The quiet and well-mannered 19-year-old from Commerce, Oklahoma, was on an exponential rise to the top of the baseball world when the Army decided to review his 4-F status. This was not the first, nor the last, time they would examine Mickey Mantle’s bum leg to see if he was fit for service. He was granted 4-F status just four months prior when it was determined that a high-school football injury left an infection in the left leg known as osteomyelitis. A midnight ambulance ride to Tulsa saved the limb, which would have otherwise been amputated or given some other medieval treatment but for the invention of penicillin just years earlier. Regardless, in 1951 Mantle received a letter from his Ottawa County draft board saying he needed to be in Tulsa on April 11 to be re-examined.
It was the height of the Korean War and the draft was in full swing. President Truman relieved General Douglas MacArthur of his post the same day as Mickey’s exam, causing Oklahomans and people across the country to file petitions of impeachment in protest, but the war was not nearly at its end. In an April 1951 article reprinted in the Tulsa World, reporter Bob Considine described the draft’s growing demand for young men, “Some of those draftees are being nailed even though their feet are as flat as a minute steak, their loins as bare as a keyboard, their vision roughly comparable to a London fog and their wind hardly sufficient to cloud a mirror.” The Mick was no exception to the nation’s need for fresh feet to fill boots, and neither were the Yankees; the organization had lost 93 players to service to that point.
Prior to receiving his draft-exam notice, Mantle’s name had been plastered all over every sports section from Tulsa to New York. “Greatest prospect I’ve ever seen” and “He’s a once-in-a-life-time boy” were the accolades he received from scouts, coaches, and sportswriters. The hype led Yankee manager Casey Stengel and others to blame the slugger’s re-examination on his recent publicity; many felt that, if the all-star prospect could hit home runs and track down balls in the outfield, he could certainly hold a rifle and serve his country.
But the draft wasn’t the only thing threatening to keep Mantle out of The Show. Earlier in the year, he’d failed to show up to the Yankees’ Phoenix spring training camp on time, sending the club into a panic. Mantle had been working in a Joplin lead and zinc mine for $33 a week and said, “I didn’t have the money to throw away on a ticket to Phoenix.” The Yankees wired their top prospect money and he was on his way. When asked by a reporter why he didn’t contact the club earlier, Mantle retorted, “What for?”
Around 11 a.m. on April 11, Mantle and 24 members of his Yankee draft class arrived in Tulsa from Joplin for Mantle’s exam. After parking their bus, the group first went to Wynn’s Cafe, where their presence drew news photographers. Mantle walked down the street with his draft class, opposing forces on each side— to his right, an Army sign that read “Plan your future,” and to his left, Tom Greenwade—the scout who discovered and signed Mantle—sporting his iconic fedora. Greenwade was a close friend and advisor to Mantle from his early years as a prospect until the scout’s death in 1986. He, like the rest of the Yankee organization, had a very different future planned for the young Oklahoman than did his draft board.
Mantle sat down with his Yankee hopefuls for lunch prior to the exam. He posed for pictures, gave interviews. The papers had been reporting his Tulsa visit and there was palpable buzz. Even Life magazine was calling the Tulsa Army Induction Center to check on the young superstar’s examination. Major E.H. Day, the officer in charge, spoke highly of Mantle. “His attitude is excellent. He’s in good spirits and is taking this thing like a man. He harbors no bitterness, and we find him just a swell kid.” After the exam, Mantle answered one reporter, “I don’t mind going into the Army. I hope they find out my leg is OK.” He added, “If you’re going to write something about me, say something about my girl. She’s the cutest thing you ever saw.”
Mantle hopped back on the bus in hopes he could make a date with Merlyn Johnson, his girlfriend and future wife, before he had to get back to baseball. We don’t know if he made the date, but we do know that, just six days after his Army examination, Mantle was in the outfield at Yankee Stadium, batting third against the archrival Boston Red Sox.
Originally published in This Land, Vol. 3, Issue 16. Aug. 15, 2012.