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Photo courtesy of The Beryl Ford Collection/Rotary Club of Tulsa, Tulsa City-County Library and Tulsa Historical Society.

Magazine | Okiecentric

Swingin’ Mick

• By

Posted 09.07.12

Preston Peavy, a baseball hitting coach, uses kinematics [1] in his Atlanta training facility to study the properties that lead to successful slugging.

While his primary use for such data is to teach current players how to be more efficient at the plate, he has used archived footage to apply his study of motion to Mickey Mantle. “Violent” is the word Peavy often employs in describing Mantle’s swing. “This was pure, blue-collar, farm-boy aggressiveness. Unbridled aggression is what made Mantle Mantle.”

Mantle biographer Jane Leavy likened his swing to a “storm, a vicious prairie updraft.” But power alone would not have been enough; it had to be packaged properly. “All the power is generated from the lower leg,” Peavy explained. “Good batters have huge butts because they have huge muscles back there. There has to be a stable tube, a rigid pipe, for the power to go through.” The conductive structure for Mantle’s crushing power? His legs. “He was a truly gymnastically proportioned athlete. If you wanted to build a baseball player from scratch, Mickey Mantle was it. He was built for this.” Maybe so, but in the summer of 1960, Mantle and his legs were under siege.

On the heels of a forgettable spring stretch in which Mantle’s character and motivation were openly questioned by the press, the Yankees traveled to Cleveland Municipal Stadium for a road stretch. While sifting through fan mail prior to a game, Mantle came across a letter postmarked “Tonawanda, NY.” The envelope contained a handwritten letter that read:

“I had a son that was drafted with a bad leg & bad eyes he got killed but a rotten draft dodger that could run like you gets turned down. I have a gun with micrscopic [sic] lenses and I’m going to get you thru [sic] both of your knees and its [sic] going to happen soon.”

It would be natural to wonder how a man with Mantle’s physical ability would have kept coming up 4-F, but his exemption was legitimate. In fact, Mantle was dismissed by the military on four separate occasions. Initially it was for osteomyelitis, a bacterial infection of the bone he had suffered as a child, which before the widespread availability of penicillin was treated with medieval flair with either maggots or a hacksaw. When a doctor in nearby Picher threatened to amputate Mantle’s left leg, his mother, Lovell, said, “Like hell you are.”

On three subsequent occasions Mantle was rejected for military service due to a knee injury he sustained in the ’51 World Series, the result of a disaster in right center field in which Mantle pulled up short, ceding a fly ball to DiMaggio and got his cleat stuck in a drainage mechanism buried in the centerfield turf of Yankee Stadium.

Though the death threat never materialized, a less direct form of assassination had begun several years earlier.

In Mantle’s early years in the league, the most intimidating ball field he had to brave wasn’t on the road, but at home. Fans exiting Yankee Stadium through the egress in center field were often brutal. Mantle was several times hit, spat upon, and the recipient of endless vocal threats. The New York Post reported, “Mantle Is Mauled,” after an incident in which Mantle’s hat was stolen and “young toughs” punched him in the jaw. The altercations became so frequent that the Yankee organization assembled a group of would-be bouncers, the so-called “Suicide Squad,” at the edge of the infield at the conclusion of home games to protect Mantle. Many of the fans hated Mantle for being a “hick,” for being injury prone, but most of all for replacing their hero, the great DiMaggio.

The lineage of Yankee centerfielders went like this: Ruth, DiMaggio and Mantle—“The Babe,” “The Clipper” and “The Mick”—and for the early part of Mantle’s career, the Bronx faithful were none too happy about his ascendance to the throne.

“Joltin’ Joe” cast an interminable shadow over Mantle’s early days with the “Bronx Bombers.” DiMaggio was everything Mantle was not. Refined, impeccably tailored, and in possession of a leading man’s grace. To Yankee fans, Joe was New York. In the clubhouse, the players were well aware of Mantle’s struggle to unseat the king, but could do very little but  sit back and watch. When asked by a member of the press why Mantle seemed out of place in those early years, teammate Jerry Coleman responded, “How’d you like to replace George Washington?”

As if the challenge of replacing DiMaggio wasn’t enough, Mantle made a legitimate run at Ruth’s homerun record in ’56. The press and fans weren’t ready to see the Babe’s record fall, especially not to a “hillbilly in a velvet suit” [2] like Mantle. Later, in ’61, Roger Maris would succeed Ruth’s single-season homerun record and receive the same kind of lashing from Yankees fans along the way. Upon hearing the boos rain down on Maris as he was called to bat in the house that Ruth built, Mantle once mused, “Roger has stolen my fans!” Dismantling Ruth’s numbers were one thing. He was a ghost. But DiMaggio was alive and well in the hearts of Yankees fans.

