Boston and New York are linked again as Red Sox catcher Jason Varitek announced his retirement today 43 years after Yankee great Mickey Mantle did in 1969. Varitek spent his entire 14 year career with Boston while Mantle played 18 for the Yankees.
On March 1, 1969 the 37 year old Mantle called a press conference at the Yankees spring training complex in Ft. Lauderdale, FL to call it quits. He had just come off of a 1968 season in which he hit .237 with 18 home runs and 54 runs batted in (RBI). Despite his history of injuries Mickey Mantle played in 144 games that season whereas Jason Varitek played in only 107 over the last two years.
In his press conference Mantle was quoted as saying, ‘I can’t play anymore. I don’t hit the ball when I need to. I can’t steal when I need to. I can’t score from second base when I need to. I have to quit.’ He had played in pain long enough and it was time.
‘I feel bad I didn’t hit .300,” Mantle said after his 1968 season brought his career average to .298. ‘But there’s no way I could get it back over .300 again. There’s no use trying.’
Mickey Mantle ended his legendary career with 536 home runs and 1,509 RBI. He was a three-time American League Most Valuable Player, Triple Crown winner in 1956 and 16 year All-Star. He led the Yankees to 12 pennants and 7 world championships. Mantle still holds the record for most World Series home runs with 18.
But on March 1, 1969 and beyond all anyone wanted to talk about was what Mantle could have been. The New York Times March 3 headline read:
‘Mantle’s Road to Fame: 18 Years of Pain, Misery and Frustration: Highlights From Mickey Mantle’s Baseball Career: Superlatives Seemed to Be a Permanent Part of All His Accomplishments’
What Mickey Mantle should have been remembered for was all of the great things that he accomplished. He had succeeded in taking over where Yankee greats Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Joe DiMaggio had left off which in itself was a great accomplishment. He had accomplished everything that a big league player could in his career. Though he may have been, in the words of Sports Illustrated, ‘a limping sporadic shadow of the last few years’, the Mickey Mantle of the 1950’s had been one of the best of all-time.
The injuries were there from his first season in 1951 to his last, but there are many who were healthy their entire careers that would like to have had Mantle’s career. The hall of fame is full of players who did not.
Mantle may not have been able to play anymore on March 1, 1969 just as Jason Varitek can’t in 2012. Mantle may not have accomplished everything he could if healthy.
But like Jason Varitek, he had a great career.
It was a career great enough that Mickey Mantle didn’t owe anyone anything