“On two legs, Mickey Mantle would have been the greatest ballplayer who ever lived.”
– Nellie Fox, Chicago White Sox Hall of Famer
Injuries run rampant in sports. From concussions and contusions to sprains and strains. Ankles roll and snap like kindling, knees and elbows blow out like worn tires. Fingers jam and break, both on the field and the basepaths. The image of an athlete frantically grabbing for their hamstring as they hustle out an infield hit or lying motionless after colliding with an outfield wall causes fans to cringe. Injuries can cut a great career short (Koufax, Sandy) or prevent potential greatness (Prior, Mark). They’re one of the unfortunate downsides to being a professional athlete.
When a player is marred by injuries for the majority of their career, we say he was “injury plagued” or that their career was “injury riddled.” When we start discussing “injury plagued” players, there are two players that immediately come to mind: Ken Griffey Jr and Mickey Mantle.
Now I had the pleasure of getting to see Griff at the height of his game (before the major injuries) playing in Seattle. Unfortunately I also saw him get decimated by injuries that practically pushed him into obscurity for a three year span. If only Griff had deer antler spray (too soon?) I did not get to see the Mick play.
Regardless, I have alwasy known two things about the Mick: 1) anybody who grew up in the 1950’s and early 60’s maintain that one of either Mickey Mantle or Willie Mays was, and will ALWAYS be the GREATEST ballplayer of all time. 2) Mantle’s career and injuries will always be the source of one of the greates What If’S in baseball. What if Mickey Mantle wasn’t injury plagued? There is one great argument there… but we’ll save that for another time.
Mantle’s first, and most famous injury, came in his rookie season (1951) during the World Series. Mantle was playing RF which allowed an aging, immobile “Joltin'” Joe DiMaggio to maintain his position in CF. Mantle knew his role was to cover the ground and get the balls that DiMaggio couldn’t. In the 5th inning of Game 2, NY Giants rookie Willie Mays hit a shallow fly between the Mick and Joe D. Mantle heard DiMaggio coming on at the last second and attempted to pull up and yield to the Yankee Clipper. In doing so, Mantle’s right foot landed on a sprinkler head. Mantle described the moment as “there was a sound that sounded like a tire blowing out and my right knee collapsed.” It has often been speculated that Mantle had torn his ACL and due to the lack of surgical procedure at the time, the ACL was never properly repaired. Sadly, there would be more to come:
1952 – Torn knee cartilage.
1953 – Torn left thigh muscle.
1954 – Cyst behind the right knee.
1955 – Pulled right thigh muscle.
1956 – Sprained left knee and Tonsillectomy.
1957 – Torn right shoulder.
1959 – Broken finger
1961 – Hip abcess that required surgery (infamously portrayed in the movie 61*)
1962 – Pulled left thigh muscle.
1963 – Torn rib cartilage, torn left knee, and a broken bone in the left foot.
1964 – Various leg ailments (muscle pulls, ligament strains)
The above picture was taken on July 30th, 1965 and featured in TIME magazine. It reminds me of a heavyweight boxer who has put it all on the line and realizes that he has nothing left to offer and throws in the towel. Now this wouldn’t be the end of the Mick though, he always had a little more fight left in him. Mantle would have one more Mickey Mantlesque season (1966) before retiring in 1968. Of all the players that have graced a major league ballpark throughout history, I have to put the Mick in my Top Ten of players that I wish I could have seen in their prime. -$
By the way… if you have not seen 61*… get on that ASAP!
“I always loved the game, but when my legs weren’t hurting it was a lot easier to love.”
– Mickey Mantle on his many injuries