Mantle’s Regretful Career Finish

When Mickey Mantle retired after the 1968 season, he was very unhappy that his final season batting average of .237 had dropped his career batting average from .302 to .298. And who could blame him for the dent he put on the Hall of Fame body of his full 18 season (1951-1968) career?

Mickey Mantle’s 1968 season was one of four (1965-68) too many. Had he retired after the 1964 season and The Yankees’ heartbreaking loss to the Cardinals in the World Series, he would have left his injury-riddled 14-season career with an overall batting average of .309 and 454 home runs – and still have been a deserving elected member of the Hall of Fame today. (Mantle would have retired with 2,016 hits in 6,533 official times at bat, had he retired after 1964. He also would have lost only 82 HR from his career total of 536 through 1968. He would have surrender only 82 homers from his 1968 actual finish, had he retired after 1964.)

The four seasons of 1965 through 1968 were the epochal start of the great fall from grace years for the New York Yankees and meteoric Mickey was arguably the bleakest burned out light in their embarrassing descent.  That being said, I’ve only got one thing left to say before I continue. None of us are, or ever were, Mickey Mantle. And for sure, I’m not. We don’t know as fans what it was like to hobble around in the down years that followed the brilliant times he did enjoy earlier – and The Mick was never free from quirky injury or pain, even then. – And, even if we’ve had our own bad experience with alcohol and poor life style choices, we still don’t know what it was like to have mixed those jokers into a deck that also included being saddled with the expectations of being a baseball star at the same time we were enduring the combinations of physical, emotional, and chemical pains that come with being there for anyone, no matter how good they are, who dares to follow in the paths of Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and Joe DiMaggio – even if the guys around you are not quite as great as the supporting casts of the original and earlier versions of “Murderers’ Row”.

Mickey, we hardly knew your pain. The most you ever said to us about the statistical decline from 1965 through 1968 was paraphrasically something along these lines: “If I hadn’t played that last 1968 season, I could’ve, at least, kept my lifetime, plus .300 batting average.

That’s so true, Mick, as this simple little chart shows. Had you not played in 1968, you could have retired with a lifetime .302 batting average and 518 career home runs over 17 (1951-1967) seasons.

Thru At Bats Hits BA HR
  1967 7667 2312 .302 518
  1968 8102 2415 .298 536
– 1968 – 435 – 103 -.004 – 18

Mantle’s 1968 season also had little long-term effect upon his final standing among the career home run leaders either. By playing to his true end in 1968, his 18 homers that season allowed Mantle (536 HR) to pass Ted Williams (521 HR) and Jimmie Fox (524 HR) for 3rd place on the all time list behind Babe Ruth (714) and Willie Mays (660). Today, in 2017, it hardly matters. Mickey Mantle, to this point in the booming days of Earl Weaver-minded baseball, has now slipped to place # 22 on the all-time career home run list.

That’s OK with me. If Jeff Bagwell is good enough for the Hall of Fame with 449 HR on top of his painful injuries – and he for damn sure is – Mickey Mantle is the poster boy super star for that kind of against-all-odds naturally great athlete. His .298 final batting average means nothing to me. It simply did despairing things to the guy who saw .300 as one of the bottom line baseball measurements on greatness.

Alas! Woulda, Coulda, Shoulda doesn’t work for the great ones either.

If only Mickey Mantle had not stepped on that watering grate in the 1951 World Series, he woulda have set base running and phenomenal catch records that coulda turned our amazing baseball memories upside down.

If only Mickey Mantle had gotten some early help with his drinking and bad decision-making, like he shoulda, he might have been the greatest ballplayer of all time by the numbers record of his accomplishments.

Forget about it. Woulda, Coulda, Shoulda ideas are where Mickey Mantle comes closer to being like the rest of us than we shall ever be by the power of the baseball gods to turn back the clock and make any of us like him.

Neither is going to happen. Things are the way they are.

