By Noah Carey
Essay on Mickey Mantle inspired by John’s photo
Photo by John Dominis/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
If you were to pick up a copy of the July 30th, 1965 edition of Life Magazine you would see a close-up of Mickey Mantle’s face looking somberly back at you on the cover. The words “Mantle’s Misery: He faces physical pain and a fading career” appear in white letters on a black background just above his head and to the right of the LIFE logo. Flip to page 47, and there is Mantle again, this time in full uniform in Yankee stadium. His right arm is outstretched in a defeated follow through, his helmet floating away. His head appears to be pulled down by an imaginary weight.
The article that follows is titled Last Innings of Greatness by John R. McDermott. If you were to read it, you would read about how Mantle was nearing the end of his career. About how he is having a poor season and how much pain he is in.
But you would also read that he isn’t ready to be done. That he wants to win another American League MVP. That he wants to reach 500 home runs, to play the most games ever by a New York Yankee and that he thinks he has three or four more years left in him to do it.
He is still Mickey Mantle. He can still play, but his best years are behind him.
The sun is still shining, but he is standing in the shadows of Yankee Stadium
“Now batting for the Yankees, number seven, Mickey Mantle. Number seven,” echoes Bob Sheppard’s god like voice over the loud speaker. Mickey Mantle emerges from the dugout and walks over to home plate.
The New York Yankees and the Minnesota Twins are playing the first game of a double header on this Sunday afternoon. It’s June 20th, 1965. Father’s Day. It is also the first ever bat day at Yankee Stadium. Kids ages 14 and under appear excited while holding Little League approved bats engraved with backup catcher Bob Schmidt’s signature.
72,244 people fill the stands as Mantle takes his place in the left handed hitters batter’s box. Today’s attendance is so large the organist plays “We’re in the money” after the number is announced. Thousands had to be turned away at the ticket offices.
The last time there was this many people at a baseball game was a July 4th, 1961 matchup between the Yankees and the visiting Detroit Tigers. On that day, the two teams were in the middle of a tight pennant race; Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle were chasing Babe Ruth’s single season home run record.
Today though, the Yankees are nowhere near contending for the pennant. They currently sit in 7th place in the American League, nine games back of the first place Twins with a record of 28-33.
And Mantle is having the worst year of his career.
It is the bottom of the fourth inning. The score is tied at two and Mantle’s legs hurt. “They hurt now, and they’ll hurt when I go to bed tonight. If I’m lucky they won’t hurt in the morning,” Mantle will tell LIFE magazine after the game. If he’s lucky they won’t hurt in the morning. He hasn’t played a game without pain since 1951. The exposed drainage pipe he stepped on that blew out his knee in game two of the world series that year made sure of it.
Since then he has had three knee surgeries, several pulled muscles, broken bones an abscessed hip and countless other injuries.
The pain didn’t stop him when he was younger from winning three American League Most Valuable Player (AL MVP) awards and a triple crown for leading the league in home runs, runs batted in and batting average. Even last year, he finished second in AL MVP voting to Baltimore Oriole Brooks Robinson. But at 33, his injuries seem to have finally caught up with him.
He is batting .241 with only 10 home runs coming into today’s game. By this date in 1961 he had 20 home runs and a .302 average. This year he made the switch to left field from center. Less ground to cover.
Missing and leaving games early are a regularity now. Just to get on the field he goes through a lengthy pre-game process that involves rub downs, diathermy (producing heat through electric currents on a part of the body to relieve pain) and seven-foot strips of foam rubber bandages that suffocate his legs.
Mantle is also an alcoholic. He didn’t drink much before he reached the big leagues, but now it is a regular habit. It’s unclear why he started. Was it to escape the pain of losing his father to Hodgkin’s disease?
Mantle was devastated when his father, Mutt Mantle, died on May 6th, 1952. After the funeral he was different. Now burdened with the responsibility of taking care of his family.
Mantle believed many of his family members died young from the disease. He started thinking that he probably would too, so he might as well as enjoy himself. He was famous for saying later in life, “If I knew I was going to live this long, I’d have taken better care of myself.”
Or maybe it was just part of the lifestyle of being a baseball player?
“Alcohol always seemed like it was just there for me,” Mantle said in an interview with Bob Costas. After games, him and him teammates would drink two or three beers at the ball park. When the team was traveling, they would go back to their hotel on a bus and get a group together to go drink. When Casey Stengel was the Yankee’s manager, they would have a two-drink limit, but he never enforced it.
Mantle’s drinking really escalated after the 1953 season, when teammate Billy Martin came to live with Mickey and him wife Merlyn in Commerce, Oklahoma. They would tell Merlyn they were going fishing, but instead head straight to a bar. On the road, they were wild men. They would drink up a storm and didn’t go to bed until they were ready to go to bed.
There was no one to say no to Mantle either. His dad was the authority figure in his life. After he passed, Mantle didn’t let anyone else take that role, and no one challenged him.
He doesn’t think his drinking effects his play on the field though. His tolerance is incredible. He always wakes up fine the next morning, and when he doesn’t feel right, he takes himself out of the game.
Mantle waits for Twin’s pitcher Camilo Pascual to start his delivery. Mantle’s batting stance is nonchalant. His arms are cocked back, bat almost vertical aside from a small tilt towards his back shoulder. His knees bend just a bit and his weight is shifted slightly on his back leg. After a few check swings, his hands writhe the handle of his bat.
