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The Similar Backgrounds of Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris
Though the public thought them to be vastly different, Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris actually shared a lot in common. The New York Yankee stars differed in personality and lifestyle, but they came from similar roots.
Mantle was more carefree and seasoned in the ways of the city and dealing with reporters by 1961. Maris seemed distant, a simpleton to New York sophisticates, even rude (because of a vendetta by certain members of the press and blowing out of proportion and context such innocent but unfortunate misunderstandings as marking an X on a baseball — as literally requested by a boy’s father — instead of autographing the ball).
But Mick and Roger had more fundamental commonalities, which made them closer in outlook than their different personalities might have separated them.
Comparing the M&M Boys
Both men were young children during the Depression Era. Along with their generation, they had been steeped in the hard lessons of tough economic times. They had been raised in working-class families. During that time, thriftiness was a way of life.
Both of the M&M Boys came from small-town America. Maris was born in the mining town of Hibbing, Minnesota, and spent much of his youth in North Dakota. His father was a miner, then went to work for the Great Northern Railroad. His father Rudy showed ability in sports, playing baseball and ice hockey.
Mickey was born in Spavinaw, Oklahoma. He grew up in Commerce, a mining area on the Oklahoma plains near the state lines with Kansas and Missouri. Mantle’s father Mutt worked the lead and zinc mines, and took up farming for a time. He’d played semipro baseball, then poured his efforts into developing Mickey’s baseball talents.
Both Mantle and Maris had stood out as athletes in multiple sports. Maris, with exceptional speed and strength, excelled in football, baseball and basketball, as well as ice hockey and track. His summers of youth entailed the American Legion baseball program. Roger moved from the junior to the main team at age 15. The outfielder batted .367 and was awarded the Legion’s MVP honors.
Mantle displayed his great speed in athletics, particularly on the football field and the baseball diamond. A star half back on the school football team, he also played semipro baseball with the Baxter Springs Whiz Kids. Mickey regularly slammed major-league-caliber home runs at 16, playing among 18-to-21-year-olds. In one game in 1948, Mickey sent three balls into the center field and right field boundaries — the Spring River — for homers. He hit one of them left-handed and two righty. The river in center lay 400 feet away and was 500 feet in right field.
Both men were especially close to their fathers. The fathers taught their sons to play baseball. Mutt spent hours and hours teaching Mickey to be a switch-hitter, an advantage that served Mickey well throughout his professional career. Mickey and Roger each admired his father.
Both adopted baseball idols as kids. Roger idolized Ted Williams of the Boston Red Sox. Mickey’s first baseball hero was Stan Musial of the St. Louis Cardinals.
Both of the M&M Boys were courted by both pro baseball scouts and by the University of Oklahoma football program. Mantle and Maris both were star running backs in high school. (Roger actually went to campus, but changed his mind within a couple of weeks. Mantle signed with the Yankees upon high school graduation, while Maris signed with the Cleveland Indians.)
Both men had married their high school girlfriends. Pat Maris remained in Kansas City in the house she and Roger had bought when he’d played for the KC Athletics, raising their young children there. After Mickey’s first season in the majors, Merlyn Mantle started married life in Commerce, Oklahoma, during the off-season, with excursions including a trip to the Mayo Clinic to have the declining health of Mickey’s father investigated. After spring training in Florida, the Mantles rented an apartment in the Bronx. The nomadic existence and long periods of away games wore on the young wife and soon mother. Mickey eventually had Merlyn return to Commerce, and later to move to Dallas.
Forged by Fire
Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle had a lot in common that would draw them together. Similar backgrounds, similar experiences, teammates who batted back to back in the batting order, adjacent occupants of right and center fields, respectively. The unlikely pair grew closer in friendship as they spurred one another on as competitors and teammates. And this paid dividends for the New York Yankees.