Mickey, Mike Trout & The Mantle of Greatness

The parallels between Mickey Mantle and Mike Trout as great ballplayers are clear-cut; comparisons of the two continue to be drawn and won’t stop anytime soon. Simply put, Mantle was a dominant centerfielder with a rare combination of blazing speed, enormous power and the ability to reach base extremely often, and so is Mike Trout.

Comparing even such similar players as Mantle and Trout from vastly different eras is never easy, or perhaps wholly advisable. This article certainly won’t try to prove that one is better than the other, which would be both silly and impossible. It’s more an attempt to explore the notion of what baseball greatness is in general over time, and whether or not that elusive ideal is confined to the exalted misty past or can be seen as part of the chaotic present through a player like Trout. Already, Trout is universally considered the best player of his generation, but moreover he’s quickly and clearly inviting comparisons to all-time greats throughout the game’s history, Mantle chief among them. Is it too early for these comparisons? Are they the product of the hype and now-boosterism of today’s bloated sports media? Can a relative whippersnapper such as Mike Trout really be considered the equal of someone so iconic and linked with baseball heroism as The Mick?

Those deeply mired in old-fartism object to any comparisons between present-day stars and greats of the past on general principle, no matter what the numbers say. In fact, they object to the numbers themselves as part of the problem. There are too damn many of them, they’re too complicated and can be manipulated to prove anything. Never mind that the new metrics can now be retrofitted to players of the past to allow for objective and meaningful comparisons across eras.

On the other side of the fence there are those who think baseball today is more difficult than before and is now being played better than ever, thus most players from the past are inherently overrated. To many in this camp the stars of yesteryear have acquired a false patina of glory brought on by a kind of rose-coloured nostalgia that has no basis in fact, but is simply a yearning to turn back the clock to the “good old days”. I can sympathize with both sides and have flip-flopped between the two often enough to be institutionalized.

While perhaps not offering anything definitive, this article will explore the relative merits of Mantle and Trout, a comparison which revolves not only around their statistics but larger matters, such as image and perception and how history, media and the passage of time affect these. Obviously, one of the challenges of writing something like this is the issue of what tense to use: Mantle’s career ended exactly 50 years ago and he’s been dead for nearly 23 years so he exists entirely in the past whereas Trout, now 26 and in just his seventh year as a major-league player, is very much part of the present. To deal with this I’ll beg the indulgence of the reader to accept the following compromise: as this comparison is being made in the present and is based in part on Mantle’s statistics – numbers which, like Mickey himself, seem to live on – I’m going to occasionally slip into the present tense when I write about Mantle, as if he were still with us. Which, in my mind – and probably many others – he is.

So, we’re considering two centerfielders with speed and power who reach base well over 40% of the time. Each came to the major leagues at the tender age of 19 and both began to show sure signs of dominating baseball across the board by the age of 20 or 21. In 1951, the 19-year-old Mantle played in 96 games with the Yankees, roughly two-thirds of a season. At 19 Trout played just 40 games as a call-up with the Angels in 2011, about a quarter of a season. Obviously comparing Mantle’s entire career with Trout’s still in progress is both useless and unfair: Mantle played eighteen seasons and Trout is in just his seventh full season. Furthermore, Mantle’s career numbers include the inevitable decline in performance brought on by aging and injuries which clearly marked his last four years, 1965-68. What I propose is a more detailed comparison of their careers in their first six years between the ages of 20 and 25. I’m excluding their debut seasons because they were incomplete, especially Trout’s, and cutting it off after six seasons because Trout’s seventh season is still ongoing. For Mantle this includes the years between 1952 and 1957, and for Trout the years between 2012 and 2017. This is as fair as I can make it, though it’s perhaps somewhat unfair to Trout because it excludes his current season which has been roundly acclaimed as his best yet; there’s a consensus that he’s somehow raised his game beyond the high standards he’s already set. On the other hand, it cuts both ways: Mantle’s extraordinary 1958 season, when he hit 42 homers and scored 127 runs, is also excluded. Over their first six full seasons, here’s how it breaks down between the two in various offensive categories:
Batting Average – Trout hit .326, .323, .287, .299, .315 and .306 in his first six full seasons, good for a career batting average of .306 thus far. In his first four seasons Mantle was very similar, hitting .311, .295, .300 and .306, but he had breakout seasons in 1956 and 1957 in which he hit .353 and .365, respectively, raising his batting average to a lofty .321 between 1952 and 1957. Although he would hit over .300 five more times after this, Mantle wasn’t able to sustain that level – small wonder – and finished with a career batting average of .298. Clearly though, he hit for a considerably higher average than Trout in his first six full seasons, but this has to be considered in relation to the offensive context of the era in which each man played. Batting averages were considerably higher in the 1950s than they have been in recent times, so Trout’s .306 average in his period is quite high, about as impressive as Mantle’s .321.
Getting On Base – Most would agree that on-base percentage is a more important stat than batting average and both men have very high OBPs because they draw so any walks in addition to having high batting averages. Trout’s OBP so far is an excellent .414 but has been going up in the last three years (.441, 442, 455 this year.) In his first six years Mantle’s OBP was a whopping .434, again mainly due to his breakout 1956-57 seasons, with OBPs of .464 and .515, respectively. (By the way, the .515 OBP didn’t lead baseball that year, a distinction which went to the 38-year-old Ted Williams, who hit .388 with an OBP of .526 – unbelievable.) Mantle’s career OBP is .421 but I believe Trout’s will go up and match that in the coming years. Even if that doesn’t prove to be true, I don’t see a lot to choose between them in this category, each is an on-base machine.

