Aug. 13, 2015, marks the 20-year anniversary of the death of Mickey Mantle, the greatest switch-hitter in baseball history. Fans remember Mantle for what he did on the field: he hit .300 or higher a remarkable 10 times, was a three-time American League MVP Award winner and seven-time World Series champion. His tape-measure home runs -- the longest of which allegedly traveled 565 feet out of Griffith Stadium in Washington -- are the stuff of legend. But those who knew Mantle remember him for more than his on-field feats. They recall a big-hearted practical jokester whose quiet courage inspired everyone to just play ball.
Yankees shortstop, 1957-65
During the 1958 World Series, we got down three games to one against the Milwaukee Braves, who had beaten us in '57. We were packing our bags before Game 5 just in case we had to go to Milwaukee, which was normal procedure, so all the guys were in the stadium. Casey Stengel was about to have a meeting, so we were all in the clubhouse waiting for him to start, and we were all a little nervous and on edge, running to the bathroom over and over again.
My locker was across from Bobby Richardson's and Yogi's was on the right, and we were all thinking, "Where's Mickey?" Casey's waiting in the middle of the room, leaning on that famous old table where Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig used to sit and sign autographs, and he's impatient. And all of a sudden Mickey blows through the door -- late on purpose, I'm sure -- in one of those great custom-made Nieman Marcus suits he used to wear, with a beautiful shirt and tie, and he's got one of those fake arrows through his head, with the feathers on one side and the point of the arrow on the other. And he says, "Boys, I don't think we ought to take any prisoners." Well, after that, Hank Bauer got hot and we started playing well, and we beat the Braves three straight to win the Series. Maybe it's coincidental, but it was a moment of relief he provided. He lightened the mood. Who else would walk in late to a meeting with an arrow through his head? Only Mick.
My wife Margaret always loved Mickey, too. We would watch him, see him hounded by writers, by people looking for autographs, people who just wanted to talk to him or shake his hand. Mickey would always try to get off the field and out of the clubhouse or out of the stadium quickly, and he never could, and you kind of felt sorry for him. But Margaret was always so impressed, even if he was trying to leave, he'd always make time to go through the family room, chat with the wives and horse around with the kids for a bit, even though he had so many other obligations. He was such a friendly, good person.
Yankees first baseman and center fielder, 1962-69
When I came up as a rookie in '62, I had just gotten divorced and was a bit down and out. Mickey was living in a two-bedroom suite at the St. Moritz hotel, and he took me in and let me stay with him for that whole year and part of the next. We became very close.
It was late in 1968, and Mick was going for his 535th home run to pass Jimmie Foxx on the all-time list. We were in Detroit, at Tiger Stadium, and Denny McLain was pitching. He was the last guy to win 31 games and he was just lights-out that year. Detroit was really beating us -- it was 6-1, I think, in the 8th inning -- and Mickey was going up to bat. I hit behind him, so I was watching from the on-deck circle. Anyway, Denny calls the catcher, Jim Price, out to the mound and tells him to go tell Mickey he's going to lay one in there for him. So Mickey says to Jim when he gets back to the plate, "Hey, what'd he say?" And Price says Denny's going to lay one in, and Mickey must not have believed him because he took the first pitch right down the middle. Denny threw up his hands and hollered at him. The next pitch, Mickey fouls back. Then he yells to McLain, "How about a little farther outside?" And the next pitch, he put it over the roof, home run, No. 535.
McLain comes over to home plate and shakes his hand, and Mickey says thank you. And I hear all this going on. So McLain goes back to the mound and I come up to bat. I say, "Hey, are you still in a good mood? How about a fastball down the middle?" He shakes his head. I say, "OK, a curveball?" He shakes his head again. No. He threw right at my head, layed me right down. I get up and he's laughing, and when I turn to look at the dugout, Mickey is on the front step, laughing his butt off right along with him.
