The 19-year-old Mickey Mantle, was on an exponential rise to the top of the baseball world when the Army decided to review his 4-F status. This was not the first, nor the last, time they would examine Mickey Mantle’s leg to see if he was fit for service. He was granted 4-F status just four months prior when it was determined that a high-school football injury left an infection in the left leg known as osteomyelitis. A midnight ambulance ride saved the limb, which would have otherwise been amputated or given some other medieval treatment but for the invention of penicillin just years earlier. Regardless, in 1951 Mantle received a letter from his Ottawa County draft board saying he needed to be in Tulsa on April 11 to be re-examined. The Yankees had just broken spring training camp in Phoenix and was working there way east. The day before they had played an exhibition game in Dallas, TX.
It was the height of the Korean War and the draft was in full swing. President Truman relieved General Douglas MacArthur of his post the same day as Mickey’s exam, causing people across the country to file petitions of impeachment in protest, but the war was not nearly at its end. In an April 1951 article reprinted in the Tulsa World, reporter Bob Considine described the draft’s growing demand for young men, “Some of those draftees are being nailed even though their feet are as flat as a minute steak, their loins as bare as a keyboard, their vision roughly comparable to a London fog and their wind hardly sufficient to cloud a mirror.” The Mick was no exception to the nation’s need for fresh feet to fill boots, and neither were the Yankees; the organization had lost 93 players to service to that point.
Prior to receiving his draft-exam notice, Mantle’s name had been plastered all over every sports section from Tulsa to New York. “Greatest prospect I’ve ever seen” and “He’s a once-in-a-life-time boy” were the accolades he received from scouts, coaches, and sportswriters. The hype led Yankee manager Casey Stengel and others to blame the slugger’s re-examination on his recent publicity; many felt that, if the all-star prospect could hit home runs and track down balls in the outfield, he could certainly hold a rifle and serve his country.
But the draft wasn’t the only thing threatening to keep Mantle out of The Show. Earlier in the year, he’d failed to show up to the Yankees’ Phoenix spring training camp on time, sending the club into a panic. Mantle had been working in a Joplin lead and zinc mine for $33 a week and said, “I didn’t have the money to throw away on a ticket to Phoenix.” The Yankees wired their top prospect money and he was on his way. When asked by a reporter why he didn’t contact the club earlier, Mantle retorted, “What for?”
On April 11, Mantle and 24 members of his Yankee draft class arrived in Tulsa from for Mantle’s exam. After parking their bus, the group first went to a cafe, where their presence drew news photographers. Mantle walked down the street with his draft class, opposing forces on each side— to his right, an Army sign that read “Plan your future,” and to his left, Tom Greenwade—the scout who discovered and signed Mantle—sporting his iconic fedora. Greenwade was a close friend and advisor to Mantle from his early years as a prospect until the scout’s death in 1986. He, like the rest of the Yankee organization, had a very different future planned for the young Oklahoman than did his draft board.
Mantle sat down with his Yankee hopefuls for lunch prior to the exam. He posed for pictures, gave interviews. The papers had been reporting his Tulsa visit and there was palpable buzz. Major E.H. Day, the officer in charge, spoke highly of Mantle. “His attitude is excellent. He’s in good spirits and is taking this thing like a man. He harbors no bitterness, and we find him just a swell kid.” After the exam, Mantle answered one reporter, “I don’t mind going into the Army. I hope they find out my leg is OK.” He added, “If you’re going to write something about me, say something about my girl. She’s the cutest thing you ever saw.” Mantle hopped back on the bus in hopes he could make a date with Merlyn Johnson, his girlfriend and future wife, before he had to get back to baseball."This Land" Ball “4,” Take Your Base by Jacob Bohannon
Mutt Mantle knew better than anyone that his son was easily led-he made him that way. Mutt approached Red Patterson, Yankees publicity man, for help:
“I would like you to take good care of Mickey when he goes all the way to the Yankees. He’s going to get a lot of attention and there will be people making him offers but I wish you would handle him. He can use all of your advice.”
True to Mutt’s concern, Mickey was beset by agents and somehow got tangled up with two at one time. It took legal action by the club to straighten out the mess. Tommy Henrich asked him if he had obtained a lawyer to represent him in his transactions:
“ “No, I didn’t have to, they had a lawyer up in their room.”