Runs Scored – I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, runs scored is the single most simple and meaningful baseball statistic of them all. The best players score the most runs, whether by speed, getting on base, hitting for power, average or any combination thereof. And runs are what actually win real baseball games, not RBI or high batting averages or home runs. Between being fast, getting on base so much and being prolific home run hitters, Trout and Mantle both scored pots of runs in their first six full seasons. 100 runs per season is the magic number and so far Trout has managed this five times in six seasons, leading his league once and all of baseball three times. Mantle also managed to score over 100 runs five times in his first six full seasons, leading all of baseball three times from 1952-57. Mantle scored 702 runs between 1952 and ’57, Trout has scored 672 between 2012 and 2017. Mantle led baseball in runs scored twice in his first six years and five times overall; Trout has managed this four times in his first six years. However, some contextual adjustments have to be made. There were fewer runs scored in baseball during Mantle’s time, so his high totals are perhaps relatively more impressive than Trout’s. On the other hand, Mantle’s Yankees were an offensive juggernaut packed with power hitters who hit behind Mickey in the lineup, and this certainly helped him. The same can not be said of Trout’s Angels, who have been generally middle-of the-pack offensively despite his best efforts. It’s basically a trade-off in this category, both men score gobs of runs.

Strikeouts – As home-run hitters, both Mantle and Trout strike out a lot. Mantle struck out 579 times 1952-57 and Trout struck out even more in his first six years, 844 times 2012-17. This is surprising, for a couple of reasons. One, I didn’t realize Trout whiffed that often, and two, striking out a lot was something Mickey was renowned for. It was the one thing he was criticized for in his time, although even his whiffs were majestic. But here’s the thing to consider: players during  Mantle’s career struck out far less often than they do today, so Mickey stood out as a strikeout culprit far more in his day than Trout has in his. When Mantle retired, his 1,710 strikeouts were the most by any player in baseball history. This stood for some time but has been easily surpassed many times in recent years. Since 2000 or so, hitters have set new highs in strikeouts every year and Trout’s career has taken place during the worst of this, when 200 strikeouts a year by the worst offenders are no longer a rarity but seen as the “cost of doing business” – the business being hitting home runs and driving in runs. Trout led his league once in Ks during his first six years – in 2014, with 184, and he still won the MVP Award. Mantle led in Ks twice – in 1952 with 111, and in 1954, with 107. He also led baseball in Ks 1958-1960 and struck out an average of 115 times per 162 games, while Trout has averaged 152 Ks per 162. It has to be said that relative to his time Mantle was the worse strikeout offender of the two.

RBI – Surprisingly, given how many home runs they hit, neither man’s RBI totals are at all eye-popping. Again, 100 RBI per season is the magic number and Trout has managed this just twice in his first six years. Mantle is the same, with two 100-RBI seasons 1952-57 and just two others in his entire career. Mantle led the majors in RBI just once, in 1956, and Trout led the AL in 2014. This is mildly shocking until one considers the obvious reason in each case: pitchers simply don’t pitch to either man with runners in scoring position, or even runners on base for that matter. Each man had the batting eye and good sense to take the walk if they weren’t going to see any good pitches. Mantle was walked intentionally 126 times in his career and Trout has received 77 intentional passes, including 16 so far this season – a high number for an entire season, never mind half of one. It would seem that Trout is feared by pitchers now at least as much as Mantle was in his day. In Trout’s case another reason for his relatively low RBI totals is that he generally has batted second in the lineup, not an ideal RBI spot; Mantle mostly hit third for the Yankees.

Power –  In terms of power-hitting it’s about dead-even between the two in their first six seasons. Between 1952 and ’57 Mantle hit 184 home runs and from 2012-17 Trout hit 196. Trout hit 194 doubles during this span and Mantle hit 153. Mickey’s slugging average in his first six seasons was a very high .588, Trout’s .575. Mantle’s career number is .557, Trout’s sits at .571 and is trending sharply upward. So it would seem that Trout has as much power as Mantle if not a little more, which is surprising given the enduring images of Mantle’s brute strength and massive swing, the tape-measure shots frequently leaving the confines of huge ballparks. Take a look at Trout sometime though, the kid is powerfully built and has a lightning-quick swing, to put it mildly. Again, context must be considered though. So far Trout has played his entire career in an era when home run totals have reached historic highs and continue to rise each and every year. He has consistently been one of the best home-run hitters of his time, averaging about 35 a year, though he has yet to lead in home runs in any year. In his first six seasons Mantle led the AL in home runs with 37 in 1955, then led all of baseball with 52 in 1956. Going outside of the six-year range, he also led the AL in homers in 1958 (42) and 1960 (40) and hit 54 in 1961 (outdone by his teammate Roger Maris’s record-setting 61 that year.) Trout has already hit over 40 home runs once and will undoubtedly do so several more times, including this year. It’s doubtful he’ll hit 50 home runs in a season though, he’s more of a 35-40 homer-a-year guy, perhaps more consistent than Mantle. I think they’re about even as power hitters over the long haul, but Mantle’s long-ball hitting stood out more in his time than Trout’s has in this homer-happy era.

