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Mickey Mantle, the most powerful switch-hitter in baseball history and the successor to Babe Ruth and Joe DiMaggio as the symbol of the long reign of the New York Yankees, died of cancer yesterday in Dallas. He was 63.
Mantle died at 2:10 A.M. Eastern time at Baylor University Medical Center, succumbing to the disease that had spread from his liver to most of his other vital organs. His wife, Merlyn, and son David were at his bedside.
On June 8, Mantle underwent a transplant operation to replace a liver ravaged by cancer, hepatitis and cirrhosis. At the time, doctors said he would die within two to three weeks if he did not receive a new organ. On July 28, he re-entered Baylor Medical Center for treatment of cancerous spots in his right lung. Recently, he had been suffering from anemia, a side effect of aggressive chemotherapy treatment, and had been receiving blood transfusions. On Aug. 9, the hospital said the cancer had spread to his abdomen.
"This is the most aggressive cancer that anyone on the medical team has ever seen," said Dr. Goran Klintmalm, medical director of transplant services at Baylor. "But the hope in this is that Mickey left behind a legacy. Mickey and his team have already made an enormous impact by increasing the awareness of organ donation. This may become Mickey's ultimate home run."
Mantle, who said he was "bred to play baseball," traveled from the dirt-poor fields of Oklahoma to reach Yankee Stadium in the 1950's and, after his retirement in March 1969, the Baseball Hall of Fame as one of the superstars of the second half of the 20th century.
He commanded the biggest stage in sports as the center fielder for the most successful team in baseball, and he did it at a time when New York was blessed with three great center fielders renowned as "Willie, Mickey and the Duke," home run hitters who captivated the public in the 1950's as the leaders of memorable teams: Willie Mays of the Giants, Mantle of the Yankees and Duke Snider of the Brooklyn Dodgers.
He outlived the family curse of Hodgkin's disease, which had contributed to the death by heart attack of his 36-year-old son Billy, and the early deaths of his father, at 39, his grandfather and two uncles. He was separated from Merlyn, his wife of 43 years, although they remained friendly. He was an alcoholic, which doctors said was at least partly responsible for causing his liver cancer.
Through all the adversity, he exhibited a quiet but shrewd wit that he often unfurled in a down-home Oklahoma drawl. Of his fear of dying early, he once said: "I'll never get a pension. I won't live long enough." And after years of drinking and carousing with Whitey Ford and Billy Martin as his chief running mates, he joked, "If I knew I was going to live this long, I'd have taken better care of myself."
In the end, though, he had a more poignant message. In a news conference on July 11, a remorseful Mantle told the nation, especially its children: "Don't be like me. God gave me a body and the ability to play baseball. I had everything and I just . . ."
But that's not how he was remembered by teammates. "He was not a phony role model, and I think people really identified with that," former teammate Tony Kubek said. "Mick was never a contrived person, he was a genuine person. He brought a lot of Oklahoma with him to New York and never really changed. He showed a certain amount of humility and never let the stardom go to his head."
Said Gene Woodling, who played in the outfield beside Mantle for four seasons: "What can you say about Mickey after you say he was one of the greatest?" The Powerful Symbol Of a Yankee Dynasty
He was the storybook star with the storybook name, Mickey, or simply Mick, or Slick to Martin and Ford, who were also known as Slick to one another. He was the blond, muscled switch-hitter who joined the Yankees at 19 in 1951 as DiMaggio was winding down his Hall of Fame career. Wearing No. 7, he led the team through 14 years of the greatest success any baseball team has known before he endured four more years of decline.
He not only hit the ball, he hammered it. He hit often, he hit deep and he did it from both sides of the plate better than anyone else. He could drag a bunt, too, with runaway speed, and he played his role with a kind of all-American sense of destiny. He signed his first contract for $7,500 and his last for $100,000, which seemed princely enough at the time. But he became wildly famous for his strength, his dash, his laconic manner and, somewhat like Joe Namath in football, for his heroic performances on damaged knees.
Long after the cheers faded, so did Mantle, although he revived his image as a kind of fallen hero who carried his afflictions with grace and humor. He acknowledged that some of them were self-inflicted, especially drinking, a habit that had seemed harmless enough when crowds were cheering and he was playing and hitting home runs despite an occasional hangover.
In 1994, while presiding over Mickey Mantle's restaurant in Manhattan as a greeter, he entered the Betty Ford Center in Palm Springs, Calif., to undergo treatment for alcoholism. He came out of the clinic a chastened figure, and his frailty was reinforced by the public decline in his health since June. His transplant revived a debate over whether an alcoholic, even a recovering one, deserves a new liver, and whether his celebrity status had increased his chances of getting one.
