Parallel lives of Mickey and Willie examined in book
Countless similarities existed between premier center fielders of baseball's Golden Age
Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays may well be the two best center fielders in history, but rarely are they viewed through the same prism. On Tuesday night, author Allen Barra appeared at the Museum of the City of New York to discuss his recent book, "Mickey and Willie: Mantle and Mays, the Parallel Lives of Baseball's Golden Age," in which he attempts to do just that.
"I believe that Mantle and Mays are the most written-about athletes in American sports history, but neither of their stories is complete without the other," Barra said. "There are so many places where their stories intersected, and so many parallels. Perhaps the only reason they are not linked together in history is because Mays' move to San Francisco obscured their connection for the next generation."
Barra's book shows that connection is undeniable.
Mantle and Mays were the same age, born five months apart in 1931. They were nearly the same height and weight and had virtually the same talent. When they arrived on the scene as rookies in 1951, New York -- and all of baseball, for that matter -- had never before seen power and speed in such thrilling combination.
At the end of that season, Mantle's Yankees and Mays' Giants would meet in the World Series. In Game 2 at Yankee Stadium, Mantle stepped into the now-infamous exposed drain pipe in center field that would twist his knee and leave him with the constant pain of a torn ACL for the duration of his career. It was Mays who hit the fly ball Mantle had been tracking.
Despite that unfortunate play, their meeting in the World Series laid the groundwork for what would become a lifelong friendship. Despite the pressures of still-segregated society, Mantle and Mays immediately understood each other, perhaps because each was the only one who could comprehend the pressures super-stardom placed on the other.
And maybe they, too, realized how much they had in common.
Mantle and Mays grew to be very similar players; both batted over .300 10 times in their careers and had two seasons with more than 50 home runs. Mantle played in 20 All-Star Games to Mays' 24, but earned three MVP Awards to Mays' two. Mantle's career would be cut shorter by injury, ending after the 1968 season, while Mays would play through 1973.
But their similarities ran deeper than on the diamond. Both grew up during the Great Depression. They were from poor, southern families, ushered into baseball by hard-working fathers who had played in semi-pro industrial leagues. Cat Mays played for the steel mill where he worked outside of Birmingham, Ala.; Mutt Mantle for the zinc mine that employed him in Commerce, Okla.
Yes, you read that correctly. Their fathers were named Mutt and Cat.
And the parallels continue. Consider:
• Mantle and Mays were both eternal boys who loved to shoot pool and watch Westerns and play stickball in the street with New York City kids near their respective ballparks, and both had boys' names to boot -- Mickey and Willie appear on their birth certificates.
• The two led barnstorming tours together in the offseason, pitting Mantle's All-Stars against Mays' All-Stars, to supplement the salaries they earned during the season.
• Both were booed by their hometown crowds in the late '50s. New Yorkers resented Mantle because of his 4-F status during the Korean War and because he would never quite supplant the great Joe DiMaggio in their hearts. Upon the Giants' relocation to San Francisco in 1958, Mays was booed by Bay Area fans, who weren't quite ready to embrace him.
• They each appeared on the cover of Sport magazine more than 20 times.
• Both were among the first wave of players to make $100,000 a season. In 1963, Mantle received a $100,000 contract from the Yankees. Two days later, the Giants gave Mays $105,000. Mantle admitted to being forever jealous of Mays' higher salary, despite making much more in endorsements than Mays ever did.
• In what was possibly the first bit of interracial sports marketing, Mantle and Mays joined forces to promote Zipee Wiffle balls, with both of their faces on the packaging. They also appeared together in an ad for Blue Bonnet margarine, wearing bonnets while feasting on corn on the cob, steaks and mugs of beer. In real life, of course, Mantle admittedly drank too much, while Mays rarely did.
• Both had demons. Mantle battled problems with alcohol, while Willie suffered from paralyzing anxiety. Both had troubled relationships with money, women and their children.
• Mays and Mantle interviewed each other -- and evaluated their respective achievements -- for a 1968 issue of Esquire.
• Both are Hall of Famers. Mantle was inducted in 1974, Mays in 1979.
• Both were banned from baseball by Commissioner Bowie Kuhn in 1983 because of their jobs as spokesmen for two Atlantic City casinos. Both were reinstated when Peter Ueberroth became Commissioner in 1985.
Every baseball fan has a strongly held opinion about whether he or she would rather have Mantle or Mays manning center field. In 1962, one of those many covers of Sport tried to answer the question, asking, "Who is the best? Mickey or Willie?" After thousands of mail-in responses were collected, the most votes went to Mantle, but it hardly settled the debate. Even now, with advanced statistical measures, results are inconclusive. Many argue that Mays had better career numbers, mostly because he played five more seasons, but that Mantle had the stronger peak.
In "Mickey and Willie," Barra draws his own conclusion about Mays and Mantle after in-depth statistical analysis. Who does he think wins out?
You'll have to read the book to find out.
Lindsay Berra is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.