On the afternoon of May 23, in the first inning of a baseball game at Memorial Stadium in Baltimore, a young man in the neat gray road uniform of the New York Yankees walked to the plate, smoothed out the dirt with his spikes and looked at the pitcher. He straightened his batting helmet and wiped his right hand on his hip. He leaned forward in a crouch which seemed to broaden the already incredibly broad back and swung the long, slender bat back and forth in vicious little arcs. The muscles of his forearms rippled and bunched as he tightened his grip.
The Yankees were in trouble. They had won only 12 of their first 32 games, and for the first time in 19 seasons they had tumbled in an undignified heap into the American League cellar. From the most feared team in all baseball the Yankees had become everyone's patsy, losing because they couldn't hit, losing because they couldn't field, losing because their pitching was bad, losing because the rest of the league feared them not.
Then Milt Pappas, the Baltimore pitcher, threw to the plate, Mickey Mantle swung his bat and suddenly the Yankees' troubles were no more.
Mantle doubled to drive in a run. Later that afternoon he walked. He walked again. He hit a home run and a single. He stole third base and went on in to score when the catcher's throw was wide. He scored two other runs. The Yankees won 13-5.
June 14, 1959
The next day he hit another home run. In his next game he had two hits in three at bats. In his next he had only one hit, a line drive to left which he stretched to a double with a terrific burst of speed, but he also walked three times, stole second once and another time so bothered the opposing pitcher with his dancing, threatening gestures toward second that the batter, Bill Skowron, was eventually able to pick out a fat pitch and smack it over the wall.
The next night Mantle walked twice and stole second twice. On the second steal the catcher didn't even bother to throw. The next day, May 29, Mantle had two hits, one a left-handed poke over third which he stretched into a double, and on Memorial Day he had a home run and four other hits. On the Sunday after Memorial Day his lone hit, a double, came with two out in the ninth and the score tied 0-0. It was, apparently, all the opening the Yankees needed. A walk and a game-winning home run followed.
On June 3 Mickey beat Detroit with a ninth-inning home run off Ray Narleski on a pitch that was so good Narleski couldn't believe that it had been hit and which Mantle later said, "Sure had me fooled." On June 4 he went two for five and stole another base. Against Cleveland last Friday night, June 5, he walked three times and scored two runs. On Saturday his eighth-inning single drove in what turned out to be the winning run in a 2-1 game.
In 15 games since that Saturday afternoon in Baltimore, Mantle had batted .412, scored 17 runs, driven in 13, walked 16 times, stolen six bases and hit four home runs. And the Yankees had won 11 of those 15 games to come roaring up out of the cellar. By the time they had finished with Cleveland last weekend, winning three games out of four from a team that had spent all but five days of the season in first place, the Yankees were sixth, but only 3½ games behind, and the rest of the American League was running for the hills.
Of course, other people besides Mantle helped the Yankee surge. Turley, Ford, Larsen and Ditmar pitched exceptionally well. McDougald snapped out of his slump, and Hector Lopez, brought in from the Athletics in a trade, drove in runs at a terrific rate. But the Yankees themselves admitted that the spark had come from Mantle.
"There's no question about it," said McDougald. "The way he's playing has lifted the whole team."
"I've seen this guy do a lot of things I thought were great," said Hank Bauer, "but the last couple of weeks he's been better than ever."
"You might say," said Stengel, "that he is making full use of his abilities, and therefore is playing better than anyone in this league for a long time."
As Stengel so often says, the things Mantle can do are "amazing." But to millions of baseball fans, especially those right in his own home park, the most amazing thing about Mickey Mantle is why he doesn't do them all the time.
No one ever looked more like a great athlete. Mantle is just under six feet tall and, in top condition, weighs 195 pounds. His legs are trim and powerful. His torso is like that of a weight lifter, thick and muscular, and his shoulders are very broad. His arms are big and bulge with knots of hard muscle. And from the 18-inch neck rises a good-looking blond head and an almost handsome face in a slightly tough, slightly insolent, American-boy sort of way, with its uptilted nose and widespread eyes.
"He has the most perfect body for baseball that anyone ever saw," a rival manager once said.
His speed, of course, is legend and, again as Stengel says, "nobody that big ever ran so fast." His power is legend, too: the home run he hit in Washington in 1953 practically invented the tape measure; only Mantle and Williams have ever hit a baseball over the roof in Detroit; only Mantle ever hit a ball up so high against the fa√ßade in right field at Yankee Stadium. He hits home runs left-handed and he hits them right-handed—which of course no one else has ever done with any consistency before—and one year he hit 52 of them.
