A Season in the Sun: The Rise of Mickey Mantle

by Randy Roberts & Johnny Smith

Clock Icon 15 minute read

INTRODUCTION

The Blue-Eyed Boy

Look at the determination on Mickey Mantle’s face—the resolve in his fierce blue eyes, his flexed jaw, and the hardness around his mouth. Look at the power—the prizefighter’s cheekbones, the bull’s neck, and the hint of a slugger’s shoulders. Is it the face of weakness, the look of a man fragile enough to crack into a million pieces?

Mantle’s chiseled physique looked like the ideal body of a power hitter, a creation of Michelangelo sculpted out of marble. Wonderstruck by his muscled, compact frame, sportswriters and teammates tried not to stare when he ambled through the locker room, nearly naked, wearing only a towel, his perfectly V-shaped torso, barreled chest, hard stomach, and wide back on display. Built like a lead miner, with broad, sloping shoulders, bulging biceps, and Popeye forearms, Mantle was, in baseball parlance, country strong.

Hy Peskin’s 1956 Sports Illustrated cover photo reveals the intensity and rugged strength of baseball’s most famous player. In that season—branded the “Year of the Slugger” by the magazine—his career held only great possibilities; baseball immortality itself was within his reach. His physical gifts—power, speed, and agility—made it seem like there were no limits to what he could do on a baseball field.

Yet, for all of his attributes, Mantle’s biographers have emphasized his overriding weakness. Too often they have presented his life as seen darkly through a rearview mirror, interpreting many events during his baseball career as a way station along the road to alcoholism. “Mickey Mantles life was spent waiting for a death that seemed just around the corner,” biographer David Falkner wrote. Similarly, in her fine biography, Jane Leavy observed, “Mantle fit the classical definition of a tragic hero.” By the summer of 1995, alcohol-induced cirrhosis of the liver, hepatitis C, and cancer had left him a shell of the man he had been in the 1950s, when, strong and tanned, he had graced the cover of American magazines and thrilled baseball fans on the diamond. Only later would his heavy drinking define the arc of his life.

This approach ignores much of the joy of his life—the joy he discovered in the game and the joy spectators experienced watching him play. To fully understand the man, his impact on baseball, and what he meant to America, it is necessary to look at his life as he lived it, not as a study in retrospection. That means returning Mantle to the 1950s, when he became the most celebrated athlete in the country and reigned as the king of the National Pastime.

In 1956, only injuries stood between Mickey Mantle and greatness. The Mantle the fans knew—the one they saw at Yankee Stadium, watched on television, and read about inSports Illustrated—was not a drunk. He was a latter-day legend.

IN THE LORE OF Mickey Mantle, it is an often-told tale. As well it should be. It’s a story of two of the greatest players—and arguably the two most iconic—of the early post–World War II era, set against the backdrop of the excitement and pageantry of a Subway Series between the New York Yankees and the Brooklyn Dodgers, at a time when baseball was still the king of all American sports. It is fitting that virtually every book on Mantle pays homage to “the play.”

Before the 1952 World Series, Yankees manager Casey Stengel cornered his young center fielder for a lecture on the wily habits of Dodgers star Jackie Robinson. Jackie, Stengel explained, was the most aggressive base runner in the game. He was known for stretching a single into a double or blazing around second to turn a double into a triple. In a primal sense, he challenged the manhood of outfielders, calling into question whether they had the talent and the nerve to throw him out. Mickey listened, knowing he had the arm. But the nerve… that was another matter.

=In the eighth inning of Game Three, with the Dodgers leading the Yankees 2–1, Robinson ripped a low line drive into center field. Charging down the first base line, he reached full speed in three strides. Rounding first, his spikes kicking dust, he challenged Mantle, who fielded the ball on one hop. Suddenly the game became a chess match, a test of wits between the young outfielder and an experienced, daring base runner.

Holding the ball shoulder high, Mantle eyed Robinson, who had slowed to a dance between first and second. Mickey cocked his arm as if he were going to fire it toward first, daring Jackie to make a move. Robinson hesitated, then streaked toward second. Mantle had conned him into running for the extra base and then threw him out by what seemed like half a city block. When it was over Jackie smiled and tipped his cap. Mickey grinned. He had outsmarted the great Jackie Robinson.

