Talk about a stroke of pure luck, this was it! As I recall, it was in the late 1970s when I and then Brunswick News photographer Mickey Harrison were covering an event at Sea Palms Golf Resort on St. Simons Island.
I knew it was something important because I was wearing a suit and tie that day and I never wore a full suit in my daily duties as sports editor of The Brunswick News. Well, when we were in the main clubhouse area, either the head golf pro or one of the administrative guys told us, “Mickey Mantle is here today.”
What, I thought, the one ballplayer — in any sport — that I idolized as a teenager was in the building with myself and our photographer at that very moment!
I began following the exploits of Mickey Charles Mantle at the age of 13, in the summer of 1956. That was the season the 24-year-old switch hitter from Commerce, Oklahoma was literally tearing American League pitchers apart. He was leading the powerful New York Yankees to still another pennant and was on his way to the coveted triple crown, something every big league hitter aspires to but seldom accomplishes. Mantle would finish the season with a .353 batting average, 52 home runs and 130 runs-batted-in and would lead the Yankees to a World Series victory over the defending champion Brooklyn Dodgers, the series being highlighted by Don Larsen’s 2-0 perfect game win when Mantle homered and saved Larsen’s gem with a spectacular running catch in deep center.
But that summer of ‘56 was when I scanned the AL box scores every single day, keeping The Mick’s batting average, HRs and RBIs up to date.
I got to see Mickey Mantle play twice in person. First time was during his and Roger Maris’ torrid pursuit of Babe Ruth’s single-season home run record of 60, in the summer of 1961. The Yankees were playing the Los Angeles Angels at the old Wrigley Field (yep, same name as the legendary one in Chicago) and needless to say, Mantle, Maris, and Yogi Berra all put on a show in batting practice that night, peppering one pitch after another into the right-field stands. The next time I watched Mantle play would be in 1965, when I was stationed at Fort Dix, N.J. while serving in the U.S. Army. That day, it was a spine-tingling feeling to actually walk into the old and mammoth Yankee Stadium in the Bronx and gaze up at the facade above the right field upper deck, where Mantle twice sent balls against in his career. I couldn’t imagine anyone hitting a baseball that far and high up.
So, at Sea Palms on St. Simons that day, you can imagine the emotions that completely engulfed me when I learned the famous No. 7 was in the building.
But indeed Mantle was there and I found him sitting in a booth, by himself, near the dining area. When I approached Mickey, he had a very stern look on his face and said, “Who told you I was here?” Having, of course, followed the Yankee Hall of Fame centerfielder nearly his entire playing career from 1951-68, I knew all about how Mantle could be rather standoffish away from the playing field so I was thinking, this hoped-for interview might go nowhere fast.
But as I took my seat in the booth across from Mantle and he discovered I knew the details of almost every tape-measure home run he ever hit (with the two primary ones being his 565-foot blast in 1953 in Washington from the right side of the plate and his mammoth homer, batting lefty, in 1963 in Yankee Stadium that, as mentioned, struck the right-field facade above the third deck and came within several feet of being the first fair ball to leave the old stadium, he really mellowed down and gave me all the material I needed for a very good column the next day in The News.
I was especially intrigued talking with Mantle about the May 22, 1963 blast off Kansas City’s Bill Fischer. The game was tied at 7-7 and had gone to the 11th inning. It so happened that Mantle led off the bottom of the 11th. Now, let’s pick up an excerpt from Jane Leavy’s book on Mantle, titled The Last Boy.
After talking about A’s manager Eddie Lopat riding Mantle, screaming he was washed up and other derogatory chants, Leavy quoted Kansas City’s then 18-year-old bonus baby Tony LaRussa as such: “When he (Mantle) cranked up to stride into that ball, he unleashed every bit of that anger and frustration (from Lopat’s heckling). He made a perfect swing, everything working.”
And now, from Leavy again: “The ball creased the night air, heading straight for the copper frieze atop the third deck in right field. It soared over Norm Siebern’s head at first base. ‘Ten, 12, 15 feet over my head,’” he said. ‘I couldn’t leap up and get it — it was too high for that. So I just turned right around and watched. It just kept going up and up and up and up.’” Meantime, the A’s right fielder, George Alusik, never moved, except to straighten with the pitch. “He leaned back,” wrote Leavy, “glancing over his shoulder just as the ball met the frieze. ‘I knew where she was headed,’ he said.” The New York Times said the ball hit the facade “374 feet away from the batter’s box and 108 feet and 1 inch above the playing field.”
Mantle said it was the hardest ball he ever hit. “The one in Washington (565 feet) I had a 50 mile-per-hour tailwind,” he said. “The one off Pedro Ramos (that struck the same facade in 1956) was coming down more.”
And as we all know now, as dynamic — a 3-time AL MVP — as Mantle was on the baseball field, his away from-the-field life was lived in sad contrast. His excessive drinking led to liver cancer, which ended his life at the age of 63 on Aug. 13, 1995.
But Mickey Mantle will always be my boyhood hero and I still feel fortunate that I was in the right place at the right time to interview him that long-ago day on St. Simons Island. And I was also fortunate that late photographer Mickey Harrison was right there with me, taking two pictures of me talking with Mantle that still hangs on the wall in my study today.
Next Week in Auburn Issue, No. 4, A Glorious Night in the Land of the Irish