And here’s where we hoi pa loi come together with the great public people of this world. The more we learn to live with what is, in the here and now, changing what he can change, and leaving the rest of the ego stuff that requires either politics or the finessing and control of others to some aspiring end , the easier it is to live with whatever the .298 batting average disappointments in our own lives happen to be. And this philosophy even takes in people like baseball field managers.

As a baseball field manager, all you can really do is be yourself out there in trying to build a working relationship with your players. All you can do in the end, however, is make out the lineups and do the personnel changes that seem to be needed during the game. The rest is up to the players. And you will be the better manager, we think, if you stay focused on what you can do – and not what the players must do to help you keep your job. There’s no doubt about one thing, however. Casey Stengel said it best when he acknowledged that he only became a “genius” as a manager once he took over the stable of talent that lined the roster of the New York Yankees. As the later older manager of the New York Mets, Stengel was returned to beyond worse results than even those he had known during his 1930s career managerial jobs with the Boston Braves or Brooklyn Dodgers. Of the hapless 1962 New York Mets, Casey was finally reduced to asking of his losing record team, a question that’s no doubt come up unspoken by many other managers of bad clubs: “Can anybody here play this game?”

The 1951 New York Yankees were a force.

Mickey Mantle, as the 13-year old kid who remembers you from that 1951 spring training game in which you and DiMaggio and the rest of the Yankees came to town and beat up on my Houston Buffs at Buff Stadium that hot early April Sunday afternoon, I shall remain your fan for as long as I have a forever to recall such things. I still think that you, Willie Mays, Stan Musial, and Roberto Clemente were the four greatest players I ever saw play. You are my “Four Horsemen of the Baseball Affirmation” and I wouldn’t put an order on any of you as the greatest. You were each wonderfully great in your own very specific ways.

Forget .298. It is only the thorn of unresolved regret in the mind of one great player who played, at least, one season too long.

____________________


Bill McCurdy

Publisher, Editor, Writer

The Pecan Park Eagle

Houston, Texas

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3 Responses to “Mantle’s Regretful Career Finish”

  1. Emmett McAuliffe Says:

    Albert Pujols career average is exactly the same as Mantle’s was at the end of’ 64: .309. At his current rate however, he will finish below .300 (which he has never been below his entire career). He might drop below .300 as early as this year. But his contract goes through the end of 2021. Albert is a lot older than Mickey was in 1964 however.

  2. Paul English Says:

    Beautiful essay about one of my earliest and greatest heroes as well. As a young musician I had put together a big band of the best high school players I could find. We had one of our first gigs at a big shopping mall in San Antonio. A celebrity appearance was scheduled by none other than the great Mickey Mantle.

    In the back of the bus on the way to the gig I wrote a special arrangement of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” for my 22-piece band. I was 16 years old and you can imagine how excited I was.

    When we got there and the appointed time came, Mickey was there to greet the fans and sign autographs. I had brought my favorite glove.

    But there was disappointment in the air. Mickey’s expression was dour and his face was far from the smiling champion I had known from TV shots. He went through the motions of signing autographs without so much as a glance at the idolizing youngsters and older fans who were just hoping for a glance, a wink or some hint of a momentary acknowledgement thrown their way. Mickey’s handlers had him in and out of there and I don’t think he ever said a word to anyone. My glove went unsigned.

    The year was 1968. And not hard to imagine now just why Micky didn’t much feel like the life of the party that summer day in San Antonio.

    Thanks for the tribute to this great athlete, Bill!

  3. gregclucas Says:

    I think to truly measure the greatness of a player the final years (and sometimes the opening ones) need to be considered very lightly. What he was in his prime tells you just how good he was. Those that hang on longer will accumulate more totals–hits, home runs, etc–, but lose out in the averages department. Look at Bagwell’s best years…Biggio’s best…and yes Mantle, Pujols, and any number of stars from the past. THAT is where Hall of Famers are made…not when they are old, hobbled and shadows of their former greatness.

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