from the same mold.
In my hometown in rural eastern Oregon, I was one of a minority in the late '50s who pulled for the Yanks. My grade-school classmates lined up for the Dodgers or Giants. Even my grandfather, who had been a pitcher for Oregon State College (University, now), rooted for the other team when the Yanks played. But that didn't keep him from inviting me to join him sometimes when New York games were televised. (I greatly appreciated it. My home had no TV set.) Not wanting to hurt my feelings, he didn't use profanity, as many did, to describe the Yankees. He just said, "Your ol' Yanks."
And although there were many great stars around then (Ted Williams and Stan Musial played until 1960 and 1963, respectively; Aaron and Roberto Clemente were in their prime), when talk turned to who was the greatest active player, it usually centered on two men: Mantle and the Giants' Willie Mays.
We Yankee fans were willing to concede that Mays was great. He hustled, he was daring and exciting. He wasn't surly with the media, as Mantle sometimes was. But while Willie delivered excitement, it was Mantle who delivered championships. And while Willie hit more homers than Mickey, he didn't hit them as far or as frequently (per times at bat).
Mickey saved 18 homers - still a record - for the big stage, the World Series. And if Mickey hadn't been hobbled by injuries . . .
Of course, it wouldn't be entirely truthful to say that injuries were the only reason Mantle failed to meet high expectations. Too many drunken parties with Billy Martin contributed heavily. Pride even played a part - going for the fences instead of protecting the plate or taking ball four.
Still, he was American League most valuable player three times and home-run king four times, and continues to be regarded as baseball's greatest switch-hitter. On the all-time bases-to-outs ratio, he ranks fourth. (Ruth is first, Mays fifth.)
And nothing could compare with Mantle at the plate, the game on the line. Maybe he'd clobber the ball 500 feet. Even when he struck out, which was often, his swings were a spectacle of fury.
Speaking of tape-measure home runs, the big blast most often associated with Mantle was one that caromed off a beer sign high atop Washington's Griffith Stadium in 1953, traveling 565 feet. Many called it the longest homer ever hit.
But an even greater Mantle wallop traveled only 374 feet.
In a game at Yankee Stadium in the early 1960s, Mantle unleashed a swing - perhaps unmatched in baseball history - that propelled a ball against the facade 108 feet above right field, 374 feet from home plate. The remarkable thing about the enormous shot, however, is that players on both teams insisted the ball was still rising when it slammed into the facade. Had the ball been unimpeded, some estimated it might have carried well beyond 600 feet - perhaps even approaching 700 feet.
It was those kinds of feats that make many of us remember him as one of a kind. And that's why viewing Mickey Mantle as a .298 hitter misses the mark by, say, 500 feet.