Speed – Despite being built for power, both men are extremely fast. Mantle grew up in the town of Commerce, Oklahoma and not for nothing was he dubbed “The Commerce Comet” early in his career. Because he was so often seen trotting around the bases after yet another moon shot, it’s hard to fathom just how fast Mantle could run, especially before age and injuries slowed him down. Most of his prime occurred when I was an infant or a toddler and it wasn’t until I saw some film of Mantle in the ’50s that I realized what a blazer he was. Many in his time said he was the fastest from home to first or from first to third that they’d ever seen. Mantle’s great speed did not translate to that many stolen bases though, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, the stolen base was not much in vogue as a tactic in the baseball of the 1950s, which was station-to-station: get a couple of guys on base and wait for somebody to hit a homer. This was particularly true in the American League where Mantle played, the National League was much more of a running league in that time. And the Yankees had far too much power to bother with the stolen base and risk squandering a base runner who might be caught stealing. This began to change by about 1960 when the stolen base made a drastic return as pitchers began to dominate more and offense began to dry up – think Luis Aparicio, Maury Wills, and Lou Brock. By that time age and Injuries had slowed Mantle down. At any rate he stole 51 bases 1952-57, and a total of of 153 in his career, impressive given his massive power.

The stolen base is not as prevalent now as it was during the ’60s through the ’80s, but it’s still a considerable part of the offensive equation and Trout has certainly taken advantage of this with his speed. He led all of baseball with 49 steals in his rookie season –  coupled with his 30 home runs, this set baseball on its ear. He’s toned it down a little perhaps due to strategic considerations or to avoid undue injury, but he’s stolen over 30 bases in two other seasons so far and has already stolen more bases in 7 years (178) than Mantle did in 18. Some of it can be put down to how baseball has changed, but it has to be said that Trout’s terrific speed has been a more effective component of his game than it was for Mantle.

As a sidebar, when I turned 60 in August of 2016 a friend who works for the Blue Jays treated me to a game against the Angels with seats literally in the front row, right next to the Jays’ dugout. It was a wonderful birthday present and from this superb vantage point I was able to fully see – or rather hear – just how blazing fast Mike Trout is. He lashed a laser beam line-drive right up the middle and being so close I heard a hissing sound as he streaked to first base in a blur, ending up on second base before I could say “Jack Flash”. It looked like a sharp single all the way and I was just astonished. He’s built like a tall fire hydrant, but that boy can fly.

Black Ink – In standard charts of career stats, whenever a player leads baseball in a category in any given year the number is marked in bold italics and if he leads his league only it’s marked in bold without the italics. Great players have a lot of bold ink numbers in their charts, with Hall of Famers generally starting at 25 or so. This is what is known in sabermetric circles as “passing the black ink test.” During their first six seasons it’s dead-even between Trout and Mantle in positive offensive categories (I’m not counting strikeouts.) Trout has 17 bold numbers (10 in italics) and Mantle has 16 (also 10 in italics.) And their bold numbers are mostly in the same categories – runs scored, walks, slugging average, on-base percentage, on-base-plus-slugging. It couldn’t be much closer.

Awards and Recognition  Neither player lacked for recognition. Mantle was an All-Star every season and so far Trout is seven-for-seven. Trout won the A.L. Rookie of the Year Award unanimously in 2012 with a .326 batting average, 30 home runs, 49 stolen bases and 129 runs scored. Who the hell else would they vote for? Despite playing well in 96 games as a 19-year-old, Mantle did not win Rookie of the Year. That distinction went to his teammate Gil McDougald, a versatile and brilliantly talented player who functioned as a full-time super-sub with the Yankees for many years. He was a terrific hitter and if he’d played longer and been assigned a regular position – he was outstanding at third base, second base, and shortstop – he’d likely be in the Hall of Fame now.

Trout’s rookie season was so excellent that he finished a very close second in the MVP voting, narrowly missing becoming just the third player to win RoY and an MVP in the same year. He also finished a very close second in MVP voting in 2013 and 2015, while winning the award in 2014 and 2016. Hell, in 2017 he missed 45 games to injury and still finished fourth in MVP voting. Having a truly outstanding season thus far, he’s the odds-on-favourite to win the MVP this season, though Mookie Betts and Francisco Lindor may have something to say about that. With two MVPs and three second-place finishes in six years, Trout is a perennial pick as the best player of his time.

Mantle won three MVP Awards – in 1956, when he won the Triple Crown; in 1957, when nobody would pitch to him but he walked 146 times, hit .365 and scored 121 runs anyway; and in 1962, when he had a very productive season despite missing 30 games to injury. He finished second in MVP voting in 1960, 1961, and 1964, third in 1953, and fifth in 1955 and 1958. So he did very well in MVP voting which means that clearly he was regarded as one of the best players in all of baseball 1953-64.

