View From Lodi, CA: Watching Mark McGwire—Thinking about Mickey Mantle

When

Mickey Mantle
broke into baseball with the New York
Yankees, I was an eight-year-old kid living in Los
Angeles.

I was obsessed with baseball.
Everywhere I went, I took my glove and ball hoping to
scrounge a game of catch with whoever was around.

In the early 1950s, Los Angeles did
not have a major league team. So until Mantle came along
to woo me over to the Yankees, I

followed
the

Pacific Coast League
and the

Hollywood Stars.

The Stars were the AAA affiliate of
the truly awful

Pittsburgh Pirates
. Each year by May, the Pirates
were about 30 games out of first place.

Even a kid has a hard time rooting
for his team when they are hopelessly mired in last
place before the season is two months old. And it didn`t
help that the best player on the Pirates was

Bobby Del Greco.

No one ever confused Del Greco with
Mickey Mantle.

In 1956, when I turned thirteen, I
saw my first major league game. The Yankees played the
old

Washington Senators.
That was the year Mantle, the
unanimous choice for

Most Valuable Player,
hit .353, 52 home runs and
knocked in 130 runs.

After I saw Mantle roam center
field, he was in

most of my waking thoughts
for many years that
followed.

How times have changed.

Two weeks ago, I briefly watched
the Congressional hearings on

baseball and steroids
. I listened to

Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa.

But I thought about Mantle, the
star from my youth who could hit a baseball over 500
feet from either the

left or the right side
of the batter`s box.

Mickey Mantle!

Casey Stengel, Mantle`s manager,
said that a complete player had to be able to do five
things: hit for average, hit with power, field, run and
throw.

Mantle was at or near the top in
all five categories.

The never-ending debate that
gripped baseball fans during the Golden Era was who was
the more complete player, Mantle or his rival from the
Giants,

Willie Mays?

Comparing the two players at the
peak of their careers, Mantle hit for higher average,
hit more homers and beat out more grounders for infield
singles.

And while Mays was a better center
fielder, Mantle was very, very good.

Mantle led his team to more
pennants than Mays. In fact, Mantle`s Yankees won
pennants more consistently than the Yankees from the Joe
DiMaggio or the Babe Ruth/ Lou Gehrig era.

The sports writers from the
1950s-1960s agreed that Mantle was better than Mays.

In the Most Valuable Player voting
from 1955-1964, Mantle won the M.V.P. three times and
finished second three times. Mays, during the same
period, won the M.V.P. twice.

After I turned off the joke that
was the Congressional hearings, I went into my treasure
chest to dig out the June 18, 1956, Sports
Illustrated
. On the cover is a

close-up picture
of a very young Mantle staring
directly at the camera.

Inside, a frame-by-frame photo of
Mantle`s left-handed swing adjoins Robert Creamer`s
article, "The
Mantle of the Babe.
"

Creamer`s piece begins by detailing
one of Mantle`s most prodigious home runs—the ball he
nearly hit out of Yankee Stadium.

"A
thick-bodied, pleasant-faced young man, carrying a bat,
stood at home plate in Yankee Stadium, turned the blond
head on the bull neck toward Washington pitcher Pedro
Ramos. He watched intently the flight of the baseball
thrown to him, bent his knees, dropped his right
shoulder slightly toward the ball, clenched his bat and
raised it to a near perfect perpendicular.

"Mickey
Mantle so controlled the exorbitant strength generated
by his legs, back shoulders and arms that he brought his
bat through the plane of the flight of the pitch which
propelled the ball immensely high and far toward the
right field roof, so far and high that old-timers in the
crowd—thinking of Babe Ruth—watched in awe and held
their breath.

"In the
33 years since the stadium opened, none of the great
home run hitters—Ruth,
Gehrig,

DiMaggio,
Jimmy Foxx or

Hank Greenberg
—had come close to hitting a ball far
out.


"Mantle`s ball struck high on the façade, barely a foot
or two below the roof. Ever since, when people come into
the stadium invariably their eyes wander to The Spot.
Arms point and people stare in admiration.

"Then
they turn to the field to look for Mickey Mantle."

In August, ten years will have
passed since Mantle`s death from liver failure.

What Mantle might have accomplished
in baseball if he had not abused alcohol most of his
career is difficult to imagine.

As flawed as Mantle was, however,
his transgressions do not approach those of the current
crop of stars.

Then and now, he remains Mickey
Mantle.

Joe Guzzardi [email
him], an instructor in English
at the Lodi Adult School, has been writing a weekly
column since 1988. It currently appears in the


Lodi News-Sentinel
.