Sometimes we cannot comprehend that 20 years have passed since an event which seemed like only yesterday. I still remember sitting on my apartment couch early on a Sunday morning and seeing the crawl on the bottom of the ESPN screen that Mickey Mantle had died. While we knew he was very sick, we were all hoping he would somehow survive the health battles he was having and stay with us for many more years. The news was especially cruel for baseball fans who just about one year earlier had seen the 1994 season end without any conclusion because of the work stoppage, leaving a bitter taste in their mouths and having a huge impact on the sports card business.
For a lot of fans, Mickey was truly the symbol of baseball during the 1950s and 60s. For nearly 15 years you could almost assume that the Yankees would play in the World Series and since all those games were played during the day, the legions of kids bringing in their transistor radios to school and adults trying to figure out how to play hooky from work were legendary. Who would rather be at a boring job or learning those pesky historical facts about Babylonia which would never be used again in our lives when we could hear games and imagine ourselves in Yankee Stadium?
I still remember bugging my dad long enough that we went to the ballpark on an August Saturday in 1968, even though it was obvious this would not be a stellar year for Mickey or the Yanks. I still remember that game (and thanks to Retrosheet it’s even easier to remember the true facts) and yes I got to see Mantle play, albeit at first base, in what would develop to be his final season. Mel Stottlemyre outdueled Denny McLain and handed him what would be one of just his six losses during that 31 win season. That entire weekend was wild for the Yankees and Tigers. Detroit’s Dick McAuliffe was sitting out for several games due to his involvement in a brawl which ended Tommy John’s season. In addition, Rocky Colavaito, the great slugger who was winding down his career with the Yankees at that point, actually threw several innings in relief to win a game the next day. Truly an interesting weekend at the ‘Big Ball Orchard in the Bronx’ as Art Rust Jr. used to say.
And of course, I had been buying packs of cards that season and had quite a few Mantles. Like everyone else of a certain age, I believe everyone should have at least one from his playing days in his or her collection. We still recall how Bob Costas, one of those young fans who watched the final half of his career unfold, carried a Mantle All-Star card in his wallet.
Mickey was back on Topps in 1969, but he had retired during spring training. I realized then that I’d seen one of the final games of Mantle’s career and I was glad I could finally connect a live experience to the cardboard memory.
There would not be many Mantle cards of substance issued for a long time which only helped to burnish his memory deeper in our minds. In a burgeoning hobby in the late 1970s, many adults who were coming into the hobby had memories of the very young Mantle, recalling nothing better than the beautiful early 1950s drawing of the blond hair phenom who could outrun you on the bases, hit a baseball a mile and roam the vast reaches of Yankee Stadium’s centerfield. The catch he made to help save Don Larsen’s 1956 World Series perfect game is now is now forever available for our eyes thanks to someone who saved the broadcast of that game but at the time, cards helped link the moment to the memory.
When we lost Mantle in August 1995, I was working at Beckett and I remember creating a paragraph or two about every Mantle card for a tribute we ran very soon thereafter. For me, it was almost easy to remember the greatness of those 1950s cards and when you have a great design and a superstar, it’s easy for the writing to follow.
Whether your budget allows you to purchase (or be competitive) for high-grade 1950s Mantle cards or limits you to buying the modern Topps commemoratives, Mickey just looks like he was made for baseball cards. We’re glad we had him around for as long as we did and he’d be amused people not old enough to remember him playing, still consider him the face of our hobby.