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In Hindsight, Mantle Better Than Mays

In 1981, Terry Cashman’s song “Willie, Mickey and the Duke” reminded baseball fans of the 1950s controversy over which New York center fielder (Mays, Mantle, or Snider) reigned supreme. Snider faded from the debate early on, but the Mantle vs. Mays question continues. 

The upper hand fluctuated during their playing careers: Mays grabbed the initial edge with monster seasons in 1954 and 1955; Mantle surpassed him with a Triple Crown (for both leagues) in 1956, was equally outstanding in 1957, hit 54 home runs in 1961, and won the MVP award in 1962. Mays answered with a string of outstanding seasons culminating in a 52-home run MVP year in 1965. Mantle slowed down first, retiring after the 1968 season, while Mays continued playing through 1973.

Mays’ more sustained excellence resulted in greater career numbers in traditional measurements (base hits, runs, RBIs, home runs). As the final numbers came in, the comparison of the players turned clearly in Mays’ favor, and Mays’ higher ranking persisted for decades.

Mays drew stronger support for his Hall of Fame induction (Mantle, in 1974, 88 percent of votes; Mays, in 1979, 95 percent) and by 1999, prominent end-of-the-century player rankings all favored Mays, generally by significant margins: The Sporting News (Mays 2nd, Mantle 17th), The Society for American Baseball Research (Mays 8th, Mantle 12th), the Major League Baseball All-Century Team (fan vote: Mays 1,115,896, Mantle 988,168) and ESPN Sport Century (Mays 8th, Mantle 37th, of all athletes).

But in 2012, ESPN’s “MLB Hall of 100” rated Mantle higher (9th, with Mays 2nd) than previous polls, and in two recent well-received books, Jane Leavy’s “The Last Boy” and Allen Barra’s  “Mickey and Willie,” the authors argued for Mantle’s supremacy over Mays. After all this time, how was Mantle improving?

Leavy’s and Barra’s endorsements of Mantle over Mays largely derived from recent statistical insights; most importantly, the increased valuation of avoiding outs. Mantle’s greater ability to draw walks and reach base safely was probably the single largest distinction between the two players. Mantle’s lifetime on-base percentage was .421; Mays .384. This translated into a higher career OPS (on base plus slugging percentage) and superior “linear weights” assessments of overall offensive performance (linear weights formulas include relative valuations of walks, different base hits, and other plays). Mantle’s superiority in these measures increases as we select out smaller prime periods (e.g., 10 best years, five best years).

The simplest way to illustrate Mantle’s advantage is to count the outs from at-bats. Mays averaged 34 more outs per season (adjusted for plate appearances) than Mantle. During their five best seasons, Mays averaged 54 more outs per year (adjusted for plate appearances) - the equivalent of about 12 games of failed at-bats each year. (The difference in the number of outs increases if double plays are included - Mantle hit into remarkably few, 113 vs. Mays' 251).

Of course, Mays was greater on the bases and, especially, in the field. However, these aspects of the game are more difficult to measure accurately than hitting, even with advanced statistics. Mays’ baserunning advantage was probably small, as Mantle was widely known as the fastest runner in baseball early in his career and was a terrific base stealer (80 percent career success rate, Mays 77 percent - though the Yankees called upon Mantle to steal less often).

Frank Crosetti, the long-time Yankees coach, commented that “Mantle could see better than his coaches exactly when to move from first to third or to score from second on a single, or to stretch doubles into triples. He had a kind of perfect baseball sense.” In addition, his contemporaries considered Mantle a good outfielder; he won a Gold Glove award in 1962. Later on, Bill James estimated that Mays’ defense saved only 5-6 runs per year (translating into winning one game every two years) as compared with Mantle’s.

Mays conceivably was equal to or greater than Mantle as an all-around player, but the argument for Mays requires his baserunning and defensive superiority to counter Mantle’s demonstrably superior performance at the plate. It is especially difficult to claim Mays’ overall superiority when comparing peak performances. James argues that “Mickey Mantle was, at his peak in 1956-57 and again in 1961-62 clearly a greater player than Willie Mays - and it is not a close or difficult decision.” 

Player evaluations logically change as statistics accumulate and their interpretations evolve. But there may be more to Mantle’s initial post-retirement decline (relative to Mays and others) than just numbers, rooted in something that should not be relevant: The public unveiling of his sordid off-the-field life.

For most of his career, Mantle symbolized greatness. In the 1960s, he was probably American sports’ most venerated figure, “The Last Hero” per biographer David Faulkner; the only athlete of his era to regularly receive standing ovations in visiting ballparks.

One important aspect of his popularity was his valor in the face of injury. Mantle essentially played his career on one leg (per Leavy, Mantle’s torn ACL in 1951 was never reconstructed); for the latter half, with only one good arm as well (per Barra, he never recovered from a 1957 shoulder injury), and even though no one knew these details at the time, the manner in which Mantle persevered in pain, seemed epic.

But the details of Mantle’s alcoholism and boorish behavior that emerged post-retirement tainted his public image. As we learned that he preferred drinking to rehabilitation and training, Mantle’s playing with injuries seemed less heroic and more self-perpetuated. To many, he was no longer a hero or even a decent person.

The alcohol saga (superimposed on the injuries) also fueled a “what might have been” meme, in part energized by Mantle’s public lamenting that he had wasted his immense talent. Mantle’s name became associated as much with failure as success. It would not be surprising if this increasingly critical perspective - Mantle’s own perspective - affected the evaluation of his play. 

That would be unfortunate. Alcohol and what might have been are important to the Mantle biography, but they are not relevant to judging what actually happened on the field. The record is the record, whether generated sober or not, injury-free or not, with maximal or minimal rehabilitation, with or without other impediments. 

As the late Stephen Jay Gould wrote, in pointed response to those preoccupied with alternative histories: “To hell with what might have been. … What happened is all we have. By this absolute and irrefragable standard, Mantle was the greatest ballplayer of his time.” 

Sheldon Hirsch is the co-author of "The Beauty of Short Hops: How Chance and Circumstance Confound the Moneyball Approach to Baseball."

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