However, no less an authority than Bill James has posited that according to his comprehensive Win Shares method of evaluating player seasons Mantle should have won the A.L. MVP every year from 1954 to 1962 except 1959, when he had an off year. As James puts it, “Nellie Fox (the 1959 winner) is the only player to legitimately take an MVP Award away from Mickey Mantle.” The MVP winner in 1954 and ’55 was Mantle’s teammate Yogi Berra, who also won it in 1951. Without really disagreeing with James, whom I admire deeply, I don’t really have a problem with Berra’s MVP Awards in 1954 and ’55. He is easily the best catcher in baseball history, a terrific hitter and RBI producer who also provided great leadership, defense and deft handling of the pitching staff for the Yankees; it’s almost impossible to overstate how much he contributed to their nearly constant winning. But the other seasons are a different matter entirely. 1958 was a joke; the writers gave the MVP to Jackie Jensen, a good power-hitting outfielder with the Red Sox who had his best season hitting . 286 with 35 home runs and leading the league with 122 RBI. But, so what? The Red Sox finished a distant third at 79-75 and the Yankees won the pennant with Mantle hitting 42 homers and scoring 127 runs. 1960 and ’61 were only marginally better. Mantle’s new teammate Roger Maris won the MVP both those years, but good as he was – and he hit 61 homers in 1961 – anyone who seriously thinks Maris was better than Mantle either of those years should have their head examined.

So Mantle should probably have won six MVPs and the reason he didn’t is simple: the baseball writers of that time just weren’t going to give the award to the same guy year after year, no matter how deserving he was. Three MVP Awards were the unwritten maximum that a player could win back then – Stan Musial, Joe DiMaggio, Berra, Roy Campanella and Mantle all maxed out at three. The voting has changed, now the writers go more by the numbers and tend to disregard the record of the potential MVP’s team. Barry Bonds won five MVP awards in his career; Trout could very well win that many or more.

Defense – Being such deadly hitters, neither Mantle or Trout are discussed much in terms of their defensive play. With speed, athleticism and great baseball instincts, both are well above-average centerfielders, but neither has been considered the best at the position defensively during their respective times. The best defensive centerfielders of Mantle’s day were Richie Ashburn and Willie Mays, who both played in the National League. Trout had some holes in his outfield play early in his career, enough that sometimes the Angels played the defensively gifted Peter Bourjos in center and put Trout in left. He’s worked hard on these though and has manned center field on a regular basis for years now. He’s not quite Kevin Pillar out there but I’ve seen him make his fair share of sensational plays in center.

Beginning with a broad sense that Mantle and Trout are generally similar as players, a more detailed look at the numbers through their first six full seasons has only sharpened this picture and fleshed it out. The likening of Mike Trout to Mickey Mantle is not a matter of media hype but has real basis in fact, and the closer one looks the more similar they appear. They are extremely good at exactly the same things and closer in ability and results than I could have imagined.

The Differences

They’re not twins however, there are differences. The most striking is that Mantle was a switch-hitter and Trout hits from the right side. And Mantle is not just any switch-hitter, he is, with apologies to Pete Rose, Red Schoendienst and especially Eddie Murray, the most productive switch-hitter baseball has ever seen. If this were a contest, one might be tempted to say “advantage Mantle.” But it’s not a contest and the fact that Mantle hit from both sides and Trout from just the right is a clear difference between them, but not a qualitative one. Mantle’s father Mutt drove him hard to be a switch-hitter, reasoning that it would give Mickey an advantage and make him stand out. And it did – learning to switch-hit was a struggle, but once mastered it gave Mantle an edge. But switch-hitters are very much the exception, not the rule; the vast majority of great hitters in baseball history hit from one side or the other. Being such a powerful switch-hitter made Mantle special and distinctive, but great production is great production no matter the hitting methodology. Nobody would suggest that Ted Williams was limited because he hit from the left side only, or that Hank Aaron is any the less because he was exclusively a right-handed hitter. Trout has been about as productive from the right side as Mantle was from both.

Health & Injuries – As is well known, Mantle’s entire career was plagued by injuries and chronic leg problems. These issues began early; as a child he suffered from a form of infantile paralysis that weakened his legs and at 16 was diagnosed with osteomyelitis, a chronic and acutely painful bone infection which left his bones brittle and affected his left ankle and shin. In the second game of the 1951 World Series against the Giants the rookie Mantle was running after a fly ball at full speed and caught his spikes on a drainpipe covering in right field at the Polo Grounds. He ripped up his right knee, going down as if he’d been shot, and was carried off the field on a stretcher with a badly torn ACL. It may have been his last pain-free game. The ACL was never properly treated because the surgical techniques to do so didn’t exist then. He spent the rest of his career as a virtual semi-cripple dealing with chronic pain, applying thick wraps to both knees became a daily pregame ritual. Looking over his career it’s astonishing to see how little time he missed despite all these woes. He missed 25 games in 1953 after re-injuring the knee but played full seasons until 1962, when he fell heavily on his left knee and missed about 35 games. He only played 65 games in 1963 due to a rib cage injury and a broken metatarsal bone in his left foot, but rebounded nicely in 1964, his last good season. (Having studied history at length from various perspectives and considering all the awful things that began happening right after that and have continued apace since, 1964 might have been the last good year, period.) At any rate, Mantle’s age and physical decline began to set in after that. The reason he missed so little time despite the litany of pain and injury was simple: he insisted on playing hurt and was allowed to because he was still so productive, plus there was a hard-rock “put some spit and tape on it and get back in there, kid” kind of mentality back then. His almost superhuman effort became legendary and is his uniquely heroic legacy. As his manager Casey Stengel once put it, “He is the best one-legged player I ever saw play the game.”

