This was the scene at the old Yankee Stadium during Mickey Mantle banner day when myself and a long lost friend walked past the New York Yankees dugout.
— Baseball by BSmile (@BSmile) August 4, 2017
A half-century later, that moment is ingrained in my head, never to be lost.
Here’s the story behind it:
By 1968, Mickey Mantle was a memory of himself. The glory of what was had caught up to the icon who regularly patrolled the streets of New York City with his posse Billy Martin and Whitey Ford. He was hanging in there as the face of the Yankees team that had descended from the heights of his prime in the early 1960s to a point where the next World Championship would not arrive for another decade.
As he would say later in life in his full southern drawl, “If I had known I would have lived this long, I’d (a) taken better care of myself.” And for those who wish to explore further as to the meaning of Mantle’s words, look no further than a read of Jane Leavy’s penetrating look at The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle.
But this was 1968 and what would turn out to be the last season for “The Mick.” By then, Mantle’s career was cascading downward along with the Yankees themselves on a trend that began with a World Series championship against the St. Louis Cardinals in 1964 and not expiring until the arrival of Reggie Jackson in 1977.
Mantle would bat .237 in ’68, managing somehow to appear in 144 games. His 18 home runs and 54 RBIs that season only served to highlight the fact the end was near and may have even surpassed its time. As part of the fallout, Mantle would retire with a lifetime batting average two points shy of the magical .300 mark.
But make no mistake, he was still Mickey Mantle, the boyhood hero for many. My hero, too. And so it was that on the eve of August 4, 1968, I was with my friend, Bob Potenza, listening to the Yankees game that night against the Baltimore Orioles.
Somewhere during the broadcast, there appeared a blurb on the screen announcing “Mickey Mantle Banner Day” before the start of the afternoon game the following the day. I recall a twinkle in both our eyes as only the spontaneous spirit of youth can foster with both of saying in unison, “We gotta go!”
From there, it was only a matter of minutes before Bob’s wife had found an old bed sheet and a black magic marker. The banner we drew up was far from a work of artistry, and I can’t recall what it even said. No matter, it was our ticket onto the field and a chance for a glimpse at The Mick.
The line was long and somewhat treacherous as fans jostled for position on the side that would be closest to the dugout as the parade of fans went by. We met the challenge, herded like cattle along the right field stands by Yankee Stadium “ushers,” who threatened execution for anyone who stopped or made a sudden move towards Mantle, who was perched on the top step of the Yankees dugout. No one cared.
The moment came fleetingly and suddenly, and for one-tenth of one second, there was eye contact between myself and Mantle. That would have been the lasting image in my mind if I had not turned back to catch a glimpse of red about the size of a nickel on Mantle’s left thigh.
It was red, and it was indeed blood which had seeped through a bandage beneath his uniform. Mantle himself still had that trademark grin on his face and was joking with a teammate, but my eyes stayed glued to that spot on his uniform.
Years later, I would take the time to do some reading on Mantle, coming across an article written by James Lincoln Ray, which appeared in the Society For American Baseball Research (SABR). Ray undertakes a comprehensive look at Mantle’s life, and at one point, this excerpt appears referencing the origins of what I and presumably others witnessed many years later.
“His parents took the 14-year-old to the local hospital, where doctors diagnosed him with osteomyelitis, a potentially fatal bone disease that had been aggravated by the injury. Doctors told the Mantles that they had to amputate the leg to save the child’s life.”
For the record (box score here), The Yankees (50-54) would lose to the Orioles (60-46) that day by a score of 5-3. Mickey Mantle was hit by a pitch, drew a walk, and was hitless in his two other plate appearances.
I recall none of that, only the brief walk by the Yankees dugout and the impregnating glimpse of a baseball icon that stays with me all these years later.