Triumph and Tragedy in Mudville: A Lifelong Passion for Baseball by Stephen Jay Gould
Rating: ••• (Recommended)
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The late paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould loved baseball almost as much as he loved science. A new collection of his essays on baseball, Triumph and Tragedy in Mudville, showcases Gould’s fine writing as well as the passion that true baseball fans exude. This collection appeals to lovers of baseball as well as fans of fine writing. This excerpt from Triumph and Tragedy is his essay from the December 1986 issue of Sport, titled “Mickey Mantle: The Man Versus the Myth” (pp. 87-96):
I was nine years old when the Yanks brought up Mickey Mantle in 1951.1 hated him. DiMaggio was my hero, but even I could tell his skills were eroding. I longed for that centerfield job, and I knew that it would be mine if only DiMag could hang in there long enough for me to finish high school. But now, at the brink of realizing this beautiful fantasy, I faced a usurper from Commerce, Oklahoma.
In 1952 I began to change my mind, for even a child can empathize with the victims of cruel treatment and ill fortune. One day, as the senseless booing continued to envelop Mantle (he hit .311 with twenty-three homers in his sophomore year), Yankee emcee Mel Allen broke the cardinal rule of dramatic performance by forsaking his appointed role and conversing directly with his audience. As I listened on the radio, Allen leaned out of his pressbox and accosted a fan in the midst of a raucous Bronx cheer: "Why are you booing him?" The fan replied, "Because he ain't as good as DiMaggio"—and Allen, rendered momentarily speechless (for once) by simple fury, busted a gut.
Suddenly I realized something in a cold sweat. Mickey was actually closer to me in age (ten years older) than he was to DiMaggio (nearly seventeen years younger). Before then I had simply lumped all full-sized people into the single, undifferentiated category "adult." But Mickey was more like me, and I would have been scared shitless out there in center field. My heart went out to him—as it had, for the first time, when he caught his spikes on a drainage spout during the 1951 World Series and almost ended his career with the first and most serious of many leg injuries.
In 1956, his magical year of the triple crown, I came to love Mickey Mantle. I suspect you had to be a kid growing up on the streets of New York to appreciate the context in all its glory. The fifties—before the great betrayal and flight to California by Stoneham and O'Malley—were the greatest baseball years that any single city ever experienced. I was lucky to be the right age in the right place. We had three great teams (and seven subway World Series in the ten years between 1947 and 1956). All Yankee fans hated either the Giants or Dodgers with blazing passion (we loved individual players, but the corporate entity was Satan incarnate). Affiliation was no laughing matter or passing fancy. I received my worst street beating—and deserved it—when I had the temerity to admit, while playing with a cousin and his friends in Brooklyn that I was a Yankee fan.
Success had smiled on my side. The Yanks had beaten the Dodgers in all five of their subway series between 1941 and 1953. But then, in 1955, it happened—the impossible, the soul searching, the unimaginably painful, the always feared but never really anticipated. The Dodgers won in seven and the Brooklyn Eagle: featured on its front (not its sports) page a smiling derelict under a banner headline "Who's a Bum?"
We waited all year for revenge, through a winter of discontent and into a summer of Mantle's blooming greatness. We recovered our pride in 1956 (the last subway series), a victory sweetened to true perfection by Don Larsen's twenty-seven bums up and twenty-seven bums down. Mantle both won and saved that game for Larsen, first with a home run off Sal Maglie, and then with a dandy catch on Hodges's 430-foot drive to left-center.
His next year, 1957, was even better, probably the greatest single season by any player in baseball's modern era. Mantle's achievements in 1957 have been masked by a conspiracy of circumstances, including comparison with his showier stats of the year before and the fact that his career-best batting average of .365 came in second to Ted Williams's .388. In 1957 Mantle had a career high of 146 walks, with only 75 strikeouts. (In no other year did he come even close to this nearly two-to-one ratio of walks to strikeouts; in ten of eighteen seasons with the Yanks, he struck out more often than he walked.) This cornucopia of walks limited his official at-bats to 474 and didn't provide enough opportunity for accumulating those (largely misleading) stats that count absolute numbers rather than percentages—RBIs and home runs for example. Superficial glances have led to an undervaluing of Mantle's greatest season.