An opportunistic agent named Alan Savitt waylaid Mantle in the lobby of the Concourse Plaza Hotel his first week in New York, promising $50,000 in endorsements, to be split fifty-fifty. Short of cash, Savitt soon sold a 25 percent interest in Mantle futures to a showgirl names Holly Brooke, who introduced the rookie to scotch and the art of picking up a check.
Teammates tried to warn him off the deal-and the girl that came with it, but Mantle was stubborn. Later he would admit, “Boy I’m sorry I didn’t listen.”
The Yankees clinched the pennant in Philadelphia on September 28th, the same day the Giants tied the Dodgers for first place in the National League. Mutt, his brother Emmett, and his pals Turk Miller and Trucky Compton drove east for the World Series. Mutt’s son showed them the town. In The Mick, Mantle described his father’s parochial confusion upon seeing the statute of Atlas in front of Rockefeller Center: “Shoot the Statue of Liberty’s smaller than I thought.”
The Oklahoma boys didn’t know how much money it cost to go to the movies; they didn’t know where to get off the subway for the ballpark (and ended up walking three miles). They sure didn’t know how to hold their big-city liquor; riding the train, pressed between New York City straphangers, Compton threw up in the hat of an unlucky passenger.
But Mutt knew trouble when he saw it.
Her name was Holly Brooke, Mantle introduced her to his father as “his very good friend.” He recounted the conversation in The Mick;
“Maybe she winked at me. I don’t know. But Dad knew something was up-and he didn’t like it a bit. Later he took me aside.
“ “Mickey you do the right thing and marry your own kind.”
“ “It’s not what you think, Dad.”
“ “Maybe not but Merlyn is a sweet gal and you know she loves you.”
“ “Yeah, I know."
“ “The point is, she’s good. Just what you need to keep your head straight.”
“ “I know.”
“ “Well, then, after the Series you better get on home and marry her.”
“I half turned from him, nodding silently. There was nothing more to discuss."
Merlyn, told Jane Leavy, in her book The Last Boy “She was older. She had a kid almost as old as Mick. She more or less got in with this attorney, Mutt saw the situation. He knew it was trouble. Mick could be easily swayed.”
While Brooke trysted with him in major and minor league cities, Merlyn was back in Oklahoma wearing his engagement ring and receiving love letters on Yankee letterhead.
In the fifth inning of game 2 of the 1951 World Series the fate of three of New York’s Hall of Fame centerfielder’s came together. Rookie Willie Mays of the Giants lofted a fly ball to right-centerfield where Joe DiMaggio, playing center in his last year, and rookie Mickey Mantle playing right field, in his 98th major league game converged on the ball. Casey Stengel had told Mantle before the game, “The dago’s heel is hurtin’. Go for everything.” The past and the future converged on a routine fly ball.
Mutt Mantle, Mickey’s dad, and a group of friends had made the long trip from Commerce, Oklahoma to the “Big Apple” for the occasion, the hometown hero’s first World Series. Imagine Mutt watching what is about to unfold. The ball is dropping, Joe’s coming, Mickey’s charging. Mantle would tell Jane Leavy, in her book The Last Boy, “I was running as hard as I could. At that point in time, I could outrun anybody. I ran over to catch it as Casey had told me to. Just as I was getting ready to put my glove up, I heard him say, ‘I got it.’ Well shit, you don’t want to run into Joe DiMaggio in center field in Yankee Stadium, I slammed on my brakes.”
Embedded in the outfield was six-inch round depression, a drain. The cover was made of thin plywood with a rubber coating. According to a former Yankee groundskeeper, “It was wedged in there, below-ground. You had to hit it with your heel, wedge it down real tight. If it wasn’t, a player could trip on it.”
From the visiting dugout Al Dark tracked the flight of the ball. “All of a sudden, Mickey throws on the brakes and his legs went out from under him. Then he couldn’t get up and it didn’t look like he wanted to get up.”
