Tuesday, March 13, 2012

What If Mickey Mantle Had Taken Care of Himself?



Note: I wrote this before the publication of Jane Leavy's new bio of Mickey, The Last Boy, which mentions that Mickey had admitted to a few people that he had been molested as a boy, possibly explaining his issues with women and with trusting people. But that has nothing to do with my analysis of his injuries and his drinking.

We look at the "Mount Rushmore" of the Yankees -- Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle -- and note that, of those, only Joe D lived to see collect Social Security. Aside from smoking, which led to lung cancer killing him at at 84, he took care of himself. The Babe caroused, drinking and womanzing and just plain carrying on, at a rate that would have exhausted even Mickey. And the Iron Horse, who probably took better care of himself than any of them, ironically was struck down by a malady that, while far better researched today, is still mysterious in that no one knows how it is originally contracted. Of the 4, Gehrig should have lived the longest, but he died the youngest, just short of age 38. The Babe, 53. Mickey, 63.

In terms of his health, Mickey Mantle would almost certainly have lived a lot longer if he had drunk only in moderation. Last October, he would have turned 80. But, at that age, he might've been dead by now anyway. His contemporary Duke Snider has now died, leaving Willie Mays as the only survivor of the 1950s New York center field triumverate.

But if Mickey had eased up on the bottle and the running around, and had his many injuries taken more seriously by Yankee management and thus treated better, rendering him fitter, and fit sooner, what difference would it have made on the field?

*

Statistically speaking, he might've gone from 536 career home runs to 600 or so. Not enough to threaten the Babe's then-record of 714, or to surpass Willie Mays' 660, or to avoid being surpassed by the 755 of Hank Aaron and the 762* of Barry Bonds, but still a lot. He also might have gotten a lot more than 2,415 hits. Would he have made it to 3,000? Maybe, if he could have played until he was 42 like Aaron, Mays and Stan Musial (who all made it to 3,000 -- and Ted Williams, who didn't get that milestone due to 5 years in military service).

But how would Mickey's improved health have impacted the Yankees' team performance? Surprisingly, probably very little.

Mickey arrived at Yankee Stadium in 1951. From that point through 1964, the Yankees won the Pennant every year but two: 1954 and 1959. By a weird twist of fate -- I won't call it a "coincidence" because that's what the incurious believe in -- both teams that did win, the '54 Cleveland Indians and the '59 Chicago White Sox, were managed by Al Lopez, one of the craftiest men in the game's history.

In 1954, the Yankees won 103 games, the most any team managed by Casey Stengel ever won. But the Indians won 111, breaking the American League record set by the Yankees in 1927, and establishing a new record that would stand until the Yankees broke it in 1998. Would a healthy Mickey, as opposed to RL-Mickey, have made an 8-game difference? Hardly, because, that season, he did play a full season: 146 games of the the 154-game schedule that was in place from 1904 to 1960, meaning he missed only 8. In those 146 games, he batted .300 with 27 homers and 102 RBIs. By nearly any player's standards, particularly in the Fifties, a pitchers' era, that's a very good season. So any injuries or illnesses he may have had that year didn't affect him very much in terms of stats.

In 1959, the Yankees finished 3rd, 15 games behind the White Sox. Mickey had, by his standards, a subpar season: .285 with 75 RBIs, but still hit 31 homers. And he played 144 games, a full season even by the 162-game standard that was put in place in 1961 (in 1962 in the National League) and has been in place for all non-strike seasons since. No way to say that Mickey could've made a 15-game difference if he'd gone the full 154 even without aches and pains.

Personally, I think a more interesting story is what if Gehrig hadn't gotten sick. And an even more interesting story is what if Roberto Clemente had landed safely. But those what-ifs are for another time.

*

What about those last 4 seasons? In 1965, age, injury, and a dried-up farm system making it nearly impossible to replace those affected by age and injury, combined to form a perfect storm, and it caught up with the Yankees wholesale. They finished 6th in the 10-team, single-division American League, 25 games behind the Minnesota Twins. Could even a healthy Babe Ruth -- hitting 60 home runs and winning 20 games on the mound when he wasn't playing the outfield -- have made a 25-game difference? Not by a long shot.

