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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,280

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This is the grave of Mickey Mantle.

What is there really to say about Mantle? This is legend beyond legend. It’s not that he’s the greatest player in history per se, though he’s obviously in the conversation for the second tier of great players and maybe he is in that first tier. But if he’s not in the first tier, that’s the injuries, not the talent. Plus, he was so famous, the biggest personality on the biggest team in an era where big male stars who liked to drink and womanize were heroes for Americans. It’s a different world than the present, that’s for sure. But Mantle owned it.

Mantle’s story is well known. He was born in Oklahoma. His father was a miner and Mickey grew up in those small towns. He was a great football player and had a scholarship offer from Oklahoma, but baseball was his first love. While playing semipro ball in Kansas, a Yankees scout wandered by to check out one of Mantle’s teammates and discovered this crazy young slugger, the likes of whom had rarely if ever been seen since Babe Ruth. He rose fast and was in the majors by early in the 1951 season.

Mantle made an immediate impact on the game of baseball. He was such a fully formed product. As a 19 year old rookie, he was already an above average player, generating 1.5 WAR according to the Baseball Reference version of the stat in 96 games. Even Mike Trout struggled in his first half-season. The next year, Mantle managed to lead the league in slugging percentage. It took a little while for the big power to erupt. He was more in the 25 home run area for his first several years, until 1955 when he hit 37 and then 1956 when he exploded for 52 in 1956, which led the league as did his 130 RBIs, his .353 average, and his .705 slugging. That was good for a mere 11.2 WAR, which he managed to actually beat in 1957 with 11.3 WAR. In fact, the entire period from 1954 to 1962, Mantle was the King of Baseball. Not only were the Yankees dominant but he was the best player on the best team. Each of those years, he hit at least a 6.0 WAR, with more than 9 four times and more than 10 three times. That’s nearly unheard of in modern baseball history.

Now, as everyone knows, Mantle, uh, didn’t exactly take care of himself. Plus his knees were just shot. From the time he was a kid, he was susceptible to injuries and that did not improve with the booze and the age. He just about destroyed his career in the 1951 World Series when he tore up his knee trying to chase down a Willie Mays fly ball. This was an era when that could easily end a career. But he managed to come back. He probably tore his ACL but no one knew about that yet. He could still hit while hurt–he was still a well above average hitter through his last year in 1968. With the DH, he quite likely could have had a few more years of solid ball and who knows how many homers he would have ended his career with. But he could barely move in the field in the second half of his career and his defensive statistics are grim. He gave away a significant number of the runs he created in the field, though obviously nowhere near what he produced on offense.

By the time Mantle retired in 1968, he had smacked 536 home runs, many of them known for their prodigious length. He didn’t steal a ton but when he did, he was almost always successful and had the highest stolen base percentage in baseball history at the time. Today, even the best base stealers are a lot more cautious so the percentages are pretty high. He was a first ballot Hall of Famer, easily, though amazingly, he was not a unanimous decision by the cranks who are the voters on this.

But of course the entire story of Mantle is not the baseball. He was also a raging alcoholic in a culture that laughed about booze and bad behavior by men. He was completely dominated by his father, who he adored, but who probably helped push him into heavy drinking. He had an unhappy marriage and Mantle just openly cheated on his wife, especially while on the road. The press knew about this but this was still the era of the unspoken agreement between the powerful and the media that certain things would not be reported on, especially if you were a national hero like the Mick. Mantle was also horrible with money, investing in all kinds of dumb things, to the point that by the late 70s, he was nearly bankrupt. He managed to stabilize his finances in the 80s by getting on the sports nostalgia circuit, which allowed the Mick to revel in past glories without doing any real work and there was no shortage of now adult Boomers excited to meet their childhood hero. Plus it paid for the booze budget. All his kids become boozers too. It ran in the family. Some sad stuff here. Mantle’s position was that all men in his family died young, so why not party? I mean, I guess I understand that. But this pretty much guaranteed that Mantle would stand no chance of survival. As Mantle himself famously said, though he borrowed it from his friend, the NFL star Bobby Layne, “If I’d known I was gonna live this long, I’d have taken a lot better care of myself.” Indeed sir. Indeed.

in 1994, Mantle finally sought some help for his drinking, thanks to his friend Pat Summerall, the evangelical far-right television broadcaster and athlete, who had conquered his own drinking. But his liver was so far gone. Then his son died of drinking shortly after Mantle had completed his own treatment. To say the least, this did not help the rapidly aging Mantle’s health. He converted to evangelicalism, of course, which helped him I guess, or he claimed it did. In any case, his liver was shot. He received a controversial liver transplant, which led many to ask why an aging drunk was jumping the line over kids and those with serious medical conditions not of their own making. While that transplant was successful, he immediately came down with an extremely aggressive form of liver cancer, attributed to the heavy drugs he needed for the transplant with an already weakened body. He didn’t last long, dying in 1995, at the age of 63. Only four days earlier, Jerry Garcia had died and I once had a classic aged Boomer say that week was basically the time that his youth died.

Mickey Mantle is buried in Sparkman-Hillcrest Memorial Park, Dallas, Texas.

If you would like this series to visit other center fielders, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Although Mantle moved off CF fairly early, he still played more games there than at RF or 1B. Mantle is the fourth greatest center fielder in history, according to Baseball Reference’s JAWS stat. Tris Speaker, who is 3rd, is in Hubbard, Texas. Trout is 5th and Griffey is 6th, both hopefully alive forever. Joe DiMaggio is 7th, more on him soon. Duke Snider, who is 8th, is in Fallbrook, California. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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