On March 1, 1969, New York Yankees center fielder Mickey Mantle announces his retirement from baseball. Mantle was an idol to millions, known for his remarkable power and speed and his everyman personality. While “The Mick” patrolled center field and batted clean-up between 1951 and 1968, the Yankees won 12 American League pennants and seven World Series.
Mantle was born in Spavinaw, Oklahoma, on October 20, 1931. He grew up in nearby Commerce, and played baseball and football as a youth. With the help of his father, Mutt, and grandfather, Charlie, Mantle developed into a switch-hitter. Mutt pitched to Mantle right-handed and Charlie pitched to him left-handed every day after school. With the family’s tin barn as a backstop, Mantle perfected his swing, which his father helped model so it would be identical from either side of the plate. Mantle had natural speed and athleticism and gained strength working summers with his father in Oklahoma’s lead mines. “The Commerce Comet” eventually won a scholarship to play football for the University of Oklahoma. However, baseball was Mantle’s first love, so when the New York Yankees came calling, Mantle moved to the big city.
Mantle made his debut for the Yankees in 1951 at age 19, playing right field alongside aging center fielder Joe DiMaggio. That year, in Game 2 of the World Series, Willie Mays of the New York Giants hit a pop fly to short center, and Mantle sprinted toward the ball. DiMaggio called him off, and while slowing down, Mantle’s right shoe caught the rubber cover of a sprinkler head. “There was a sound like a tire blowing out, and my right knee collapsed,” Mantle remembered in his memoir, All My Octobers. Mantle returned the next season, but by then his blazing speed had begun to deteriorate, and he ran the bases with a limp for the rest of his career.
Still, Mantle dominated the American League for more than a decade. In 1956, he won the Triple Crown, leading his league in batting average, home runs and runs batted in. His output was so great that he led both leagues in 1956, hitting .353 with 52 home runs and 130 runs batted in. He was also voted American League MVP that year, and again in 1957 and 1962. After years of brilliance, Mantle’s career began to decline by 1967, and he was forced to move to first base. The next season would be his last.
Mantle’s penchant for drink led to debilitating alcoholism as he grew older, and he died of liver cancer on August 13, 1995, at age 63. At the time of his death he held many of the records for World Series play, including most home runs (18), most RBIs (40) and most runs (42). Mantle was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1974 in his first year of eligibility.