Mike Trout has no such underlying health issues and is a training and fitness fanatic. He plays very hard and has shown a tendency to play through injuries, though obviously none as severe as Mantle’s. He managed to avoid any serious injury until 2017 when he tore up his thumb badly sliding into a base, which cost him about 45 games. His good health bodes well for him, especially as he gets older. It’s highly likely he’ll have a more productive late career than Mantle.

Attitude – On the field, Mickey Mantle was clearly devoted to the game and his team. Off the field was another story, he was a major carouser. Booze, women, pills, late nights on the town, he didn’t look after himself very well. Part of it was managing the constant pain, part of it was being a small-town Okie turned loose as a superstar in the playground of Manhattan with running buddies like Whitey Ford and Billy Martin, no choirboys either. But a lot of it was his morbid certainty that he was fated to die before 40 like all the other men in his family had for generations. He didn’t want to get cheated so he lived life to the fullest and partied like there was no tomorrow. Assuming the early deaths were genetic, he didn’t realize until too late that it was working in the brutal Oklahoma mines that killed all his male relatives so soon and that he would escape this fate. There was a “what if” sadness about him in his late career and retirement, a realization that he might have achieved even more if he’d looked after himself better. When his career batting average sunk permanently below .300 in his last season, he wept.

By contrast, Mike Trout is a Boy Scout, the All-American kid from New Jersey. He’s no goody-goody, he seems to have a lively sense of humour and I’m sure he enjoys a post-game beer or two as much as anybody, but that’s about it. He trains hard, gets his rest, his focus and intense work ethic already stand out. He’s always seeking to improve on little aspects of his game like taking better routes to the ball in the outfield, his throwing mechanics, or dealing with the high and inside pitch, his one small weakness as a hitter. Every year in spring the Angels coaches show up with a list of specific details for him to work on and he happily obliges, he has a deep desire to improve despite already being the best player in the game. It shows in his extreme consistency and across-the-board excellence, and he appears to be setting a new level this season. All his numbers are up, he seems poised for a breakout season like the ones Mantle had in 1956 and ’57. His respect for the game and politeness have also been widely noted. Similar to his lack of physical problems, Trout’s positive attitude and dedication will serve him well throughout his career, particularly in the late stages.

To continue the earlier sidebar, when I was at the August 2016 Jays-Angels game my friend revealed to me that Trout is so genuinely nice – always taking extra time to sign as many autographs as possible, unfailingly polite to fans and media alike – that people have taken to “reverse heckling” him for fun. So instead of bellowing “Trout, you suck!!” they’ll yell, “Hey Trout, you’re really nice!!” Or, “Hey Trout, I hear you like dogs and kids!!” “Hey Trout, how many old ladies did you help across the street today?” I got a kick out of it but it’s also a sure sign that even at a young age, Trout is one of the game’s most solid citizens.

Team Performance – While the performance of their teams can’t be wholly ascribed to either player, it is another marked difference between them, at least in terms of career achievements. By the time Mantle was Trout’s age he had already played in six World Series and been on the winning side in four of them, whereas Mike Trout has yet to appear in a World Series. The closest he came was in 2014 when the Angels won their division with a solid 98-64 mark but lost the ALDS to the Royals in three straight. So far in his career the Angels have had three winning seasons and three losing ones. This year they are a mystifying 49-48 at the All-Star break.

Mantle was the star centerfielder on the longest dynastic run the Yankees had in their storied history, 1949-64. He didn’t come aboard until 1951, but during his time the Yankees won 12 pennants in a 14-year stretch, converting 7 of those to World Series Championships. It’s both tempting and easy to say, “Well, naturally Mantle won all those titles because he played for the Yankees and they always won back then.” To be sure, the Yankees were a powerhouse but this wholly ignores the considerable role Mantle played in making them great, something he has to get some credit for. Of course it wasn’t just Mickey, but he was a huge factor. The Yankees were able to win so much back then because they had a genius manager in Casey Stengel, a brilliant pitching coach in Jim Turner and a ruthless general manager in the fish-faced and icy George Weiss, who oversaw a very rich farm system and excelled at fleecing weak teams in one-sided trades. And because of Yogi Berra, who, all appearances to the contrary, was one of the smartest catchers who ever lived and who got more out of average pitchers than anyone else could have. The only consistently great pitcher the Yankees had for this whole run was Whitey Ford, who was also a big factor. And they had Gil McDougald, who could do pretty much anything on a baseball field. Added to all of that they had Mantle, who was the powerful engine of their dynamic offense. So it’s little wonder the Yankees won so much.