When he decides to swing he lifts his leg before bursting into a lunge. He pushes the bat forward as much as swings it. As it comes around, his head follows. He doesn’t look like he is just trying to hit a baseball but obliterate it.
But he doesn’t swing. Instead, his back foot comes forward and he holds his bat out in front of him for a bunt. Mantle liked to bunt when he was in a slump. He used to have blazing speed. Rumor has it he was once timed at 3.1 seconds running from home to first. He used to regularly beat out bunts to first base.
But today, his legs won’t let him.
The ball rolls back to Pascual, who tosses it to first baseman Don Mincher, and Mantle is called out.
Witnessing this with his Leica camera, is photographer John Dominis.
Dominis is there for LIFE magazine. His assignment is to take pictures of Mantle and show that he is in trouble.
Dominis is ruggedly handsome, with course black hair and thick defined eyebrows. He has sunken eyes and defined creases on his forehead and either side of his nose.
He is a person who lives in the moment and appreciates the beauty he sees in the world. With a camera in his hands he is calm and intense. His ability to be, as he describes, “a fly on the wall” has allowed him to spend time with and take pictures of the camera-shy Frank Sinatra and Steve McQueen, as well as wild animals in Africa.
Today though, he is a fly in the Yankee’s dug out.
After Mantle is called out at first, he turns and heads back to the dugout. As he approaches the dugout, Mantle takes his helmet off and angrily tosses it aside.
As Mantle’s helmet falls, Dominis only has time for one shot. But he works seamlessly and doesn’t get frazzled. He absorbs what he sees and always has his finger ready to shoot.
He gets the picture.
While attending Fremont High School in California, Dominis took Clarence A. Bach’s renowned photography course. He learned there while taking fight pictures that you don’t shoot at the time of the punch, the real picture is after the punch, when the person is falling.
You can still see the power in Mantle’s forearms that led the league in home runs four times. You can still see greatness on his chest in the logo of the team he led to seven world series titles. But there is also disappointment in the way he looks down, chin pressed to his chest. He looks disgusted that he isn’t as good as he once was.
He is falling.
Mantle’s helmet hits the ground. He walks down the steps into the dugout.
The Yankees go on to lose the game 6-4.
Mantle will strikeout in the sixth inning, then hit a single in the seventh before Ross Moschitto comes in to pinch run for him.
The Yankees will finish the season on October 3rd with a record of 77-85, their first losing season in 40 years.
Mantle will end the year with a .255 batting average and 19 home runs, both career lows for seasons he played over 100 games.
Mantle will play three more insignificant seasons before retiring in the spring of 1969.
LIFE magazine cuts off the picture Dominis took. The full image shows a glimpse of the frieze that lines the roof of Yankee Stadium in the top right corner. It tells you it’s a home game if Mantle’s pinstriped uniform didn’t give it away.
It also shows Yankee third baseman Clete Boyer, wearing number six, walking to the on-deck circle. He serves as almost a reminder of what Mantle was supposed to become.
Mantle was supposed to be number six. It was the number he wore for the start of his rookie season. But after a brief stint in the minors that year, Bobby Brown had taken the number, and Mantle received seven.
It was almost going to be too perfect. Babe Ruth wore 3, Lou Gehrig 4, Joe DiMaggio 5. Then Mickey Mantle. Six. He was supposed to be the next Yankee great, maybe even the greatest.
Casey Stengel said he was going to be better than DiMaggio and Ruth. It didn’t happen.
After Mantle retired, he continued to fall.
Despite having hall of fame career, Mantle felt like something was missing.
He screwed up and he knew it. It haunted him the rest of his life.
He would later admit that he hadn’t given it his all. He didn’t take care of his body. He ignored the rehab exercises doctors gave him. Everything always came naturally to him. He thought his knees would heal themselves.
The alcohol ruined him too. It shortened his career and prevented him from realizing his full potential.
And it only got worse after he stopped playing.
Mantle became depressed. Baseball was his life since he was a kid. His teammates were like brothers to him. They shared life. When he left baseball, it left a hole in him. He tried to fill it by drinking. “I found ‘friends’ at bars and I filled my emptiness with alcohol,” Mantle wrote in Sports Illustrated. And the older he got the more he drank.
When he drank, he thought he was fun, the life of the party. Truthfully, he was nasty when he drank. People would tell him things he did, things he said, he was shocked, embarrassed.
He would forget simple everyday things too. He’d forget what he did yesterday, lose his train of thought while he was talking. He wouldn’t know what day it was. What month it was. What city he was in.
The loss of memory frightened him. “I was scared the alcohol had changed my brain,” Mantle wrote in Sports Illustrated.
He started getting anxiety attacks too. The first one came in 1987, and they became frequent in 1992. He would wake up after a night of drinking hyperventilating. Sometimes he went to the hospital after. Doctors would tell him, “Mick, you’ve got to quit this. You don’t know what you’re doing to yourself.”
“I know it. Yeah I know it,” he would respond, before leaving and going straight to a bar.
Mantle finally hit the ground in December of 1993.
After an embarrassing episode at a charity golf tournament where he called a minister he forgot the name of “The fucking preacher,” he went to see a doctor to get a physical. They did an MRI on his liver. They told him his liver was so bad, his next drink could be his last. In January the following year, he checked into the Betty Ford Center for treatment of alcohol abuse. He was able to quit drinking, but it was too little too late.
Mickey Mantle died August 13, 1995 of liver cancer.