Only two weeks into his tenure with the New York Yankees, 19-year-old Mickey Mantle was sent down to the Yankees’ top farm team because he was striking out too much. This setback didn’t prevent him from becoming a baseball legend.
Born in Spavinaw, Okla., on Oct. 20, 1931, Mickey Mantle was named in honor of baseball great Mickey Cochrane. Mantle’s father, Elvin, was a part-time baseball player who worked in the zinc mines and began teaching his son how to hit from both sides of the plate when the boy was four. While playing for a semi-pro team called the Baxter Springs Whiz Kids, Mantle caught the attention of Yankee scout Tom Greenwade. When Mantle graduated from high school in 1949, he accepted Greenwade’s offer to sign with the Yankees.
But before he could conquer the Big Apple, Mantle had to pay his dues. He spent the summer of 1949 playing for the Yankees’ Class D minor league club in Independence, Kan., where he hit .313. The following summer he played Class C ball in Joplin, Mo., and hit .383. He joined the Yankees in spring 1951.
Mantle’s major league career had a rough start. During one game against the Boston Red Sox, he struck out five times. Yankee manager Casey Stengel responded by sending Mantle to a farm club in Kansas City, where he played 40 games. Upon returning to New York, Mantle finished the season by hitting .267 with 13 home runs. Mantle suffered an injury during the 1951 World Series that required the first of his four knee operations.
In late 1952, Mantle married; he and his wife, Merlyn, had four sons. However, he was far from a dedicated family man. One example: he left for a hunting trip with teammate Billy Martin shortly before his wife was due to give birth to their third son. “I always felt like I wasn’t there for my kids,” Mantle later said. The life of a major league baseball player didn’t help. “On the road, Billy and I were wild men,” Mantle said. “I had an incredible tolerance for alcohol.”
His fondness for alcohol didn’t impair his playing. Mantle led the American League in home runs four times and was the league’s most valuable player three times. He won the triple crown in 1956 by hitting .353 with 52 home runs and 130 runs batted in. The Yankees won 12 pennants and seven World Series during Mantle’s career, and he broke Babe Ruth’s record by hitting 18 home runs in the Fall Classic. In 1961, Mantle and teammate Roger Maris were both in the running to break Ruth’s single season record of 60 home runs (an abscessed hip limited Mantle to 54, while Maris broke the record by hitting 61). When he retired in March 1969, Mantle had compiled a .298 batting average with 536 home runs (373 hit left-handed, 163 right-handed) and 1,509 runs batted in. Mantle was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame on Aug. 12, 1974.
Retirement was a difficult adjustment for Mantle, as he acknowledged in a 1994 “Sports Illustrated” article:”When I first retired, it was like Mickey Mantle died. I was nothing. Nobody gave a damn about Mickey Mantle for about five years.” By that time he was drinking constantly. “I thought it was funny – the life of the party. But as it turned out, nobody could stand to be around me.”
Mantle and his wife separated in 1988. He was the best man at Martin’s wedding the same year and confessed to barely remembering being there.
Mantle finally sought help for his drinking when he checked into the Betty Ford Center in 1994. He made a successful recovery and reconciled with his family. “He was a really changed person when came back from Betty Ford,” son Mickey Jr. later told “People” magazine. Merlyn, who had also developed a drinking problem but got sober far sooner than Mantle did, insisted that despite the separation, “He loved me, I loved him. We spent holidays together, anniversaries and birthdays, me and Mick and the children.”
Mantle also tried to set an example by discussing his alcoholism in a series of interviews and telling kids, “Don’t be like me.” But he would soon face another deadly foe.
On May 28, 1995, Mantle experienced serious abdominal pain and was rushed to Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas. The diagnosis: liver cancer. In a controversial move, Mantle underwent a liver transplant on June 8, only 48 hours after his name was placed on a waiting list. The operation initially seemed successful, but the cancer soon spread to other vital organs. Dr. Goran Klintmalm, director of transplant services at Baylor, described it as “the most aggressive cancer that anyone on the medical team has ever seen.” Mantle died at Baylor on Aug. 13 at age 63.