In 1956 he led the American League—in fact, all of baseball—in batting and home runs and runs batted in. Another time he hit .365, but won no championship because Ted Williams hit even higher. Twice, before his 26th birthday, he was named the Most Valuable Player in the league. He has had some great years, and he is only 27 now.
He has also had some bad years, particularly when you consider how good Mickey Mantle might be. Only twice has he driven in more than 100 runs, and his lifetime average after eight seasons and despite the two great ones is only .316. For the normal big leaguer, even for the very good one these days, this would be superb. But not for a Mantle.
Much of the trouble, of course, is due to injuries. He has been hurt often, particularly in the legs, and frequently these have been injuries which would put others on the bench. "He never played a game for me," says Stengel, "that he wasn't all taped up. I ask him how he feels and he says, 'O.K.' I ask him if he wants to play and he says, 'I want to play.' So I need him and I let him play. What should I do? Tie him to the bench?"
There is also the matter of Mantle, the human being. He is not a very complex human being, but he is still a human being and therefore complicated enough. He came up to the Yankees at the age of 19 from the farm and mining country of Oklahoma, a man physically but a shy, scared boy inside, dressed in an ill-fitting $8 suit. He had been raised to be a ballplayer and that was all that he knew. "Sometimes he cried," says Stengel, "when he struck out." He received faulty financial advice, he was conversationally unable to satisfy the writers with the club, he knew how to accept neither the adulation nor the boos heaped upon him.
Today Mantle is no longer scared, although even with those he knows he remains shy until he knows them very well. He is a very wealthy young man, with one of baseball's biggest salaries and two profitable outside business interests. He dresses well in beautifully cut suits, drives a big car, eats at the best places, plays golf at the best clubs. No longer does he live in Commerce, Okla., but in Dallas, Texas, the most fashionable, cosmopolitan city in the Southwest, where he has built a large new home.
His appetites have increased with fame and financial security, and today this is the criticism one hears most often. On Babe Ruth, who hit 60 home runs, living it up looked good. On Mickey Mantle, who may never hit 50 again, it brings bushels of dark, disapproving frowns. If, they say, this kid, with all his great talent, would devote himself to baseball, if he would live and think baseball and take care of himself, he could become the greatest player who ever lived. Maybe so. Certainly Mantle agrees, at least down on the field, for no one ever tried harder to excel or suffered more when he failed. But somewhere along the way, when the big decision came up—whether or not to live like a Trappist monk and supplant Ruth and Cobb in the record books and earn $200,000 a year—Mickey decided to enjoy life and earn only $80,000 a year and be content with being merely the most colorful and exciting and best ballplayer in his league during his own time.
So while the adulation he receives now is greater than ever before, so are the boos.
"They've always done that," he says, looking up at the triple tiers of Yankee Stadium. "I'm used to it now. I don't really mind. I guess they just never did take to me here." Which only means that Mickey Mantle still doesn't understand. They boo him because they love him and want to see him perform miracles daily, and when he doesn't it makes them mad. To the eyes which peer down from Yankee Stadium seats, he is still a child and there is disappointment that he is not growing up the way they hoped.
Whether it is too late now for the miracle to occur, no one really knows. He has been stealing bases as never before, but even Stengel admits that this was simply because the team was not hitting and they had to get some runs some way. "I like to run," says Mantle, "but he never let me go on my own before. There wasn't any need to steal when someone would usually drive you in. I guess now that we're hitting I won't do much running any more."
"We weren't hitting," says Casey, "so I let him go. But it's taking too big a chance. One pileup somewhere on a close play and then what do we do?"
"I don't mind," Mick says of all this, "as long as I'm hitting."
Mantle has been hitting well despite the fact that pitchers seldom give him anything good to work on and despite his injuries. He wraps his right knee before every game, and his right shoulder, which he hurt in a collision with Red Schoendienst in the 1957 World Series, still troubles him when he swings left-handed very hard. Worse, it hurts when he raises his arm above a certain height, and this has forced him to make some small but bothersome alterations in his stance.
If Mantle continues to hit, the Yankees will probably win the pennant again, especially if he continues to play the way he did during his two-week reign of terror. He may never make anyone forget Ruth or Cobb, but he is a whale of a ballplayer nevertheless. As McDougald says, the kind who can carry a team.