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Ever since I was a kid, Babe Ruth was my favorite player, even though I was only three-and-a-half months old when he died. As I grew up, I became more and more convinced that Babe Ruth was the greatest player ever. Once I started delving into sabermetrics, I was pleased to have my opinion confirmed, so much so, that I have heard it said by several seasoned sabermetricians that “if one does an analysis on the greatest player ever, and Babe Ruth does not come out on top, there is something wrong with the analysis!”.
But I never saw Ruth play.
Of all the players I did see, Mickey Mantle was my favorite. I believe he was the greatest player I ever saw, especially during his prime or peak years. I saw Willie Mays, and I suspect he had a better or higher “career value” than Mantle; the same was probably true about Hank Aaron. But seeing Mantle in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, well…it was almost like seeing Babe Ruth himself!
Mickey Mantle died fifteen years ago this coming August 13th. So, for this blog, and the next episode, I’ve asked four friends – real Mickey Mantle fans – to reflect on The Mick. We all grew up in Hoboken, NJ, we all played sandlot baseball together, and we were all Yankee fans. Two of them, John Conforti (a retired county worker) and John DeStefano (a retired banker) share their thoughts below. Next time, Joe Killeen and John DeSomma give their reflections.
I hope you enjoy these as much as I have.
John Conforti: I’d like to talk about heroes. I’m just a baseball fan, a Yankee fan. At over 60 years of age, the late 1950s and 1960’s were the period of my most intense interest.
They were great years for the Yankees, and in turn, my hero, Mickey Mantle. Most younger fans have seen no more than a few film clips of Mantle. Let me tell you he was unbelievable! A superb physical specimen, he combined power and speed into a package I think has never been equaled. Despite suffering from osteomyelitis, a bone disease he developed playing football in high school, and a long series of physical ailments, his career statistics are staggering.
Mickey broke into the majors in 1951 touted as a young phenom. But not until 1956 did he live up to that potential. The year 1956 was like a dream; 52 home runs, 130 runs batted in, .353 batting average, winner of the Triple Crown and Most Valuable Player. In addition, for the first time in many years, someone seriously challenged Babe Ruth’s magical 60 home run record for a single season. This challenge to Ruth’s record in 1956 turned out to be a double-edged sword for Mickey. That year would be hard to duplicate. It seems the fans grew restless and impatient with Mantle. Expecting too much, he was booed when he came to the plate in subsequent years. Although other players would be thrilled to produce his numbers, Yankee fans accustomed to excellence were tough to please. My hero was being booed; this I did not like.
Then in 1960, the Yankees acquired a good solid right fielder from Kansas City, Roger Maris. As it turned out, Roger became much more than that to the Yankees and to Mickey. Maris had the perfect swing for Yankee Stadium, pulling many a pitch into the short right field porch for home runs. In fact, Roger hit 39 HR in 1960 (Mickey hit 40 HR), he was instrumental to the pennant drive, and even won the American League MVP. All of a sudden, the Mick had a competitor, and I wasn’t sure I liked it. After all, Roger would pull a 360 or 370 foot fly ball to right field and get a HR. Mickey, with his straight away power, would drive a pitch well over 400 feet on many occasions, and due to the cavernous dimensions of Yankee Stadium in center and left fields, it would be caught for an out.
Then came 1961, an important year for Mickey, Roger and baseball. It was an expansion year, with the American League adding two new teams. Some say this expansion thinned out the pitching, but whatever the reason, 1961 was magic. Not long into the year it became apparent that something was happening, Mantle and Maris were booming HRs all over the place. By the All Star break, Mickey had 29 HR and Roger had 31 HR, both far ahead of Babe Ruth’s record 60 HR pace of 1927. As the season progressed, neither player let up, and the press seized the moment, as it became apparent that this was a serious threat to Ruth’s record. Even the commissioner of baseball, Ford Frick, announced that if anyone broke Ruth’s record, there would be an asterisk after his name in the record book signifying the expanded schedule from 154 games to 162 games played that year.
With the 1961 season progressing, a strange phenomenon was starting to occur. There seemed to be some anti-Maris sentiment brewing. After all, if anyone was going to break Ruth’s record, it should be Mantle, the powerful slugger, the homegrown Yankee, who had almost done it once before, not Maris with his fly ball HRs. Many viewed Roger’s accomplishments that year as a fluke, I certainly agreed.
