BrooklynFans Of Books: Mickey Mantle’s Meteoric Rise In 1956

A Season In The Sun: The Rise Of Mickey Mantle

By Randy Roberts and Johnny Smith

Basic Books

Mickey Mantle is one of the greatest New York Yankees in history, and an American icon in the 1950s.

Mantle’s power, speed, and agility made it seem like there were no limits to what he could do on the diamond.

In their new biography of Mantle, A Season In The Sun, acclaimed historians Randy Roberts and Johnny Smith argue that to fully understand Mantle, it is necessary to look at his life as he lived it, not as a study in retrospection focusing on his flaws.

Roberts and Smith take us back to the 1950s in New York, specifically the year Mantle’s stardom reached new heights, 1956.

That season, Mantle earned perhaps the rarest feat in baseball the Triple Crown, when he hit .353 with 52 home runs and 130 RBI, best in the league in all three categories. This marked his ascendance as the best player in the game.

Mantle also won the American League Most Valuable Player in 1956. That was his first of three MVPs, as the won it again the next year, 1957, and in 1962.

The Mantle fans knew growing up was an icon on par with any in American history, the country boy from Commerce, Oklahoma making it big while playing for the most successful team in the country, the New York Yankees.

“By the end of 1956, Mickey Mantle, only twenty-five years old, had transcended baseball,” Roberts and Smith write. “Sportswriters crowned him simply ‘the Hero.’ A living legend, Mickey was, Gerald Holland wrote in Sports Illustrated, ‘everybody’s dream miraculously come to life.’ Holland described him as a character in a Ring Lardner story, the unsophisticated rube who ‘left the country far behind,’ transformed by his deeds on the diamond and overcoming ‘his physical handicaps.’

“Mantle could do it all, Holland wrote. He ‘could run with the speed of a jack rabbit; he could throw strikes to home plate from deep center in the outfield; a switch-hitter, he could blast a ball farther than any man who ever lived. He was Elmer the Great,’ Lardner’s talented but gullible ballplayer from a midwestern hamlet, an innocent man who loved his hometown sweetheart yet also lusted for a Hollywood starlet. In many ways, his story fit Lardner’s script, except the public only saw the Hero, unblemished by temptation and weakness.

“Playing baseball in the nation’s first city, he had become a brand: home run king, Yankee icon, president of Mickey Mantle Enterprises, television personality, and banquet speaker. ‘He was now,’ Holland noted, ‘public property.’ Millions of kids worshipped him, imitated him, and dreamed that someday they could be him. That meant that he couldn’t swear in public, lose his temper on the field, argue with umpires, or embarrass the Yankees, his family, or the millions of parents who placed him on a pedestal. ‘We fathers can only do so much,’ a man told him. ‘It is up to you to set the example for our kids.’

“Whether he liked it or not, Mickey Mantle starred in a feature role as the Hero, America’s most beloved sports figure. But the Hero, Ring Lardner noted, was a work of fiction.”

Mantle joined the Yankees in 1951,with much fanfare, but his first few years were marked by injuries, frustration, and disappointment.

It all came together in 1956, when he stepped out of the shadows of Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and Joe DiMaggio and made the Yankees his team.

In the summer of ’56, Mantle challenged Babe Ruth’s single-season home run record of sixty home runs, which he set in 1927.

Mantle fulfilled Amrricans’ longing for heroes who epitomized unlimited potential, strength, and grand achievements. He appealed to younger Americans yearning to reach new frontiers.

1956 was also a year in which baseball needed a larger-than-life figure. The struggles of baseball at that time are not as pronounced as at other periods, ga such as when Babe Ruth saved the game after World War I, or even the present moment, but it was still important to have Mantle as the face of the game to generate interest.

Roberts and Smith write of that era, “Although we often think that Mantle played during baseball’s ‘golden age,’ his breakout season occurred at a moment when the sport desperately needed a marquee player. In the early 1950s, game attendance began to slump. Owners and journalists speculated about the causes: suburbanization, television, and antiquated stadiums with few parking spaces at a time when more and more Americans owned cars. Others suggested that baseball had become a predictable, one-dimensional game that relied too much on hitters swinging for the fences.

“Critics identified another cause: many of the best power hitters played outside the New York media’s orbit. Few fans outside Kansas City, Philadelphia, and Cincinnati bought tickets to see Gus Zernial, Del Ennis, or Wally Post and Gus Bell play. Of course, baseball did not lack for great payers, with Yogi Berra, Willie Mays, Duke Snider, Stan Musial, and Ted Williams, among others, giving fans reason enough to show up and cheer. However, as Roger Angell lamented, none of them possessed the drawing power of a ‘true star’ like DiMaggio.

“Two years before Mantle’s historic season, Angell, a loyal Yankees fan admitted, ‘Baseball has not quite been the same for me since Joe DiMaggio retired. Joe was my boy, my nonpareil, my hero.’ The Yankee Clipper ‘had the knack which almost all great stars have shared – the ability of making his every move on the field seem distinctive and exciting.’ DiMaggio was the kind of player who prompted schoolboys to read the newspaper and study box scores; he turned casual fans into devoted followers. In 1941, during his record fifty-six game hitting streak, people across the country asked complete strangers, ‘Did he get one yesterday?’The question required no explanation. Everyone knew who ‘he’ was.

