Mickey Mantle and His Journey to Become One of The Greatest in Major League Baseball History
Mickey Mantle was born on October 20 of 1931 in the town of Spavinaw, Oklahoma. Named by his father in honor of the Hall of Fame catcher Mickey Cochrane, he would be exposed to baseball from an early age. In fact, so in love was he with the game that he would practice batting left-handed against the right-handed pitches of his father, and batting right-handed when against the left-handed pitches of his grandfather.
Mantle would be surrounded by sports from his earliest years. Though he would become known for his baseball career later in life, up through the end of high school he was an all-around athlete. In fact, based on his skills as a halfback in football, he would be offered a scholarship to play for Oklahoma in college. During his sophomore year, however, he was kicked in the left shin during practice, leading him to develop osteomyelitis (an infection of his shin bone) that, had it happened only a few years earlier, would have led to its amputation. Lucky progress in medicine had resulted in the newly available penicillin, which was about to treat the infection thus saving his leg.
Minor League Baseball
The start of his baseball career was for a semi-professional team in Kansas, the Baxter Springs Whiz Kids. It would be here that Mantle would have his first encounter with the Yankees in the form of the scout Tom Greenwade. Impressing the scout with three home runs during a game in 1948, Greenwade would return in 1949 (when Mantle had graduated from high school) to sign him to a minor league contract.
The minor league team Mantle would initially be assigned to was the Yankees’ Class-D Independence Yankees of the Kansas-Oklahoma-Missouri League. It was during this period in time that Mantle would almost quit baseball, though ultimately he would choose to stay on after his father drove out to convince him to continue. It was during this first year that Mantle would hit his first professional home run.
Following his performance, in 1950 Mantle would be promoted to the Class-C Joplin Miners of the Western Association. During this season he would go on to win the Western Association batting title, having a .383 batting average, hitting 26 home runs, and batting in 136. Though played as a shortstop for these first few years, the position was one that Mantle struggled with.
Given the strength of playing, and having won the batting title, Mantle would be invited to the Yankees instructional camp before the start of the 1951 season. Following impressive performances during this spring training, the Yankees manager of the time (Casey Stengel) decided to promote Mantle to the major league. It was this promotion that would see his position move to right fielder from short stop. He would be assigned the jersey number 6 with the expectation he would become the next star of the Yankees after Babe Ruth (#3), Lou Gehrig (#4), and Joe DiMaggio (#5).
Major League Baseball
In the throes of a slump, Mantle was sent to the Yankee’s best farming team, the Kansas City Blues. Again feeling like he was able to break through the walls holding him back, he called his dad saying he was thinking of leaving baseball behind. Again his father drove out to see him and, essentially, shamed him into giving it another shot.
He would go on to have a batting average of .361, hit 11 home runs, and achieve 50 RBIs.
After forty games with Kansas City, Mantle would again be called up to the Yankees, though this time in jersey number 7.
A Baseball Star
In his first full World Series (1952), Mantle would have an on-base of .400+ and a hitting average of .600+. A star was being born. He would continue to improve over the next five years, leading up to the season of 1956. In this season he would reach a .353 batting average, hit 52 home runs, and score 130 RBIs. This led to Mantle achieving the Triple Crown (highest in the league in these three categories, and he was the only person to do so as a switch-hitter) and the first of several MVP awards he would win in his time playing for the Yankees. In addition, so well did he play this season that he was awarded the Hickok Belt as the top American professional athlete that year. By 1961 he would become the highest paid baseball player with a contract of $75,000. Eventually his salary would increase to $100,000 in 1963, making him the highest paid active player of his time.
Another great season in 1963, Mantle would achieve two amazing feats. First, during a game Mantle would hit a home run all the back off the third tier facade at Yankee stadium, the absolute closest anyone at that point had come to a fair ball flying out of the park. It would be this season that he would also hit his 16th World Series home run, breaking Babe Ruth’s record of 15.
Though injuries plagued his career, it was at this period in time that they really began to have an effect on his performance. In 1965 the Yankees would finish in sixth place. In 1966 he would move from the outfield to first base, though he would have another bright spot in his career during the 1967 season, when he would be the sixth member to join the 500 home run club. Overall, Mantle was selected an All-Star for every season except 1951 and 1966, though he would not play in the games of 1952, 1963 or 1965.
In his time with the Yankees, Mantle would play center field full time until 1965, at which point he was moved to left field, and he would spend his last two seasons at first base. He announced his retirement at the age of 37 in 1969. His record for most games played with the Yankees (2401) would not be broken until Derek Jeter in August of 2011. Among his many accomplishments, he set World Series records for home runs (18), runs scored (42) and for runs batted in (40).
Retirement and Life After Baseball
Unfortunately, though Mantle was one of the highest paid players he also suffered a series of bad investments. It would not be until the 1980’s that he would see a more luxurious lifestyle following the state of the sports memorabilia craze. At baseball card shows he would make much off his appearances and autographs, though he also made it a policy to insist that the baseball card shows he attended also include other Yankees from his era, so that they would be able to earn some money as well. In 1988 the Mickey Mantle Restaurant & Sports Bar would open in New York, quickly becoming one of the cities most popular places to eat.
In the final years of his life Mantle would spend much of his time in a condominium he bought on Lake Oconee near Greensboro, Georgia. He got on well with the locals, attending church and sometimes sharing a meal, which is likely due to his neighbors respecting his privacy. After a life plagued sporadically by injuries, alcohol and spats of infidelity it was exactly what he wanted.
Mantle passed away on August 13, 1995 at Baylor University Medical Center.
Books and Memorabilia
- Mantle: The Best There Ever Was: In this book the author offers insight into the career of Mantle, as well as a conclusion that, based on the evolution of analytics, he may have been greater than Babe Ruth. An excellent read for those wishing to know more about Mantle’s life.
- All My Octobers: My Memories of 12 World Series When the Yankees Ruled Baseball (by Mickey Mantle): In this memoir, Mantle himself recalls his life from his youth in Oklahoma all the way through his time on the summit of baseball greatness. He also takes time to discuss the not so glamorous side of life as a professional athlete, such as the impacts injuries, alcohol, and parties have on the body.
- The Mickey Mantle Baseball Card Collector’s Guide: If you are a huge fan of this giant of baseball history, this book contains full-color reproductions of both the front and back of every Mantle card issued between 1951 and 1969, all in their actual size. Also includes recent auction information as well as 80 pages on other Mantle memorabilia. Overall there are 420+ images in this book for you to enjoy.
- Mickey Mantle Jerseys, Pictures, and Other Collectibles are also available for purchase by those who wish to have on hand a piece of baseball history.
- Mickey Mantle Collector Cards are also available, though they can range in price from affordable all the way to absurdly expensive (such as this set of cards for $84,546.29!)
This article contains some affiliate links to books about Mickey Mantle and other various baseball memorabilia. If you choose to purchase these books or various memoriablia via my affiliate links, you will help support my writing and research at no additional cost to you.