Sabermetrics (or baseball number crunching) has its limits and cannot substitute for the day-to-day knowledge of professionals who shared the playing field with Mantle, yet numerical arguments command our respect when so many different methods lead to the same conclusion. As Bill James points out in his Historical Baseball Abstract, all proposed measures of offensive performance—from his own runs created for outs consumed, to Thomas Boswell's total average, Barry Codell's base-out percentage, Thomas Cover's offensive earned run average, and Pete Palmer's overall rating in The Hidden Game—judge Mantle's 1957 season as unsurpassed during the modern era. Consider just one daunting statistic. Mantle’s on-base percentage of .512. Imagine getting on base more often than making an out – especially given the old saw that, in baseball, even the greatest fail about twice as often as they succeed. No player since Mantle in 1957 has come close to an on-base percentage of .500. Willie Mays reached .425 in his best year.
In 1958 the Yankees' general manager, George Weiss, a tough old bastard, had the audacity to offer Mantle a contract with a $5,000 pay cut, reasoning that 1957 had not matched his triple crown performance of the year before!
In a nation too young to generate truly mythical figures, Americans have been forced to press actual, rounded people into service, and to grant these special folks a dual status as human and legend. When, as with Mickey Mantle, sports heroes exemplify the cardinal myths of our culture, their conversion to parable and folklore is all the more rapid and intense.
Mantle's legend is the most powerful and enduring since Babe Ruth's because he mixed into the circumstances of life and career three of the most potent folk images of American mythology. First, Mantle was young, handsome, and bristling with talent. His
skills satisfied both sides of the great nature-nurture debate, for he combined the struggle of Horatio Alger with the muscles of John Henry. He was big and strong and could hit a ball 565 feet. His father, an impoverished miner, lived and breathed for baseball. He named his son after his favorite catcher, Mickey Cochrane, and made a playing area (usually against a barn) wherever they lived. Mutt Mantle converted his son, a natural righty into a switch-hitter by delaying dinner each night until Mickey had taken enough successful swings from the left side.
Second, Mantle was the gullible and naive farmboy who prevailed by good will and bodily strength in a tough world. Commerce, Oklahoma, as Mantle describes it, is a movie theater, a café, four churches, a motel and a lot of grassroots (or rather slag heaps, in this black mining region) baseball. Mantle’s father labored in the mines all his brief life, except for a failed stint at farming. Mantle grew up as an Okie in the depths of the Depression—a family that stayed while Tom Joad and his compatriots moved westward.
Third, his country innocence met the Big Apple. Mickey hit New York, symbol of immensity, rapacity, and sophistication, at age nineteen. He was soon bilked by a sleazy agent and victimized in a phony insurance scheme. His dad was so awed and disoriented on his first visit to Manhattan that he mistook the monument of Atlas at Rockefeller Center for the Statue of Liberty.
Yet even this conjunction of unparalleled talent and naivete alone in the big city cannot in itself set an enduring legend. Mythological heroes need flaws and tragedies, the Achilles' heel that defines an accessible humanity. Mantle's innocence was tainted by tragedy and dogged by disappointment. He did it all for (and because of) his father, but Mutt Mantle lived to see only the dicey beginnings of Mickey's then uncertain career. After Mickey's injury in the 1951 World Series, Mutt took his son to Lenox Hill Hospital. As they got out of the cab, a hobbled Mickey put his weight against his father, and Mutt collapsed on the sidewalk. They ended up together in a double room—Mickey to recover from torn ligaments, his father to begin the slow process of dying from Hodgkin's Disease, a form of cancer now usually curable.
