Cooperstown Confidential: The last games of Mickey Mantleby Bruce Markusen
September 27, 2013
Mickey Mantle played his final game in 1968. I don’t remember seeing that game, or any other game in 1968, for that matter. After all, I was all of three years old.
Although my memory does not stretch back 45 years, I still watched Mantle play that summer. At least that’s what my family has told me. For years now, my family has described to me how I used to walk up to our old black and white TV, stand as close to it as I could, and then start to jump up and down frenetically whenever Mantle came to the plate. When Mantle swung the bat, I would let out a scream. Being three years old at the time, I can’t actually remember any of this. But my family has assured me—much to my embarrassment—that it did happen. All of it.
By 1968, Mantle’s abilities had been reduced to a fragment of their former levels. Yet, he still had some value as an offensive player. Retaining his keen batting eye, he still managed to coax 106 walks, which allowed him to reach base 38 per cent of the time. He also hit 18 home runs, which was a decent figure within the environment of the “Year of the Pitcher.”
Based strictly on hitting alone, Mantle ranked as no worse than third among American League first basemen. Only Detroit’s Norm Cash and Baltimore’s Boog Powell clearly ranked ahead of Mantle. If you’re wondering about Harmon Killebrew, he had struggled through an injury-plagued summer, taking him out of the equation. As for the rest, Mantle was clearly better than Boston’s George Scott, California’s Don Mincher, Tom McCraw of the White Sox, Cleveland’s Tony Horton, Oakland’s Danny Cater, and the Senators’ Mike Epstein.
As good as Mantle’s numbers looked within the context of a pitcher-friendly 1968, they also masked severe problems within his game. Sure, Mantle reached base often, but he could hardly run, restricted to an embarrassing limp that made him one of the league’s slower runners. Surrounded by a weak cast of characters (other than capable hitters like Roy White and Joe Pepitone), Mantle simply had no one to drive him in.
Defensively, Mantle offered little to nothing. No longer able to play the outfield, he could only play first base. He had little range and lacked the reflexes to handle hard-hit grounders. He played first base only because there was nowhere else to play.
Of course, I had no concept of any of this in 1968. I had no idea that Mantle was playing the final games of his Hall of Fame career. Then again, no one knew with certainty that Mantle was going to retire. There were whispers that 1968 would represent Mantle’s final go-round, but nothing official coming from either Mantle or the Yankees. He would not publicly announce his retirement until the first day of March in 1969, after the Yankees had already reported to spring training. In complete contrast to the ongoing retirement of the great Mariano Rivera, there was no retirement ceremony while Mantle was still playing in 1968, no gifts being given to the departing hero, and no farewell tour.
Even if Mantle had announced his retirement in 1968, a farewell tour would not have taken place. That’s because farewell tours did not exist at that time. As I recall, the whole practice of a farewell tour did not begin until Kareem Abdul-Jabbar announced his retirement from the NBA back in the late 1980s. The Lakers’ season in 1989 became a long string of farewells and gift giveaways, all for the benefit of Abdul-Jabbar.
Sports were simpler in Mantle’s day. Ceremonies, gift-giving, and other special events took place with less frequency. While the possibility of Mantle retiring was brought up in 1968, it did not dominate headlines the way it would have done in today’s baseball environment. In fact, Mantle’s largest headline moment came in a late September game with the Tigers, several days before his actual finale. It was a Thursday afternoon game on September 19, sparsely attended at Tiger Stadium, that otherwise would have garnered little attention. It was a meaningless late-season game that had come just after the Tigers had officially clinched the American League pennant race.
With the Tigers guaranteed of a place in the World Series and the Yankee pennant hopes long since ended, the game meant very little. Denny McLain, having just won his 30th game of the season, opposed Mel Stottlemyre in a battle of staff aces. On this day, McLain had something special in mind for Mantle, who was tied with Jimmie Foxx for third on the all-time home run list. Hearing the rumors that Mantle might retire at season’s end, McLain wanted to ensure that “The Mick” would hit the milestone home run.
As Mantle stepped to the plate, McLain called his catcher, the veteran backup Jim Price, to come to the mound. “I want Mantle to hit one,“ McLain told Price, according to an excerpt from Tim Wendel’s book, Summer of ‘68. At first, Price did not understand what McLain meant. But within a few moments, he came to realize that McLain intended to give Mantle an easy pitch to hit, in order to maximize his chances of hitting a home run.
McLain threw a succession of what could be best described as batting practice fastballs. But Mantle either took them or fouled them off. Price and McLain then had another meeting on the mound, with McLain telling his battery mate to inform Mantle “to be ready.” Price relayed the message to Mantle.
McLain threw another low-velocity fastball toward Mantle, who swung hard, sending the ball deep toward right field at Tiger Stadium. The ball landed in the right field stands, and Mantle limped his way around the bases, officially moving past Jimmie Foxx on the all-time home run list. After the game, Mantle retrieved the ball, signed it, and then gave it to McLain as a gift. According to Jane Leavy’s The Last Boy, the inscription read, “Denny, thanks for one of the great moments in my entire career, Mickey.”
