By 1967, Mickey Mantle was the only reason left to go to a Yankee game. He had fulfilled his promise to his wife, Merlyn, and hit his 500th home run on Mother’s Day. After the game, Mantle took the time to thank the Yankees winning pitcher that day, Dooly Womack, for allowing him a chance to celebrate. By now, Mantle had also conceded to himself and his close friends that he would never be able to catch Willie Mays statistically.
In 1968, Mantle felt lost. He could no longer hit or run like he used to. His body was breaking down. “Who are these guys?” Mantle was quoted as saying, after looking around at his new teammates. Tony Kubek and Phil Linz had left the team by 1965; Roger Maris and Bobby Richardson were gone by 1966. Elston Howard was traded in the middle of 1967; Yogi Berra was gone; and Whitey Ford was now the pitching coach for the Bombers. On May 30, 1968, Mantle was his old self again. He went 5-for-5 for the third time in his career with two home runs, a double, two singles and five RBI’s, and scored three runs. Washington Senators’ first baseman Frank Howard said, “I’ve never seen five balls hit so hard.” It was Mickey’s finest game since his Triple Crown season of 1956. On June 29th, Mantle hit his 529th home run. On July 27th of that season, he fell below the .300 lifetime batting average. He went 0 for 12 in three straight games and knew he would never be able to return to .300. He was ashamed and said he was going to quit. Five days later, he was thrown out of a game for cursing an umpire; it was the seventh time in 18 years. Six weeks later, on August 10th, he hit his 530th and 531st against the Minnesota Twins. On August 22nd, he tied Jimmy Foxx for third place of all time, with home run number 534.
On September 17th, the Tigers beat the Yankees in Detroit and clinched the 1968 American League pennant. The following day was a rainout. So, on the afternoon of September 19, 1968, Denny McLain was scheduled to pitch. McLain had already posted 30 wins, becoming the first pitcher since Dizzy Dean to accomplish that feat. When Mantle came to the plate in the eighth inning, the fans gave him a standing ovation. Even the Tiger players stood on the top step of the dugout and applauded. Everyone was a Mantle fan. Mantle was McLain’s hero, the reason he had become a switch-hitter when he was in high school.
No one knew what McLain was about to do. Denny called “time” and called his catcher Jim Price out to the mound. McLain said, “Listen, he only needs one more home run to beat Foxx. Let’s give him a shot at it. You just go behind home plate, put your glove up, and let me see if I can hit it.” Price understood; Mickey was his hero, too. Price returned and got down in his crouch and gave Mickey a look. McLain threw him a batting practice fastball. “It was like 50 mph with an arc on it,” said McLain. “And the dummy takes it for a strike.” Mantle now looks down at Price and says, “What was that?” Price responded, “I don’t know.” Mantle says, “Is he gonna’ do it again?” Price said, “I don’t know.” Price now gets up and calls time again, and starts towards the mound and McLain yells for all to hear, “Just tell him to be ready.” McLain continues, “I throw the next pitch and Mantle fouls it off and I’m thinking, oh man, now I’ve got him 0 and 2. I’m tired of messing around; I’m just going to strike him out.”
McLain is now beside himself and he yells, “Where the hell do you want it?” Mantle points with his bat. “I throw one more pitch and he hits a line drive into the right field stands for home run number 535. We all had tears in our eyes, because Mickey represented baseball in the fifties and sixties,” said Denny. As Mick goes by first base, Norm Cash hits him on the rear with his glove. “Nice going” and “Congratulations” are heard as he passes second and short. As Mickey gets to third, he starts yelling “Thank you” to McLain. “Thank you, thank you, I owe you one,” screams Mantle. McLain says, “Mickey that’s enough.” McLain is thinking he is going to hear from the commissioner if Mantle keeps this up.
As Mantle steps on home plate the crowd erupts and they are now standing again. Joe Pepitone shakes his hand. The Tigers are up again and the fans will not stop cheering; so Mickey comes out of the dugout for a curtain call and decides to head towards the mound. “I almost wet my pants as he started toward me. I just did not want him to get to the mound,” says McLain. Mickey finally sat back down. But that’s not the end of the story.
Joe Pepitone steps into the batter’s box and motions where he wants his pitch, then McLain throws a 90 mph fastball right at his head and down goes Pepitone out of the way. “When I got up,” said Pepitone, “I looked over in the dugout and Mantle has got both of his hands over his mouth laughing his butt off.”
McLain was right and he did receive a letter from the commissioner that said he was taking the integrity of the game in his own hands. McLain denied he intentionally threw a gofer ball to Mantle. Famous baseball writer Red Smith had the last word when he wrote, “When a guy has bought 534 drinks in the same saloon, he entitled to one on the house.” After the game, Mantle autographed the home run ball for McLain. He wrote, “Denny, thanks for one of the great moments in my entire career, Mickey.” In 1978, a fire took McLain’s home along with the baseball. Mickey signed another ball for him. “Until the day he died, he kept thanking me,” said McLain.
Mantle hit an uneventful home run number 536 the next day at Yankee Stadium off of Jim Lonborg of the Red Sox. He played his last game five days later on September 25, 1968, and recorded one single off Luis Tiant of the Cleveland Indians. I still miss Mickey.