How Mickey Mantle embodied the maturation of America

 

Just as Lou Gehrig succeeded Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio reluctantly passed the torch of Yankee greatness to Mickey Mantle, a precocious slugger from the mining towns of Oklahoma. With blonde hair, blue eyes and comic book muscles, Mantle debuted with New York in 1951, a big city culture shock personified. Through trial and error, Mantle learned to refine his rambunctious skill, and New York soon fell in love with its next great hero.

A natural centre fielder, Mickey was initially shoehorned beside DiMaggio in the outfield, and there was always ice between the staid legend and the cavalier colt tabbed to replace him. Joe resented Mickey’s easy, unearned fame. Mickey sought Joe’s respect, largely without success. They were inextricably linked in the pantheon of Yankee greatness, but Mantle never felt comfortable around DiMaggio. They were icons of very different times.

In the 1951 World Series against the Giants, Mantle suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament after twisting his knee on a drainage hole in right-centre field at Yankee Stadium when DiMaggio called him off a ball late. The injury affected Mickey throughout his legendary career, and he never played another game without reams of bandages supporting legs that ached unbearably.

There is no telling what Mantle may have achieved if that injury never happened. He may have smashed every record in the book. He may have surpassed every name in the annals. He may have fulfilled his potential. Still, deep down, Mickey never felt worthy of playing centre field in pinstripes, filling the shoes of a living god. The pressure was immense, and he did not always deal with it in a healthy manner.

Despite battling chronic self-doubt and a relentless stream of injuries, Mantle authored one of the greatest careers in baseball history. A switch-hitter with superhuman power, Mickey slugged 536 home runs in 18 seasons, third all-time at the point of his retirement. He won three MVP awards, played in 20 All-Star Games and claimed the historic Triple Crown in 1956. Never before had baseball encountered a five-tool player of such stunning genius. Never before had the Yankees harnessed a clutch gamer of such titillating talent. 

More than the numbers and accolades, though, Mickey Mantle humanised the maturation of American power. A country kid who spoke with a twang, Mantle oozed charisma and embodied hedonism. He was everything to everyone, a handsome charmer who drank to excess and used vulgar language redolent of the Bambino himself. A notoriously prolific womaniser, Mantle somehow got away with it all, and he somehow kept his own persona in check. Mothers and fathers loved The Mick. Grandparents, too. To dislike Mickey Mantle was to disparage the United States. There was no denying his oxymoronic purity. 

Likewise, in the 1950s and 1960s, New York consolidated its position as the global epicentre of baseball. Playing in the Polo Grounds of Manhattan, the Giants had Willie Mays, a prodigious player with infectious enthusiasm. Fighting out of cosy Ebbets Field in Brooklyn, the Dodgers had Duke Snider, an underrated star with a gentlemanly manner. And then looming in the Bronx were the Yankees, led by Mantle, whose impish passion and pearly white smile defined an American epoch. 

Between 1936 and 1957, when the Giants and Dodgers moved west, 17 of the 22 World Series played involved at least one team from New York. On 10 occasions in that span, Gotham hosted a crosstown series to determine baseball’s world champion. The Yankees’ Don Larsen even threw a perfect game against Brooklyn in the 1956 Fall Classic, underscoring the city’s  baseball prowess. The Big Apple was the crucible of modern hardball, and people were shocked when the Yankees did not win it all.

In 1960, that unthinkable notion of pinstriped defeat was taken to its artistic extreme by the Pittsburgh Pirates, who slayed the Yankees in seven iconic games. Light-hitting second baseman Bill Mazeroski hit the only Game 7 walk-off home run in World Series history, devastating the Yankees and thrilling 36,683 revellers at quaint Forbes Field. Mantle famously cried at his locker after the game, offering a glimpse inside the traumatic world of stress occupied by Yankee heroes. When greatness was expected, mere excellence did not tick the box.

Indeed, Mantle won 12 pennants as a Yankee, meaning that 66% of his career seasons finished with an appearance in the World Series. Mickey led the Bombers to seven world championships, two less than DiMaggio, but he still felt the dense weight of expectation. Upon Mantle’s retirement in 1968, the Yankees had 20 titles in franchise history. The Mick thought it should have been more, however, and the demands of Yankeedom lent a certain paranoia to his pursuit of perfection. 

Still, the sight of Mantle in those hallowed pinstripes, bulging out of a tight jersey and powdering baseballs into the upper deck, was synonymous with America’s modernisation. The Commerce Comet gave the populace somebody and something to believe in, as the country merged from old to new. An imperfect man, Mickey was the perfect star for his team, his town and his time. He stood forth as the ultimate symbol of contemporary aspiration.

“Who else - besides maybe Elvis - is lodged so firmly in pop iconography?” asks Jane Leavy in The Last Boy, her meticulous appraisal of Mantle’s fame. “The transformation of The Mick over the course of eighteen years in the majors and forty-four years in the public eye parallels the transformation of American culture from wilful innocence to knowing cynicism. To tell his story is to tell ours.”

He was the transformative icon of a complicated age. He was the blank canvas of post-war aspiration. He was a king among men, built from the fabled hankering thrust upon him. Even his name just sounded like baseball, people said. The Mick. Mickey. Mickey Mantle. America’s childhood was over, and its ultimate boy was a Yankee god.

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