Serious injuries continued to plague Mantle. He never could put together a long string of healthy seasons, and he often played in pain, wrapped in more bandages than Boris Karloff as lm-Ho-Tep the Mummy. He had four glorious seasons (1956-1957 and 1961-1962) but also several distinctly subpar years. Playing hurt in his last season (1968), his skills prematurely eroded. Mantle batted .237 and watched in frustration as his lifetime batting average slipped below the magic line to .298.
Morever, Mantle put his heart and life into baseball before the era of great material reward. His top salary never reached even half of what any utility infielder might command today. Year after year he was forced into humiliating negotiation with Weiss, the archetypal skinflint and belittler of men. He worried continually about finances, and diverted much energy to schemes that no one in his position would dream of needing today. He moved from Oklahoma to Dallas in order to run a bowling alley that he hoped would secure his financial future (though it eventually failed). He established a chain of country-cooking outlets, also unsuccessful in the long run. The sport that had been his lifelong obsession did not repay his investment, and he joined Willie Mays in heartless and senseless exile after commissioner Bowie Kuhn ruled that no employee of an Atlantic City casino could also represent major league baseball (a galling judgment since widely revoked by Peter Uberroth).
I do not wish to debunk this legend. It contains enough truth to pass muster, and, as argued above, Mickey the myth has a different (and legitimate) status from Mickey the man. Still, the rounded man is so much more interesting than the cardboard legend. The myth really fails only in one crucial way. Achilles' heels are blemishes beyond the control of heroes. It was not Achilles' fault that his mother had to grasp some part of his anatomy when dunking him in the river Styx. But Mantle's disappointments were not, as the legend holds, solely the result of congenitally weak legs and an unlucky series of freak accidents.
Though no one ever matched Mantle's fierce commitment and competitive desire, he did not train properly and actively disregarded almost all medical advice for rehabilitation from his injuries. As for the injuries themselves, several were just bad luck, but others (covered up at the time) were the consequences of foolishness and excessive drinking. Mantle teetered for years on the edge of a serious problem with alcohol, and his legendary late nights cannot be called a mere innocent exuberance of youth, but a pattern that hurt and haunted his career.
Mantle's autobiography. The Mick, presents an honest account of this tension between high jinks and harm. Mantle told me that, if his book contains any lesson, he hopes that kids with great talent will understand why they must take better care of their bodies. As we sat in the press box three hours before a night game with Baltimore, Mantle looked down on the field and said to me wistfully, "Look, there's Mattingly, my favorite player. I love the man. He's out there for extra batting practice with the rookies. He doesn't need to be there; I never was."
Mantle's failure to sustain his full potential is all the more poignant because he harbors deep regret, and for reasons that transcend mere ambition and desire for personal fame. He writes in his autobiography: "When somebody once asked me what I'd want written on my gravestone, I answered, 'He was a great team player.' "
Now I’m not from Commerce, Oklahoma. I’m a prototypical cynical, streetwise, New York kid. When I read such statements, upholding values we all mouth but seldom follow, I get suspicious and assume a bit of dissembling. But I accept Mantle's judgment absolutely. Everything fits too well. Mantle struggling for his team and not for personal stats is the man himself, not the myth.
I remember so clearly, because I watched the scene often, how
Mantle would circle the bases after a home run—head down and as fast as he could, as if to shut out the personal adulation and limit its duration.
I asked him about his proudest achievements and deeper disappointments. He takes greatest pride, he said, not in his triple crown or his home runs, but in playing more games as a Yankee (2,401) than any other man. As his worst moments he cited his return to the minors during his first season in 1951 (not sufficient help to the team) and Bill Mazeroski's home run that won the 1960 World Series for the weaker Pittsburgh club ("I cried all the way home in the plane after that")—though Mantle had played his heart out and harbored no feelings of personal failure. Above all, he told me, he regretted his "stupidity" (his own word, and the only one uttered with real vehemence during our interview) in allowing his prodigious skills to erode more quickly than nature required, forcing his retirement just before his thirty-seventh birthday, while those who share Mantle's fire for the game but take better care of themselves, the Yazes and the Roses, play with grace well into their forties.
