Mickey Mantle’s Missing MVP Award
Mickey Mantle’s legacy has faded in the more than half a century since he played his last game. With each passing year, fewer fans who saw him play are still around, so we know him only by his numbers, the stories about him and some video. Aging boomer cultural figures like Larry David or Billy Crystal refer to him in their work occasionally. Jane Leavy’s excellent 2011 biography of Mantle portrayed him as a complex man who was never quite comfortable with his stardom and who died too young from a combination of disease and drinking. Mantle is also remembered for being the great baseball player that he was, but as time goes by, and other great players emerge, Mantle’s greatness is sometimes overlooked. Mantle retired at age 36 after a season when his OPS+ was 143 and when he still was a very productive hitter, so had he played another three or four more years he would have ended up with 600 home runs and possibly 3000 hits and would be remembered differently. Similarly, had he been the first player to win three consecutive MVP awards, as he should have, fans might think of him differently today.
Because of all this Mantle’s extraordinary peak is often overlooked. From 1955 through 1962, Mantle hit .315/.445/.616 for an OPS+ of 189 while slugging 320 home runs, stealing 108 bases and being caught fifteen times. WAR was not used back then, but Mantle accumulated 70.1 WAR for those eight years, leading the league in that yet undiscovered category every year from 1955-1958 and again in 1961. Mantle’s 1956 and 1957 MVP awards were well deserved. In 1956, in addition to winning the triple crown, he led the league runs and slugging percentage. In 1957, Mantle slashed .365/.512/.665 was clearly the best player in the American League and won a second consecutive MVP award. In 1962, Mantle got a break, despite injuries that limited him to 123 games, he led the league in slugging and on base percentage and because nobody else in the league had a great year, got an MVP award that he probably deserved.
Mantle won an impressive three MVP awards, but In 1958 the writers made a decision that was completely puzzling then and remains so today. Mantle’s 1958 was slightly worse-if that is the right word- than his previous two years, but he still slashed .304/.443/.592, while the MVP winner that year hit .286/.396/.535. Mantle also led the league in OPS+ at 188 and in WAR, 8.7. Jackie Jensen, who won the award, lagged well behind Mantle with an OPS+ of 148 and only 4.9 WAR. OPS+ and WAR did not exist in 1958, so it is not fair to fault writers for not seeing Mantle’s superiority according to those measurements. However, Mantle had a higher batting average, OBP and slugging percentage as well as more hits, runs, stolen bases and home runs than Jensen. Those statistics mattered a lot back then, but the voters ignored Mantle’s advantage in those areas while giving a lot of weight to Jensen driving in 25 more runs than Mantle, albeit while scoring 44 fewer runs.
MVP voters don’t only look at the numbers. Other things matter as well. The position the top contenders play, for example, helped Yogi Berra beat Mantle in the 1955 MVP voting. Similarly, players who are seen as providing an intangible or leadership role on a pennant winning team often get boosts in the MVP balloting. In 1965 Zoilo Versailles won an MVP that, on the numbers, he clearly did not deserve, but he benefited from being seen as the leader of the pennant winning Twins squad that year. Kirk Gibson won the NL MVP for similar reasons in 1988.
None of these criteria applied to Jackie Jensen in 1958. Jensen was viewed a good defensive rightfielder, but Mantle was also a good defender but as a centerfielder played a more demanding position. Similarly, Jensen’s Red Sox finished in third place 13 games behind the pennant winner. As was usually the case in the 1950s, the team that won the pennant was Mantle’s Yankees. Mantle had a better offensive year, playing a more demanding position for a pennant winning team, but not only lost the MVP voting to an inferior player, but finished fifth behind Jensen, Bob Turley, Rocky Colavito and Bob Cerv. Turley was the ace pitcher of a pennant winning team so deserved some votes, but Cerv and Colavito, like Jensen, were good outfielders who did not play quite as well as Mantle in 1958.
The reason Mantle did not win that MVP award had little to do with his or Jensen’s performance, or that of the Yankees or Red Sox. Rather, in those days it was understood that nobody should win more than three MVP awards and Mantle had already won the previous two. That policy remained in place until Barry Bonds won his fourth MVP in 2001. Bonds would go on to win a total of seven. Mantle’s 1958 season was not as good as his previous two, so the writers seemed to think it was somebody else’s turn. Additionally, as Yogi Berra had been the MVP in both 1954 and 1955, the voters probably believed that it was time to give the award so somebody on a team other than the Yankees.
Had the voters decided to eschew tradition and give the award to the best player in the league, Mantle would have been the MVP for three years in a row, a feat that was not accomplished until Bonds won four in a row. Mantle is remembered as a great player, but three straight MVP awards would have further burnished his reputation back then and led to him being remembered even more positively today.