But here are a couple of caveats. It’s not as if the Yankees just started winning when Mantle came aboard, they had runs of outstanding success long before Mantle played, or was even born. In the 1920s they won six pennants and three titles, they were five-for-five in the ’30s and four-for-five in the ’40s, even with the interruption of WWII. They won the World Series in 1950 without Mantle and in 1951 with him playing right field alongside Joe DiMaggio in center. To Mantle’s credit they also won it in 1952 and ’53 after he replaced the retired DiMaggio, they barely blinked. Largely, as went Mantle, so went the Yankees. He began to slow down in 1963 and ’64, years in which they won the pennant but not the Series. After 1965 he went downhill precipitously and so did the Yankees, they wouldn’t win again until the mid-’70s, long after he retired. But clearly, whatever “The Yankee Way” consisted of – winning, mostly – it was entrenched long before Mantle arrived.

Secondly, it must be said that one of the reasons the Yankees won so many pennants in Mantle’s time was the rest of the American League had grown so weak. The Senators, A’s and Browns/Orioles were all pathetic throughout the ’50s, while the Tigers, White Sox and Red Sox took turns being mediocre also-rans at best. The Cleveland Indians were the exception, very strong from 1948 to 1956 at which time the White Sox began to overtake them as the second-best team in the league. The Indians in 1954 and the White Sox in 1959 – both managed by Al Lopez – were the only teams to supplant the Yankees as pennant-winners in the decade. Of course the Yankees were often strong enough in the ’50s to handle whatever National League teams they might face in the World Series, but that began to even out – they won six of eight series between 1950 and ’58 but only two of three between 1960 and ’64.

Some would say that Mantle was lucky to play for the Yankees, which is true in a way, but not really. With superb and deep scouting the Yankees rarely made mistakes in talent evaluation and they generally got their man. The fact they scouted Mantle and he was able to break in to a such a loaded team speaks volumes for him, there’s nothing lucky or accidental about it. It’s a two-way street; clearly he helped the Yankees and playing for them helped him. It’s doubtful he would have pushed himself to such lengths for a second-division team and all the championships certainly added a sheen of glory to his career than can’t be erased. His name is certainly writ larger in the history books because of the association – to the victor go the spoils and all that.

As for Mike Trout and the Angels thus far in his career, they’ve largely been mediocre but it’s hard to see what more he could have done to help them win. He’s had six straight excellent seasons so he can hardly be faulted for their generally lackluster performance, though there are no doubt some who would try. One might think that a team with Trout and a player as great as Albert Pujols – who came to the Angels in Trout’s rookie season – would have done better. But remember, this was an older Pujols, battling age, injury and adapting to a new league. He’s been very good, but is not quite the tremendous player we saw in his first 11 seasons with the Cardinals. Two great hitters are a nice start but do not a winning team make, and the Angels have suffered from being top-heavy, from never having quite enough in other areas  – defense, speed, power, bench – to go around. But above all they’ve had a chronic shortage of pitching brought on by an endless rash of injuries to their rotation and bullpen, year in and year out. They say you can never have enough pitching but recently the Angels haven’t even been close.

If winning a lot of World Series championships were the only yardstick of baseball greatness, then only Yankee players would qualify. But it doesn’t work that way. To be sure the Yankees have had more than their share of all-time greats, but nobody except the most fanatical of Yankee fans seriously believes that Whitey Ford was a better pitcher than Walter Johnson simply because he won six titles to Johnson’s one. There’s no comparison, and the same goes for Derek Jeter and Honus Wagner among shortstops, or Joe DiMaggio and Willie Mays among centerfielders. Winning championships is nice, but not even the greatest player can win one on his own, he has to be surrounded by other good-to-great players on a good team. Mantle enjoyed that luxury and thus far Mike Trout has not.

When comparing Mantle’s career to that of a present-day player like Trout, it’s both unfair and erroneous to overemphasize Mickey’s glorious run with the Yankees, for one simple reason: that kind of domination over such a long period hasn’t happened since and will never happen again because the baseball landscape has changed utterly and forever, with free agency, expansion, and divisional play. In Mantle’s time it was easier to keep a great team together and build a dynasty because the players had zero bargaining power, but now players move between teams with unprecedented liquidity. And there were only sixteen teams until 1961 and now there are thirty; it’s much harder to dominate a fifteen-team league than an eight-team one year in and year out. And even if a team wins its division a few years in a row now, it’s no guarantee of reaching the World Series. These days a team has to negotiate the treacherous minefield of two playoff series before it even reaches the big dance. It’s far harder to repeat as a champion now and virtually impossible to establish a long dynasty. There have been short runs of success and the last mini-dynasty was the Yankees between 1996 and 2003, when they won six pennants and four Series in eight years – very good, but a far cry from their 1949-64 run. And that ended 15 years ago, we haven’t seen anything like it since and likely won’t anytime soon. Since 2003 certain teams have semi-dominated – the Giants, Red Sox, and Cardinals – but there has been a different champion every year. Mantle’s glorious run with the Yankees is Olympian, but very much a product of those times.