On the game’s greatest stage, Mantle demonstrated that he had the intelligence, instincts, and ability to make “the play.” No wonder he recalled it as one of his most treasured memories. No wonder his biographers and a legion of sportswriters have fondly recounted the episode. Some consider it one of his greatest World Series plays. As much as his tape-measure home runs, it signaled the arrival of Mickey Mantle, the Wonder Boy of the 1950s.

It’s a marvelous story. There is only one small problem with the tale. It never happened.

Mickey did not bait and trap Jackie. Robinson did not attempt to reach second. In fact, he advanced to third base on a single by Roy Campanella and then scored on a hit by Andy Pafko. The Dodgers won the game and took a 2–1 lead in the series. Anyone reading the New York newspapers the next day on October 4, 1952, would have seen it recorded that Robinson crossed home plate. The following spring, writing a magazine profile of Mantle, Milton Gross, an eyewitness reporter, noted that after Robinson hit the ball into center field and rounded first base, he “stopped, stumbled, got to his feet again, and then scrambled back to first.”

The significance of “the play” is not that it didn’t happen but that it is remembered as if it did. Years later, Mantle confidently recalled throwing out Robinson. “I’ll never forget it,” he said. Perhaps Mickey confused the play with a similar one in another game. But a close inspection of every Yankees and Dodgers World Series contest that Mantle and Robinson played in 1952, 1953, 1955, and 1956 reveals that Mickey never threw Jackie out at second. It turns out that Mantle was an indifferent student of his own career. In that regard he was like his teammate Yogi Berra, who once commented, “I never said most of the things I said.”

Journalists and biographers have retold Mickey’s tale, perpetuating a mythology that started with his own hazy memories. Discerning the truth of Mickey’s world, especially during the 1950s, demands casting a skeptical eye on his many ghostwritten autobiographies and the popular reminiscences of the era. In reconstructing his public and private life, we visited his hometown, Commerce, Oklahoma, where the Mantle myth took shape; the Cooperstown Hall of Fame, where the legend is enshrined; and newspaper archives in New York and Washington, DC, where the story lies interred in hundreds of reels of microfilm. In Cooperstown we collected copies of team media guides, game programs, advertisements, and rare baseball magazines. Page after page, Mantle comes alive again, not brooding and pessimistic, as he is so often remembered, but hopeful and full of promise. We have sought not to judge Mickey Mantle but to reveal him as others saw him at the height of his career.

According to the conventional baseball narrative, Mantle played during a more innocent time. After he died in 1995, Sports Illustrated’s Richard Hoffer wrote, “Mantle was the last great player on the last great team in the last great country, a postwar civilization that was booming and confident, not a trouble in the world.” In the introduction to Mantle’s memoir of the 1956 season, coauthor Phil Pepe wrote of the era that it was “a wonderful time in this country when everyday life was much less complicated.” Yet romanticizing Mantle’s place in the “golden age” of baseball and the “happy days” of the 1950s distorts reality. Only when we ask how the Cold War and the culture of New York shaped American attitudes toward Mantle can we begin to understand why baseball needed a hero like him. In the making of Mickey Mantle, context was as important as his outsized talent.

With the help of the very best sportswriters in New York—the capital of baseball—he emerged as an American icon. In the decade after World War II, when New York’s three major league teams dominated baseball, the city was still very much a newspaper town. The papers connected baseball fans to Mantle throughout the day. Drinking their morning coffee, sports fans read Arthur Daley and Gay Talese at the Times or Red Smith of the Herald-Tribune the Daily News’s Dick Young and the Daily Mirror’s Walter Winchell entertained readers on their subway rides to work; the Post’s great columnists, Jimmy Cannon and Milton Gross, absorbed their attention during the ride home; and Frank Graham at the Journal-American or Dan Daniel of the World-Telegram and Sun helped them relax after dinner, offering the latest gossip and baseball news. The most influential New York scribes shaped Mickey’s popular image through their writing in Sports Illustrated, Sport, The Sporting News, Baseball Digest, Saturday Evening Post, Newsweek, Time, and Look. In 1956 Mickey Mantle became baseball’s cover boy, publicized and photographed from one coast to another.

