In 1983, as a staff writer for theWashington Post, I went to Atlantic City to interview my childhood hero, Mickey Mantle, who had been banished from baseball because of his affiliation with the Claridge Hotel and Casino. The story of my weekend with The Mick is the basis of "The Last Boy, Mickey Mantle and the End of America's Childhood."
There was no language for what Mickey Mantle accomplished on October 10, 1964. The term "walkoff" home run was not in the baseball lexicon when he led off in the bottom of the ninth inning of Game 3 of the World Series with the score tied 1-1 and the Yankees and the St. Louis Cardinals tied at one game each.
Yankee Stadium throbbed with expectation and the hope that Mantle had one more great, dramatic moment left in his aging, aching body. As Milton Gross said in the New York Post, Mantle was "playing on memory and nerve."
He had had a good season, great by anyone else's standards with 35 home runs and 111 RBIs while leading the American League in on-base percentage. But the knee he had injured in the 1951 World Series was degenerating and his lefthanded batting average suffered accordingly (he batted .241 lefthanded, .421 righthanded in 1964). His shoulder, injured in the 1957 World Series, would require offseason surgery to tie the tendons together.
"Couldn't throw the baseball the length of the room I'm sitting in hardly," Cardinal shortstop Dick Groat said. "And yet he knew that the Yankees were a better team when he was in the lineup and the rest of the team felt better when he was in the lineup."
Mantle's egregious error in the fifth inning had allowed the Cardinals to tie the game. "By that time I couldn't run too much anymore," he told me in 1983. "They put me in right field and (Roger) Maris in center. Somebody hit me a ground ball. I nonchalanted it. It went through my legs, and the guy scored."
In the bottom of the ninth inning, Cardinals manager Johnny Keane summoned Barney Schultz from the bullpen to face Mantle, thus orchestrating an opportunity for redemption. Jim Bouton, the Yankees' exhausted starting pitcher, was at the water cooler at the end of the dugout when Mantle came to collect his bat. "He was standing there with the bat on his shoulder watching Barney Schultz. His warm-up pitches were coming in about thigh high and breaking down to the shin, to the ankles -- two or three in a row. Mickey said, 'I'm gonna hit one outta here.'
"It wasn't a big announcement. He wasn't like that. He wasn't a grandstander. He understood that Barney Schultz was the wrong guy for them to bring in."
Schultz was an old knuckleball pitcher, playing in his first World Series at age 37. In the bullpen he felt "the good pop" between his right elbow and his hand that presaged a promising outing. "The ball just bounced all over," he said. "Probably the best stuff I had all Series."
He didn't know that Mantle prided himself on his own knuckler, which once broke the nose of a rookie Yankee catcher, and he badgered Yankee managers Casey Stengel, Ralph Houk and Yogi Berra to allow him to show his stuff in a game. "Knowing him he probably could have done it," Schultz said.
Tim McCarver, the young Cardinal catcher, knew Mantle was hurting -- "a shell of the guy that he once was. I could even hear him groaning on some swings. A swing and a miss were real bad."
But, Mantle retained the power to command attention even from jaded major leaguers. "Squatting just a few feet from where he stood, you could just feel the power resonating from him," McCarver said. "When he hit in the cages before a game, you stopped what you were doing and you watched. You stopped playing catch. You stopped running. You stopped stretching. You stopped doing a lotta things. And when he was through, you resumed whatever you were doing."
Had McCarver been privy to the conversation in the Yankee dugout, he would have walked Mantle intentionally. "He was not a man who said boastful things about himself," he said. "When somebody like that says something like that, you have a tendency to think that he's gonna do it."
Mantle stood in. Schultz wound up. McCarver knew right away:
"Nothing good was gonna come of this pitch. There are a lotta pitches that don't do anything during the course of a game. There are fastballs that aren't fast. There are fastballs that are meant to hop in on a lefthander and they don't hop. There are breaking balls that are meant to break and guys pop 'em up, foul 'em back, or pull 'em foul, or hit 'em for a single, or hit 'em for a home run. But nothing like this."
