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Mickey Mantle and Me

August 20, 2020

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When I was a kid in the late 1950s, the exhortation to “Play Ball!”, which heralded the start of Major League Baseball each spring, put me in a state of high excitement.

I loved watching my Detroit Tigers take the field at Tiger Stadium, where Al Kaline and other superstars played the game. Each season, until I became more interested in boys than baseball, I lived and died according to how well, or how badly, the Tigers did. “It’s just a game,” my mother would tell me if I was moping around the house because the Tigers lost.

I watched most of the games on television, or listened on the radio to Mel Ott’s color commentary. But quite often my father – himself an enthusiastic sports fan – would take me to Tiger Stadium in Detroit to see “the boys of summer” in person. I learned the ins and outs (pun intended) of the game, and was thrilled when sports icons like Mickey Mantle and Ted Williams came to town.

In 1959, Dad took me to see the Tigers play the Boston Red Sox. I don’t recall who won, but I do recall my father saying, “Remember this game, Jan. You got to see Ted Williams play.” The storied slugger blasted a home run into the center field stands that day. He retired the next year, hitting a home run at Fenway Park on his final-ever time at bat.

All of this came back to me this summer, as I attended my 11-year-old granddaughter’s softball game (her team won) and then watched “Baseball”, the wonderful 9-part series by filmmaker Ken Burns that I somehow missed when it first aired in 1994. With the MLB season shortened this year because of Covid-19,Burns asked PBS to stream the series for baseball-deprived viewers, for free. PBS obliged.

Part 7 – titled “Seventh Inning”, of course — includes the story of Mickey Mantle, the switch hitter from Oklahoma who spent his entire career (1951-1968) with the New York Yankees. The Yankees were a formidable force in the 1950s and usually blew away the competition, winning eight American League pennants and six World Series Championships during that decade. As a result, I often watched the Yankees wallop the Tigers, which brings me to my story about Mickey Mantle.

In 1976, I was special assignments writer at The Columbia Record, then the afternoon newspaper in Columbia. I was covering several political races that year,including a U.S. Congressional race featuring Bobby Richardson, Mantle’s teammate who had played second base for the Yankees. One day during the campaign, it was announced that Mantle would be coming to Rock Hill, South Carolina, to campaign for his buddy Richardson.

“I really want to go to this press conference,” I beseeched my editor. “Mickey Mantle is coming. It’s billed as a political event.” Happily, my editor agreed, and on the appointed day, I drove to Rock Hill for the big occasion.

I got a bit lost finding the building where the press conference was being held, and so I was a tad late as I walked into the huge gymnasium where Mantle was already speaking. Dozens of sports reporters were there – all men, and all asking Mickey Mantle questions about our National Pastime. I was the only woman in the room.

I sat there for a while, contemplating what the aide had told me in no uncertain terms when I first walked in. “No political questions,” he had warned. “No political questions.” Really, I thought to myself? This is supposed to be a political event, I have to go back to my office and write a political story, and you’re telling me “no political questions”? In your dreams.

After several minutes, I stood up to ask my political question. I got just a few words out before Mantle interrupted me. “Wait a minute,” he said. “Do you know anything about baseball?”

Several replies came to mind, but finally I said, “Sure. I used to watch you beat the Tigers all the time at Tiger Stadium.” Apparently, it was the right answer.

“Okay,” Mantle said. “You can ask your question.”

I inquired why he thought Bobby Richardson should be elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. Mantle replied that his friend had been a “great leader in the Yankee locker room, and he’ll be a great leader in Congress.” (As it happened, Richardson lost the race. Later, he coached several college baseball teams, including the University of South Carolina Gamecocks.)

Thinking back on that event, though, here was the bottom line: Before I was allowed to speak, I had to pass the test. And the test was, Did I know anything about baseball? It was a question that none of the men in the room was asked. Only me.

It was humiliating and dispiriting. But I went back to my office and wrote a crackerjack story.

Collins-Jan-of-self-1

Jan Collins is a Columbia-based journalist, editor, and author. A former Nieman Fellow at Harvard and former Congressional Fellow in Washington, D. C., she is the coauthor of Next Steps: A Practical Guide to Planning for the Best Half of Your Life (Quill Driver Books, 2009).