Mickey Mantle: ‘The beginning of the end’

Sandra ClarkOur Town Stories

Sixty years ago, there wasn’t as much going on as today. Spring and summer meant baseball. And baseball meant Dizzy Dean and Pee Wee Reese on TV, broadcasting the game of the week.

Fans and foes had high expectations for Mickey Mantle in the spring of 1962. He had finished second to the aloof Roger Maris in the previous year’s race to beat Babe Ruth’s home run record. But ’62 would be The Mick’s year to shine.

Jane Leavy was a fan, in love with The Mick. She later wrote “The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America’s Childhood.” It’s not about Our Town, but it’s insightful, lyrical writing. Enjoy.

“May 18, 1962. A mean May chill dampened attendance for the Friday-evening game at Yankee Stadium against the Minnesota Twins. … There were not quite 21,000 hardy souls in attendance, every one of them thinking the same damn thing: if he hits one out tonight, nobody will ever see the ball again. That was the thing about Mantle. You never knew what might happen when he stepped to the plate – or what might happen to him.

“It was supposed to be his year. God owed him, didn’t He? …

“Mantle got standing ovations wherever he went, including the men’s room.”

Mantle told Leavy, “I became an American hero in 1961 because he beat me. He was an ass and I was a nice guy. He beat Babe Ruth and he beat me, so they hated him. Everywhere we’d go, I got a standing ovation. All I had to do was walk out of the dugout.”

Maris was out with an injury on May 18, 1962, and Yogi Berra was a pinch hitter. Mantle was about all the offense the Yankees had that day. We pick up Leavy’s story:

“He was batting .326 with 7 home runs and 17 RBIs when the evening began. In his first three visits to the plate, he walked and scored twice. But in the top of the seventh, Harmon Killebrew hit a two-run home run off (Whitey) Ford and the Twins took a 4-3 lead, which they nurtured into the bottom of the ninth inning. Mantle was due up fourth.

“The murmuring began when Berra pinch-hit to lead off the ninth – Mantle was at the bat rack. Berra popped out but Tom Tresh singled. It was a measly infield hit, to be sure, but enough to get Mantle another at-bat.

“The buzz turned into a thrum when he emerged from the dugout, swinging a bat with that graceful torque of possibility. Mickey’s on deck!

“Joe Pepitone – Pepi! Pepi! – lifted a fly ball to deep center field, where it died a predictable death, but not before moving Tresh into scoring position. Mantle walked to the plate, and Minnesota manager Sam Mele marched over to the mound, summoning lefty Dick Stigman from the bullpen.

“Amid the frenzied crescendo – Mickey! Mickey! – Mele ordered Stigman to throw only curveballs, low curveballs. I won’t be mad if you walk him, Mele promised.

“The first curve hung high, a tantalizing offering, and Mantle mauled it, sending a ferocious one-hopper at Minnesota shortstop Zoilo Versalles. It looked like a sure out, an easy out. But the ball was hit so hard, as Jack Reed noted on the Yankee bench, it almost knocked him into left field.

“Twins second baseman Bernie Allen remembered, the ball came up on Zoilo and hit him in his shoulder and popped up in the air.

“Mantle saw the momentary glitch and reached for a remembered burst of speed. He was tired. The week had been grueling … With two outs, Tresh was running with the pitch. I’m on second, he said, slipping into the present tense as ballplayers do when recalling the past. By the time he makes contact, I should be between third and home. He’s behind me. I can’t see him. I see Versalles bobble the ball.

“Just steps from the bag – some observers said five, others 10, maybe 12 – Mantle’s body betrayed him. The legs wouldn’t go as fast as his mind made him go,” (manager Ralph) Houk said.

“Mantle wasn’t surprised. He could always tell when something bad was going to happen. He collapsed in midstride, his legs extended beyond reach or reason. He hung there for an instant, or so it seemed, before the force of gravity sucked him to the ground, splayed in the base path, his cheek pressed to the dirt. His feet churned; his hand reached for the bag.

“Twins first baseman Vic Power heard him moan: It’s my legs, my legs. Allen heard the muscle pop from second base: I thought Oh, my God. …

“Mantle lay in a fetal position, inert with pain. Everyone else in the ballpark was standing. I’ve never heard a place that big get that quiet, Mantle told me (later). I thought I broke this leg then. It wouldn’t come back down. It just stuck up and when I fell, I tore this knee up.

“Tresh never quit running. He cut across the infield and reached Mantle before the trainers arrived.  … Mantle refused the stretcher and was helped from the field, arms draped over supportive shoulders. Bob Cerv cleared a path to the dugout, murmuring, It’s bad.

“Houk briefed the press with wishful thinking: Maybe a charley horse.

Mantle was admitted to the hospital, his smile tight. “See y’all,” he told the press. Houk went along, staying up until 3 or 4 a.m., waiting on word from the doctors.

“Houk already knew what no X-ray could detect: It was the beginning of the end. Start of it, anyway, he said.”

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