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The Tuesday Discussion: What if Mickey Mantle Didn’t Get Injured in 1951?

We are basing this week’s Tuesday Discussion off of Tim Kabel’s “What If” article from yesterday. We asked our writers to respond to this question:

What if Mickey Mantle didn’t tear up his right ACL in the 1951 World Series?

Here are their responses:

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Paul Semendinger – Most baseball writers and experts consider Willie Mays to be one of the top two or three baseball players of all time. And he was. Absolutely.

I believe that if Mickey Mantle didn’t get injured in that 1951 World Series, he would be in that conversation as one of the greatest players, he might have even been that player. As it is, Mantle was just about as good as Mays for much of their careers, and that was already after Mantle suffered that injury that took so much of his speed from him. By all accounts, Mantle wasn’t the same player after that injury.

Mantle’s four best consecutive seasons (by WAR) were:

1955: 9.5 WAR (Traditional : .306/37/99, Advanced: .306/.432/.611/1.042

1956: 11.2 WAR (Traditional: .353/52/131, Advanced: .353/.464/..705/1.169

1957: 11.3 WAR (Traditional: .365/34/94, Advanced: .365/.512/.665/1.177

1958: 8.7 WAR (Traditional: ..304/42/97, Advanced: .304/.443/.592/1.035

Totals: 40.7 WAR (Traditional: 331/165/420, Advanced: .331/.462/.643/1.105)

Mays’ four best consecutive seasons (by WAR) were:

1962: 10.5 WAR (Traditional: .304/49/141, Advanced: .304/.384/.615/.999)

1963: 10.6 WAR (Traditional: .314/38/103, Advanced .314/.380/.582/.962)

1964: 11.0 WAR (Traditional: .296/47/111, Advanced .296/.383/.607/.990)

1965: 11.2 WAR (Traditional: .317/52/112, Advanced: .317/.398/.645/1.043)

Totals: 43.3 WAR (Traditional: .308/186/467, Advanced: .308/.386/.612/.998

Mays wins this head-to-head in WAR, Homers, and Runs Batted In

Mantle wins this head-to-head in Batting Average, On-Base Percentage, Slugging Percentage, and OPS.

If Mantle had never been injured, his best year could (probably would) have been even better and his career may have lasted longer.

An uninjured Mickey Mantle might have been the single greatest player of all time.

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Chris O’Connor – This is a question that I have long been fascinated by. Mantle is already regarded as an inner-circle Hall of Famer, a top 10-15 player of all time. This is all the more remarkable when considering the fact that he played his entire career with a torn ACL. It is difficult to believe that this would change much about the Yankees team success during that time. They ended up winning the World Series in 1951, 1952, and 1953. In fact, starting in 1949, the Yankees won 9 of the next 14 World Series titles and 14 of the next 16 pennants. Hard to do much better than that. As for Mantle himself, the tales of his speed as a teenager are legendary and would indicate that he should have had more doubles and triples throughout his career. He hit more than 30 doubles just once, never leading the league, and hit for more than 7 triples just twice, with the last time coming in 1955 as a 23 year-old. He was a big home-run hitter and had excellent on-base skills, but doubles and triples were never really his strengths. Would that have changed with a healthier knee? Probably, but he had such an amazing career that it is difficult to see it being appreciably better. It is possible that instead of being a top 10-15 player of all time, maybe he becomes top 5. But we will never know, and that is what makes this question so interesting.

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Mike Whiteman – The popular sentiment is that the knee injury Mickey Mantle sustained in the 1951 World Series had a detrimental effect on his career. For sure a major knee injury is not a good thing, and I also suspect that the surgery in 1951 wasn’t nearly as advanced as it is today.

Yet, about six months later on Opening Day 1952, he had three hits, two RBI, and stole a base! By the middle of the season he had won the center field job that was made vacant by Joe DiMaggio’s retirement. In 1952 he played 142 games and slashed at .311/.394/.530…at age twenty! Per baseball-reference.com, he took the extra base 65% of the time when the situation presented, second only to Bobby Avila in the AL.

From 1951 through 1964 The Mick averaged 134 games played and .309/.429/.582. His body seem to give out and his career feel off a (relative) cliff at age 33, and his numbers plunged to .254/.386/.450 the last four seasons of his career.

So, I say that while the injury was devastating, he recovered quickly and I don’t think it had a measurable effect on his career.

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Tim Kabel – If Mickey Mantle had not torn his right ACL during the 1951 World Series, a few things would have been different.

First, Mickey would’ve played the rest of the 1951 World Series. Also, and much more importantly, his entire career would’ve been different. No surgery was performed on his knee after the 1951 season. Initially on the day of the injury, he was sent to his father’s hotel room to rest. After he was taken to the hospital, he remained there with his father, who was dying of Hodgkin’s disease, for the remainder of the series. The only positive in this whole situation was that Mickey discovered the severity of his father’s medical condition, and the fact that he was dying. His father had kept this a secret from him.

Eventually the Yankees sent Mickey to John Hopkins hospital, where it was recommended that he should simply rest and let it recover on its own. He did not have surgery on his knee for two years. He stated that he never played without pain in his career after that injury. He suffered many injuries in his career but, that was the worst.

The Yankees manager, Casey Stengel, had instructed Mickey to take anything he could because Joe DiMaggio’s heel was hurting him. That is why Mickey was charging so hard to catch the ball. At the last minute, he heard DiMaggio call the ball. Mickey pulled up hard and caught his spike on one of the drains in the outfield, which is what caused him to tear the knee. He stated that while he was lying there in tremendous pain, DiMaggio spoke to him. Mickey claimed it was the first time DiMaggio spoke to him all season.

Mickey Mantle had a tremendous career and is a Hall of Famer. However, imagine what would have been and what could have been if he had not torn his knee in his rookie season. Don’t forget the medical treatment at that time was not as sophisticated as what we have today. If he had not been in constant pain and limited by the injury to his knee for 17 years, imagine how much better he would have been. Not only the physical limitations have to be considered. The psychological effects of realizing that with any move you could re-injure your knee to the point of not being able to play again must have weighed extremely heavily on Mickey. That injury effectively limited his potential and his actual accomplishments. As great as his career was, it would have been that much better had he not suffered that injury in 1951.

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Andy Singer – Though I’m too young to have seen him play, I have always been fascinated by Mickey Mantle’s career, much of which is due to the numerous “what if’s” we could play about any number of subjects regarding events during his playing days. Despite all of the baggage that came with Mantle, he is still the second best centerfielder of the era behind Willie Mays. However, part of the reason DiMaggio is my least favorite Yankee is because of today’s Tuesday Discussion topic. DiMaggio should have yielded to Mantle on the fly ball that destroyed his knee, and it was really DiMaggio’s ego that caused the situation. For that reason, I’ve always viewed Mantle in a sympathetic light.

Frankly, the knee injury was the genesis of many of the injuries that followed for Mantle. With a healthy knee, I believe that Mantle would have been a true five-tool player for far longer, been more durable, and we’d be talking about the steroid monsters passing Mantle’s home run record, not Maris’. Willie Mays was a phenomenal ballplayer, but without the knee injury in 1951, I think we might be talking about Mickey Mantle as the best CF of all time.

#MickeyMantle #WhatIf

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