Frail, and humbled by the sad events of his later life, Mantle received thousands of letters of support after his transplant operation and discovered that the public could forgive and forget. People chose instead to remember his baseball feats, unforgettably part of the heroic character he portrayed.
He was the anchor of the team for 18 seasons, first in center field and later, when his knees couldn't take the stress anymore, at first base. He played in 2,401 games and went to bat 8,102 times -- more than any other Yankee -- and delivered 2,415 hits for a .298 batting average. He hit 344 doubles, 72 triples and 536 home runs (373 left-handed, 163 right-handed), and he knocked in 1,509 runs.
He led the American League in home runs four times (in 1955, 1956, 1958 and 1960) and led the league in almost everything in 1956, when he won the triple crown with these totals: a .353 batting average, 130 runs batted in and 52 home runs. He was named the league's most valuable player in 1956, 1957 and 1962. He also hit a record total of 18 home runs in 12 World Series, and 2 more in 16 All-Star Games.
He took such an all-out swing at the ball that he struck out regularly and broke the record set two generations earlier by Ruth. It was a record that Mantle put into perspective when he was inducted into the Hall of Fame on Aug. 12, 1974.
"I also broke Babe Ruth's record for strikeouts," Mantle said. "He struck out only 1,500 times. I did it 1,710 times."
During their empire years, the Yankees built on the mountains of success they had fashioned in the days since Ruth joined them in 1920. In the 1920's, they won six American League pennants and three World Series. In the 1930's, they won five pennants and five World Series. In the 1940's, they won five pennants and four Series. And then came the era of Mantle.
In 1950, the year before he arrived, the Yankees won the Series again. With Mantle established in the lineup, they won the pennant seven times and the Series five times in the next eight years. And from 1960-64, with the addition of Roger Maris, they won five pennants and two World Series.
Not only that, but in their championship year of 1961, Mantle and Maris provided a seasonlong drama in their chase of Ruth's home run record; Mantle, sidelined by an abscessed hip, dropped out in mid-September with 54, while Maris finished with a record 61. Early Baseball Lessons From Both Sides of Plate
Mickey Charles Mantle was born in Spavinaw, Okla., on Oct. 20, 1931. His father, Elvin, nicknamed Mutt, worked in the zinc mines. But he was also a part-time baseball player who had such a passion for the game that he named his son in honor of Mickey Cochrane, the great catcher for the Philadelphia Athletics and player-manager for the Detroit Tigers. When Mantle was 4 years old, his father would come home from work and teach him how to swing the bat from both sides of the plate while his mother held dinner for them until there was no more daylight.
"When I was a kid," Mantle remembered a few years after he retired, "I used to work in the mines with my dad for $35 a week. Then my dad got me a job cleaning out the area around telephone poles. You see, when you have a prairie fire, if you don't clean out a 10-yard spot around a telephone pole, it will burn the telephone pole out, and it will cost you a lot of money.
"I was still in high school and we were living out near Commerce in 1948, and we didn't have a hell of a lot. My mother made every baseball uniform I ever wore till I signed with the Yankees. I mean, she sewed them right on me. I was 16 years old then, and my brothers and me would play ball out in the yard or out back in one of the fields.
"I was also playing semipro ball for a team they called the Baxter Springs Whiz Kids, and one night a scout from the Yankees named Tom Greenwade came through Baxter Springs. The ball park was right beside the road, and he was on his way to watch some guy play in another town. But he pulled his car over and stopped and watched us play. And I hit three home runs in that game, two right-handed and one left-handed, and one of them even landed in the river out beyond the outfield.
"When I graduated from high school in 1949, Greenwade showed up again. He even got me out of the commencement exercises so I could play ball because he was thinking of signing me for the Yankees. I think I hit two more home runs that night. When Greenwade came back a week later, he said he'd give me a $1,500 bonus and $140 a month for the rest of the summer. That's how I signed with the Yankees."
The Yankees started Mantle at Independence, Kan., where they had a Class D minor league club. He hit .313, played shortstop and made 47 errors in 89 games. The next summer, at 18, he played Class C ball in Joplin, Mo., where he hit .383 but made 55 errors in 137 games at shortstop, mostly on wild throws to first base. The team won the pennant by 25 games, and the following spring, he was in Phoenix as a rookie with the Yankees.
Ford, his ally on and off the field for years, remembered how shy and inarticulate the young Mantle seemed when he reported.
"Everything he owned was in a straw suitcase," he said. "No money, none of those $400 suits he got around to buying a couple of years later. Just those two pairs of pastel slacks and that blue sports coat that he wore every place.