Mike Trout’s entire career has taken place in the middle of this volatility so it’s hardly a surprise he hasn’t played in a World Series yet. It’s not unusual to see the best players of today put in five or six terrific seasons before having much October success. Consider Jose Altuve, one of the best in the game since 2012 who won it all for the first time last year. Or Clayton Kershaw, who finally made it to the World Series last year after pitching extremely well since 2008, only to come up short. Something like this could happen with Trout, either with the Angels or if he moves to another team. Or he could be one of those players who has a truly great career without ever reaching the World Series. There are plenty of them in baseball history: Ted Lyons, Rod Carew, Luke Appling, Don Mattingly. Or Ernie Banks, Billy Williams, Fergie Jenkins and Ron Santo, each of them a Hall-of-Famer who had the misfortune of playing for the Cubs at the wrong time. Cal Ripken, Al Kaline, Tony Gwynn and Ted Williams are among the all-time greats who tasted the World Series but once in long, fabulous careers. So what are these guys then – nothing? Hardly. Being a great player and winning lots of titles do not always coincide.

Career Pattern & Projections – The tricky part of this comparison is that Mickey Mantle has a past and Mike Trout only a present and a future; we know what Mantle’s whole career looks like but can only make educated guesses about Trout’s. As we saw earlier, Mantle’s career took a sharp upward turn in 1954 and then exploded through the roof in 1956 when he won the Triple Crown – .353, 52 HR, 130 RBI, one of the great seasons in baseball history. These Ruthian numbers terrified AL pitchers and the remainder of Mantle’s peak saw him remain incredibly productive despite being pitched around very carefully. It’s widely agreed that Mantle established a peak level of performance 1954-62 that is the highest ever seen for a centerfielder. As Whitey Herzog, who was there, put it, ‘You just can’t play baseball any better than Mickey Mantle did in the mid-’50s.” No less an authority than Bill James agreed. In his first Historical Abstract, James evaluated all-time great players in two categories: their Peak Value – that is, how high were their highs – and Career Value – the value of their overall career. He ranked Mantle first among centerfielders in Peak Value, but third in Career Value, which included his declining years, 1965-68. He ranked Willie Mays first in Career Value because Mays was able to remain productive longer than Mantle. This seems both sensible and fair.

So, while Mantle and Trout seem quite even in the first six years of their careers, there’s a sense that Trout needs to raise his game soon if he’s to “keep up” with Mantle. There are signs that he’s doing just that, if not quite as sensationally as Mantle. His OBP and Slugging numbers have gone way up since 2016 and continue to rise this year. Some in the media have suggested he’s on his way to having one of the greatest seasons ever, which seems exaggerated, but he certainly seems to be having a very special season, his best so far. The thing with Trout is that he’s so consistent, it’s hard to tell. You look at his MVP seasons and they don’t particularly stand out from his other ones, they’re all uniformly excellent across the board. He may be one of those rare players who establishes a really high level as a rookie – which he clearly did – and then simply maintains it for a long, long time without a discernible peak. Not all great players follow the career trajectory of Mantle with a huge upward spike and a very clear decline, and Trout appears to be one of these. He’s a bit like Hank Aaron in this regard, though it’s doubtful he’ll hit as many home runs as The Hammer. Aaron never hit 50 homers in a season and rarely hit fewer than 30, but he had a wicked late-career power surge and I suspect Trout will be similar. Given his early start, great talent, lack of physical problems and dedication, it’s probable Trout will play very well for a long time and avoid the sharp decline Mantle had due to the accumulation of injuries and self-abuse. I think it likely that he’ll end up with better overall career numbers than Mantle even if his peak is not as sensational as Mickey’s.

Conclusion

To all but the most unimaginative and dyed-in-the-wool stats-freak, numbers only tell part of the story. Baseball is not chess and ballplayers aren’t just numbers, they’re people who live real lives. Comparing Mike Trout to Mickey Mantle is a bit like comparing Stan Musial to Ted Williams. Musial and Williams are considered the two greatest leftfielders to ever play and their careers conveniently took place over the same years, more or less. Many consider Musial the better all-around player – better with the glove, on the base paths, in the clubhouse, and during October. Plus he could hit a little, too. But Williams put all his eggs in one basket, he was the greatest hitter who ever lived. Musial was a great ballplayer, but never much of an interview, he was a little dull. Williams was never dull, he was electric, he had a fiery charisma that kept growing well beyond his playing days. He was in real life what John Wayne pretended to be in the movies. John Updike wrote a celebrated story about Ted’s last game in Fenway Park called Kid Bids Hub Adieu; no such story was written when Stan retired. Musial was widely admired, Williams was idolized. Musial was a perfect ballplayer, but Ted Williams was a god.

Unless a lot of things change, it’ll be similar with Mike Trout and Mickey Mantle. Trout will probably end up with numbers that surpass Mantle’s and ultimately may be considered the better player in strictly metric terms. But he’s not likely to have quite the same cachet as Mickey, the same hold on our collective imagination. It’s not really fair because Mantle has the weight of history behind him and Trout doesn’t, at least not yet. Mantle was great, whereas Trout so far has merely been  excellent – really excellent. The difference is subtle – greatness is excellence with adversity and the test of time added. It’s not that Trout is dull exactly, there doesn’t seem to be anything to not like about him and one wishes there were more players with as exemplary an attitude. But it’s hard to imagine a book being written about Trout as interesting as The Last Boy, Jane Leavy’s perceptive biography of Mantle.

