View From Lodi, CA: Watching Mark McGwire—Thinking about Mickey Mantle
March 25, 2005, 04:00 AM
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When Mickey Mantle broke into baseball with the New York Yankees, I was an eight-year-old kid living in Los Angeles.

I was obsessed with baseball. Everywhere I went, I took my glove and ball hoping to scrounge a game of catch with whoever was around.

In the early 1950s, Los Angeles did not have a major league team. So until Mantle came along to woo me over to the Yankees, I followed the Pacific Coast League and the Hollywood Stars.

The Stars were the AAA affiliate of the truly awful Pittsburgh Pirates. Each year by May, the Pirates were about 30 games out of first place.

Even a kid has a hard time rooting for his team when they are hopelessly mired in last place before the season is two months old. And it didn't help that the best player on the Pirates was Bobby Del Greco.

No one ever confused Del Greco with Mickey Mantle.

In 1956, when I turned thirteen, I saw my first major league game. The Yankees played the old Washington Senators. That was the year Mantle, the unanimous choice for Most Valuable Player, hit .353, 52 home runs and knocked in 130 runs.

After I saw Mantle roam center field, he was in most of my waking thoughts for many years that followed.

How times have changed.

Two weeks ago, I briefly watched the Congressional hearings on baseball and steroids. I listened to Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa.

But I thought about Mantle, the star from my youth who could hit a baseball over 500 feet from either the left or the right side of the batter's box.

Mickey Mantle!

Casey Stengel, Mantle's manager, said that a complete player had to be able to do five things: hit for average, hit with power, field, run and throw.

Mantle was at or near the top in all five categories.

The never-ending debate that gripped baseball fans during the Golden Era was who was the more complete player, Mantle or his rival from the Giants, Willie Mays?

Comparing the two players at the peak of their careers, Mantle hit for higher average, hit more homers and beat out more grounders for infield singles.

And while Mays was a better center fielder, Mantle was very, very good.

Mantle led his team to more pennants than Mays. In fact, Mantle's Yankees won pennants more consistently than the Yankees from the Joe DiMaggio or the Babe Ruth/ Lou Gehrig era.

The sports writers from the 1950s-1960s agreed that Mantle was better than Mays.

In the Most Valuable Player voting from 1955-1964, Mantle won the M.V.P. three times and finished second three times. Mays, during the same period, won the M.V.P. twice.

After I turned off the joke that was the Congressional hearings, I went into my treasure chest to dig out the June 18, 1956, Sports Illustrated. On the cover is a close-up picture of a very young Mantle staring directly at the camera.

Inside, a frame-by-frame photo of Mantle's left-handed swing adjoins Robert Creamer's article, "The Mantle of the Babe."

Creamer's piece begins by detailing one of Mantle's most prodigious home runs—the ball he nearly hit out of Yankee Stadium.

"A thick-bodied, pleasant-faced young man, carrying a bat, stood at home plate in Yankee Stadium, turned the blond head on the bull neck toward Washington pitcher Pedro Ramos. He watched intently the flight of the baseball thrown to him, bent his knees, dropped his right shoulder slightly toward the ball, clenched his bat and raised it to a near perfect perpendicular.

"Mickey Mantle so controlled the exorbitant strength generated by his legs, back shoulders and arms that he brought his bat through the plane of the flight of the pitch which propelled the ball immensely high and far toward the right field roof, so far and high that old-timers in the crowd—thinking of Babe Ruth—watched in awe and held their breath.

"In the 33 years since the stadium opened, none of the great home run hitters—Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Jimmy Foxx or Hank Greenberg—had come close to hitting a ball far out.

"Mantle's ball struck high on the façade, barely a foot or two below the roof. Ever since, when people come into the stadium invariably their eyes wander to The Spot. Arms point and people stare in admiration.

"Then they turn to the field to look for Mickey Mantle."

In August, ten years will have passed since Mantle's death from liver failure.

What Mantle might have accomplished in baseball if he had not abused alcohol most of his career is difficult to imagine.

As flawed as Mantle was, however, his transgressions do not approach those of the current crop of stars.

Then and now, he remains Mickey Mantle.

Joe Guzzardi [email him], an instructor in English at the Lodi Adult School, has been writing a weekly column since 1988. It currently appears in the Lodi News-Sentinel.