Mantle was motionless, his right leg folded beneath him, the injured knee bent upward at an ugly angle. His left leg extends upward toward the sky. After catching the ball, DiMaggio turns toward Mantle, lying curled in an almost fetal position, kneels beside him, whispering words of reassurance, resting his hand on Mantle’s shoulder “They’re coming with the stretcher kid.” Mantle said it was their first conversation of the year.
Now teammates and the trainer arrive, Mantle was moaning, they tell him not to move, as if he could.
It looked as if he had been shot. Mantle wasn’t sure he hadn’t been. “I was running so fast; my knee just went right out the front of my leg. It was so sudden, so painful, so shocking that he soiled himself. “shit my pants,” he would reveal to Jane Leavy. “Must be like giving birth,” he told a friend years later.
Some spectators thought he’d had a heart attack. Jerry Coleman said, “He lay like he’s dead. Seemed like he was there twenty minutes before they finally got around to getting him out of there.”
He was carried off on a stretcher. Mutt was waiting in the dugout. Once in the trainer’s room, team physician Sidney Gaynor examines the leg. He initially diagnoses the injury as a torn muscle on the inside of his knee. A day later, he would call it a torn ligament. Over time, it would be described (by Mantle and others) as torn cartilage, torn ligaments, torn tendons and a combination of all the above.
Later, in the locker room, Mutt squatted by his son’s side as he struggled to get dressed. At one point Mickey looked up at a photographer and famous photo was taken. Mantle never looked that young again.
The Yankees sent him to his father’s hotel, his leg splinted and tightly wrapped. One of Mutt’s Okie pals chided, “Come all the way up here, and you bung your knee. “Thought you fainted,” Mutt said. Mantle wasn’t sure he hadn’t.
DiMaggio would later offer his account: “I said, ‘Go ahead, Mickey. You take it.’ I called out to him as we converged … Luckily, I was close enough to make the catch.” Mantle never blamed DiMaggio publicly. “He had his own opinion, but he never said it,” Merlyn Mantle would tell Jane Leavy, “He ruined his career.”
The morning after, his knee was so swollen he couldn’t walk. Mutt took him to Lenox Hill Hospital for X-rays. He couldn’t put any weight at all on his leg. As they were exiting the cab at the hospital, Mickey put his arm around his father’s shoulder to assist in getting him stable on the sidewalk. Mantle would reveal, “I put my arm around his shoulder, when I jumped out I put all my weight on him and he just crumpled over on the sidewalk. His whole back was eaten up. I didn’t know it. But my mom told me later he hadn’t slept in a bed because he couldn’t lie down, for, like six months. And no one ever told me about it. They never did call me.
“So when he crumpled over, we both went to the hospital and we watched the rest of the Series together. That’s when they told me when I got home I’d better take him and have him looked at because he’s sicker than I think he is.” “Hodgkin’s disease,” was the diagnosis.
Mutt and Mickey were both admitted to the hospital sharing a room and watching the last four games of the Series on a small black-and-white tv with rabbit ears. The Yankees won their eighteenth world championship. Mutt was sent home to die.
Mantle’s knee was slow to heal. The front office decided to send him to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore for a second opinion. The verdict came on October 22: no surgery needed. Go home and rest, it will heal on it’s own.
Mantle played the next two seasons before he had the knee operated on after the 1953 season. I think it can be safely said he played those two seasons with a torn meniscus at minimum, as he had the meniscus repaired and knee “cleaned out” during the surgery in 1953. At worse, he played the two seasons with what’s called an “Unhappy Triad”, a torn acl (anterior cruciate ligament), mcl (medial collateral ligament) and meniscus. Back then, knee surgery was not what it is today. I’m not even sure methodology was in place for this sort of repair without it being career ending. An argument can be made that he played the remaining seventeen years of his career with a torn/semi-healed acl and mcl.
In less than twenty-four hours, all the supporting structures of Mantle’s life imploded. His father had only months to live; his potential was irrevocably circumscribed; his knee and his heart were never the same. One reporter wrote: “His mind is already shackled with the thought that the knee might pop out whenever subjected to strain. “ That October afternoon was the last time Mantle set foot on a baseball field without pain. He would play the next seventeen years struggling to be as good as he could be, knowing that he would never be as good as he might have been.