The Mick

Effortless grace

“I could never be a manager.  All I have is natural ability.”  Mickey Mantle in Great Sports Reporting.

In 1968 Tim was ten when his Dad, Bob, was given tickets to a Red Sox/Yankees game at Fenway.  Like many in Rhode Island Tim grew up a Yankees fan and Mickey Mantle was his hero.  “The Mick” was taking a farewell tour in his retirement year, and it was to be his last series in Fenway Park.  Bob managed a district for Suburban Propane, but with a wife and four boys, they had little money to spare for entertainment.  A family Sunday afternoon at Scarborough Beach was as close as Tim had been to a vacation.  Yankees games were a world of imaginings he heard on the radio; Tim had never been to a major league baseball game.

An equipment supplier offered to take Bob and their top salesperson to the game along with a night of extravagant dining in Boston.  Bob asked first the salesperson and then the benefactor if he could take his sons to the game instead.  Everyone agreed.  When Bob came home, he told Tim and his brother Chuck the news, and it was all Tim thought about until game night.

Every kid remembers his first trip to the ballpark, whether it’s Fenway or Yankee Stadium or Wrigley Field, but Fenway, the grand old “bandbox” is surely special.

Fenway at twilight

“Fenway Park, in Boston, is a lyric little bandbox of a ballpark.  Everything is painted green and seems in curiously sharp focus, like the inside of an old-fashioned peeping-type Easter egg.”  John Updike in the New Yorker on the occasion of Ted William’s retirement.  1960

Coming past the fortress front of Fenway, the boys and their father entered into the catacombs underneath the stands.  Dirty, noisy, crowded, a bewildering array of young and old, more male than female, pushing, bumping, looking at tickets and anxiously following signs to the right section.  Finally they found their ramp, ascended with the crowd, at first seeing only the twilight, the blinding high arrays of lights just coming to life, and then emerging into the aisle to encounter a breath stopping, beatific vision of green, The Wall, natural grass, base paths with freshly limed lines, dugouts full of champions and players stretching and throwing the ball around.  The boys, as all boys, were wide eyed, open mouthed, trying in vain to see it all at once.  Fenway is intimate; they felt on the field, yet it seemed immense; they were flabbergasted just how far their heroes had to bat and throw.  How high the ball went and how amazingly quickly the ball traveled from one end of the field to the other.  Untainted wonder.

Their dad led them down, down until they were four or five rows behind the visitor’s dugout. One further thrill when Dad bought hot dogs wrapped in napkins passed hand to hand down the row while the money went the other way; maybe a bag of peanuts later, thrown twenty feet by another vendor?  “Don’t drop them, Dad, they’ll boo ya!” They were close enough to hear the players shout back and forth and laugh.  Oh my, there was Mickey.

When Mantle first came up in 1951, he made $7,500 and played in the outfield with a guy named DiMaggio.  The Yankees took the World Series in four over the Giants in a subway series. Phil Rizzuto was the shortstop; Bobby Cox played third.  Mickey was an almost mythical farm boy from Oklahoma; he moved with astonishing grace and speed, a god even among all the other amazing athletes.  There was nothing he couldn’t do with bat, ball, glove or legs.  Mickey Mantle was arguably the greatest switch hitter in baseball history and a lock for a first ballot trip to the Hall of Fame with 536 home runs by the time his career wound down. In 1968 he made the kingly salary of $100,000 in the last year of his contract, and played part time first base on worn out wheels.

“I can’t play anymore.  I can’t hit the ball when I need to.  I can’t steal second when I need to.  I can’t go from first to third when I need to.  I have to quit.”  Mickey Mantle in 1968

Neither the Yanks nor the Sox were going anywhere that summer; they finished 4th and 5th in the American League the season Denny McLain pitched 31 wins  with a 1.99 ERA, and the Tigers won the World Series.  It was a tired game in a tired year, but Mickey was there, and both the Sox and Yankee fans loved him.  It was enough. Mick sat on the bench early in the game, but came in later under fan pressure.  He got a standing ovation the first time he got up.  He struck out awkwardly – a gimpy, sore guy, just a vestige of when he owned the game.  Mickey came to the plate one more time late in the game.  The crowd stood again and lifted the roof.  Tim doesn’t remember the score or the outcome, but he remembers this.

