Steven Katz, 61 years old and on the telephone with a stranger from half a continent away, choked up when talking about a baseball player whose last swing came four decades ago.
Chase Colston, a page designer in The Oklahoman sports department, left the Tyler Morning Telegraph earlier this year. His farewell column in Texas centered on a baseball player who retired 18 years before Colston was born. Vic Stewart, 59 years old, saw his hero play one game in Yankee Stadium and met him one time, years later, at a card show in Louisville, Ky. "Made my lifetime,” Stewart said. Mickey Mantle still grips America the way he did when he swung for the fences. He's still the great American hero. Forty years ago today, Sept. 28, 1968, Mantle played in pinstripes for the final time. The Oklahoma Kid, the Commerce Comet, popped out in the first inning of a game at Fenway Park, then was replaced in the second inning by Andy Kosco. And at the age of 36 — 36! — the Mick was done. His knees shot, he retired in March 1969. Simon and Garfunkel asked Joe DiMaggio where he had gone. Paul Simon actually was a bigger fan of Mantle; he once told Mantle that DiMaggio made the lyrics of "Mrs. Robinson” because of "syllables.” But truth is, Mickey Mantle was inappropriate for the song. He hadn't gone anywhere. Still hasn't, even 13 years after his death. Randall Swearingen, who grew up a Mantle fan and in recent years has become a Mantle family confidant, says Mickey Mantle is a "state of mind.” You hear the name and it brings back smells and tastes and feelings of the way the world used to be. Even if you weren't there. • • • • The memories come flooding back to those who idolized Mantle. Katz, who now lives in Monroe, N.Y., grew up in upper Manhattan, not far from the Bronx and Yankee Stadium. His dad, a baseball scout, took him to the Stadium for the first time in 1956. Fifty-two years later, Katz still remembers details of the day. A single and double by Mantle. And a strikeout, after which Mantle went to the dugout and kicked the water cooler. Casey Stengel said something to Mantle. The next at-bat, Mantle popped up, threw his bat high into the air and sprinted around first base. He was on second by the time the ball was caught. "I said, ‘I love this guy,'” Katz said. Loves him still. "Watching him play, running out to center field, patrolling the outfield for the Yankees all those years, just a great thrill of all time,” Katz said. "The effect he had on people like me. Watching the way he carried himself. Even the way he took his helmet off. It was so cool.” Katz's descriptions of Mantle are wonderfully simplistic, like "the way he ran, with his head down and elbows up.” Katz was at the 1969 game when the Yankees retired Mantle's No. 7. Mantle came onto the field in a golf cart. Katz sat in the right field upper deck. Said Katz, "He seemed to wave right to me.” • • • • Mantle wasn't perfect.
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Mickey Mantle's final baseball game was 40 years ago today, but he remains an American icon. How long ago was September 1968? • Richard Milhous Nixon had yet to be voted into the White House. •Man had yet to walk on the moon. •"Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” had yet to be released. •Woodstock was a year away. •The Saturday Evening Post still circulated. •"Gomer Pyle, USMC” still aired. •War hero and President Dwight Eisenhower, born in 1890, was alive. •The Montreal Expos, San Diego Padres, Kansas City Royals and Milwaukee Brewers were not.