In 1966, the Yankees finished 10th (one of only 4 last-place finishes in club history, along with 1908, 1912 and 1990), 26 1/2 behind the Baltimore Orioles. In 1967, the Yankees finished 9th, 20 games behind the Boston Red Sox. (The Sox' first Pennant race in 16 years, and they didn't even have to get past the Yankees to win it.) In 1968, the Yankees had a bit of an improvement, a winning season, 5th place, but still 20 games behind the Detroit Tigers.

There was no way Mickey Mantle, healthy and happy even at ages 33 to 36, could have made a 20-odd-games' difference.

And what if he had been able to play until he was 42? Well, who knows, he might've just plain gotten frustrated by all those non-Pennant years and hung 'em up anyway. But if he had stuck with it? Remember, there would have been a decline eventually. In 1969, in the first year of the 6-team American League Eastern Division, the Yankees finished 5th, 28 1/2 games behind the Orioles. In 1970, they had their best season between 1964 and 1976, winning 93 games and finishing 2nd, but still 15 games behind the O's. In 1971, the Yankees finished 4th, 21 games behind the O's.

In 1972, the Baltimore dynasty came to an end, although they did win the Division in '73 and '74, but lost both times to the Reggie/Catfish Oakland Athletics. In '72, the Yanks were 4th, but only 6 1/2 games behind the Tigers.

Now, here is where things get interesting. With Bobby Murcer and Thurman Munson having come into their own, Mel Stottlemyre still one of the game's top starters, and Sparky Lyle having arrived and become the AL's top reliever, could Mickey have made a difference here? Chances are, even with his improved health, he's not playing center field anymore. After all, he is now 40 years old. Maybe he's playing right field in place of Johnny Callison, the former Phillies star. Maybe he's playing first base in place of Ron Blomberg.

At age 40, in 1971, Mays batted .271, with 18 homers and 61 RBIs, but 112 walks meant that he led the NL with a .425 on-base percentage. His OPS+ that year was 158. At age 40, in 1974, Aaron batted .268, 20 homers, 69 RBIs, OPS+ 128. Both were still legitimate All-Stars. Is it so hard to imagine a 40-year-old Mickey batting .270, with 20 homers and 70 RBIs? Especially with Murcer at his peak batting behind him, meaning you couldn't simply walk Mickey because that would put (at least) one man on with such a great hitter coming up -- especially at the pre-renovation Stadium, 296 feet down the right-field line? And would such a season have made a 7-game difference? I think it could.

The next season, 1973, was the first year of the Designated Hitter. As a 41-year-old DH, not having to play the field, Mickey might have had his last good season. But the RL-Yankees tailed off in August after staying well in the race until then, and finished 4th, 17 games behind the Orioles. Maybe a 41-year-old, but healthy, DHing Mickey could have had them in first place on August 1, and maybe that extra boost of confidence gets the Yankees the Division Title.

And in 1974, when Mickey was 42 -- Mays and Aaron were closing it down by that point but Ted Williams and Stan Musial still had good years, if final ones, at that age -- the RL-Yankees were just 2 games behind the Orioles at the end. Mickey platooning at DH with Ron Blomberg, who did bat .311 in 90 games that year: Could it have made the difference? I'm not saying it would, only that it could. Although it would have been very weird in TTL-1974 seeing Mickey playing home games... in Shea Stadium!

*

All right, that's the regular season. What about the postseason?

In 1951, '52, '53, '56, '58, '61 and '62, the Yankees won the World Series. Only in '61 was Mantle injured. So even then, it didn't matter much.

The Yankees lost the 1955 World Series to the Brooklyn Dodgers, the only Series the Dodgers would win while in Brooklyn, before moving to Los Angeles for the 1958 season, and winning the Series in 1959, '63, '65, '81 and '88. In '55, Mantle was hurt. He did not play in Games 1 and 2 (Irv Noren played center field for the Yankees), but the Yankees won them both anyway. In Games 3 and 4, Mickey played (albeit the end of Game 3 and all of Game 4 in right field, thus exchanging the bat and glove of usual right fielder Hank Bauer for that of Noren in center), but the Yankees lost. Mickey didn't play Game 5 (Noren in center again), and again the Dodgers won. Mickey didn't play Game 6 (this time Bob Cerv was in center), but this time the Yankees won. In Game 7, Mickey appeared only as a pinch-hitter (Cerv in center), batting for reliever Bob Grim, and popped up, and the Yankees lost, 2-0.