By early September both sluggers were approaching 50 HR and the pressure was intense; Roger even started losing his hair from a nervous condition. Around this time Mickey had a very severe cold or flu infection that wasn’t responding to treatment. Mel Allen, the Yankee broadcaster at the time, suggested that Mantle see this doctor that Mel knew. This turned out to be the infamous abscess incident. It seems that the doctor gave Mickey a shot which became infected; Mantle actually developed a hole in his hip and blood could be seen seeping through his uniform. This effectively limited Mickey’s play for the rest of the season as well as the World Series. This injury, although not highly publicized, left Maris to chase the ghost of Babe Ruth. Mantle finished with 54 HR and Maris hit his 61st HR on the last day of the season off of Tracy Stallard at Yankee Stadium. (Billy Crystal stole my idea and made a successful movie entitled *61 many years after I put these thoughts on paper, but it was very well done and I enjoyed reliving the time).
I was appalled and frustrated; this combination of injury and bad luck resulted in Mickey not accomplishing this cherished feat; whereas Roger was successful. I felt like the wrong player broke the record. The double edged sword now belonged to Roger Maris. From that memorable season on, Roger had it rough; but I did not hear Mickey Mantle booed ever again. In fact, his prowess has become legendary…Mickey is in the Baseball Hall of Fame, Roger is not (as it should be).
As we age our heroes change; my heart would skip a beat as I recall raising my children and hearing of their heroes. From Axle Rose to Al Bundy for my son; to Brittany Spears and the cast of Baywatch for my daughter, these were cause for concern to me. But to me I will never have another hero like Mickey Mantle. Once Mickey retired I was not able to feel as strongly about sports or sports figures again. Of course, by then I was in college and my interests centered on beer, fraternities and girls! For me anyway, I could not idolize a ballplayer younger than me. Besides, many of today’s ballplayers are spoiled and do not inspire my respect, not to mention the steroids scandal.
Finally, Mickey spent his entire life with the cloud of Hodgkin’s disease over his head, having lost his father and grandfather to the hereditary illness. He did his share of drinking and partying and would lament, “If I knew I was going to live this long, I would have taken better care of myself”. Well the liquor caught up to Mickey and he passed away in 1995 after an unsuccessful liver transplant. But it was in those final days and weeks where he showed genuine courage, as he became a spokesman for organ transplantation, that Mickey Mantle became a real hero.
As I myself aged, I came to appreciate Roger Maris, learning about the kind of man he was and even forgiving him for beating Mickey to the HR record. One ironic twist, Hodgkin’s disease didn’t get Mickey, but Roger was cut down early in life by the dreaded disease. Just as on the baseball diamond, life has a way of throwing curveballs when you least expect it.
John DeStefano: I grew up in Hoboken as a rabid Yankee fan, when they had three baseball teams in the New York area. The great debate at that time period centered on who had the greatest centerfielder: the Yankees, the Giants, or the Dodgers. I believe there were more Giant fans than Dodger fans in Hoboken. So the debate narrowed down to Willie Mays versus Mickey Mantle.
We generally followed the teams which our fathers did, and, because my father enjoyed the Yankees, I became a Yankee fan. This really started to take root during and after the 1956 season when the Mick won the Triple Crown and helped Don Larsen with his perfect game in the World Series. After that season, Mantle had another great year, but the Yankee management would not give him a raise, because he did not duplicate his performance of the previous season.
I cannot forget going to games with my father, especially when the Yankees played doubleheaders. We would stop at Blimpies for sandwiches, and then take the #63 bus to the Port Authority in Manhattan, followed by taking the subway trains to the Stadium.
I also remember watching the Yankees on WPIX Channel 11; the greatest sounds we heard were Mel Allen calling Mickey Mantle’s home runs, and those of Yogi, Ellie, Moose, Johnny Blanchard and Roger Maris…the Ballantine Blasts!
Talk about home runs! I remember reading about Mantle’s tape measure shot off Chuck Stobbs in Washington, DC; I watched Mickey hit another one of his greatest homers when he almost hit the ball out of the old Stadium in 1963. I also recall his game winning shot against Barney Schultz and the Cardinals in the 1964 World Series. And then there was the one at Yankee Stadium when the Yanks played the White Sox. Mickey slammed his bat down, thinking that he flied out… but Mel Allen reported that the Sox outfielder kept going back… going back…finally up against the wall…and then… it was gone over the black screen in dead centerfield. How about that!
Mickey could do it all: field, bunt, hit and was a team leader, even with all his strikeouts.
May I add a comment on current power hitters? The common sentiment is that they are not paid to bunt, especially when opposing teams use shifts against these sluggers. If they did this in Mickey’s time, can you image what his batting average would have been? And, if he did not believe he was going to die at a young age, I truly believe his home run total would be unsurpassed.
My final note is about a video which Mantle made with Phil Rizzuto and Whitey Ford. It helped me to teach Little Leaguers. It was a real joy, because it assisted me as I coached my son, who was a big strapping lad. Since the infielders played back, he often bunted…a skill learned from the video.