This August will mark 25 years since Mickey Mantle passed away. Those who never got to see him play and are unaware of his achievements on the diamond will be surprised to find out just how terrific a baseball player he was.
Mantle’s early years
Mantle was born in 1931 in Spavinaw, Oklahoma and moved to Commerce, Oklahoma as a young child. When he was a little boy, his father and grandfather forced him to bat righthanded and lefthanded depending on which one of them was pitching the ball to him in the backyard. As a consequence, he became a natural switch hitter at a very early age.
Although his main passion was baseball (he grew up rooting for the St. Louis Cardinals), the Commerce Comet was an all-around athlete in high school, playing football, basketball, and baseball. He excelled at football, and he received a scholarship from the University of Oklahoma to play halfback. However, he was seriously injured in his left shin during his sophomore year and said adios to football.
The Mick played in the minor leagues between 1948 and 1950. He initially played shortstop for the Yanks’ Class-D Independence Yankees team. During a bad slump, he called his dad to tell him he wanted to quit baseball and go home. His father immediately jumped in his car, drove to Independence, Kansas, and convinced his son to hang in there and keep playing, which he did.
He hit his first professional home run well over the center-field fence in June 1949, which was 460 feet from home plate. He was only 17 years old at the time. Those attending the minor league game were astonished to witness so much power from such a young player.
In 1950 the Mick was promoted to the Class-C Joplin Miners of the Western Association. While he hit extremely well for both power (26 home runs) and average (.383) and drove in 136 runs, he had difficulty playing shortstop.
After an outstanding spring training, Yankees manager Casey Stengel immediately promoted him to the majors and put him in right field. Catcher Bill Dickey said the Mick was “the greatest prospect I’ve seen in my time, and I go back quite a ways.” Stengel remarked, “He’s got more natural power from both sides than anybody I ever saw.”
Once again, the Mick hit a slump and was sent down to the minors. His slump continued, and he quickly grew frustrated. He once again called his dad and said he wanted to quit baseball and go home.
And once again his father jumped in his car and drove up to Kansas City to talk to his son. He told his son that he was a coward after he arrived. He also told him that if he wasn’t going to play baseball, he would have to come home and work in the mines like his dad. Presented with that alternative, Mantle decided to be patient and give baseball another chance.