A healthy Mickey could have made the difference in Game 7, but the way Johnny Podres was pitching that day, it might not have made a difference. But in Game 5, Noren went 0-for-4 as center fielder against 6 innings of Roger Craig and 3 of Clem Labine, who otherwise allowed 6 hits and 3 runs (all earned) in a 5-3 Dodger win. Odds are, Mickey would have gotten a hit in either Game 5 or Game 7, and said hit might have made a difference between the Yankees or the Dodgers winning.

But do I really want to take that 1955 win away from the Dodger fans? No, I don't. They, and their team, deserved it. Besides, there's no guarantee a healthy Mickey would have been any better against Dodger pitching than Noren and Cerv were, any more than Tony Conigliaro would've hit better in the 1967 World Series than Ken Harrelson, had he not been beaned. So let's move on.

In 1957, the Yankees lost in 7 to the Milwaukee Braves. Mickey played 6 of the games, going 5-for-19 with a homer and 2 RBIs. He seems to have been reasonably healthy here. So, no difference.

In 1960, the Yankees lost in 7 to the Pittsburgh Pirates, outscoring them 55-27 but losing Game 7 10-9 on the Bill Mazeroski homer. Mickey said many times that, in his 12 World Series appearances, this was the one time -- including the others that the Yankees lost -- when he thought that the better team didn't win.

But don't be fooled by that: The Pirates were an excellent team, with Hall-of-Famers Mazeroski and Clemente, MVP Dick Groat, Cy Young Award winner Vernon Law and the best relief pitcher of the time, Elroy Face. They may not have been a better team than the Yankees, either statistically or by reputation (after all, this is the only Pennant they won between the Coolidge and Nixon Administrations), but they were worthy World Champions.

Mickey played in all 7 games of that Series, going 10-for-25 (that's .400) with 3 homers (one a tremendous opposite-field blast at Forbes Field, whose dimensions were functionally identical to those of the pre-renovation Yankee Stadium) and 11 RBI. Looks to me like he was fully healthy. Yogi Berra was supposedly asked why the Yankees lost, and he said, "We made too many wrong mistakes." Whatever mistakes they made, they appear not to have been caused by Mickey Mantle -- healthy or otherwise.

In 1963, the Yankees got swept by the Dodgers. They got zapped by the pitching of Sandy Koufax (Games 1 and 4), Johnny Podres again (Game 2) and Don Drysdale (Game 3), scoring only 5 runs despite allowing only 12. Mickey played in all 4 games, going just 2-for-15, but 1 was a home run. He wasn't injured at the time. Rather, he and his teammates were just plain stopped.

In 1964, the Yankees went down in 7 to the St. Louis Cardinals. Mickey played in all 7 games, going 8-for-24 (.333), with 3 homers (including what we would now call a walkoff homer to win Game 3) and 8 RBIs. The Yanks led that Series 2 games to 1, but a Ken Boyer grand slam the next day started the Cards on winning 3 of the last 4. Mickey, for perhaps the last time in his career (he turned 33 just 5 days after the Series ended), was reasonably healthy, and as much as he tried to be part of the solution, the Yankees didn't win; but, clearly, he was not part of the problem.

So of the 5 World Series the Yankees lost while Mickey Mantle played for them, a healthy version of him only would've been necessary once, in 1955, and, for all we know, that might not have made a significant difference anyway.

What about those 3 potential postseasons at the end? Suppose for a moment that a healthy, if old, Mantle had helped the Yankees, rather than the Tigers, win the AL East in 1972, and instead of the Orioles in 1973 and '74.

In 1972, the Oakland Athletics relied on 3 starters in the ALCS: Jim "Catfish" Hunter in Games 1 and 4, John "Blue Moon" Odom in Games 2 and 5, and Ken "Charlie Finley Must've Run Out of Nicknames" Holtzman in Game 3. Based on their end-of-the-regular-season rotation, the Yankees would probably have opposed Hunter with Mel Stottlemyre, Odom with Fritz Peterson, and Holtzman with Steve Kline.

The A's won the first 2, then the Tigers took the next 2, and the A's won the deciding Game 5. But considering that Kline wasn't very good, this could very well have been a sweep by the A's. Division title for the Yankees, but no Pennant, no matter what the aging Mantle could have done. Let's move on.

