Fifty years ago, a 36-year-old Mickey Mantle came to Yankee spring training to prepare for what turned out to be his last season as a player. All Yankee fans who know their team’s history are familiar with the story - injuries and hard living had sapped the great Yankee slugger’s ability leaving him essentially a shell of the player he once was and forcing him to retire after the 1968 season. Mantle is rightly remembered as one of the game's greatest players, but the sad, and relatively early end of his career, has damaged his legacy as the years have gone by.
This near universal understanding of Mantle in 1967 and 1968 is off the mark. Mantle was as much a victim of the rise of the pitching dominated era of the late 1960s and overly conventional ways of understanding player value than of injury and hard living. By the late 1960s, Mantle was no longer a star, but during his last two years in the Major Leagues, he was 22nd in the American League in WAR. That was still enough to make him one of the elite players in the league. Over those same two years, his OPS+ of 147 was good for seventh among eligible players. During the last two years of his career, Mantle was an excellent hitter who had lost his defensive skills, so, rather than being a decent fielding centerfielder as he had been for most of his career, was a subpar first baseman. Nonetheless, most teams in those years before the designated hitter would have been happy with a first baseman who was one of the best hitters in the league who contributed little with the leather.
In 1968, Mantle had an OPS+ of 143, good enough for eighth highest in the league. That tied him, with Happy Felsch (a Chicago WhiteSox from 1915-1920) for the fifth highest OPS+ in a player’s last season, with a minimum of 450 plate appearances. Felsch was forced to retire at age 28, as was the leader in this category, Shoeless Joe Jackson, at age 32, because they were banned from baseball for allegedly throwing the 1919 World Series. Only Barry Bonds, David Ortiz and Will Clark retired on their own after putting up a better offensive year than Mantle in 1968, although blacklisted is a better way to describe what happened to Bonds after his 2007 season.
The primary reason Mantle’s 1968 season is looked upon poorly was that it came in an era when batting average was still the primary way that hitters were evaluated. In 1968, Mantle hit .237. The previous season, he had hit only .245. Additionally, his .237 in 1968, drove his career batting average below .300. Mantle retired with a career batting average of .298, down from .302 through the 1967 season.
Mantle always had a good batting eye. His 1,733 walks are still eighth on the all-time list, but when he retired only Babe Ruth and Ted Williams had more. However, during the last two years of his career, walks were an even more important part of his offensive value. His 107 walks in 1967 and 106 in 1968 were the second most in the American League each of those years, helping him rank fifth and third in the league respectively in on-base percentage in his last two years. However, hit .385 OBP in 1968, while third in the league, seemed less impressive given that Mantle had 9 times exceeded a .400 OBP and once exceeded .500. Similarly, Mantle’s slugging percentage of .398 and his 18 home runs were the worst of any full season of his career. Nonetheless, he led the Yankees in home runs and was 19th in slugging and tied for 13th in home runs overall in the entire American League.
In 1968, Mantle was one of the best hitters in the league who, while not the dominant player he once was, still was a valuable patience and power guy who was very valuable to the Yankees. None of this was evident at the time because front offices and management, although aware that it the game was dominated by pitching, did not fully understand its impact. Similarly, Mantle’ primary skill during his last two years was his ability to draw walks, something that was almost entirely unappreciated, even unrecognized, at the time.
Had Mantle’s 1968 been better understood, he might have stuck around a few more years and climbed further up the all-time home run list. It is possible, although impossible to know, that he might have played, say four more years, and made it to 600 home runs-he retired with 536. We can’t go back in time and change that. However, we can change our evaluations of one of the greatest Yankees ever. Mantle in his prime, from 1956-1961, was a player of such historic greatness hitting a combined .316/.448/.617 and thrice accumulating more than 10 WAR, that the tail end of his career can’t help but seem disappointing. Mantle may indeed have been a shadow of his former self at the end, but the Mantle of 1967 and 1968 was still very valuable and helped his team more than the generally accepted narrative suggests.