- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 1, 2009

On the evening of Feb. 28, 1969, a telephone rang in the Fort Lauderdale, Fla., hotel room occupied by Ralph Houk, manager of the New York Yankees. The caller, speaking in a familiar Oklahoma drawl, did not need to identify himself.

“Ralph, I don’t want to play ball,” Mickey Mantle said.

Thus did one of baseball’s most dramatic and most tragic careers end. The next day, at a packed news conference, the 37-year-old slugger made it official.

“I can’t hit anymore,” Mantle said. “I can’t steal second. I can’t go from first to third.”

Although he didn’t use the same words, Mantle was echoing the sentiments of a superstar predecessor in pinstripes. On the October day when he packed it in 17 years earlier, the Yankee Clipper stated his reason with simple eloquence: “I can’t be Joe DiMaggio anymore.”

But there was a difference in the two farewells. DiMaggio had achieved virtually every baseball honor possible in a 13-year career interrupted by service in World War II. Mantle departed with his immense potential unfulfilled because of frequent injuries and his own heavy drinking.

Those sickly batting averages of .245 in 1967 and .237 in 1968 dropped his career mark to .298, a figure unbefitting one of the game’s greatest stars despite the 536 home runs that placed him third on the all-time list.

“I feel bad I didn’t hit .300,” Mantle acknowledged in his unemotional 15-minute retirement announcement. “But there’s no way I could get it back over .300 again. There’s no use trying.”

There was sadness that day for reporters and fans who recalled Mantle’s appearance at the Yankees’ Phoenix spring training camp in 1951. The 19-year-old switch hitter up from Class C could hit a baseball halfway to the moon and gallop from the plate to first base in an incredible 3.7 seconds.

Mantle struggled that season, spending a month or so back in the minors, but by World Series time against the rival New York Giants, he was established as the team’s right fielder alongside DiMaggio. Yet disaster was never far away. As the two chased a drive to right-center in Game 2, Mantle’s spikes caught in a drain cover at Yankee Stadium. His knee required surgery, the first of many injuries to his underpinnings that left him hobbling through the latter stages of his career.

Yet he was magnificent enough at his best to summon up memories of such heroic past Yankees as DiMaggio, Ruth and Gehrig. In 1953, he hit a ball over the bleachers at Washington’s Griffith Stadium that was estimated to have traveled 565 feet. In 1963, he came within a foot of becoming the only man to drive a fair ball out of Yankee Stadium.

In 1956, at 24, he won baseball’s Triple Crown by hitting .353 with 52 homers and 130 RBI. The next season, he batted .365. Four years after that, he slammed 54 home runs, joining teammate Roger Maris in joint pursuit of Ruth’s record 60 until a late-season abscessed hip ended The Mick’s chances.

In 1964, the Yankees won what would be their last pennant for 12 years, and Mantle enjoyed his last productive season. By 1968, he was such a shadow of himself that sympathetic Denny McLain, Detroit’s 31-game winner that season, grooved a pitch so Mantle could hit a home run at Tiger Stadium.

Sympathy for Mickey Mantle? It’s possible that he decided then and there to retire, although he kept quiet during the offseason. For perceptive listeners, however, the hints were there. Mantle talked about how he was needed at home in Oklahoma and how much his children wanted him around.

When he arrived at spring training in February and tried to work out, it was obvious his career was over. All that remained were the formalities.

“Whenever I’m going good, I enjoy playing as much as ever,” he said. “The only thing is, those good days don’t come around often anymore.”

So the Yankees retired Mantle’s No. 7, the Hall of Fame welcomed him five years later and he remained in the public eye through his business and memorabilia activities for two more decades. Yet the drinking continued unabated until he went on the wagon in the early 1990s.

It was too late, though, to undo an adult lifetime of carousing and consumption. In 1995, it was revealed that the one-time Golden Boy had liver cancer. He underwent surgery but died that August at 63 after begging the youth of the country, “Don’t be like me.”

In his funeral eulogy, broadcaster Bob Costas noted there was something poignant about Mickey Mantle “before we knew what poignant meant.” That something was the sad specter of golden youth giving way too soon to the ravages of time and circumstance - on and off the diamond.

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