“…if I had played my career hitting singles like Pete, I’d wear a dress.”  Mickey on Pete Rose, in The Mick

The Mick fouled the first pitch back.  The second bounced in for a ball.  At the third pitch, he swung with a brief, magnificent flash of his youthful strength, balance and speed; the ball exploded towards left field.  It hit the tin of The Wall with a bang heard throughout the park, an unforgettable sound unique to Fenway Park.  Mick grimaced as he headed towards first, barely able to imitate anything near running.  A young, future Hall of Famer, Carl Yastrzemski, roamed left field like a lion and already had learned like an art form how to play balls hit off The Wall.  He positioned himself perfectly and plucked the ball in the air off the wall.  He spun to throw it in and Mickey was barely halfway to second.  Yaz pumped with the ball towards the infield.  He pumped again, and yet a third time as Mickey pulled into second base; only then did Yaz throw a rope to a grinning Rico Petrocelli covering the bag.  The fans rose as one to applaud this tribute to greatness back before baseball became “Moneyball” spreadsheets of stats and millionaire salaries.  When baseball was still America’s game.

“I would change policy, bring back natural grass and nickel beer.  Baseball is the belly-button of our society.  Straighten out baseball, and you straighten out the rest of the world.”  Bill Lee in an interview with a sports writer about the state of the game he loved.

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “The Mick

  1. Rita

    Quote from comedian and social observer George Carlin’s riff on the differences between baseball and football:
    “Baseball begins in the spirng, the season of new life. Football begins in the fall, when everything’s dying.”

    Further comment on this quote by Jonah Goldberg in his new book “The Tyranny of Cliches”: Baseball is a nineteenth-century pastoral game played in a park. Football is a military-technological struggle for territory played on a gridiron in a stadum. In baseball you make “errors.” In football you get “penalties.”

    Give me baseball anyday…

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  2. Greg

    Hi Jack,

    Another good column professor, here are some quotes from the best, the 1st is a tribute to Mother’s Day.
    What are we at the park for except to win? I’d trip my mother. I’d help her up, brusher her off, tell her I’m sorry. But mother don’t make it to third. ~Leo Durocher
    People ask me what I do in winter when there’s no baseball. I’ll tell you what I do. I stare out the window and wait for spring. ~Rogers Hornsby
    I’d walk through hell in a gasoline suit to play baseball. ~ Pete Rose
    My dad taught me to switch-hit. He and my grandfather, who was left-handed, pitched to me everyday after school in the back yard. I batted lefty against my dad and righty against my granddad. ~Mickey Mantle
    And best of all from one of our own:
    Spread the diaper in the position of the diamond with you at bat. Then fold second base down to home and set the baby on the pitcher’s mound. Put first base and third together, bring up home plate and pin the three together. Of course, in case of rain, you gotta call the game and start all over again. ~Jimmy Piersal, on how to diaper a baby, 1968

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  3. Martin P

    My boy Liam has been playing Babe Ruth baseball for the last few weeks. Games are Saturday and Sunday mornings at 9 am, though tonight he has a make-up game. Both mornings this past weekend enjoyed perfect baseball weather. As we sat at our posts, Carey and I were thinking at one point that there was no other place we’d rather be than watching those games. The warm sun kicking up a slight breeze, the smell of cut grass, my good luck stone ready for action in my pocket, it was just right.

    Regarding football vs baseball; i love how football starts in the blistering heat of late summer and ends (hopefully and sometimes) in a snow squall. It’s a sport like no other that requires individual achievement but completely in the context of team play. It’s a chess match played with sledge hammers while the clock is ticking.

    I love’em both.

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    • I grew up a big football fan. Played high school football (not great and not big enough – only 16 during football season in my senior year); Sundays were the NY Giants (pre Patriots) and flag or tag football until dark with friends. It’s lost a lot now that only the well to do can attend, and there is so much hype on TV coverage.
      But worst is the increase in the violence quotient, especially with the recent scandals about head hunting and bounties to deliberately injure another player. Becoming the bread and circuses distraction of the Coliseum.
      The players have become so big and so fast and so strong and so violent, with the evidence mounting of long term and permanent brain damage, I’m rapidly losing the fun of the game. Too bad; it was a great sport.

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