Tuesday, February 15, 2011
68. Mickey Mantle: Spring, 1949
So I heard on the radio this morning that pitchers and catchers are starting to arrive in Arizona. It's that time of year again that I look forward to so much, as do millions of others around the country: spring training. As a fan I always follow my teams as they unlimber from the long winter, slowly working themselves into a working machine again. And as a nod of all the new players reporting for their first spring training as a professional ballplayer, I thought I'd write about (and draw) Mickey Mantle's first year in pro ball. Every player, even gigantically famous hall of fame players like The Mick had to start somewhere, fresh-faced, full of self-doubt and cockiness, excitement at finally getting a start and a sense of wonder at where it all could lead...
Out in rural Oklahoma the Yankee scout Tom Greenwade had been keeping an eye on this kid for a while, tracking his development through his teenage years. He made sure he kept his distance as it was against the rules for a major league team to sign let alone approach a player while still in high school. He watched as the kid got bigger and stronger every year and boy, was he fast! Some say he got that fast from running down deserted country roads on his way home afraid of the wild animals that lurked in the dark Oklahoma night. Whatever the cause, the end result was they called this sandy-haired kid from Commerce, Oklahoma "The Comet."
His real name was Mickey Charles Mantle and his dad tutored the boy from an early age to be a ballplayer. Even his name was chosen specifically for that reason - catcher "Mickey" Cochrane was Mr. Mantle's favorite player and he named his boy after his idol. (Luckily for his son and millions of others his Dad didn't know Cochrane's real first name was in fact "Gordon." Gordon Mantle just doesn't have that certain "something" to it, does it?) A former semi-pro ballplayer who never had a chance at the big time, Mr. Mantle wanted one thing for his son - a life outside of the lead mines that he wound up in and from which he had no hope of escape.
Mickey excelled at baseball for no other reason than that he simply loved to play it. After graduating high school he played shortstop with a local semi-pro team called the Baxter Springs Whiz Kids and that Yankee scout was there watching. He was sloppy at his position but he hit for power from both sides of the plate as well. In the first game Greenwade saw him play for the Whiz Kids, Mantle went 4 for 5 with two singles, a double and a home run. Later Greenwade told reporters that watching the young Mantle play he knew the feeling that fellow Yankee scout Paul Krichell felt when he first spotted Lou Gehrig. Seeing the kid play one more game the following Sunday, the scout made his move.
Huddled in Greenwade's Cadillac in the pouring rain after the game, Mickey Mantle and his Dad listened as the scout drew up a contract to play professional baseball. Greenwade used all the slick salesman's tricks he could muster, going through his analysis of the youngsters abilities, making sure that he particularly played up his less than stellar abilities at shortstop, followed up by letting it slip that he was actually on his way to sign a much better shortstop from another team the following day. The Mantle's haggled a little over the money the contract held arguing that Mickey could make a better salary working beside his Dad in the mines. Numbers were scribbled out on scraps of paper and adjustments were made as lightening from the storm knocked out the lights in the stadium parking lot. This was the moment all three men had been waiting for - Greenwade because this Mantle kid was the best natural ballplayer he'd ever seen, Mr. Mantle because he'd never made the big time and Mickey because he was one signature away from making a living at playing the game he loved. For $1,500 Mickey and his Dad signed the papers that made him property of the New York Yankees. $1,100 was the signing bonus and the remaining $400 was for reporting to and playing the rest of the season with the Class D Independence Yankees of the KOM (Kansas-Oklahoma-Missouri) League.
With the words "This is your chance, son. Take care of yourself and give 'em hell." Mr. Mantle dropped his boy off at Riverside Stadium in Independence, Kansas. Wearing number 16, Mickey soon discovered that the level of talent was much stiffer than what he was facing in the semi-pro leagues. Easily discouraged, it took a long time for Mickey had to learn that it was only natural that he would fail 6 or 7 times out of 10 turns at bat. Early in the season and batting under .250, he confided to his Dad that maybe he wasn't good enough to play pro ball. Mr. Mantle, who'd tried his damnest to escape the debilitating life of a miner, pushed his son to continue. It wouldn't be the last time he'd have to push and cajole his boy into believing he can succeed in making it to the big leagues.
His teammates found Mickey to be a kind and innocent boy. He loved going frog hunting with pitcher and friend Red Crowder and it was at this time that he apparently began the semi-creepy hobby revealed in Jim Bouton's groundbreaking book "Ball Four" - Mantle was a peeping tom. He and roommate Bob Mallon would huddle in their closet and listen through the wall as Crowder and his wife made love in the apartment next door. The kid played boyish pranks on his teammates and thought it especially funny flicking boogers at the roof of his teammate's car interior. At the conclusion of the last road trip with the team, Mickey wept because the boys wouldn't all be together again the next year.
Overall, Mantle was sloppy at shortstop but his hitting steadily improved and he finished his first season batting .313 with 7 homers in 89 games - good enough to merit advancement to the next level in the Yankee organization. It was the beginning of a long and brilliant career, one that would eventually make him a hero to millions of young boys and become the face of the next Yankee dynasty, like Ruth and DiMaggio before him.
This story is dedicated to my Uncle Eddie, a great Mickey Mantle fan and the guy who came to my little league games when my father could not.