Yankees second baseman, 1955-66
Mickey was a jokester, and most people don't know he had the best knuckleball in baseball. Anytime a rookie came up, we'd tell him we'd give him $100 if they could catch three of Mickey's knuckleballs in a row. So Jake Gibbs came up, he was a football player, a Heisman Trophy candidate out of the University of Mississippi. He caught Mickey's first knuckleball, but the second danced right around his glove and hit him right in the nose and broke it. They had to send him back (to the Minors), and we had to stop offering $100 to rookies. But he found other ways to mess with them. We'd all go up at the start of an inning to run out on the field and Mickey would have talked to us all ahead of time. We'd all run out 20 feet or so and turn around, and the rookie would keep going until he realized he was out there all by himself.
On three occasions, Mickey came down to my hometown of Sumter, S.C., to help me raise money for the YMCA. Once, he put on a clinic for 8-year-old boys. Another time, he put on a batting exhibition at Riley Field here and we gave away 2,000 Mickey Mantle bats to kids under 12. It was the biggest crowd we'd ever had here. We had a big banquet, and we put together a film of Mickey hitting over the course of his career. When it was over, he said, "That's the best film I've ever seen. I want a copy of that."
Hall of Famer; Yankees catcher, 1946-63; manager, 1964
Mickey used to needle me that it wasn't so tough calling a game, especially with a guy as good as Whitey Ford pitching. So one time at Fenway Park in Boston when Whitey was starting, I told him, "Go ahead, you call it." Mickey told me whenever he'd stand up straight in center, that meant a fastball. Hands on his knees meant a curve. He knew that if I didn't agree, I'd change it. And Whitey had the final say anyway. But I relayed his signals to Whitey, and it was working pretty good because we had a 2-0 lead in the seventh inning. When I got to the dugout, Mickey walked over to me and said, "OK, I got you this far, take it the rest of the way." He'd had enough.
I was always amazed at how Mickey took everything so hard. Early in his career, Mickey struck out six times in a doubleheader and started doing a number on the water cooler. When I asked if he was nervous at the plate, Mickey mumbled no. I said, "Then why are you wearing your jock strap outside your uniform?" Mickey actually glanced down to see if it was true, and I was happy I got him, because Mickey was always the one playing all the practical jokes.
Widow of Bobby Murcer, Yankees outfielder, 1965-74 and 1979-83
One story Bobby always laughed about was one of the first games he got called up to play at Yankee Stadium. He was so elated because he got all these cheers while he was at the plate, but it was really because Mickey had come into the on-deck circle. Bobby was naïve enough to think it was because he was the new kid in town.
Mickey was Bobby's childhood idol. He was about 15 years older and they had the Oklahoma connection, but I think everyone of Bobby's age who was a baseball fan idolized Mickey. The two of them had the same kind of country charm and Mickey became like an older brother to Bobby. In 1993, when Bobby was inducted into the Oklahoma Sports Hall of Fame, Mickey flew in to induct him. He and Bobby played golf together all the time. One of the last times they saw each other, Bobby played golf in Dallas with Mickey and Mickey Jr., and Bobby got a hole in one. They all signed the scorecard and we have all these great pictures of Mickey holding the pin and pointing to the hole. I loved Mickey, too. He would often call the house just to tell me a few of his jokes, because he knew I liked them. He was always so sweet to Bobby and treated him with so much kindness. He was just an awesome, awesome friend.
Son of Whitey Ford, Yankees pitcher, 1950-67
When I was a kid, my dad would bring me to the ballpark, we'd have a catch on the field, then I'd be hanging in the clubhouse with Pete Sheehy, the clubhouse guy. Mickey would always come in late, after the whole team was already on the field. When I asked my dad why Mickey was always late, he shook his head and immediately set me straight. "Mickey's not late," he said. "He just doesn't want anyone to see him putting those bandages on his legs." Everyone knew Mickey had to wrap the heck out of his knees, but he didn't want anyone to see him do it. He didn't want them to think it was an excuse. He was always hurt and it really gave an inspiration to the rest of the team. They knew how badly he was hurting, so they wouldn't ask out of the lineup if they were hurt. He really led the team by hiding it from them. That was part of his greatness, and part of why the Yankees were so great back then. His courage, his toughness. He just wanted to win so badly.
Lindsay Berra is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.