Based on the conferences between McLain and Price, and the body language of both McLain and Mantle, it was obvious to most in attendance that the at-bat lacked legitimacy. After the game, McLain admitted to nothing, but his coy and ambiguous answers indicated that something strange had taken place. Commissioner Spike Eckert later reprimanded McLain, sending him a letter scolding him for his actions. But Eckert did not punish him otherwise, perhaps because he had no proof that the controversial right-hander had tanked his performance.
It was hardly a proud moment for the game, and likely would have drawn a harsher reaction from today’s more skeptical media, but McLain has remained unrepentant. He has since admitted that he grooved the series of pitches to Mantle but has offered no apologies. As a lifelong fan of Mantle who had grown up idolizing The Mick in the 1950s, McLain felt that he had done the right thing in assisting him achieve a baseball milestone.
Six days later, Mantle played what would be his final game at Yankee Stadium, but with little fanfare. Facing Indians ace Luis Tiant, who was putting the finishing touches on a brilliant 21-win, 1.60 ERA season, Mantle came to the plate four times. In his first at-bat, he singled to center field, but was left stranded.
His next two time times up, Mantle struck out looking and struck out swinging. In his last plate appearance, he drew a ninth-inning walk, but was again left stranded, this time to end the game, completing a 3-0, one-hit shutout for Tiant. Even though Mantle’s hit was the only one mustered against Tiant that day, it was an anti-climactic way to finish a legendary career at Yankee Stadium.
Then came the finale of Mantle’s career, taking place on the road. It occurred on the second to last day of the season, a Saturday afternoon, with Fenway Park providing the backdrop and the rival Red Sox supplying the opposition. Yankees manager Ralph Houk wrote Mantle’s name into the starting lineup, putting him at first base, where he had spent most of the 1968 season. In the top of the first, Mantle stepped in against Red Sox right-hander Jim Lonborg. Breaking his bat on an inside fastball, he lofted a weak pop-up toward shallow left field, where it was caught easily by shortstop Rico Petrocelli.
Mantle then ran out to his position at first base to start the bottom half of the first. Mantle proceeded to throw the ball around the infield, taking part in the usual around-the-horn tossing that marks the delays between innings. But Mantle was simply playing a role; he had no intention of playing any further. Mantle and Houk had worked out a special departure.
After public address announcer Sherm Feller introduced the first Red Sox batter, he paused slightly, and then announced a defensive substitution for the Yankees. In a pre-arranged decision, Houk instructed journeyman outfielder/first baseman Andy Kosco to run out to first base to take over for Mantle.
Becoming the answer to a trivia question, Kosco shook hands with Mantle, thanking The Mick for the opportunity to play with him. Mantle then limped toward the dugout, the fans at Fenway Park slowly gathering into a standing ovation. Mantle ran off the field for the final time.
Mantle did not even attend the Yankees’ final game at Fenway; the early departure allowed him to board an earlier flight and head home to Dallas on Saturday.
For the most part, Mantle had made up his mind to retire. But he made no formal announcement, in large part because the Yankees and the Players’ Association asked him not to do so. The Yankees wanted to create the illusion that Mantle would play in 1969, so that they could sell more season ticket packages. The player union hoped to use Mantle’s name in order to gain leverage in their next round of negotiations with the owners. That’s why Mantle waited until the early days of spring training to make his announcement to the media and the fans.
I also suspect Mantle wanted little part of an elaborate ceremony that would have accompanied his final days as an active player. A public gathering like that would have made Mantle uncomfortable, perhaps even awkward. If such a ceremony was inevitable, it could wait for later, in 1969, when he was fully retired and wearing a matching suit instead of pinstripes.
To this day, I’m torn about the way that Mantle left the game. First off, I selfishly wish that Mantle had played a little bit longer, if only to allow me to have remembered seeing him play. He could still draw walks and hit home runs, and those attributes might have allowed him to play for another two or three years. I sure would have enjoyed watching a little bit more of Mantle.
More to the point, I have mixed feelings about the lack of pomp and circumstance surrounding Mantle’s departure from the game. On the one hand, there is a quiet dignity to leaving the game without ceremonies and speeches. Spontaneity usually wins out over staging and scripting. After awhile, the accolades become repetitive and tiresome.
Yet, there is part of me that wants to see a player like Mantle receive a formal farewell in the manner that Rivera has in 2013. Perhaps Mantle’s final season of 1968 would be better remembered if it were accompanied by a full ceremony, a tribute, a press conference, and even a farewell tour. Those moments would have been nice to capture on film or videotape.
Alas, those moments don’t exist. Forty five years ago, the world of baseball was a far different place.
References and Resources
Summer of '68, by Tim Wendel;
The Last Boy, by Jane Leavy
Bruce Markusen is the author of seven books on baseball, including the award-winning A Baseball Dynasty: Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s, the recipient of the Seymour Medal from the Society for American Baseball Research. He has also written The Team That Changed Baseball: Roberto Clemente and the 1971 Pittsburgh Pirates, Tales From The Mets Dugout, and The Orlando Cepeda Story.