4/1: A Personal Encounter with Mickey Mantle

By John Sparks

Len Berman tells the story of Mickey Mantle saying Len writes like a girl.  My encounter with Mantle was probably not so pleasant.

sparks-caricature-440First of all, let me state, that I liked Mickey, but he was not my favorite.  Yogi was.  There was no one better in the clutch, and as a young boy, I could really relate to someone who read the same books that I did — Superman and Batman comics!

The year was 1960.  It would be Casey Stengel’s last year managing the Yankees, it was the first year Roger Maris wore pinstripes, and I was a young boy of 13 in Fort Worth, Texas, whose only experience seeing his baseball heroes was on black and white television with Dizzy Dean and Pee Wee Reese bringing the Game of the Week into my living room.

The Fort Worth YMCA was sponsoring a weekend bus trip to Kansas City to watch the Yankees play the Athletics in a four-game weekend series.  (That was before they made the move to Oakland.)  By staying at the Kansas City “Y” and making the most of a chartered Greyhound, it was fairly affordable.

Besides the trip to the old Municipal Stadium, we got to go downtown to the hotel where the Yankees were staying.  We had learned that the players were all staying on the 7th floor, and so, we would gather ’round the elevators in the lobby, and anytime we saw that the elevator stopped on 7, we huddled around the doors in anticipation of those bigger than life Yankees getting off in the lobby so we could ask them to autograph our baseballs.

I was run down by a very large Bob Turley as he made his way to the coffee shop, but he was happy to sign my ball.  The same for Ryne Duren, the fastball reliever who wore glasses thick as coke bottles.  Yogi came off, and although he was only 5’8”, I still looked up to him at that time.  It was the year rookie starter Jim Coates put together a string of 15 victories.  I got him to sign the ball.  Pitcher Eli Grba also accommodated me.  So did Ralph Terry.  Little did I know at the time that two months later he would be the goat of the World Series by serving up that high hanging curve to Bill Mazeroski in the bottom of the ninth of Game 7 in Pittsburgh.  Gil McDougald signed the ball.  Casey Stengel did as well.  Maris was not at the hotel.  He had been with the A’s the previous season.  His family still lived in Kansas City.  So, he had been given permission to stay with them.

Finally, Mickey Mantle emerged from the elevator.  Everyone immediately recognized the man who just 3 seasons earlier in 1956 had won the Triple Crown.  He was by far the most popular Yankee among boys my age.  And I, like the others, wanted to have his autograph on my baseball.

Everyone began crowding around him shoving their baseballs out toward him.  He began to sign, but also kept warning us to quit crowding or he would stop.  He repeated this warning at least two or three times.  But, the excitement overcame the reality of what he was saying.  Finally, he reached out and grabbed mine and began to sign.

All of a sudden, he looked up and that was it.  He told us he was through.  He would not tolerate the pushing and crowding.  He handed the ball back to me.  I looked down, and there where he had been writing were the letters “M-I-C.”

Now, who is going to believe that Mickey Mantle wrote that?

He headed through the lobby and out the hotel door to the team bus.

I had red hair back then and the temper to match.  I was not a happy camper.  So, I trailed him out the door and saw him take a seat near the rear of the bus on the driver’s side.  The window was open.

I thrust my hand up to the window and shouted.  “Finish it.”  Not please.  It was imperative, direct, and probably would get me nowhere, but at that point, what was there to lose?

Then to my surprise, amazement, and relief, he reached out, took the ball, and finished the job.

Happy?  Yes, I suppose.  But ever since, I have always had a bittersweet opinion of the Mick.

Don’t get me wrong.  I liked him.  When you’re 13, it’s hard to put yourself in his spikes and even begin to fathom the number of times he was hounded for his signature.

I continued to be thrilled by the tape measure jobs.  I loved to see his speed when he would lay down a drag bunt from the left side of the plate and beat it out.  The next summer I followed with the rest of the world as he and Maris put on what I believe was the greatest exhibition ever seen during a season.

But, I’ll never forget my Mickey Mantle encounter.