"Years later, we were sitting around the dining room at the Yankees' ball park in Fort Lauderdale, and they had this oilcloth on the table, and Mickey said: 'This is what we used to have in our kitchen at home. We didn't even have chairs then; we had boxes instead of chairs, and linoleum on the floor. And when it got cold, the draft would raise the linoleum up at the ends.' "
Mantle was so insecure that he remembered later how he had ducked DiMaggio, even though he was playing his final season in center field and Mantle, who had been converted from shortstop to the outfield, was playing alongside him in right.
"Joe DiMaggio was my hero," Mantle said, "but he couldn't talk to me because I wouldn't even look at him, although he was always nice and polite." Trip Back to Minors In First Year in Majors
Two months into the 1951 season, Manager Casey Stengel sent Mantle down to the Yankees' top farm team in Kansas City because he was striking out too much. Against Walt Masterson of the Boston Red Sox he struck out five times in one game. He stayed in the minors for 40 games, returned to New York and closed his rookie season hitting .267 with 13 home runs in 96 games.
"Then in the World Series in 1951," Mantle said, "I tripped on the water-main sprinkler in the outfield while I was holding back so DiMaggio could catch a ball that Willie Mays hit, and I twisted my knee and got torn ligaments. That was the start of my knee operations. I had four.
"Once, they operated on my shoulder and tied the tendons together. I had a cyst cut out of my right knee another time. And down in Baltimore in 1963, Slick was pitching one night and Brooks Robinson hit a home run over the center-field fence. I jumped up and tried to catch it, and got my foot caught in the wire mesh on the fence, and that time I broke my foot about halfway up."
He became one of the damaged demigods of sport, but he played with such natural power that he remained the key figure on a team achieving towering success for the fifth straight decade.
His strength as a hitter became legendary. In 1953, batting right-handed, he hit a ball thrown by Chuck Stobbs of the Washington Senators over the 55-foot-high left-field fence in Griffith Stadium, a drive that was measured at 565 feet from home plate. Three years later, and again in 1963, batting left-handed each time, he smashed a ball into the third deck, within a few feet of the peak of the facade in right field in Yankee Stadium, and no one has come closer to driving a fair ball out of the park.
In 1956, he hit 16 home runs in May. In 1964, he hit two home runs in his final two times at bat on July 4, and two more in his first two times up in the next game the following day. In 1956, he hit three home runs in the World Series, three more in the 1960 Series and three more in the 1964 Series, running his total to 18 and breaking Ruth's record.
"Casey Stengel was like a father to me," Mantle said. "Maybe because I was only 19 years old when I started playing for him, and a couple of years later my own dad was gone. The Old Man really helped me a lot. I guess he even protected me. But I still didn't have it in my head that I was a good major league ballplayer.
"Then Ralph Houk came along and changed my whole idea of thinking about myself. I still didn't have a lot of confidence. Not till Houk came along and told me, 'You are going to be my leader. You're the best we've got.' "
After Leaving Baseball, Day and Night Drinking
The Yankees stopped winning pennants after the 1964 season, and Mantle stopped playing after the 1968 season. He remembered later what it was like: "When I first retired," he wrote in an article in Sports Illustrated in 1994, "it was like Mickey Mantle died. I was nothing. Nobody gave a damn about Mickey Mantle for about five years."
By then, he reported, he was living in a steady haze induced by all-day and all-night drinking.
"When I was drinking," he said, "I thought it was funny -- the life of the party. But as it turned out, nobody could stand to be around me. I was the best man at Martin's wedding in 1988, and I can hardly remember being there." Martin died in a one-vehicle accident on Christmas night 1989. He was legally drunk at the time.
Mantle admitted that drinking had become a way of life even while he was playing. But it finally became a nightmare that undermined his life. And at the request of his son Danny and Pat Summerall, the former football player and current television broadcaster, he checked into the Betty Ford Center in 1994.
He remembered what his doctor told him then: "Your liver is still working, but it has healed itself so many times that before long you're just going to have one big scab for a liver. Eventually, you'll need a new liver. I'm not going to lie to you: The next drink you take may be your last."
There was no next drink, Mantle said. And after leaving the Betty Ford Center, he seemed to be a revived person.
"Everywhere I go," he said, "guys come up and shake hands and say, 'Good job, Mick.' It makes you feel good. It's unbelievable. They give a damn now."
In addition to his wife and son David, he is survived by two other sons, Danny and Mickey Jr.
Funeral services are scheduled for 2 P.M. Tuesday at Lovers Lane United Methodist Church in Dallas.