It was nothing
less than a cold and ruthless gamble. Faced with a losing streak and the
distasteful prospect of not winning the pennant for a change, the New York
Yankees rushed the most valuable property in baseball back into action last
week and ran the risk of losing him forever.
legs had not yet healed, as anyone could see. He limped when he walked and
staggered when he swung. He ran stiff-legged and he was unable, or afraid, to
make turns. He was not, in short, ready.
The front office
denied that it had ordered Mickey's early return, insisting that Mantle had
made the decision himself (and ignoring the fact that most ballplayers—and
particularly Mantle—will always insist that they are ready to play, even flat
on their backs), but it was undeniable that the Yankee brass had permitted
Mantle to play before he had fully recovered. It was a decision made out of
desperation. During the five weeks Mantle was out of the lineup, the Yankees
were an ordinary team, winning and losing with fourth-place regularity. His
value to the team had always been obvious. His absence had made it more so.
Not that Mantle's
gimpy legs were the Yankees' only problem.
The rest of the
American League, in its happiest dreams, could not have imagined a more
delightful series of calamities than those that have plagued the team this
season. Beginning with the loss of Tony Kubek to the Army and continuing
through arm ailments to Luis Arroyo and Whitey Ford, the Yankees were
progressively weakened. But even so they were able to stumble along at or near
the top of the league as long as Mantle was afield. Then Mantle, the ringleader
of the Yankee gang, injured his fragile legs and was forced out of the lineup
for over a month. No team, not even the Yankees, can lose a Mantle and remain
buoyant. It is appropriate that when he was taken to the hospital his
teammates, prompted by his good pal Whitey Ford, sent him a bouquet of eight
tired little daisies. Without Mantle in the lineup the Yankees became just
For a short spell
the team played well. Chop the head off a rooster and he'll run around a bit
before he drops. The Yankees didn't drop immediately, partly because no other
team was capable of taking charge—the Detroit Tigers, a strong challenger, were
also disrupted by Al Kaline's broken collarbone—and partly because they got
surprisingly fine pitching from Ralph Terry, Bill Stafford and Jim Coates.
But the Yankee
attack all but stopped. Yogi Berra, Elston Howard and Moose Skowron, big
hitters in past years, became big outs. Roger Maris found that without Mantle
batting behind him he saw few good pitches. One day he was walked five straight
times, four of them intentional. After the game he phoned Mantle to check on
his condition and urge him back. When Mantle did rejoin the team, still limping
badly, it became a daily joke for Maris to say hopefully: "Looking great,
Mick. You should be ready to play in two days, right?"
Yankees' inability to score without Mantle began to hurt them. They lost eight
out of nine games. Four of the losses were to Cleveland, and suddenly the
Indians were in first place, three games ahead of the Yankees. Minnesota and
Los Angeles, playing as though they had not read the preseason expertise, were
also in front of the Yankees. More menacing, Baltimore and Detroit now moved to
the pack, promising real danger later on. Without Mantle on the field, the
American League pennant race had become a real race.
The injury that
caused all this mingled joy and sadness happened on May 18 on the final out of
a game the Yankees lost to the Twins 4-3. The tying run was on second base when
Mantle hit a low line drive on one hop to the shortstop, Zoilo Versalles.
Versalles bobbled the ball, and Mantle, seeing this, strained for more speed.
"I was watching the shortstop," said Coach Wally Moses. "When I
looked for Mantle he was already down."
"It looked as
if he'd been shot," said Bob Fishel, the Yankee publicist. "He hit the
ground that hard."