We talked of other strong ball players, and I reminded him that people have said he's the only active player with a chance to hit a ball over the upper facade at Yankee Stadium. He had hit just below the top of the right-field facade a week before he broke his foot.
"You know something?" he said. "I always called those things 'fah-kaids.' "
I don't mean to imply that Mickey Mantle is stupid. He's not. But he seems to want to cling to the country-boy side of himself. I had thought of the big stars of the game as men who grow aloof and seek the special dignity befitting their positions. Joe DiMaggio seemed to become a sophisticated New Yorker—a smooth, big-city hero. But not Mickey Mantle. He told me it still bothers him when he hits a home run in New York and eight people show up with the ball to get it autographed.
Jerry Coleman, the ex-Yankee second baseman turned broadcaster, has described Mantle as "the biggest name in show business—bigger than Elizabeth Taylor." Yet I noticed that when a voice pipes out from the stands, "Hey, Mickey! Turn around!" he does. He assumes it is a friend calling. At least he assumed it in Kansas City.
By the time the Yankees took balling practice, the stands were pretty well filled. Elston Howard knocked a ball over the left-field fence. There was a smattering of applause. Johnny Blanchard put one over the right-field fence and scattered the sheep that graze on the hill beyond. More applause. Joe Pepitone hit two out of the park. He stepped out of the cage, delighted. Like all fans, I am a fair-weather friend. So I dropped Mantle and began complimenting Pepitone on his power.
"Mickey kids me about this park," he said. "We opened here and when I got a homer I told him I was going to be the first person in history to hit 162 home runs in one season. Now he won't let me forget it."
Bobby Richardson stepped out of the cage and Mantle went in. Suddenly there was a different sound in the stands. On the first pitch Mantle pushed a bunt. Tony Kubek, standing near by with his bat, rushed in front of the cage and bunted the ball back at Mantle. Mantle picked up the ball and threw it at Kubek. As the next pitch came in, Yogi Berra threw his bat at it from outside the cage so it passed across Mantle's line of vision as he swung. The ball went over the hill where the sheep graze and disappeared completely. I dropped Joe Pepitone immediately. Mantle hit six of the next seven pitches out of the park, all of them farther than any of the other drives hit that day. During this display the crowd reacted with the particular sound I associate with people watching fireworks displays on the Fourth of July.
As the ball would head out they'd go "oooooooooh." Then as it passed over the Cyclone Fence they'd change to "ohhhhhhhh!" Then as it left the park altogether they'd switch to "Ahhhhhhhh!" mingled with applause. By that time the next one would already be on its way.
As Mantle came out of the cage, Pepitone tried a joke. "Will you ever realize your potential?" he asked. It was obvious that he is a Mickey Mantle fan too.
Unlike some teams, the Yankees are a very close group. It is Mantle who is the cohesive force. Although Ford is his personal pal, Whitey does not monopolize him on the bench. Mantle has as many upper-arm punches for Phil Linz as he does for Yogi Berra. If someone like Joe Pepitone strikes out, Mantle moves over and sits with him when he trots back. Soon you see the two of them laughing.