Year Inducted: 1974 (BBWAA, ballot #1, 322/365)
There are some players that come up to the big leagues with all the hype in the world, and are expected to be great players. Sometimes they are expected to become the best ever. Joe DiMaggio was mostly like that, as were Ken Griffey and most recently Bryce Harper. That can put an amazing amount of pressure on a kid, especially if he happens to play in New York. In 1951, Joe D’s final season, the Yanks brought up the player they thought was going to replace him in center field to learn on the job from one of the greats. They heaped a ton of pressure on this kid, and gave him the number 6 (following Ruth , Gehrig  and DiMaggio ). After a rough start that season, they sent him back down to the minors. When called back up later that year, he was sporting the number 7, and Mickey Mantle was off and running to be one of the greatest players of all-time.
Mantle played center field (and first base) in the Bronx for 18 years. Mantle adjusted well to the pressure and slashed an astonishing .298/.421/.557 with a wRC+ of 170. To add some context to his wRC+, Mantle currently ranks 6th all-time in that stat. He trails only Barry Bonds, Rogers Hornsby, Lou Gehrig, Ted Williams and Babe Ruth. He is 12 points ahead of Stan Musial and Jimmie Foxx and 17 points ahead of Hank Aaron. That’s how great Mantle was offensively. As further proof that Mantle was the best switch hitter ever, he blasted 536 homers, 344 doubles and 72 triples in his career. Despite only having four 100 RBI seasons, Mantle still drove in over 1500 runs in his career and scored nearly over 1600 as well. When he first came up, Mantle had blazing speed out of the batter’s box. From the left side of the plate, he could make it up to first in 3.1 seconds. Mantle used his speed to steal 153 bases and he was worth +22 runs above average on the bases during his career.
Defensively, Mantle was decent early in his career, but faded quickly in the 1960’s as age and injuries beset him. As such, he was only worth -78 runs defensively, one of the few things that could be looked at as a negative with Mantle.
Mantle was born and bred to be a great player. No one ever looked quite as perfect in the Pinstripes as he did, and the strength he had from working in the mines of Oklahoma aided him in hitting some of the longest homers ever seen. But there were two things holding Mantle back. One was his knee. In the 1951 series Mantle (playing in right field) and DiMaggio were both tracking a flyball. DiMaggio called for it late so Mantle pulled up and caught his spike in an outfield drain and shredded his knee. Mantle was never the same after that, and it’s a big reason why his defensive ratings tank later in his career (for if his knee had been healthy it is likely that Mantle ages much more gracefully and fulfills the role that many called him to upon his debut).
Unfortunately, that was the least of his worries. While trying to get into a taxi to take him to the hospital, Mickey leaned on his father who immediately crumpled to the ground. Both were then brought to the hospital where it was revealed his father had Hodgkin’s Disease, which would claim his life at the age of 39. This singular event tormented Mantle for the rest of his life. Mantle’s grandfather (who helped train him to be a switch hitter) and two of his uncles all died of cancer at very young ages with none of them living past 45. Mantle was absolutely certain that the same fate would befall him, and decided to enjoy life as much as possible. He did this by drinking a lot, like many of the players from the 1800’s had, which not only hastened his end (Mantle died of liver cancer at 63), but also the end of his baseball career at age 36. Mantle beat up a lot of opponents in his career, but couldn’t beat his own demons.
Mantle was an easy pick for the Hall of Fame on his first ballot. It’s mind boggling that he didn’t reach more than 90% of the vote and that 40 people couldn’t vote for him. Perhaps some of the BBWAA thought that his .298 average wasn’t good enough, perhaps some thought of his lifestyle and cited the “Character Clause” in the guidelines, or perhaps some just thought he never fulfilled his potential due to his injuries (and to be fair, many media, fans and players all thought that had Mantle never been hurt he would have been the best player ever). Regardless of his percentage, Mantle will always be looked at as an iconic player, and one of the greatest of all-time.
The next update for today goes up at 7:00 am EDT.