On this day in 1969 Mickey Mantle announced his retirement.
Unfortunately I never saw the Mick play, so I can’t wax poetic about the speed, the power and the youthful All-American exuberance. To that end, I can only listen the memories of baseball fans I trust – my parents, other family members and friends mostly – who saw firsthand what must’ve been an impressive and fun sight to see.
No, I can’t tell you what it was like to watch him play, but I can tell you this:
Way too much is spoken and written about what Mantle “could have been”, and not nearly enough about what he actually was on the baseball field.
We’ve all heard ad nauseum about the injuries that cut into the speed and power (and that he didn’t want to rehab), the drinking, partying and womanizing that surely led to far less than 100% preparedness come first pitch.
What we don’t hear enough, from my perspective anyway, is how great a player he was: Is it possible the Mick is underrated historically (…?) One can write and drone on about the “what-ifs”, (which if we’re being completely honest carry some condescension and jealously along with them) all day. But it doesn’t change that he was one among a short list of the best baseball players of all time – somewhere between number 5 and 10 on my list.
For some perspective, consider:
- Among CF all time, Mantle is 1st in OPS+, 1st in wRC+ and 4th in WAR.
- Among all players at any position in history, he’s 6th in both OPS+ and wRC+. And at the risk of being repetitive and pointing out the obvious, none of the top 5 were switch hitters who ran around center field in Yankee stadium for 18 years.
- He led his league in OPS+ eight times, in runs five times, BB five times, HR four times, SLG four times and OBP three times.
- He won three MVP awards with three other 2nd place finishes, and played in 16 All Star games.
Everyone thinks of the tape measure home runs, but he had a higher career OBP than the walking on base machines we know as Frank Thomas, Edgar Martinez, Wade Boggs, and Rickey Henderson.
And among Yankees, he’s the best ever not named Ruth or Gehrig.
So if you want to talk about the “what ifs”, the silliness with his drinking buddies, him being a crappy husband, go ahead. When I hear “the Mick” I think of a player whose greatness is staggering and is near the top of the long list of players who I wish I could’ve seen play.
Tangential, Unsolicited advice, part 58:
Mantle is actually tied for first with Mike Trout in career OPS+ among CF all time. Yes, Mike Trout to this point is a better offensive player than Willie Mays, Ty Cobb, Joe D., and Griffey Jr. were. If you get a chance to watch Mike Trout play, you watch Mike Trout play.
Mantle’s OBP may be higher than Thomas’, Edgar’s, Boggs’ and Rickey’s, but it’s lower than Joey Votto’s. If you appreciate the ability to control the strike zone and hit a baseball hard, and you get a chance to watch Joey Votto play baseball, you watch Joey Votto play baseball.
And thanks to Bill James for putting these ideas in my head about this 35 years ago.