It was nothingless than a cold and ruthless gamble. Faced with a losing streak and thedistasteful prospect of not winning the pennant for a change, the New YorkYankees rushed the most valuable property in baseball back into action lastweek and ran the risk of losing him forever.
Mickey Mantle'slegs had not yet healed, as anyone could see. He limped when he walked andstaggered when he swung. He ran stiff-legged and he was unable, or afraid, tomake turns. He was not, in short, ready.
The front officedenied that it had ordered Mickey's early return, insisting that Mantle hadmade the decision himself (and ignoring the fact that most ballplayers—andparticularly Mantle—will always insist that they are ready to play, even flaton their backs), but it was undeniable that the Yankee brass had permittedMantle to play before he had fully recovered. It was a decision made out ofdesperation. During the five weeks Mantle was out of the lineup, the Yankeeswere an ordinary team, winning and losing with fourth-place regularity. Hisvalue to the team had always been obvious. His absence had made it more so.
Not that Mantle'sgimpy legs were the Yankees' only problem.
The rest of theAmerican League, in its happiest dreams, could not have imagined a moredelightful series of calamities than those that have plagued the team thisseason. Beginning with the loss of Tony Kubek to the Army and continuingthrough arm ailments to Luis Arroyo and Whitey Ford, the Yankees wereprogressively weakened. But even so they were able to stumble along at or nearthe top of the league as long as Mantle was afield. Then Mantle, the ringleaderof the Yankee gang, injured his fragile legs and was forced out of the lineupfor over a month. No team, not even the Yankees, can lose a Mantle and remainbuoyant. It is appropriate that when he was taken to the hospital histeammates, prompted by his good pal Whitey Ford, sent him a bouquet of eighttired little daisies. Without Mantle in the lineup the Yankees became justthat.
For a short spellthe team played well. Chop the head off a rooster and he'll run around a bitbefore he drops. The Yankees didn't drop immediately, partly because no otherteam was capable of taking charge—the Detroit Tigers, a strong challenger, werealso disrupted by Al Kaline's broken collarbone—and partly because they gotsurprisingly fine pitching from Ralph Terry, Bill Stafford and Jim Coates.
But the Yankeeattack all but stopped. Yogi Berra, Elston Howard and Moose Skowron, bighitters in past years, became big outs. Roger Maris found that without Mantlebatting behind him he saw few good pitches. One day he was walked five straighttimes, four of them intentional. After the game he phoned Mantle to check onhis condition and urge him back. When Mantle did rejoin the team, still limpingbadly, it became a daily joke for Maris to say hopefully: "Looking great,Mick. You should be ready to play in two days, right?"
Finally theYankees' inability to score without Mantle began to hurt them. They lost eightout of nine games. Four of the losses were to Cleveland, and suddenly theIndians were in first place, three games ahead of the Yankees. Minnesota andLos Angeles, playing as though they had not read the preseason expertise, werealso in front of the Yankees. More menacing, Baltimore and Detroit now moved tothe pack, promising real danger later on. Without Mantle on the field, theAmerican League pennant race had become a real race.
The injury thatcaused all this mingled joy and sadness happened on May 18 on the final out ofa game the Yankees lost to the Twins 4-3. The tying run was on second base whenMantle hit a low line drive on one hop to the shortstop, Zoilo Versalles.Versalles bobbled the ball, and Mantle, seeing this, strained for more speed."I was watching the shortstop," said Coach Wally Moses. "When Ilooked for Mantle he was already down."
"It looked asif he'd been shot," said Bob Fishel, the Yankee publicist. "He hit theground that hard."
What Mantle haddone was tear a muscle—the adductor muscle, the doctor said later—in his rightthigh, so that he could not straighten his leg. When he fell he landed smack onhis left knee, and as the weeks passed, it was this knee that bothered Mantlemost. He suffers from an arrested case of osteomyelitis that began with a highschool football injury, and both his knees are very tender. Even when he ishealthy he limps, and this is why he must spend 10 minutes before every gamewrapping each knee in long, wide strips of rubberized bandage. It is also whyAmerican League pitchers, when they want to harass Mantle, throw not at hishead, as is the custom, but at his knees.
Mantle lay on thebase path for five minutes before he was helped off the field. Inside thelocker room he showered while leaning on crutches, then dressed slowly. Hisface looked gray and tortured. As he left he managed to muster a smile forreporters. "See y'all," he said. Then, the grin gone, he went outside,where Dan Topping, co-owner of the Yankees, was waiting for him. They drove tothe hospital together.
Mantle spentseveral days in the hospital and then went home to Dallas, his wife and foursons. He had been there about a week, getting daily therapy from Wayne Rudy,the trainer of the Dallas Texan football team, when Roy Hamey, the Yankeegeneral manager, asked him to rejoin the team. "I won't say the players arebrooding about him," Harney explained at the time, "but maybe they'llfeel better if he's around."
Mantle met theteam in Los Angeles. "He was sitting there in the bus by himself when Ifirst saw him," said Bobby Richardson. "I just walked up to him andshook his hand. It's hard to explain, but just seeing him gave me a lift."The Yankees won two out of three games from Los Angeles to tie for the leaguelead. "I got you into first place," cracked Mantle as the team flewback to New York. "Now you're on your own."
The Yankees wereon their own, because Mantle's knee was slow healing. Manager Ralph Houkcloaked his worry in forced humor. One evening before a night game Houk wastalking to Mantle and some other Yankees in the locker room. "I don't seewhy you can't run stiff-legged," he told Mantle. Houk straightened his leftleg and took off down the length of the room, disappearing into the showers.Mantle was convulsed with laughter. Houk reappeared seconds later, stillrunning with one leg stiff. "I can go pretty good this way," saidHouk.