In 1973, the O's lost the best-3-out-of-5 ALCS to the A's in 5 games. Let's presume the Yanks would have won the games the O's did, Games 1 and 4. The A's won Game 2, 6-3. Hunter pitched pretty well. With his array of pitches, I doubt Mickey, about to turn 42, would have handled him. So we go to a Game 5, and Catfish pitched again, a 5-hit shutout, A's 3, O's 0. No, the Yankees don't win that Pennant, either.

In 1974, the A's dynasty continues into the ALCS, but now the Yankees have a little more experience, above and beyond the mountain of experience held by Number 7, in his TTL-final days. The O's took Game 1, 6-3, Mike Cuellar beating Catfish. But the A's took the next 3 for the Pennant, 5-0 (Holtzman over Dave McNally), 1-0 (Vida Blue over Jim Palmer), and 2-1 (Hunter over Cuellar).

If we use the end of the regular season as a guide, the Yankee rotation for the 1974 ALCS would have been: Rudy May in Game 1 (October 5, on 6 days' rest), George "Doc" Medich (a med student at the time) in Game 2 (October 6, 5 days'), Pat "the Snake" Dobson in Game 3 (October 8, 6 days'), and, if necessary, May in Game 4 (October 9, 3 days') and Medich in Game 5 (October 10, 3 days').

Those were all good pitchers, but rarely great ones. It's easy to see how they were beaten out by a team with a starting rotation of Cuellar, McNally and Palmer -- two guys who were maybe a step short of the Hall of Fame and one guy who's deservedly in -- plus Ross Grimsley, who won 18 games that season without getting a postseason start; while the Yankees' 4th starter had been Stottlemyre, but he tore his rotator cuff, never pitched again, and his place in the rotation was taken by Dick Tidrow, who was far better in 1977 and '78 as an emergency starter and a long man out of the pen than he ever was as a regular starter. (Joe Torre and Joe Girardi would have loved him.)

Does May outduel Hunter in Game 1? Maybe. How about Medich against Holtzman in Game 2? I doubt it, Holtzman was never better than that season. Dobson against Blue in Game 3? I don't think so: In RL, it was a match between Palmer who is in the Hall and Blue who might've been if it hadn't been for substance abuse. Dobson was the best starter the Yankees had that season, but he was no Vida Blue or Jim Palmer.

So the Yanks have their backs to the wall in Game 4, and May against Cuellar again. In RL, Cuellar allowed just 1 hit, but 2 runs; Catfish 1 run on 5 hits. Could the Yankee bats -- the aging Mantle, Murcer, Munson, Blomberg, Roy White, Chris Chambliss, Graig Nettles -- get the 3 runs they would have needed? I don't know. After all, the reason George Steinbrenner went so hard after Catfish in the offseason was that Catfish was great in October, not just April through September.

But let's suppose the Yanks do force a Game 5. They would have been at "home" at Shea. Medich against McNally... As Harrison Ford would later say, "I've got a bad feeling about this." A's win, and complete their threepeat in the World Series.

*

So... aside from allowing him to live a lot longer and in a lot less pain, Mickey Mantle receiving better physical treatment from himself and from Yankee management most likely boosts his personal stats, but probably doesn't help the team a whole lot. When they needed a little help, he was usually there to have already put them in that position. When better health could have made a big difference, they needed an even bigger difference than he could have provided.

Mickey taking care of himself would've made a big difference to him. But not much of a difference to the Yankees as a team.

I wish Mickey had lived to see the Yankee Dynasty reborn in 1996. I wish his liver hadn't been so badly damaged that doctors would've judged it to be in good enough shape to allow the knee-replacement surgery that Whitey Ford got, thus allowing him to play in Old-Timer's Games, thus allowing me the chance I never got: While I got to SEE Mickey Mantle, I never got to see Mickey Mantle PLAY.

That is one of several pieces of the tragedy of Mickey Mantle. But he had a lot of triumph as well. As the man himself said, "I still get goose bumps."

1 comment:

  1. i think i saw mantle play about 15 times. none were really that memorable. i preferred whitey ford. i preferred berra. i preferred the odd athletics who showed up in yankee outfits. mantle never came close to my small town idol. harvey kuenn.

    the if gehrig speculation would be useful to know. thanks for your efforts uncle. quite fun to spin out of control down memory lane.

    ReplyDelete