Many baseball scouts called the young Mickey Mantle the most talented prospect they’d ever seen, and he justified their confidence in his abilities on the field and at the plate by reaching the big leagues in 1951 when he was just 19. The next season, at 20, he replaced Joe DiMaggio as the Yankees’ center fielder and finished third in the MVP voting.
The story of Mantle’s “arc” — from gullible country boy to big city superstar to faded, injury-ravaged icon playing out his last games as a shadow of his former, formidable self — has been told countless times. Here, LIFE presents a quick tour through The Mick’s life, on the field and off, in hopes of providing a glimpse into why one player won the hearts of so many fans across so many years . . . and what the lineaments of an athlete’s life can look like when the stands empty and the fans go home.
Mantle stood 5′ 11″ and weighed roughly 200 lbs. his whole career, but he packed prodigious power into that frame. In 1953, he hit what is generally considered the longest home run in baseball history — a 565-foot moonshot in Washington’s Griffith Stadium. He was especially dangerous as a hitter for two reasons: he was a switch-hitter with power from both sides of the plate, and he had a keen batting eye. He finished in the top three in walks 12 times and had a career on-base percentage of .421.
Mantle was just as big a threat in the postseason. A seven-time champion, he played the second-most World Series games in history and holds Series records for home runs (18), RBIs (40), runs (42), walks (43) and total bases (123).
His last few years as a player, however, were not the best of times, as his body, ravaged by injuries and alcohol abuse, began to betray him. His post-baseball life was also wracked with hardships, including liver failure and the death of his son, Billy. In his prime, though, Mickey Mantle was an absolute wonder on the diamond — a rare combination of speed, power, grace and, perhaps especially, grit.