Apart from the moribund fortunes of his team, Trout hasn’t faced any adversity so far, it all seems a little easy for him. None of it can have been easy for Mantle, who faced all kinds of problems, challenges and doubts amid high-pressure stakes, and this razor’s edge of adversity is uniquely compelling and dramatic, it’s what draws us to him even after all this time. His courage in overcoming so much pain and injury while putting that gargantuan team on his back and carrying it to such heights is the stuff of legend. He was ill-starred yet glorious, tragic yet heroic, superhuman and all too human at the same time. He has become mythical and it’s perhaps too much to ask this of Mike Trout or any other ballplayer of today. Mike Trout will have to be content with retiring as very likely one of the very greatest ever to play baseball. This has its own kind of glory and given his love of the game, it will be more than enough for him.

© 2018, Steve Wallace. All rights reserved.

4 thoughts on “Mickey, Mike Trout & The Mantle of Greatness

  1. Steve – you’ve outdone yourself. Incredible. I remember flicking Mickey Mantle (and others’) cards against the side wall of our house in Scarborough in 1961. Winner’s card was closest to the wall. I bet those Mantle cards would be worth a fine penny now!

  2. That was a great read, Steve, thanks for that! A few observations:

    1) Like you, I was at the last Angels series for a game (though not in such rarified seats) and I’ve seen Trout in person a couple of other times… the thing that is most amazing about him, to me, is his bat speed, which is just absurd. His ability to slow down his swing and deal with all the offspeed stuff that modern pitchers are throwing; backdoor sliders and cutters and slurves and curves etc, and then speed up his bat to hit the fastball, it’s just crazy to see him at bat in a live game.

    2) Related to his bat speed is his ability to hit for power to the whole field. Look up any Mike Trout spray chart, he hits the ball where it’s pitched and for power.

    3) One of those weird/fun/quirky baseball things… Trout is SO squeaky clean his hobby is… wait for it… amateur meteorology. He has said many times that if he wasn’t a ballplayer he would be a weatherman.

    4) The most difficult factor for these types of comparisons is the number of teams and the depth of the talent pool each respective player had to deal with. Mantle at least played in the integrated baseball era, but long before the explosion of Latin American and Asian talent had a huge impact on the game. I think it’s kind of undeniable that Trout plays against stiffer competition across the board, due to the number of teams, the advances in talent scouting, and the sheer number of players in the game now.

    5) (Looking at just one metric by which to measure a season) Trout is carrying a ridiculous OPS over 1.000 this year, but to have the “best season ever”, he’d have to get up around Ruth’s video game 1.300 or Bonds’s ah… shall we say… “chemically enhanced” 1.400+ OPS seasons. I don’t think he’s going to make it, but I could see him finishing the year with an OPS of close to 1.200, sure. That would be crazy.

  3. wonderful article–during Mantle era Mays posted better numbers–I love Mickey but my “eye test” says Mays was better

  4. A great read.
    At age 8 in the spring of 1962 in the Bronx, I was given a Motorola 3×5″ transistor radio, which pretty well defined my existence for the next few years. I listened to (and watched on TV) as many Yankee and Mets (that’s for another day) games as I could, including the late night games on the west coast. And I remember exactly where with that radio I was when McCovey lined to Richardson to end the ’62 World Series.
    I remember Mantle as being a dramatic player, where every clutch situation seemed to end with a hit or a strikeout. (He was as prolific at whiffing as he was in hitting HRs.)
    I remember the ’63 season where, if I recall correctly, he made a great return from his injury against Baltimore, and the game winning HR against McDaniel in the 6
    ’64 series. Although her couldn’t run like he did in the ’50’s, I do recall a Sunday game against KC where he stole 2nd and 3rd successively in a 21-7 victory. He was the favourite player of every kid in the neighbourhood.
    Although the talk-radio program hosted by Bill Mazer ALWAYS had dozens of people arguing as to who was better – Mays or Mick, I have to say that during the 60’s, Mays was of course more consistent. And a constant threat on the bases. And, while nobody seemed to be watching the #s, some guy named Aaron out in Milwaukee was just getting it done year after year after year…Not until 1971-72 or so did the talking heads of the game wake up to the approach to Ruth.
    (The Braves had a real good slugging crew there for a few years- Eddie Mathews, Hank, Joe Adcock, and Joe Torre.)
    One thing I think you missed: Musial was extremely popular in NY (thanks to the old Bklyn Dodger and NY Giants fans at the time, who referred to him as ‘Stan the Man’. If I remember correctly, he always got ovations when playing the Mets at the Polo Grounds and was given a Stan Musial Night at the Polo Grounds in ’62. In July of that year at age 41 he hit 4 homers against the Mets in a doubleheader, 1 in the opener and 3 in the nightcap. Again, the Mets fans went wild – I remember watching those 2 games on TV.

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