Yet the writers did more than report feats; they fabricated baseball’s myths and produced American heroes. “Most mythology,” David Halberstam wrote, “is manufactured in New York about American virtues; thus the mythologists are from New York, but the mythologized are preferably from Commerce, Oklahoma, or”—in the case of Joe DiMaggio, the son of Italian immigrants—“Fisherman’s Wharf.”

If Mickey Mantle had not existed, sportswriters and Yankees publicists would have invented him. And in a quite literal sense, they forged the Mickey Mantle Americans adored. Since 1920 sportswriters had helped create New York baseball legends. They transformed George Herman Ruth, a loud, boorish man, into the Babe, a jovial idol who loved children, candy, and soda pop as much as he did hitting home runs. They turned a distant, laconic DiMaggio into the incomparable Yankee Clipper, a reserved, classy paragon of excellence. They made Lou Gehrig, the reclusive son of German immigrants, into “the Pride of the Yankees,” a sentimental favorite who battled a debilitating and ultimately terminal disease with unmatched and unwavering courage.

The Yankees and their supporters in the press promoted baseball stars because New Yorkers demanded excellence from the team that embodied the city’s competitive values. In 1968, Mantle’s final season, historian Bruce Catton recognized as much, writing, “The Yankees perfectly represented what might be called the New York Idea, which held that New York had and was the best of everything. No matter what line of work a man was in—finance, industry, communications, the arts, sports, or fashion—he was not really in unless he was in New York. New York made the pace; it led the way, and everybody else had to follow and like it.”

Mickey Mantle, the ball player from rural Oklahoma, was next in the assembly line of New York creations. It was all planned from his first glorious spring training camp when he began knocking the ball prodigious distances. That was in 1951, but his anointment was premature. Over the next four seasons, he struggled to fulfill the expectations thrust upon him by the city’s hero makers. Instead of a wunderkind, he was an enigma. Fans questioned his character and determination. Then, in 1956, it all came together.

After years of disappointments, frustration, and a variety of injuries, in 1956 he confirmed his greatness. It was his best season ever. He performed magnificently, pounding tape-measure home runs into the bleachers of Yankee Stadium, making crucial plays during the World Series, and winning the Triple Crown, a rare achievement that marked his ascendance as the best player in the game.

That season Mantle joined Ty Cobb, Rogers Hornsby, Lou Gehrig, and Ted Williams as the only players who had led both leagues in home runs, batting average, and runs batted in (RBIs) in a single season. During their Hall of Fame careers Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, Stan Musial, and Willie Mays failed to qualify for this elite club. This shortlist represents something more significant than the answer to a trivia question. The Triple Crown is at the very heart of baseball’s hold on America. A testament of his greatness, Mantle’s statistical feat garnered his permanent place in history. More than other sports, baseball, Halberstam observed, depends on statistics because they give meaning to the game’s mythology. A player’s “performance is not fulfilling enough,” he wrote. “It must be shown in quantified heroics, records to be set and broken, new myths and heroes to replace the old.”

And in 1956 Mantle stepped out of the shadows of Ruth, Gehrig, and DiMaggio. For the first time in his career, the sun-bathed stage of Yankee Stadium truly belonged to him. There may have been a player who had a year close to Mickey Mantle’s perfect season, but none had a more euphonious name or better looks or was so well suited for the television age. He was unlike any other baseball star in America, the realization of Bernard Malamud’s protagonist in The Natural, a blue-eyed, blond-haired boy from the heartland whose raw power and mythical purity made him a hero.

Of course, there were always two Mickey Mantles—the man and the image—and New York’s celebrity-making culture shaped and eventually eroded both.

OUR STORY BEGINS with three questions: How did Mickey Mantle come to be seen as a hero? Why did it happen in 1956? And what did he mean to America?

