Editors Note: We're blogging through We Didn't Start the Fire by Billy Joel.
Mickey Mantle was destined to be a baseball player even before his birth. His father Mutt, a former semi-pro player, declared his first-born son would be named after then-current star Mickey Cochrane, then the best catcher in the game. Mutt didn’t realized Cochrane’s actual name was Gordon. Three years after Mickey was born on October 20, 1931, the Great Depression had struck. Even after Mutt had taken a difficult job in a coal mine, he still found time to teach Mickey the game. Mutt made sure Mickey learned to switch hit. As Mickey grew up, he started regularly playing sandlot baseball. He and his friends often scrimmaged against local semi-pro teams on weekends.
In high school, Mickey was becoming a budding football star - until the injury bug struck. After being kicked in the leg by a teammate, Mickey’s ankle had swollen to three times its normal size. After being rushed to the hospital, the doctors told the parents that Mickey had osteomyelitis, a very dangerous bone disease. However, instead of the typical amputation of the leg, Mickey’s parents decided to try a new drug - penicillin. A week later, Mickey was back playing sports.
At 16, Mickey was found by a Yankee scout. Two years later, the team signed him and sent him to the minors. His first call up was on September 17, 1950.
When Spring Training arrived in 1951, the facility was buzzing with the news that star center fielder Joe DiMaggio was retiring after the season. The expectations on the younger Mantle increased when manager Casey Stengel announced Mickey would be DiMaggio’s replacement in center. Once the season began, Mickey started hitting. However, he went into a deep slump in June and July, finally being sent down to the minors. He struggled there as well, almost quitting baseball for good. After a confrontation with his father motivated him, Mickey exploded at the plate. He was called up in time for the World Series.
In Game Two against the New York Giants, while he was playing left field, a fly ball was hit between Mantle and DiMaggio. Mantle attempted to stop before a collision occurred, but caught his cleat in a drain cover and tore ligaments in his knee. He was taken to the hospital for surgery. While there, Mutt was also admitted. Mutt Mantle was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease. He died soon afterwards.
The next season, Mantle started his pattern of stardom, batting .311. He also married Merlyn Johnson that year. His baseball seasons continued to improve. Tales of his massive home runs were spread wide around baseball. However, nothing captured the attention of fans nationwide like the home run chase of 1961.
Outfielder Roger Maris had been acquired before the 1960 season, and he exploded at the same time as Mantle in 1961. The two players all but matched each other home run for home run until September 10. Maris had 56 and Mantle had 53. However, Mantle came down with a bad cold along with muscle soreness and stiffness, and, except for one game, held him out for the rest of the year. His race was done. Maris went on to hit 61 that season, breaking Babe Ruth’s record by one.
Before the World Series that year, Mantle got a “vitamin shot” from his doctor. The puncture wound became infected, and Mantle ended up playing in only two of the five World Series games.
Injuries would affect Mantle for the rest of his career. He battled on, and, on September 19, 1968, he had 534 home runs, tied with Jimmie Foxx all time. That day, the Yankees had traveled to Tigers Stadium to face 31-game winner Denny McLain and the Tigers. The Tigers had already clinched the American League pennant, and had a 6-1 lead on the Yankees when Mantle stepped to the plate. Denny McLain and his catcher had a conference on the mound, and decided to give Mantle his home run. Mantle, not expecting this, received two batting-practice type “meatballs”, taking one and fouling another off. McLain then yelled from the mound “Where do you want it?” Mantle pointed to a location, McLain put it there, and Mantle hit his 535th home run.
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After his career was over, Mantle went through many different businesses in quick succession. He was banned from baseball for a little less than a year after taking a job with a casino. After that job failed, he started signing autographs for a living. At the time of his death, he earned more from the memorabilia market than his baseball career.
Sadly, Mantle was an alcoholic. After his grandfather, his father, and his uncles had all died in their 30s or 40s, Mantle hadn’t taken care of himself, thinking he would die young like all his relatives. He was diagnosed with liver cancer at the beginning of 1994. A year later, he was admitted to a hospital with stomach pains. He was scheduled for a liver transplant, but by the time the surgery was completed, the cancer had spread throughout his body. Two months later, on August 13, 1995, Mickey passed away. He was 63.