The first pitch to Mantle, a knuckler, didn't dance or flutter or defy expectation. It didn't do anything at all. "It wasn't thrown," McCarver said. "It was dangled like bait to a big fish. Plus it lingered in that area that was down, and Mickey was a lethal low-ball hitter lefthanded. The pitch was so slow that it allowed him to turn on it and pull it."
The full-throated roar of the sold-out Stadium obliterated the fine click of perfect contact that sounded to McCarver "like a Stadivarius violin."
The ball sailed over Len Melio's head into the third tier in rightfield, a high, majestic thing -- he could see the red laces spinning. As he turned to see the ball's final destination, his elbow hit the beer of a Yankee hater and "spilled all over him," which made him happy. Tom Molito, also sitting in the upper deck in right field, thought the ball was "going to hit me between the eyes." Then he thought: "What a way to die."
Schultz took one quick look over his shoulder and walked off the mound. "I crossed the third base foul line as he was rounding third base," he recalled. "I didn't even watch him run the bases. I wasn't interested in that. I was interested in punching myself in the mouth."
In the locker room, a clubhouse attendant handed him a note from a secret admirer, the actress Rosalind Russell. It said, "Barney, you're still the greatest."
Schultz finished the Series with an 18.00 ERA. Mantle finished his career with 13 walkoff home runs. They never spoke about the home run that broke Babe Ruth's record, Mantle's 16th in World Series play. But, once, Schultz recalled, at a reunion of 1964 World Series teams when Mantle was introduced and took his place along the third base line "he hid his face like he was running away from me."
As fans poured out of the grandstand, third base coach Frank Crosetti escorted Mantle home -- a departure for the self-contained third base coach. McCarver waited amid a pinstriped scrum to make sure Mantle touched home plate. "And he had that smile on his face, that right Mantle-esk smile that was quite like any other that I remember," McCarver said. "Great smile. More than subdued warmth to it. It was almost a measure of a man in his smile I felt."
The next day, Groat engaged Mantle in conversation at second base. The Yankees were ahead 3-0 and had men on first and second with no outs. They were on the verge of putting the game out of reach. "I said, 'Mickey, you didn't have any doubts about that home run goin' out?'
"He said, 'No, why?'"
Groat described Mike Shannon's elaborate pantomime in rightfield as if he was about to catch the thing. "I thought, 'Maybe the ball is not hit as far as I thought it was.' And Mickey started to laugh."
Roger Craig went into his motion, pitching from the stretch position. Mantle took his lead off second base. "I could see in his head he was still chuckling," Groat said. "He put the weight on that right foot, and I said, 'Oh my, do I have him.'
"I went over. Roger Craig gave me an absolutely perfect throw, and Mickey is out by a mile."
As he dove back into the bag face first, Mantle had a few choice words for Groat, which Mantle reiterated every time they met. "Every time he ended up saying, 'sure, tell me a funny story and then pick me off second base.'"
The Cardinals came back to win the game and tie the Series and become World Champions. Later, many pointed to the pickoff play as a portent as well as the turning point of the Series. Mantle would hit two more home runs in the Series, giving him 18, still the major league record. But the Barney Schultz home run mattered most to him because it lessened the sting of his fielding error. "It got me off the hook, being the goat," he told me.
It was also his last unchoregraphed moment of greatness. He hit two more home runs in his last World Series, batting .333 with eight RBIs. He still holds World Series records for home runs (18), RBIs (40), runs (42), walks (43), extra-base hits (26), and total bases (123). Few of them are likely to be broken; it is unlikely that anyone will again play in 65 World Series games. Only Yogi Berra, who was fired as Yankee manager after losing the 1964 World Series, has played in more games (75).
A year later, the Yankees, under the direction of Johnny Keane, finished sixth in the American League, 25 games out of first place. Mantle batted .255. "I shoulda quit right then," he said.