Every young boy in America who grew up in the 1950s and 60s remembers the late, great Mickey Mantle. He was bigger than life and I would bet that most of them idolized Mantle in much the same way that I did. I had already become a New York Yankees' fan by 1959 when I was eight years old. At first, my favorite Yankee was Yogi Berra. In fact, when someone would ask me what position I wanted to play when I got older, I would answer, " I want to be a Yogi." That was an eight-year-olds' answer for catcher.
It didn't take long for me to fall in love with Mickey Mantle. He could blast 500-foot home runs from either side of the plate, yet he could easily beat out a bunt for a base hit because his time from home plate to first base is still the fastest time ever recorded in baseball history.
He covered the ninety feet from home to first in 3.1 seconds. No one has ever run it faster. Playing in New York gave Mantle more widespread press coverage than most any other player and it didn't hurt that he played with the Yankees, because they were in the World Series seemingly every year. With Mantle, the Yankees played in 12 World Series, winning seven.
I never got to see Mickey play baseball in person but I watched him play on television a lot. I longed for the day to come when I would be able to see him in person or shake his hand. I got that opportunity in 1978 when he came to Chattanooga to play in Rick Honeycutt's benefit golf tournament in Fort Oglethorpe. I was a young television sports anchor at WDEF-TV and, after doing the 6:00 sports one evening, I rushed to the Battlefield Golf and Country Club to try and catch him for an interview.
As I was arriving, Mickey was leaving but he politely stayed an extra few minutes to chat with me. I could tell that he was anxious to get away but he was kind enough to let me ask him some questions and even sign a baseball for me. I still have that baseball but his signature is faded so badly you can't recognize the signature. Obviously I didn't take good care of that baseball, leaving it exposed to sunlight, causing the fading.
That evening in Fort Oglethorpe he had been retired for 10 years but he looked like he could still play. In later years, when the stories of his womanizing and drinking became known to everyone, I tried to distinguish between Mickey Mantle the man, and Mickey Mantle the ball player. I did that because I didn't want to tarnish my love and admiration for him because of his reputation. No matter who your hero was in your lifetime, you always remember the day when you finally get to meet them.
Mickey Mantle passed away on August 13, 1995, and I was ironically at Yankee Stadium to watch the Yankees play. My family was with me on the final leg of a family "baseball" vacation. We had started at Camden Yards to watch the Orioles play, ventured to Cooperstown to visit the Baseball Hall of Fame, then wrapped things up in New York. To stand at his plaque in the Hall of Fame was one of the greatest sports memories of my lifetime. Mickey always joked that, "If I had known I was going to live this long, I would have taken better care of myself." Forget about all the many injuries and the records he didn't set. He was still the greatest player I ever saw.
Randy Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org