Special Book Excerpt: The Search for the Next Mickey Mantle (1 of 3)
Author Barry Sparks has a great new book, The Search for the Next Mickey Mantle. With permission from his publisher, Sunbury Press and the author, we share this special excerpt. This is one of three excerpts we are sharing here at SSTN.
FROM THE INTRODUCTION:
What baseball team wouldn’t want a player of Mickey Mantle’s caliber?
—Long-time baseball scout
After appearing in 14 World Series in 16 seasons from 1949-1964, the New York Yankees dynasty ended in 1965 when they finished sixth in the American League with a 77-85 record. It was no aberration. In 1966, the decades-old juggernaut fell with a thud into the basement of the 10-team American League. The club closed with a 70-89 record, 26.5 games behind the Baltimore Orioles. It marked the first time since 1912 the team occupied last place. The Yankees would not finish in first place again until 1976, when they captured the American League East title.
In the summer of 1965, Cleveland Indians manager Birdie Tebbetts said, “All the Yankees need is one great player. If there isn’t anyone, the Yankees need to worry.”
Of course, it wasn’t that simple. There were a multitude of reasons for the Yankees’ decline. Finding a superstar to replace the fading Mickey Mantle wouldn’t be easy, but it would be easier than fixing an array of problems. The club had searched for the “next Mickey Mantle” since switch-hitting Tom Tresh won the American League Rookie of the Year Award in 1962. Tresh was the first in a long line of candidates to potentially fill Mantle’s shoes, a Herculean task.
Mantle won the American League Most Valuable Player Award in 1962 after placing second to teammate Roger Maris in the MVP voting in 1960 and 1961. At age 30, Mantle had battled injuries throughout his career, and the club wasn’t sure how much longer it could count on him to be productive. Despite any optimism the club could muster, the Yankee superstar entered the latter part of his career.
There was plenty of pressure on the Yankees’ front office to produce the ‘next Mickey Mantle.’ After more than 40 years of continuous superstars—Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, and Mantle—fans weren’t ready for it to end. A team with a superstar is a team with hope, charisma, and an attendance magnet. Touting a potential superstar is a way to sell fans on a brighter future.
The Yankees and the New York media, particularly in the 1960s and early 1970s, unfairly hung “the next Mickey Mantle” label on many players, all of whom fell short of his standards. Tresh, Joe Pepitone, Roger Repoz, Bobby Murcer, Steve Whitaker, Bill Robinson, Tony Solaita, and Ron Blomberg were victims of the hype.
In 1965 when Mantle and Maris were both injured, the Yankees called up 25-year-old, left-handed hitting outfielder Roger Repoz from Toledo. Plagued by strikeouts and a low batting average most of his minor league career, Repoz led the International League in home runs when he was summoned to the majors. Johnny Johnson, director of the Yankees farm system, proclaimed, “The next Yankee star is Roger Repoz. There is no doubt about it.”2 In 127 games over three seasons with New York, Repoz tallied 12 home runs and batted .240.
Cleveland Indians manager Birdie Tebbetts offered another observation, “There is a myth that you put a player in a Yankee uniform, and he becomes great. But you have to put the right player in the uniform. The Yankees are having trouble getting that kind of player because the other clubs are building themselves up.” Implementing the major league amateur draft in 1965 almost guaranteed the Yankees wouldn’t be able to turn their fortunes around quickly. Before the draft, the club flooded the country with its savvy scouts and used its power and prestige to sign a host of talented players. Under the amateur draft, however, teams selected players in the inverse order of their finish. It was an effort to introduce parity and end bidding wars. It didn’t favor the Yankees.
In 1967, Jack Mann, author of The Decline and Fall of the New York Yankees, wrote, “the Yankees are in this mess because of 10 years, maybe 20 years, of bad management. Not stupid management, but short-sighted management, the failure to recognize the game of baseball was changing into a system of controlled mediocrity, to which the Yankee method could no longer be superior, or even equal.”
Arrogance had cost the Yankees. When bonus players became the rage in the 1950s, the Yankees shunned them for the most part. The club preferred to sign players relatively cheaply. They counted on the aura of pinstripes to offset their subpar bonus offers. Bobby Murcer, who idolized Mantle growing up in Oklahoma, signed with the Yankees for $10,000, even though the Los Angeles Dodgers offered him $20,000. He dreamed of playing for the Yankees and figured a string of World Series checks would make up the difference.
The Yankees signed Roger Repoz for $4,000 and Steve Whitaker for $5,500. After Tony Solaita signed for a modest $1,000 bonus, he joked, “I signed for a steak dinner, and I had to leave the tip.”5 On the flip side, the club offered Rick Reichardt more money than the Los Angeles Angels did in 1964 ($200,000), but the youngster passed up the offer to sign with the California club. The New Yorkers also inked Ron Blomberg for $75,000 in 1972.
Even though the Yankees had Elston Howard, the 1963 American League Most Valuable Player, they had been slow to scout and sign Black players. That reluctance cost them a wealth of talent.