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. He was an alcoholic. His marriage dissolved through infidelity. Many of those revelations came after retirement, but his fans were forgiving. Mantle became the No. 1 subject in the memorabilia craze that swept baseball, and his popularity remains intact. Items of Mantle and Babe Ruth are the most prized among collectors. "There's multiple reasons he's stayed around so long,” said Swearingen, a 54-year-old Houston businessman. "One of the biggest, he wasn't uppity. He didn't have an attitude. He was humble, down to Earth. He was an everyday guy from a small town who wanted to do good.” He was human. He also was superhuman. The 565-foot home run hit at Washington's Griffith Stadium. The balls hit off the facade at Yankee Stadium, one of which, Swearingen recalled, bounced almost all the way back to second base. And the home run Katz saw in 1959 that reached the upper deck but that Katz swears was only a foot or so over the second baseman's head when it left the infield. Mantle's popularity extended beyond the masses. His teammates' loyalty is legendary. When Oklahoma City unveiled the Mantle statue at Bricktown in 1998, a host of former Yankees attended. "Greatest ballplayer I played with or against in my career,” said Moose Skowron, a Yankee first baseman from 1956-62. "Hell of a guy. Great competitor. Always wanted to win. You don't forget things like that.” Vic Stewart grew up in Indiana and idolized Mantle. "Man, the way he played ball,” Stewart said. "When he hit the field, he gave 100 percent.” Sometimes that's hyperbole about a superstar. Except Mantle's old teammates have been saying much the same thing for 50 years. "Mickey, he was the best,” Skowron said. "Always gave 100 percent. Played when he was hurt.” Skowron lockered between Mantle and Yogi Berra. "Mickey would go 0-for-4 and strike out four times,” Skowron recalled. "He'd be crying in the locker room. I'd ask him what was wrong. He'd say, ‘Moose, I let 40,000 people down today.' He was a winner.” • • • • Some Mantle fans never saw him play. Some weren't born when Mantle retired. They are Mantle fans because their fathers were Mantle fans, and their fathers were Mantle fans because of that boyish charm and that magic name and because when you turned on the Game of the Week every Saturday, there always seemed to be those pinstripes and that ballplayer who could run so fast and hit the ball so far. Our man Colston, now 22 years young, wrote about the day Mantle died, Aug. 13, 1995, saying he "felt like he lost his hero, but his hero never would lose his biggest fan. Having that connection meant he would never have to say good-bye.” America never has said good-bye to Mickey Mantle. It has said hello to other sporting heroes. Michael Jordan. Cal Ripken. Tiger Woods. "I don't think it's the same,” Katz said. "I don't think they have idols they look up to the way we looked up to the Mick. "I really like Derek Jeter. Maybe some kids look up to him. I hope so.”
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.