“No player evoked that same kind of daily intrigue until Mickey Mantle in 1956. He differed from the other great players of his era. Unlike the spectacular (Willie) Mays, he was white and so possessed mass appeal at a time when white fans only grudgingly accepted the presence of black players. Unlike Ted Williams, he rarely expressed an opinion, let alone a controversial one. Unlike (Yogi) Berra, he hit towering home runs. And unlike (Duke) Snider and (Stan) Musial, he played in Yankee Stadium, which made him the natural successor to DiMaggio. New York Post columnist Jimmy Cannon recognized that the Yankees center fielder had become a unifying force in the city and a national attraction. ‘He has brought this town together and made other cities smaller, too,’ he wrote. They hoot pitchers who walk him in parks where the Yankees are despised. when he bunts, they feel they have been swindled. But they talk about him all the time.’ While Mantle chased Ruth’s home run record, New Yorkers riding the subway, sipping beer on a barstool, or buying a paper at the corner newsstand echoed a similar question from fifteen years earlier: ‘What did Mickey do today?’

“In 1956, Mantle moved to the center of America’s imagination because he dramatized the daily struggle for individual achievement. Etching his name into the record books, he emerged as a symbol of American progress. His life bridged two worlds: the city’s modern commercialized culture and the folklore of baseball’s bucolic origins, a romantic ideal where country boys like Mickey played the game in unkempt fields. His success story prompted he myths around baseball’s meritocratic values and shaped his heroic status. Mantle’s hard-scrabble options reminded the country that anything seemed possible through baseball.

“During Mickey’s season in the sun, Yankees pitching coach Jim Turner sensed that a new hero had arrived. ‘That Mantle is something America has needed,’ he said, ‘and something America hasn’t had since DiMaggio.”

Mantle was the realization of Bernard Malamud’s protagonist in The Natural, which was later made into a movie starring Robert Redford, a blue-eyed, blond-haired boy from the heartland whose raw power and mythical purity made him a hero.

 

“According to the conventional baseball narrative, Mantle played during a more innocent time,” write Roberts and Smith. “After he died in 1995, Sports Illustrated‘s Richard Hoffer wrote, ‘Mantle was the last great player on the last great team in the last great country, a postwar civilization that was booming and confident, not a trouble in the world.’ In the introduction to Mantle’s memoir of the 1956 season, coauthor Phil Pepe wrote of the era that it was ‘a wonderful time in this country when everyday life was much less complicated.’ Yet romanticizing Mantle’s place in the ‘golden age’ of baseball and the ‘happy days’ of the 1950s distorts reality. Only when we ask how the Cold War and the culture of New York shaped American attitudes toward Mantle can we begin to understand why baseball needed a hero like him. In the making of Mickey Mantle, context was as important as his outsized talent.”

A Season In The Sun looks at how sportswriters, Yankee publicists, advertisers, and television shows transformed a “hayseed” from rural Oklahoma into a star, a product of New York’s celebrity-making culture.

They saw Mantle as a savior at a time when baseball had declining attendance, racial problems, and economic issues, the one player who could draw a crowd in a way that none had since Babe Ruth.

Roberts and Smith write, “With the help of the very best sportswriters in New York – the capital of baseball – he emerged as an American icon. In the decade after World War II, when New York’s three major league teams dominated baseball, the city was still very much a newspaper town. The papers connected baseball fans to Mantle throughout the day. Drinking their morning coffee, sports fans read Arthur Daley and Gay Talese at the Times or Red Smith of the Herald-Tribune; the Daily News‘s Dick Young and the Daily Mirror‘s Walter Winchell entertained readers on their subway rides to work; the Post‘s great columnists, Jimmy Cannon and Milton Gross, absorbed their attention during the ride home; and Frank Graham at the Journal-American or Dan Daniel of the World-Telegram and Sun helped them relax after dinner, offering the latest gossip and baseball news. The most influential New York scribes shaped Mickey’s popular image through their writing in Sports Illustrated, Sport, The Sporting News, Baseball Digest, Saturday Evening Post, Newsweek, Time, and Look. In 1956 Mickey Mantle became baseball’s cover boy, publicized and photographed from one coast to another.

“Yet the writers did more than report feats; they fabricated baseball’s myths and produced American heroes. ‘Most mythology,’ David Halberstam wrote, ‘is manufactured in New York about American virtues; thus the mythologists are from New York, but the mythologized are prefereably from Commerce, Oklahoma, or’ – in the case of Joe Dimaggio, the son of Italian immigrants – ‘Fisherman’s Wharf.’

“If Mickey Mantle had not existed, sportswriters and Yankees publicists would have invented him. And in a quite literal sense, they forged the Mickey Mantle Americans adored. Since 1920 sportswriters had helped create New York baseball legends. They transformed George Herman Ruth, a loud, boorish man, into the Babe, a jovial idol who loved children, candy, and soda pop as much as he did hitting home runs. They turned a distant, laconic DiMaggio into the incomparable Yankee Clipper, a reserved, classy paragon of excellence. They made Lou Gehrig, the reclusive son of German immigrants, into ‘the Pride of the Yankees,’ a sentimental favorite who battled a debilitating and ultimately terminal disease with unmatched and unwavering courage.”

Roberts and Smith are the perfect analysts of Mantle’s impact that that particular moment in time. Roberts is a distinguished professor of history at Purdue University and an award-winning author who focuses on the intersection of popular and political culture, and has written or co-written biographies of iconic athletes and celebrities. Smith is the Julius C. “Bud” Shaw Professor in Sports, Society, and Technology, and an assistant professor of history at Georgia Tech.

A Season In The Sun paints the picture of about what New York, America, and baseball was like in the 1950s, a treasure trove of information that is a must read for Yankee fans and admirers of Number 7.

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