Baseball America

Mantle Book Asks Right Questions

As
a youngster growing up in Southern California, Baseball America bird-dog scout/correspondent Dave Perkin saw Mickey Mantle play in person. BA recently reviewed Jane Leavy’s “The Last Boy,” a Mantle bio which joins the flood of Mantle books and films that have been produced since the switch-hitting Yankees slugger and icon passed away in 1995.


Perkin
offers his own perspective on Mantle as a player in his era, and speculates how a young Mantle would fare in modern Major League baseball.


One
of the opening scenes of the movie “61*” shows a cranky old sportswriter walking down the first-base concourse at Yankee Stadium arguing with team officials. Mickey Mantle had a lousy season in 1960, the scribe contends, since he hit a paltry .275 after winning the Triple
Crown only four years earlier.


Nonsense,
insists one team official. Mickey led the league with 40 homers and finished
second in the MVP balloting, and who wouldn’t love to have that type of
“bad year”?


Actually,
both men are correct. Mantle did have a crummy season in 1960. And the team official was also right. Mantle had a terrific year in 1960. Why the massive, glaring contradiction? The answer is simple, and it goes to
the heart of understanding Mickey Mantle as a player and as a hitter.


Mantle
was a vastly superior hitter from the right side of the plate. For many
of his 18 big league seasons the gap was staggering.


Let’s
take 1960. Mantle hit only .246/.386/.492 batting lefthanded that year. He hit .344/.433/.713 with 16 homers in 160 at bats swinging righthanded.
Other
years produce similar discrepancies. Thanks to stats available at retrosheet.org, this chart provides a quick sample: (right listed first,
then left, then overall):


1953: .337/.235/.295

1954: .317/.292/.300

1955: .364/.281/.306

1958: .377/.282/.304

1961: .371/.291/.317

1963: .409/.255/.314

1964: .424/.241/.303


In
fact, Mantle batted .300 or better from the right side in 12 of his 18 seasons and hit .300 or better from the left side only 4 times. Three of
the latter seasons were his MVP years—1956, 1957 and 1962.


Bob
Costas and Billy Crystal have made a sort of cottage industry out of Mantle worship, and it is easy to understand why—we all have soft spots for our childhood idols. For a moment, let’s put aside the understandable sentimentality and evaluate Mantle as a player.


Mickey
was, no doubt, a great player. Along with Bo Jackson, Mantle was the most lavishly talented young prospect baseball has ever seen, combining incredible speed with remarkable raw power.


Mantle
was not, however, the greatest player of all time or even the greatest player of his own time. Willie Mays was the best player of Mantle’s generation and, in my view, the greatest all around player in baseball history.
Mantle
had awesome raw power, but Mays, Hank Aaron and Harmon Killebrew were more consistent home run hitters from year to year. Stan Musial, Ted Williams and Aaron were better hitters, in total, than Mickey.

By his own admission, Mantle was not a great defensive outfielder. Many of his peers were superior in the field, including Mays, Richie Ashburn, Curt Flood, Vada Pinson and Jimmy Piersall to name a sampling.


Despite
the fine career numbers he posted, did Mantle fail to totally fulfill his great talent? The media scribe detailed earlier certainly thought he did, and that theme has become part of Mantle lore; he was great, but imagine how great he could have been.

Most would point to his numerous injuries—including the nugget from Leavy’s book that Mantle may have played most of his career with a torn ACL—an obvious factor. Others would refer to his well-known carousing and late-night partying. Those who recall the bizarre left- and center-field dimensions in old Yankee Stadium correctly note that it was a graveyard for righthanded power hitters—301 down the line but 402 to the bullpen,
457 to left center and 461 to straight away center.


All
of these are legitimate factors, but my answer is more direct: Mantle never should have hit lefthanded—he should have hit righthanded exclusively. Even with his home park’s odd measurements, Mantle would have been far more productive overall as a righthanded hitter.


Thankfully,
World Series highlight films and kinescopes of old TV broadcasts can enable us to breakdown and evaluate Mantle’s swing. From the left side (and this is starkly visible in the 1958 film version of “Damn Yankees”)
Mickey hit from a pronounced crouch. Closing off his front side, he would then load up by drawing his hands and weight backward. Taking a long forward stride, Mantle swung with a severe uppercut that produced a
grand, wraparound finish.


From
the left side, it’s plain to see that Mantle did not have the ease in his swing that he had from the right side and nowhere near the plate or strike zone coverage. Lefthanded, Mickey was exceptionally vulnerable to hard
stuff in and soft stuff away.


Mantle
had no such difficulties as a righty. He used a stand-up stance, knees slightly flexed, feet spread but front foot closed. Utilizing no load but a slight amount of pre-swing hand movement to get himself started, Mickey shows a gorgeous, fluid and sweeping righthanded swing. From the right side, Mantle was able to handle any type of pitch in any location and hammer it hard to all portions of the field.


Recollections
of Mantle in books, films and talking head interviews almost always attempt to portray him as a kind of epic Greek hero, full of glory and power but fraught with tragic demons and personal flaws.


Having
seen him play and after studying his career, my conclusion is far less operatic or dramatic. Mantle was an incredible—if not unprecedented—baseball talent. Some of his fate was bad luck (injuries) and some of it his own doing (carousing). To quote a line in 61*, “He’s still pretty good.”


Dreaming
and speculation regarding Mantle is fun; in fact it has become a business unto itself. Personally, I am certain of one thing. Baseball history and baseball’s record books would be significantly different if Mickey Mantle had, somehow, been able to stay healthy, play in a normal sized park and, most importantly—bat righthanded exclusively.

Majors | #2010 #Column

Add a Comment

comments powered by Disqus