***

The members of the press fawned over DiMaggio, and, in a show of allegiance, capitalized on every opportunity to illustrate the differences between the two men. One particular photograph that ran in Life showed DiMaggio standing in a dark suit, hair slicked back, elegant, with Mantle seated at his hip, in an undershirt and khaki pants, thick white athletic socks oozing out of his penny loafers. Off the field, this was a mismatch.

But on the field, even the great DiMaggio couldn’t challenge the “Commerce Comet.” Joe may have been a slightly better fielder, but he had nothing on Mantle’s power and speed. Mantle’s longtime manager, the legendary Casey Stengel, once said as only he could, “He has more speed than any slugger and more slug than any speedster—and nobody has ever had more of both of ’em together. This kid ain’t logical. He’s too good. It’s very confusing.” Mantle was clocked in training camp at 3.1 seconds from the left handed batter’s box to first base.

Although not overly imposing at nearly 6-foot, and 195 pounds, it was his musculoskeletal structure that impressed. One of Mantle’s teammates and later rival, Eddie Lopat, remarked, “That kid gets bigger the more clothes he takes off.” Gus Mauch, the Yankee trainer claimed that when he massaged Mantle, his muscles, “in spite of their size, zip with the looseness and speed of a lightweight boxer.” But all of that muscle mass put a premium on the ligaments that held them in place. Yankee trainer Joe Soares said, “Mantle had a severe, congenital condition. His muscles were so large, but his joints—wrists, knees, ankles—were frail.”

An oft-told story in the Yankee organization was one in which Mantle screamed in pain after taking a cut during a routine batting practice. According to witnesses, he had swung so hard he ripped the muscles in his chest. Many trainers, coaches and journalists promoted these yarns to weave a perfectly constructed Greek tragedy: The Man Whose Own Strength Was His Ultimate Weakness.

Although it was not widely reported, Mantle was playing in intense pain. He would be wrapped in bandages from his ankles to his thighs just to support his ailing limbs. The thick bandages the trainers used were wrapped so tightly that they cut off circulation to his skin, leaving it white and puffy. Trainer Soares noted that once the bandages were removed, blood would ooze from his mummified skin.

Mantle more than likely played on a torn ACL for 17 of the 18 seasons he played with the Yankees, a result of the drain pipe incident. Dr. Stephen Haas, an orthopedist specializing in sports medicine, constructed a forensic diagnosis of Mantle’s injury based on photos, interviews, and newspaper clippings from the injury in the 1951 World Series. “It appears that the most likely critical event was an acute combination of torn medial collateral and anterior cruciate ligaments and a medial meniscal tear.” In a language that has become all too familiar to the modern sports fan, Mantle tore his MCL, ACL, and cartilage in his knee. Surgery two years after the injury would clean up the kneecap, and the MCL is somewhat capable of self-repair, but Haas noted that in 1953, the injury to the ACL would have been “difficult to fully visualize” given that orthoscopic surgery and magnetic resonance imaging were still decades away from development. Haas contends that the meniscal tears probably got the bulk of attention during surgery and the repair of those tears would have “satisfied the surgeon as to the cause of his symptoms.”

The truth is Mantle played a lot of baseball games, and he played them in pain. “Mickey Mantle can be classified as a ‘neuromuscular genius’,” said Haas, “one of a select few who are so well wired that they are able to compensate for severe injuries like this and still perform at the highest levels, overcoming a particular impairment at a given moment. It is a phenomenon comprised of motivation, high pain threshold, strength, reflexes, and luck.”

But in 1969, after 18 seasons in the majors, Mantle’s luck had run out. “I don’t hit the ball when I need to,” he said announcing his retirement on March 1, his busy plaid sport coat betraying the somber mood of the event. Speaking to the inevitable demise of his legs, he said, “I can’t score from second when I need to. I can’t steal when I need to.”

Running was only half the problem. Mantle’s legs no longer had homerun power in them. In his last four seasons, Mantle’s batting average dropped and the Yankees weren’t making appearances in the World Series anymore. “Out of 18 years, probably 14 was good,” Mantle confessed to his biographer, “Just not the last four.” Mantle took the Yankees to 12 World Series; they won seven of them. Still, it killed him that he didn’t go out on top. “Every time I’m introduced and someone says, ‘Lifetime .298 hitter,’ I think, ‘You cocksucker, quit saying that!’ ”

1. “Kinematics is a branch of mechanics concerned with the motion of objects without concern to the cause of the motion. Peavy studies the angles of various
parts of the human body as they relate to the base”

2.Joe Trimble was a sportswriter for the New York Daily News. In the vein of his co-worker and fellow sportswriter, Dick Young, Trimble aspired to a writing style that was direct and abrasive. He was relentless towards Mantle during a holdout for a more desirable contract, calling him a “scared high-school Okie,” and asserting that Mantle was “guilty of a disgraceful exhibition of ill conduct.”


Originally published in This Land, Vol. 3, Issue 16. Aug. 15, 2012.