His emergence as an icon was a product of a particular moment when the country confronted the Cold War and baseball faced an array of problems. In the 1950s, Major League Baseball and its promoters created narratives about how the “Great American Game” expressed the nation’s democratic character. Celebrated New Yorker writer Roger Angell commented in 1954, “Baseball is everybody’s game, still the American pastime.” From the sandlots to city stadiums to suburban Little League parks, baseball belonged to the masses, stitching together swaths of the American fabric at a time when many citizens believed that sports reflected and shaped the nation’s values.

World War II made sports integral to the “American way,” an ideal based on the principles of democracy, equal opportunity, and, most importantly, winning. The war nationalized American sports, and baseball contributed to the arsenal of democracy. After President Franklin Roosevelt gave the green light to continue the games, major-league teams sold baseball as patriotic displays, promoting war-bond drives, raising money for military relief funds, and playing “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The hundreds of players who interrupted their careers to serve in the army and navy were considered authentic heroes, courageous, selfless, and patriotic. They were part of “the greatest generation,” men of action who stormed the beaches of Normandy, liberated Paris, marched into Germany, and raised the American flag at Iwo Jima.

Yet, by the end of the Korean War—an unsatisfying stalemate that concluded in 1953—Americans had begun questioning the country’s strength and influence abroad, wondering what happened to America’s heroes on the battlefield. It was the season of the Red Scare, a troubling time when Americans worried about Communist subversion, Soviet spies, and the atomic bomb. Alarmed by the increasing protests over segregation, conservatives fretted that Communist agents were organizing civil rights demonstrations. Throughout the 1950s parents feared that “Pinkos” would recruit their children to the fifth column. Equally troubling, newspapers exaggerated an increase in juvenile delinquency, publishing stories about teenagers running wild in the streets, joining gangs, robbing old ladies, and smoking reefer.

Yet sports, parents believed, offered an antidote to juvenile delinquency, and baseball formed the front line in the defense of the nation’s youth. Team sports taught children the importance of building character, being a good teammate, fitting into a group, and playing fairly—democratic values that many believed made America exceptional. The success of the team, coaches reminded young players, mattered more than self-interest.

But these myths were shattered in 1951—the same year Mantle first joined the Yankees. Americans awoke to a series of scandals in their sports: Dozens of college basketball players had accepted bribes in exchange for shaving points and dumping games. Ninety cadets at West Point, half of them football players, had violated the honor code, many of them guilty of academic cheating. And the Department of Justice launched an investigation into the International Boxing Club for its monopoly on major championship fights: no boxer could rise through the ranks without selling his soul to gangster Frankie Carbo and the mob. Corruption tainted American sports, a troubling sign that young people could no longer look to athletes as role models—unless they played baseball.

During the early years of the Cold War, baseball represented a model of Americanism. Adults believed that youths who played baseball would absorb its democratic virtues and resist communism. Idaho senator Herman Welker, a former miner and avid sports fan who scouted baseball players in his free time, feared that the country was losing the fight against the “Red Rats.” For Welker, baseball was central to building consensus and unquestioned loyalty. “I never saw a ballplayer who was a Communist,” he said.

J. Edgar Hoover and other national leaders agreed. In 1950, the FBI director wrote a letter published in Little League Hits, arguing that youth baseball was an effective means of combating subversive forces and juvenile delinquency. Playing baseball, he wrote, prepared boys for the “rigorous competition of life” and bolstered old-fashioned “Americanism.” In 1954, there were over 3,000 Little Leagues organized throughout the country, and Attorney General Herbert Brownell Jr. praised youth baseball in that year’s Little League Official Program. “The Young Americans who compose Little League,” he wrote, “will provide a hitless target for the peddlers of a godless ideology.” The following year, schoolboys began reciting the Little League Pledge before every game: “I trust in God / I love my country / And will respect its laws…”

Mickey Mantle was the perfect idol for the 1950s. A tabula rasa, he was complicit in letting others craft his image. Like Joe DiMaggio and Joe Louis, he was a malleable figure Americans shaped according to their own fears and desires. Mute on social and political issues, he was a hero suited for the age of Graham Greene’s The Quiet American. He was strong and tight-lipped, a man of action respected solely for his deeds. Sportswriters and advertisers portrayed him as an exemplary role model, the great American athlete, a tough, clean-living family man who inspired youth to play the National Pastime.

