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.