Joe Guzzardi

Joe Guzzardi

When the 1956 Major League Baseball season began, the New York Yankees were in the unfamiliar position of not being the defending world champion. The previous October, the Brooklyn Dodgers dethroned the Yankees, and ended the Bronx Bombers’ unprecedented streak of five consecutive World Series titles.

In 1956, the Yankees set out to get back on the championship track. Emerging Yankees superstar center fielder Mickey Mantle had something to prove too. Although Mantle had an outstanding 1955 season, and led the American League in home runs, his injury-plagued World Series limited him to three games and two hits.

For both the Yankees and Mantle, 1956 was stellar. The Yankees returned to the World Series and regained the title from the upstart Dodgers. Mantle led the league in hitting, home runs and runs batted in, and thus became the first player since Ted Williams in 1947 to hit for the elusive Triple Crown.

Memorial Day weekend may have been the apex of Mantle’s 1956 season. The Yankees faced the hapless Washington Senators, “first in war, first in peace and last in the American League,” to cite the phrase baseball writer and humorist Charles Dryden coined about the perennial cellar dwellers.

Better yet for Mantle, the Senators’ first game pitcher was Pedro Ramos, nicknamed the “Cuban Cowboy” because of his fascination with the Lone Ranger movies and his propensity for 10-gallon hats.

Mantle feasted off of Ramos’ pitching. In game one of the May 30 double header, Mantle hit a 620-foot blast that came within 18 inches of clearing the distant right field Yankee Stadium facade. In the nightcap, Mantle launched a 475-foot homer off Ramos’ Cuban compatriot, Camilo Pascual. By the time the seven hour-long afternoon had ended, Mantle led the league in six offensive categories.

For Pascual, Ramos and Mantle, their post-baseball lives were a mixed bag. Pascual, age 86, lived the least controversial life of the three Memorial Day protagonists. After he retired from the active playing roster, Pascual remained involved in big league baseball for five decades. Pascual served as the Minnesota Twins’ pitching coach before he became an international scout for the Oakland A’s, the Los Angeles Dodgers and the New York Mets.

Ramos, however, was eventually arrested four times on drug and weapons charges that landed him in a Florida federal penitentiary. One bust found several kilos of cocaine in Ramos’ house. During their playing days, Mantle recalled, “Pedro always carried a gun.” Interviewed in prison, an unremorseful Ramos, the pitcher-turned-drug dealer, spoke only about fleeing the Castro dictatorship and, while he played for the Senators, hobnobbing with President Richard Nixon.

Mantle’s tale may be the saddest among the three Memorial Day adversaries. Idolized by millions of Americans for his baseball prowess, five years after his 1969 retirement, three-time Most Valuable Player Mantle entered the Hall of Fame on a near-unanimous vote. His only baseball regret, Mantle said, was that he didn’t retire earlier to preserve a .300 career average. By lingering too long, Mantle fell short, and hit .298.

Ill-advised investments nearly bankrupted Mantle, and when in 1983 he took a job glad-handing at an Atlantic City Casino, Commissioner Bowie Kuhn permanently banned the icon from baseball. The following year, new commissioner Peter Ueberroth reinstated Mantle and Willie Mays, who had also been expelled for casino-fronting. But then the baseball memorabilia boom hit, and Mantle made millions signing autographs, more money than he ever earned as a player.

In Mantle’s final years, accounts about his lifelong battle with alcohol and his philandering were included in stories about his liver cancer diagnosis. Liver transplant surgery was successful, but didn’t save his life. Mickey Mantle died at age 63.

Before he passed, Mantle ruefully admitted that, because of his alcoholism, he had often been cruel and hurtful to family and friends, and wanted to make amends. At former second baseman teammate and Baptist minister Bobby Richardson encouragement, Mantle became a Christian.

Despite Mantle’s many flaws, baseball fans — Yankees and non-Yankees alike — will always remember Mickey as the only player in history that whether batting left or right-handed could launch the ball more than 500 feet.

In other news

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