In 1948 Mantle was playing baseball for a semipro team called the Baxter Springs Whiz Kids in Kansas when he caught the eye of Tom Greenwade, a scout for the New York Yankees of the American League. Mantle signed his first professional contract immediately after graduating from high school in 1949. He began his professional career as a shortstop for the Yankee farm team at Independence (Kansas) of the Class D Kansas-Oklahoma-Missouri League and the following year moved up to Joplin (Missouri) of the Class C Western Association. Mantle proved a capable hitter from the start, batting .313 in his first year and .383 in his second, but committed a startling 102 errors in 226 games at shortstop. Still, he showed such promise that the Yankees invited him to accompany the team for the last two weeks of the 1950 season (although he didn't play) and to spring training in 1951. There, the "Commerce Comet" caught the eye of Yankee manager Casey Stengel and opened the season as New York's right fielder, flanking the immortal Joe DiMaggio, whom he would eventually succeed in center field, during the Yankee Clipper's final season.
The nineteen-year-old Mantle struggled early in the season and was sent back to the Yankees' top farm team, the Class AAA Kansas City Blues, in July. Devastated by his demotion and slumping badly at the plate, Mantle briefly contemplated quitting baseball, but his father talked him out of it. Mantle rejoined the Yankees at the end of August in time for the first of his twelve World Series, against the National League champion New York Giants. Mantle's initial World Series experience was a brief one, as in the sixth inning of the second game he caught his spikes on a rubber drain cover in the Yankee Stadium outfield and tore cartilage in his right knee.
While Mantle was recuperating from the operation on his knee, he learned that his father, who had come up from Oklahoma to see the World Series, was dying from Hodgkin's disease. Mutt Mantle died in 1952, and the disease eventually contributed to the early deaths of Mantle's grandfather, two uncles, and later his son Billy. Mantle himself believed that he would be dead by the age of forty. While he escaped the family curse of Hodgkin's disease, Mantle suffered an astonishing series of injuries during his career. In only four of his eighteen major-league seasons did he appear in as many as 150 games. In 1953 he tore ligaments in his right knee. In 1954 he had surgery to remove a cyst from behind his knee. In the 1957 World Series he injured his right shoulder, hampering his throwing and right-handed batting. In 1961 he and teammate Roger Maris both mounted serious challenges to Babe Ruth's 1927 record of sixty home runs in a single season, but a hip abscess cost Mantle a shot at the record. (Maris broke the record, hitting sixty-one homers, while Mantle finished with fifty-four and missed most of that year's World Series, although the image of Mantle trying to play with a uniform stained with blood from the abscess added to his legend.)
In 1962 he pulled a hamstring and tore two ligaments and knee cartilage. In 1963 Mantle broke his right foot when it caught in a chain-link fence in the outfield. In 1965 he pulled a hamstring and was bothered by his chronically sore right knee, which required frequent cortisone shots. In 1966 he suffered from bone chips in his shoulder, then tore a hamstring running the bases. Throughout his career his determination to play in almost constant pain from his knees, which bore the scars of four operations, was legendary. In fact, the injuries, or more specifically the stoicism with which Mantle endured them, only added to his popularity. For many members of the "baby-boom" generation, Mantle seemed to embody the innocence and promise of the 1950s. His blond, boyish good looks, his unpretentious country-boy personality, and his physical courage, in combination with his prominence as the star of the best and best-known team in baseball, elevated him to the status of a national folk hero.
When he retired following the 1968 season he ranked third on baseball's all-time list with 536 home runs (and first in strikeouts, with 1,710), and was the all-time Yankee leader in games played. Four times he led the American League in home runs and slugging percentage, five times in runs scored, three times in on-base percentage, and once in batting average and runs batted in. His best season was 1956, when he won the so-called Triple Crown, leading the major leagues in batting average, home runs, and runs batted in. For most of Mantle's career the Yankees were the dominant team in professional sports. They won twelve AL pennants in his eighteen seasons, and his eighteen home runs in World Series play are still a record. He was named the most valuable player in the AL following the 1956, 1957, and 1962 seasons and was named to the AL All-Star team sixteen times. He was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1974, his first year of eligibility. Yet, despite all his accomplishments, Mantle was ultimately a deeply, even tragically, flawed hero. He had been perhaps the fastest runner in baseball as a young man, but his various leg injuries gradually robbed him of much of his speed. Moreover, as a young star in New York, he was a legendary drinker and carouser, most notoriously in the company of teammates Whitey Ford and Billy Martin. Fans, reporters, and (at least publicly) Yankee officials generally turned a blind eye to Mantle's excesses while he was posting awesome numbers as a player, but no one will ever know how much more he could have accomplished had he taken better care of himself.
Mantle married Merlyn Johnson of Picher, Oklahoma, on December 23, 1952. They had been married for forty-three years at the time of his death, although they separated amicably several years before. They had four sons, Mickey Jr., David, Billy (named after Billy Martin), and Danny. Billy died of a heart attack, caused in part by Hodgkin's disease, at the age of thirty-six, in 1985. Mantle and his family moved from Commerce to Dallas in 1956, when he was offered a partnership in a bowling alley in the latter city in an attempt to capitalize on his celebrity. The venture soon failed, but Mantle made Dallas his home for the rest of his life, although he had business interests elsewhere, most notably a restaurant in New York. He also worked briefly as a coach for the Yankees; as a baseball broadcaster for NBC; and in public relations for Dallas's Reserve Life Insurance Company and for the Claridge Hotel in Atlantic City, N.J. The latter job prompted baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn, concerned about the effect of gambling on the game's image, to ban Mantle from baseball in 1983. Two years later Kuhn's successor Peter Ueberroth lifted the ban.
In 1994 Mantle admitted publicly that he was an alcoholic, checked himself into a rehabilitation clinic, and wrote an article for Sports Illustrated magazine in which he expressed regret over the effects of his drinking on his career. "God gave me a great body to play with," he wrote, "and I didn't take care of it. And I blame a lot of it on alcohol." Mantle's open and courageous admission of his alcoholism won him many new admirers, but in 1995 he became the center of controversy when he was diagnosed with liver cancer and underwent a highly publicized liver transplant. Many felt that his case had been expedited simply because of his celebrity. Criticism of Mantle's doctors increased when it was revealed that the cancer had already spread throughout his body. Mantle died nine weeks later, on August 13, 1995, in Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas.
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