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Giant Yankee

Sometimes a great ballplayer is just a great ballplayer.

May 23, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 34 • By JOHN C. CHALBERG
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The baseball career of this Yankee great surely would have been even greater had it not been for a near-collision with another Yankee legend in the second game (as opposed to Game Two) of the all-New York 1951 Yankee-Giant World Series. After another young outfielder of some promise lofted a lazy fly to right-center field, three once and future baseball greats were caught in a moment of history: With Willie Mays charging to first, Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle headed for the ball. Consensus has it that the ball was Mantle’s to catch, but DiMaggio called the rookie off at the last instant. Mantle gave way abruptly, only to catch his spikes in a sewer drain. His badly-injured right knee would never be the same.

While Mantle never publicly blamed DiMaggio for his injury, he did so privately to his wife and teammates. Luckily for both of them, 1951 was the only Yankee season that DiMaggio and Mantle shared. The two really were very different men, and the Yankee shortstop Tony Kubek captured a key difference this way: “People have always placed Joe and Mickey on a pedestal. The difference is Joe always liked being there and Mickey never felt he belonged.” Perhaps that’s because Mantle, unlike DiMaggio, never ceased reminding himself and anyone within earshot that he was “just a f—— ballplayer.”

As a young man, Mantle also assumed that he would die young. His miner-father, Mutt Mantle, was dead at 40—and if only his son had been so lucky. E. B. White once offered these cautionary words to non-New Yorkers with dreams of conquering the city: “No one should come to New York to live unless he is willing to be lucky.” Well, Mantle, Oklahoman and New Yorker, was (and was not) lucky. Born with incredible physical talents, and to a father who loved baseball and wanted his son to be a big league ballplayer, Mantle was also fortunate to have been a New York Yankee with a Hall of Fame career and to have shared that city and his time in it with two other notable center fielders, all of whom would be immortalized as “Willie [Mays], Mickey, and the Duke [Snider].”

But in the end, Mantle wasn’t lucky enough. If he had died young, perhaps no more than his father’s two score years, he would be remembered very differently: for his wondrous baseball exploits, the “amphibious” switch-hitting slugger who Yogi Berra marveled at, for his 1956 Triple Crown MVP season, for 1961 when he had a great (54 home run) season and was a great teammate to Roger Maris, who was having a greater one, and for much more than all of that. Dead at his father’s 40, son Mickey would also be remembered for playing a boy’s game in a manful way, for fighting through innumerable injuries, for not just playing hurt but for playing hurt cheerfully and manfully, and for never forgetting that he was “just a f— ballplayer.”

If Mickey Mantle had fallen well short of, rather than slouched and staggered toward, his biblical three score and ten, he would have been spared a lot. In the short run, he would not have suffered the indignities that he brought on himself, and in death, he would not still find himself being asked to shoulder a burden that he need not bear. There will always be more “last boys” rising and falling among us only to stand accused of contributing to our perpetual childhood, as well as more Jane Leavys on hand to assure future readers that that cursed state of American innocence is once again finally on the verge of coming to an end.

John C. Chalberg is a writer in Minnesota.

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