It’s 1951, Game Two of the World Series between the New York Yankees and the New York Giants. The rookie center fielder Willie Mays, hits a high fly ball to right-center field. A young Yankee right fielder ranges over only to be called off by the great Joe DiMaggio. As DiMaggio ranged over to make the catch, the right fielder trips over a drain pipe and falls, and crumbled to the ground with pain. That right fielder was Mickey Mantle, and, although he would have one of the greatest careers in the history of baseball, that one accident would hobble him for the rest of his life.
As a boy in Commerce, Oklahoma, Mantle suffered from a bone disorder known as osteomyelitis. Although he would recover and become one of the nation’s best young athletes, he would live in constant pain the rest of his life. Mantle was capable of hitting towering home runs from both sides of the plate and he did so… 536 times. He was blessed with great speed, often graceful and smooth, in contrast with his tremendous build. The darling of manager Casey Stengel, he was one of the few Yankees immune to the infamous platoon system. But injuries got in the way of him fulfilling his true potential. The day Mantle tripped on the drain in the outfield might be the day baseball lost possibly the best player who ever lived.
A career .298 hitter with massive power numbers, seven World Series championships, three Most Valuable Player Awards, Mantle was the definition of an all-time great. He was the last player ever to win the league-wide Triple Crown and is widely considered the greatest switch-hitter in history. But one could not help but wonder exactly what Mantle could’ve been if he hadn’t been hurt the majority of his career. Might he have been Babe Ruth from the left side and Jimmie Foxx from the right side? Could he have been as graceful and great a base stealer as Ty Cobb?
Mantle had all the makings of the greatest all-around ball player in history, the type of ballplayer that comes around once every century. I myself find it tragic to think about what Mantle’s numbers could’ve been if not for constant pain. Charismatic, confident and talented. Mickey Mantle embodied his generation’s game. The centerpiece to possibly the greatest dynasty in sports history. One of the most accomplished and beloved players in the over one-hundred years of big league baseball. It is hard to look at Mantle’s career and think it somehow could have been even better. But, in the game of “what ifs?” one must beg the question “How great could Mickey have truly been?”.