During my youth nothing so obsessed the minds of New York fans as the great Mantle-Mays-Snider center-field debate. We all love the Duke, but men of good conscience must see the real contest as between Mickey and Willie. Hindsight has usually given the nod to Mays. Mays was a better fielder (Mantle was also damned good), and Mays sustained his greatness longer and more consistently. But Mantle at peak value in his four great seasons, was—by any measure, sabermetric, conventional, or simple subjective memory—clearly superior to Mays or any player since.
The Yanks of the fifties and sixties were probably the greatest team of all time. Mantle dominated this superlative bunch. He led the team for nine years in a row in runs scored, five in total hits, seven in homers, three in RBIs, nine in walks, six in stolen bases, and six more in a row in slugging average. In 1961 Mantle hit a career-high fifty-four home runs and might have fractured Ruth’s record along with Roger Maris if he hadn't visited a quack medico to cure a cold and ended up flat on his back during the end of this greatest baseball derby. Mantle won the MVP award for three of his four great seasons (finishing second to Maris in the year of the asterisk).
Mantle played at the acme of the most one-dimensional style the game has ever known—put men on base and wait around for someone to hit a long ball. We sometimes forget that Mantle, for all his size and power, was also the fastest man in baseball, and a great drag bunter (practically unbeatable when bunting for a hit from the left side). He maintained a career success rate of 80 percent for stolen bases (compared with 77 for Mays), but only once was he allowed to swipe more than twenty in a season. Imagine what Mantle's speed and bunting ability might produce in our present game, especially with the return of scrappy, one-run baseball.
But enough already. You can carry abstract analysis so far-and although I may be an academic by trade, I write primarily as a fan, as a man who loved Mickey Mantle and whose childhood was brightened by his glory. To hell with what might have been. No one can reach personal perfection in a complex world filled with distraction. Williams had his best years cut short by World War II and Korea; DiMaggio played in the wrong park; Shoeless Joe Jackson, acquitted by the courts, was executed by major league base-ball. What happened is all we have. By this absolute and irrefragable standard. Mantle was the greatest ballplayer of his time.
Mantle also taught me something very special: the universality of excellence. We intellectuals, in our crass parochialism, often imagine that scholars succeed only by a struggle of long years devoted to study but that athletes triumph by untutored skill—the pain of brain versus the gift of brawn. But if I have learned anything from studying the lives of great ballplayers, Mantle's in particular, I have come to understand the common denominator of human excellence. The potential must be present (and we do not all possess it), but the universal agents of realization are passion to the point of obsession combined with hard, unrelenting work. All achievers are kinsmen in a tough and crowded world.
I do not seek moral lessons from my sports heroes. The thrill of witnessing rare excellence will suffice. My relationship with Mickey Mantle was forged by a single image. Probably a quarter of a million people will swear they saw it in the flesh (though Yankee Stadium then held but a quarter that many), but I was really there.
I took a trip to New York a month before my graduation from college in 1963. On May 22, Mantle, batting lefty, hit a line drive off Kansas City pitcher Bill Fischer. It rose and rose until it struck the facade above the third deck in right field—the closest that anyone has ever come to hitting a fair ball out of Yankee Stadium ("the hardest ball I ever hit," Mantle told me). It was still rising when it struck the parapet. I remember particularly the stunned silence before the roar of the crowd. Six more feet up, and Mantle would have fused himself to my profession of scientific exploration in more than the abstract character of excellence. Six more feet up, and that ball would have become a moon of Uranus.
As the baseball season comes to a close, no matter how your team performed, you’ll enjoy reading each of Gould’s well-written essays in Triumph and Tragedy in Mudville.
Steve Hopkins, September 23, 2003
ã 2003 Hopkins and Company, LLC
The recommendation rating for this book appeared in the October 2003 issue of Executive Times
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