"That's asfast as you can go anyway," Mantle told him, then got to his feet and madea timid attempt to copy the maneuver. His clumsy movements were atragicomedy.
Old card tablelegs
Mantle tookbatting practice every day. "Hitting with the rinkydinks, Mick?" WhiteyFord liked to say. Mantle swung easily and shortened his stride, but even so,when he swung and missed, his legs would tremble like those of an old cardtable. When he hit the ball, though, it had the old Mantle ring, up and out. Hehit the ball so well one day, sending drive after drive into the right-fieldstands, that Houk yelled to him from the dugout. When Mantle looked over, Houkproduced his lineup card and pretended he was inserting Mantle's name. Mantleanswered him by limping exaggeratedly as he left the cage.
Being unable toplay himself, Mantle concentrated on rooting, keeping the Yankees laughing withhis Oklahoma-style sense of humor. He is a remarkably good clown. Recently hecame into the dugout from the dressing room with a shred of chewing tobaccopasted over one of his front teeth and his cap pulled down hard on his head sothat his ears stuck out. He walked down the length of the dugout with a looney,pop-eyed expression on his face. "Hiya, fellas," he said, sounding likeMortimer Snerd. Then he went to the top step, assumed a slouched stance andyelled out to Baltimore's Harry Brecheen, who was throwing batting practice."Hiya, Harry," he said. "Hey, Harry, hiya." Brecheen lookedover and couldn't throw a strike for the next minute.
Mantle has alwaysbeen especially friendly and encouraging to the Yankee rookies. Joe DiMaggio,it is said, was never more than courteous to Mantle at a time when Mickey achedfor words of encouragement, so Mantle has always gone out of his way to treatrookies like people. His locker, accidentally or not, is right between those ofTom Tresh and Phil Linz, both rookies.
"Thisspring," Linz recalled recently, "a group of us walked over to Mickey'slocker to introduce ourselves. He told me he had read a lot about me andwelcomed me to the Yankees. Later, during exhibition games, he'd pass me on theway to the dugout after an inning and tell me what a good play I'd made.Imagine Mickey Mantle taking time to tell me that."
Mantle likes tokid the rookies. "He's always saying, 'Grab the suitcases, will you Pep?'" says Joe Pepitone. "Heck, I'd do it, but he'd never let me."
Earlier this yearin Detroit, Pepitone and Linz were eating dinner in the same restaurant withMantle and Ford. "Mickey came over," said Linz. "He told us that heand Whitey rarely did this, but they'd like to show us around a bit afterdinner. They told us to meet them and they gave us an address. Mickey said toask for Mr. Mantle's table. We thought, 'Boy, they must really like us.' Joeand I took a cab to the address and as soon as it stopped we could see we'dbeen had. It was a run-down striptease joint."
Throughout thedays of this badinage, and at least 50 times a day, Mantle was asked about thecondition of his legs. Finally he got a piece of paper on which he printed:"Slight improvement. Be back in two weeks. So don't ask." He taped thepaper to his chest for all to see. "It won't work," he said gloomily ashe put it on. "They'll still ask how's it feeling."
During battingpractice one day a pudgy fellow pushed his way between Elston Howard and JohnBlanchard and grabbed Mantle's hand. "How are you, Mick," he said."We're all rooting for you." He then explained that he was a discjockey from Texas. All the time he talked to Mantle he kept poking him in theshoulder with his forefinger. "Know all your home run records," the manwent on. "You've hit 13, 23, 21, 27. ..." Mantle stood quietly, leaningon his bat, gazing out toward the bleachers in center field. When the man hadfinally finished, he grabbed Mantle's hand once more and fled. Mantle looked atHoward and rolled his eyes upward. Then he grinned.
It is a measure ofMantle's new maturity that he was able to bear the disc jockey. A few years agohe would have reduced the man to rubble with a humiliating remark. "I caremuch more about other people's feelings now," he said when he was askedabout the incident. "I used to think what the hell, and not waste any timewith them. Now I realize they have feelings too."
It is possiblethat the addition of Roger Maris to the Yankees has had much to do with thechange in Mantle. Maris has been subject to the same intense publicity asMantle, and he has often seemed young and petulant. Perhaps Mantle saw himselfmirrored, an often unpopular image, and unconsciously changed. Or maybe it issimply age. Mantle is almost 31 now. His hair is still light blond, but thereare wrinkles under his eyes and he is a little soft around the middle. His namestill appears in the New York columns as having been seen at such-and-such aclub, but there are signs that he is thinking of his family more often."They're coming up here this summer," he said recently. "I don'tget to see the boys much. The oldest one is 9. He's a pretty good athlete. I'mgoing to bring him out here and let him work out. He likes football better thanbaseball. He's a good runner."
One thing worriesMantle far more than his fragile knees and his baseball career, although it isa related problem. His father died of cancer at 39 and two uncles died of thesame disease younger than that. "I hope I make it to 40." Mantle saidrecently. "Sure, I kid about it, but I think about it, too."
Mickey Mantle'smedical prospects are of far more than personal interest. When Mantle limpedthrough the Detroit series last weekend without reinjuring himself, it was NewYear's Eve in the Yankee dressing room. "I'm satisfied," Mantle said."The only time I worried was on the bases. I didn't want to slide. I wouldhave had to hold my left leg stiff."
Ralph Houk smiledfor the press. "We score more runs when he's in there," said Houk."Everything is better when he's in there." That much is true. Houk alsosaid: "He passed the first test with flying colors. That's a relief off mymind." This was for show. What Houk meant is that he is scared to death. Heknows Mantle's condition is still far from good, and that without Mantle theworld champion Yankees are goners.