Everyone wanted to be like Mickey

By Bob Elliott

Mickey Morabito is in his 36th season as the travelling secretary for the Oakland Athletics.

He started working with New York Yankees in 1974 as an assistant in public relations. He arrived after the legendary Mickey Mantle had retired, but was there at the big ball park in the Bronx and was in charge of organizing Old Timers Games.

“Mickey didn’t have an ego,” Morabito said before his A’s played the Blue Jays Wednesday night. “Fans loved Joe DiMaggio, but Mickey was their guy. He was so approachable. One year about 1976 or 1977 they introduced Mickey last.

“Next year Mickey came to me and said ‘please let Joe go last.’”

Twenty years ago Thursday, Mantle died at 2:10 A.M. EST at Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas.
The Hall of Famer is still remembered as one of the game’s best. 

Sal Butera was born in the fall of 1952 in Richmond Hill, Queens, N.Y. and by the end of the decade Butera was a ball fan.

“Yankees games were on WPIX, channel 11, the Mets were on WOR channel 9,” said Butera, taking us back to the days when you had to get out of your chair to change channels and on some nights adjust the rabbit ears on the TV. “My memories of Mickey Mantle were after he stepped on a sprinkler and had his knee surgery.”

Mantle stepped on a sprinkler during the 1951 World Series, still led the American League with 40 homers in 1960.

And on Sept. 28, 1968 he popped up against Boston Red Sox righty Jim Lonborg in the first inning. He didn’t come out for the second. Ken (Hawk) Harrelson, now a White Sox broadcaster, tells of standing in right field crying at seeing Mantle’s career end.  

After his nine-year playing career, Butera began scouting for the Jays in 1996 and would sit at Yankee Stadium and talk with old timers about Mantle the legendary switch-hitter.

“Dick Williams told me scouting for Houston he had Mantle at 3.9 seconds to first from the right side of the batter’s box,” Butera said. “Others guys had him 3.5 to first on a bunt from the left side. The thing about him he was a rare combination of speed and power. He was big for his era, but not many were as solidly built as Mantle.”

Butera said the closest thing to Mantle is Mike Trout of the Angels. Scouting at class-A Rancho Cucamonga in 2010 he saw Trout show big-time pop pre-game, go 0-for-4 and clocked him at 4.0 to first ... twice and thought `wow this kid has a chance.

Mantle was born in Commerce, Oak. in October of 1931. Hall of Famer Johnny Bench was born in Oklahoma City in 1947. At spring training with the Cincinnati Reds in 1966 Bench received an autographed ball from Mantle.

Four years later Mantle attended Bench’s charity golf tournament. “He was my hero from the time I was three,” Bench said of Mantle. 

Mantle loved the game and loved life. He was 63 when he died.

Why do you still see grown men wearing pin-striped No. 7 jerseys at Yankee Stadium or at Legends Field in Tampa in the spring? 

Broadcaster Bob Costas carried a Mantle card in his wallet.

Comedian Billy Crystal interviewed Mantle at Cooperstown, mentioned how he dreamed of playing catch with Mantle and as Crystal signed off the show, Mantle said “hey Billy ... how about a catch.”

When MLB Network made its debut Jan. 1 2009 it showed Don Larsen’s perfect game from the 1956 Series with Yogi Berra and Larsen in studio. I called Marty Noble for a review of the station’s first day. 

“It was great, I got to see Mantle play,” Noble said as Mantle kept Larsen perfect chasing down a drive off the bat of Gil Hodges.

Mantle was the boy, the player everyone wanted to grow up to be like.

My father and my uncle Sam took my cousin Geoff and I to Detroit in 1961 to see our Tigers with Hall of Famers Al Kaline and Jim Bunning and lithe second baseman Jake Wood, my favorite American League player at the time.
It happened that the Yankees were in town. 

Roger Maris hit his 57th off Frank Lary on Saturday and Sunday morn we walked from the Windsor Tunnel past pawn shops on our way to Briggs Stadium. Entering the lobby of the Statler Hilton we found autograph hunters waiting for the visiting Yankees. 

When Mantle emerged he was surrounded by about 20 kids. An older boy about 17 shoved a glossy magazine into the crowd poking Mantle in the left eyebrow. 

“Time out,” Mantle said loudly. “You’re older, you should know better. I’m going to sign for everyone. You, son, will be last.” 

Mantle signed for all and was headed to the bus when he spotted two ladies in their 70s. One shyly stuttered, 

“Mmmm-ister Mantle, could you please sign this ball for my eight-year-old grandson, he’s a Yankee fan and he’s in hospital in Lansing with Hodgkin’s disease.” 

Mantle’s father and uncle had died of the same disease, we learned later. Mantle was in the midst of signing the grass-stained ball with ripped seams when the woman mentioned the disease. 

He stopped and called over the Yankee P.R. man. He asked to have a Yankees yearbook, a cap, a new ball, an 8-by-10 picture and a ball signed by the team and to be dropped at his locker when he returned from the trip. He asked the P.R. man to mail the package to the hospital. 

Both ladies were crying now. Mantle then explained how the Tigers opened the 1992 season in Detroit, how they’d keep in touch and he’d get “Whitey Ford, Billy Martin and a few of the fellas” and drive to Lansing next April.
Mantle said goodbye, told them to give their grandson his best and headed for the bus.

Slowly the women turned towards each other. 

Soon they were weeping uncontrollably. 

Maris hit his 58th Sunday afternoon off Terry Fox in the 12th to beat the Tigers. 

Don’t think anyone mentioned Maris on our drive home.