Mantle personified the paradox of the 1950s, the tension between Cold War anxieties and burgeoning economic prosperity. By mid-decade, Americans embraced a “boom mentality,” developing rising expectations of what they could accomplish. In the summer of 1956, Mantle challenged Babe Ruth’s single-season record of sixty home runs. His chase fulfilled Americans’ longing for heroes who epitomized unlimited potential, strength, and grand achievements. He appealed to younger Americans yearning to reach new frontiers. That season millions of fans bought tickets to see “Mighty Mickey,” the quintessential hitter for the atomic age: a big, muscular, crew-cut slugger who embodied baseball’s “big bang” style of offense.

ALTHOUGH WE OFTEN THINK that Mantle played during baseball’s “golden age,” his breakout season occurred at a moment when the sport desperately needed a marquee player. In the early 1950s, game attendance began to slump. Owners and journalists speculated about the causes: suburbanization, television, and antiquated stadiums with few parking spaces at a time when more and more Americans owned cars. Others suggested that baseball had become a predictable, one-dimensional game that relied too much on hitters swinging for the fences.

Critics identified another cause: many of the best power hitters played outside the New York media’s orbit. Few fans outside Kansas City, Philadelphia, and Cincinnati bought tickets to see Gus Zernial, Del Ennis, or Wally Post and Gus Bell play. Of course, baseball did not lack for great players, with Yogi Berra, Willie Mays, Duke Snider, Stan Musial, and Ted Williams, among others, giving fans reason enough to show up and cheer. However, as Roger Angell lamented, none of them possessed the drawing power of a “true star” like DiMaggio.

Two years before Mantle’s historic season, Angell, a loyal Yankees fan, admitted, “Baseball has not quite been the same for me since Joe DiMaggio retired. Joe was my boy, my nonpareil, my hero.” The Yankee Clipper “had the knack which almost all great stars have shared—the ability of making his every move on the field seem distinctive and exciting.” DiMaggio was the kind of player who prompted schoolboys to read the newspaper and study box scores; he turned casual fans into devoted followers. In 1941, during his record fifty-six-game hitting streak, people across the country asked complete strangers, “Did he get one yesterday?” The question required no explanation. Everyone knew who “he” was.

No player evoked that same kind of daily intrigue until Mickey Mantle in 1956. He differed from the other great players of his era. Unlike the spectacular Mays, he was white and so possessed mass appeal at a time when many white fans only grudgingly accepted the presence of black players. Unlike Ted Williams, he rarely expressed an opinion, let alone a controversial one. Unlike Berra, he hit towering home runs. And unlike Snider and Musial, he played in Yankee Stadium, which made him the natural successor to DiMaggio. New York Post columnist Jimmy Cannon recognized that the Yankees center fielder had become a unifying force in the city and a national attraction. “He has brought this town together and made other cities smaller, too,” he wrote. “They hoot pitchers who walk him in parks where the Yankees are despised. When he bunts, they feel they have been swindled. But they talk about him all the time.” While Mantle chased Ruth’s home run record, New Yorkers riding the subway, sipping beer on a barstool, or buying a paper at the corner newsstand echoed a similar question from fifteen years earlier: “What did Mickey do today?”

In 1956, Mantle moved to the center of America’s imagination because he dramatized the daily struggle for individual achievement. Etching his name into the record books, he emerged as a symbol of American progress. His life bridged two worlds: the city’s modern commercialized culture and the folklore of baseball’s bucolic origins, a romantic ideal where country boys like Mickey played the game in unkempt fields. His success story promoted the myths around baseball’s meritocratic values and shaped his heroic status. Mantle’s hardscrabble origins reminded the country that anything seemed possible through baseball.

During Mickey’s season in the sun, Yankees pitching coach Jim Turner sensed that a new hero had arrived. “That Mantle is something America has needed,” he said, “and something America hasn’t had since DiMaggio.”

Dubbed the “Year of the Slugger” by Sports Illustrated, 1956 was the year that Mickey Mantle fulfilled all the Yankee hype. Long compared to Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and Joe DiMaggio, in his season in the sun he took his place in the record books beside the other Yankee greats.
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