Ralph Houk, manager of the New York Yankees, moved in a small circle in the team dressing room, eying an imaginary pop fly. A small group of players, in various stages of undress, watched him. One clutched his stomach with both arms and doubled over with helpless laughter even before Houk finished his story. He was Mickey Mantle.
"Finally the ball came down and he missed it by five feet," Houk said, making a desperate lunge for the ball. "Then he looked at it lying on the ground and started to sneak up on it." Houk eyed a patch of bare floor and stalked it in elaborate pantomime. All the players were laughing now, Mantle rocking back and forth with glee.
"Finally, he pounced on the ball and dug a hole and buried it, right there behind home plate," Houk said, suiting action to his words
"Holy gee," said Mantle, between gasps of laughter. "Holy gee."
He finished suiting up slowly, listening to Yogi Berra tell about a trip he took to Venezuela during which an irate fan tried to pink a manager with a .45 for taking out a pitcher. Again Mantle doubled up with laughter.
He wrapped his left leg in a long rubber bandage, extending from below the calf to above his weak knee. Earlier he had had heat treatment for his right shoulder and supersonic treatment for pulled stomach muscles. But he was cheerful, relaxed and happy when he walked out of the dressing room into the bright morning sunshine at Miller Huggins Field in St. Petersburg.
One of the ubiquitous photographers who dog the Yankees watched Mantle and shook his head unbelievingly. "He waved and hollered hello at me in the parking lot a little while ago," he said. "What's happened to him?"
A TV announcer approached Mickey and asked if he would submit to a brief taped interview and Mantle obliged graciously. He was smiling when the announcer opened: "You must be happy now that Casey Stengel is gone. He really gave you a bad time, didn't he?"
Mantle's smile died, but he did not lose his temper. "I liked Casey," he said mildly. "The things he said to me and about me I always figured were for my own good."
"I see where you're supposed to be the leader of the Yankees this year," the announcer went on, his voice larded with sarcasm. "How do you feel when you sit in the dugout beside a great leader like Joe DiMaggio?"
Mantle looked at the announcer a moment, his face darkening. He made an obvious effort to control his temper and lost. "Go— —," he said angrily and walked away. Moments later he was laughing again as he took part in a pepper game with Moose Skowron, Tony Kubek and Bobby Richardson. You could hear the high-pitched whinnying of his laughter over the pop and clack of the players warming up in a half dozen pepper games.
In batting practice he smashed a Whitey Ford pitch far over the center-field fence. "Throw me some more of them," he called to Whitey. "Nope," Whitey said. "I'm going to throw you my overpowering stuff, No. 7." Mantle laughed and hit the next pitch on a line over the right-field fence.
This is the new Mickey Mantle—relaxed, confident, easily moved to laughter, quick to forget affront, approachable. He had his best spring since 1956 (the year he hit 52 home runs), hitting the ball with violence from both sides of the plate, fielding with his usual casual grace and effectiveness. Early on, Houk had said that this is the year Mantle takes over as the Yankee team leader; unconsciously, Mantle has done so. In the bull sessions in the dressing room the stories are directed to Mantle, his opinion is asked.
"I don't know about the leader thing," Mantle said one morning. "It depends on how I do. You hit .350, you're a leader. You hit .250, you're not. These guys are pros. They don't want a .250 leader. Nobody does."
He sat before his locker, wearing only the knee-length shorts the Yankees wear under their uniforms. He is a blocky man, maybe 20 pounds heavier now, after 10 years, than he was as a 19-year-old rookie. His face was serious; he is not an introspective man and he was thinking, now, of how he had changed in 10 years.
"I guess in the last year or so I've learned how to take the bad days," he said slowly. "You know, the days you go 0 for 4. I can forget them now. Used to be I'd worry."
He was quiet again for a moment.
"I didn't make up my mind to forget them," he said. "It wasn't anything like that. It just came on gradually. Funny thing, if I go 0 for 4 and we lose, the writers make a big thing out of me not hitting. Somebody else, who may be hitting for a better average, goes 0 for 4, and they don't notice it."
He grinned suddenly.
"Works the other way, too," he said. "I get a single and drive in a run and we win a ball game and they pay more attention to that than to a home run by somebody else. Billy Martin used to kid me about that. We had a lot of fun together. One year we hit home runs in the same game about eight times. Billy would read me the story and it would tell about my home run, how long it was, you know. Then at the end he'd say, 'P.S. Martin also homered.' "
("I think we were good for each other," Martin said about Mantle. "I think they made a mistake trading me. I kept Mickey relaxed. They said I was leading Mickey astray, but the guy won the triple crown in 1956 when I was with him. I wish somebody would lead me astray that way." A Yankee official disagrees. "Martin was Mantle's jester," he said. "Sure, he was good for Mickey as long as he kept it in bounds. But the jester has to keep topping himself to get laughs and Weiss was afraid Martin would do something that would get him and Mickey in bad trouble. I didn't like Weiss but I think he was right in trading Martin.")
"This is a more relaxed camp," Mickey said. "That helps. I don't feel any pressure on me. Maybe I don't any time. I know I don't in a game. But it's relaxed this year."
He thought about pressure for a while. As the heir apparent to DiMaggio, he has always been expected to perform as a superstar; often he has.
"I didn't even feel any pressure when I came up," he said. "Mostly because I didn't expect to stick. Then they signed me and I couldn't buy a hit and they sent me down to Kansas City. I guess that's the worst I ever felt. I got way down and I went 1 for 20 in Kansas City and I figured maybe I wasn't as good as I thought. Then my dad came to Kansas City to see me; all he ever wanted me to do was be a major leaguer. I told him maybe I better quit and find something else to do and he said, 'Mickey, if that's all the guts you got, pack up and come home with me now and be a miner.' After he went home I couldn't do anything wrong. I hit about 15 home runs and knocked in 55, 56 runs in three weeks and they brought me back to New York."
He was almost dressed now.
"People have said I was surly and hard to talk to," he said. "I got stung a few times talking to sports-writers. The ones who put things in my mouth I didn't say, I quit talking to. I'd just nod or say 'Yes' or 'No' and they gave me that reputation. It doesn't bother me any more. I don't care what they say."
He looked across the Yankee dressing room. Two writers were talking to one another in a corner and he nodded at them.
"Someone's gonna get cut up in the morning," he said and grinned. "You watch."
He was ready to leave now, but he waited a moment. "You have all you need?" he asked courteously. "If you want anything else, holler."
He walked away, a compact, wide figure in sport shirt and slacks, surprisingly small. Ralph Houk, who had finished dressing by now, too, watched him go.
"He's grown up," Houk said. "He's a man now. Mature. I think his mind's at ease and it shows in the way he plays. He's happy about the money he's getting and that makes a difference, too. He should have a big year. He's in better shape this year than he has been during the spring for a long time."
The only trouble Mantle has had this year was a slight muscle pull in the lower abdomen and that disappeared quickly.
"I was congratulating myself at night on what a good manager I am," Houk said and laughed. "Getting Mickey into such good shape and no injuries. Then he got the muscle pull. It might not have been bad, but he played with it for three days before he told me about it. That's the way Mickey is. Lots of times he plays with injuries and doesn't tell you about it."
The dressing room was empty now, and Houk walked outside.
"He's got a great potential," he said. "He could have another year like 1956. I hope he does."