NEW YORK — Mickey Mantle settled an old sports argument the other day.
Standing in his new bar and restaurant, the famed Yankee switch-hitter grinned at a question that used to fill hundreds of watering holes--Who was better, Mantle or Mays?
"At times, I was," Mantle said. "But you gotta look at the bottom line, when it's all over with. And I'm not even close. Willie played 24 (actually 22) years, almost injury free, he hit over 600 home runs, he was a great baserunner, great outfielder, had a good arm. If you just put both our records down, there's no comparison."
Poor Mickey. He played only 18 years, hit only 536 homers. He only won three MVP Awards, in 1956, '57 and '62. It's a wonder he can even walk the streets without embarrassment, much less open a restaurant across the street from Central Park, complete with waiters and waitresses wearing his old number 7.
Mays, on the other hand, played in 2,992 games, with 660 homers and a .302 lifetime average, four points higher than Mantle. Those were the days, when both played center field in New York, hitting homers and running down flies in huge outfields. Let's not forget a third chap, a man by the name of Edwin Snider, also known as Duke, who played center for the Brooklyn Dodgers.
In those days, you could argue who was best, Mays, Mantle or Snider. But there's no doubt who emerged as the most sacred name of them all. Twenty years after his retirement, Mantle sees long lines at autograph sessions.
"You should come up and sit where I'm at, and listen to some," Mantle said. "You'll look up and there'll be a farmer. He'll say, 'You give me inspiration.' The next guy will come up and have a suit and tie on and he's the president of a corporation and he'll have the same story.
"Some of them have tears in their eyes. You shake hands. Somebody said one time, 'Don't you get tired of that?' I said, 'How the hell can you get tired of that?' I haven't played since 1968. I can be walking down the street and somebody will say, 'Hi Mick, how ya' doing?' It makes me feel great."
Mantle reached the majors in 1951 and played in 12 World Series, setting Series records for homers, runs, RBI, walks and strikeouts. From 1951 through 1964, only once did the World Series fail to include a New York representative -- and that was 1959, when Snider was playing for the transplanted Dodgers in Los Angeles.
The Yankee dynasty died in one year. Two summers after they lost a seven-game World Series to St. Louis in 1964, the Yankees finished last.
"All of a sudden, I was the only one left," Mantle said. "Whitey (Ford) was gone, Elston Howard was gone, Yogi (Berra) was gone, Billy Martin was gone. We had a terrible team. It seemed everywhere I'd go, I'd get standing ovations. They didn't have very much to root for."
Mantle retired in 1968, his career average having slipped under .300. Had he played without injury, or in a park with shorter power alleys, he might have accomplished even more than he did. Mays wound up as the greater player.
"But in '56 and '57," Mantle said, gesturing behind him, "he had to stand back here."