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Mickey Mantle - Tragic Hero?

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Mantle's rise in popularity paralleled the rise in America's obsession with the television. When he started playing in 1951, baseball was at the peak of its popularity. After the war, the country flocked to ballparks and gathered around radios (and televisions, if they could find them). With Mantle's strong bat, his good looks and charm, the chance that when you tuned into a Yankee game you might see or hear Mickey hit one out of the park sparked excitement in fans of every age.

In addition to his individual appeal, Mantle played on the New York Yankees, a team that had, of course, the legend of The Babe. Yankee Stadium was "the House that Ruth built," and add to that Willie Mays concurrently playing center for the New York Giants, and Duke Snider in center for the Brooklyn Dodgers, and New York was a media frenzy. When the Yankees made it into their innumerable World Series games in the fifties, fans would remember Mickey Mantle as the hero of many of the games. At the conclusion of his career, Mantle had hit 536 home runs, batted in 1509 runs on 2415 hits and had ten out of eighteen seasons when he hit .300 or better. But he had also struck out a record 1710 times.

Perhaps what he's best remembered for was the 1961 season, when he and teammate Roger Maris attempted to break Babe Ruth's thirty-four year old mark of sixty home runs in a single season. Throughout the year, the two matched each other homer for homer. The contest—in actuality two friends playing the best baseball they could—became a media circus. Babe Ruth had also been a Yankee, which only added to the hype as the season wound down.

A few weeks before the season ended, Mantle developed a bad pain in his hip after a doctor had given him an injection. The wound never healed, and as the abscess grew worse and more painful, Mickey's performance faltered. He was eventually sidelined at fifty-four home runs, while Maris went on to reach the fabled "61" first.

An interesting side note to the battle between Mantle and Maris is that Mantle had been the fan favorite. By this point in his career, Mantle could talk to the media. Maris, on the other hand, who was shy and didn't give the reporters much camera time, soon found out that beating "The Mick" for the record was more of a burden than cause to celebrate.

After the 1963 season, a year which saw him come within only a few feet of hitting a baseball out of Yankee Stadium, Mantle's career began to fade. His knees were gone (so bad that many were amazed he could play at all). While playing in Baltimore, Mantle broke his ankle and didn't see any playing time for two months.

The injuries were beginning to pile up, and he found he was always in pain, had difficulty throwing, and had trouble batting from the left side. Over the final four years of his career he would never bat above .300, he hit fewer than thirty homers a season, and never again batted in sixty runs. He announced his retirement in 1969 at spring training.

Awards and Accomplishments

1952-65, 1967-68 American League All-Star Team
1952, 1956-57 Sporting News Major League All-Star Team
1956 Sporting News Major League Player of the Year; Associated Press Male Athlete of the Year; Hickok Belt
1956-67, 1962 American League most valuable player
1956-62 Sporting News Outstanding American League Player
1961-62, 1964 Sporting News American League All-Star Team
1962 American League Gold Glove Award
1974 Inducted into National Baseball Hall of Fame
1999 MLB All-Century Team; Uniform number 7 retired by Yankees

Related Biography: Baseball Player Whitey Ford

Born on October 21, 1928, Eddie "Whitey" Ford earned his nickname as a towheaded boy playing baseball at the Astoria Boys Club. Yankees scout Paul Krichell saw him pitch his high school team, the Aviation Trades, to the New York Journal American Sandlot tournament championship. At the time, Ford was playing first base but had pitched in the game as a substitute.

In 1946, Ford signed a minor league Yankee contract. He would remain in the minors for several years, compiling a 51-20 record. When he finally made his way up into the majors, he was already pitching like a veteran player.

In his first season with the Yankees, Ford compiled a 9-1 record. He would leave for the next two seasons (1951 and 1952) to serve his country at Fort Monmouth.

When he returned, in 1953, Ford fell right back into the rotation. At 5'10" tall, Whitey was stocky, strong, and confident. It was his confidence that allowed him to make the high pressure pitches to get himself out of trouble.

In 1956 he led the league with a .760 winning percentage, winning nineteen games with a 2.47 ERA. In 1961, Whitey Ford won the Cy Young award with a record of 25-4.

After he retired, Ford spent two seasons coaching for the Yankees, later becoming a scout for the team. In his baseball career he amassed a won-loss record of 236-106, with a 2.75 ERA, forty-five shutouts and 1956 strikeouts.

One of Mantle's best friends during some of the most glorious years in Yankee history, Whitey Ford eventually joined Mantle in recalling the glory years in their 1978 book, Whitey and Mickey: A Joint Autobiography of the Yankee Years.

He was unanimously voted into the Hall of Fame in 1974, his first year of eligibility. The Yankees retired the famed "Number 7," the jersey of a man who played on twelve pennant-winning and seven World Series-winning teams. "Mantle" became synonymous with the New York Yankees and their mid-century dominance of baseball.

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