Mantle's essence captured in Stadium exhibit
Hall of Fame outfielder's personal memorabilia now on display
NEW YORK -- How do you pay tribute to an outsized hero, an iconic idol of a generation, who has maintained his relevance decades after retirement? The Yankees answered that question this week, when they unveiled a comprehensive Mickey Mantle exhibit at the Yankee Stadium Museum.
Mantle, a Hall of Famer and a member of the MLB All-Century Team who died in 1995 at the age of 63 from liver cancer, has always had a presence in Yankee Stadium, in the form of a marble-backed plaque at Monument Park, but now he has an exhibit that tells the story of his life and career in a few memorabilia-lined glass cases.
Brian Richards, curator of the Yankee Stadium Museum, said Friday that the exhibit took about a year to go from concept to reality, and he expressed satisfaction with the final result.
"This exhibit was really a labor of love," said Richards. "I learned so much about Mantle, and my knowledge and my appreciation for who he was as a player and a person grew exponentially. I always knew that he was a tremendous player, but it was illuminating to see what he went through to become that player. He was the idol of a generation and the face of a franchise for so many years."
Indeed, Mantle's life went through a metamorphosis with the Yankees, as he signed with the team before his 18th birthday and played for New York until he was 37. The exhibit traces a clear timeline through his career that allows fans to see his development and consistency from year to year.
The glass cases house game-used jerseys -- one each from 1959, '61 and '68 -- and various trophies and plaques from Mantle's epic tear through baseball history, but it also marries those elements to rare photographs from his youth and magazines that chronicled his ascent.
"It's kind of a nice blend of game-used equipment and awards," said Richards. "And I think it's important to include things that a fan might have had. Somebody might have had that magazine or something like that. I wanted to make it a little more accessible so the fans could be a part of it."
Mantle's original contract is behind glass at the museum, and so is a bat he used to set the all-time record for home runs during World Series play. Richards said that all of the artifacts have been lent to the museum from private collectors and that many of them came from the Mantle family.
Some of the more intimate treasures in the exhibit include a photo of Mantle as a child with his siblings after a successful fishing trip, and another shows his mother pouring him a glass of milk. But the majority of the panels are devoted to his career and his assault on the record books.
Why now for a Mantle exhibit? Why not? Richards said many of the visitors to the Yankee Stadium Museum -- which averages around 5,000 people per night -- are devoted fans of Mantle, and he said that the legend's timeless allure speaks to people born generations apart.
"I think you can really make an argument that Mickey is the most popular Yankee," he said. "Babe Ruth never played on television. He only played as far west as St. Louis, and those people that can still claim they saw him play are rather few and far between. But Mickey Mantle was the hero of the Baby Boom generation. Mickey was the best player on the most visible team in America, the team that was on television the most frequently. The Yankees were on the Game of the Week, and they were in the World Series almost every year. And there was Mickey, right in the heart of the lineup."
The museum -- which opens two hours before the first pitch of every game and closes during the eighth inning -- will house the Mantle exhibit through the end of the 2013 season, and then many of the artifacts will go towards a new museum in Tulsa, Okla., being built by the legend's family.
For now, Mantle's exhibit is appropriately across the room from one dedicated to Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, and it includes some artifacts from a time gone by. Mantle's Sultan of Swat crown is in the display, and so is his alligator-skin Hickok belt awarded to the best pro athlete of 1956.
Richards, who represented the Yankees on the MLB Network trivia program Baseball IQ, said he did voluminous research through magazines and newspapers for nearly a year in trying to tell Mantle's story, and one thing that surprised him was the crowd reaction to the youngster's play.
"The thing that surprised me the most is how much Mickey Mantle was booed in the 1950's. His popularity was certainly not universal at that point," said Richards. "No doubt millions of younger fans idolized him from the start, but a good many fans also resented the fact that he replaced Joe DiMaggio. They resented that he was excused from military service in Korea due to a preexisting condition in his leg. And they were disappointed that he was not the perfect player he'd been advertised to be. He didn't hit home runs every day. And he struck out a lot."
That aspect of his career and several others are illustrated in text panels that go with the display cases, and the exhibit's timeline includes a baseball card and a stat-line for each of Mantle's seasons. For Richards, every element is working in harmony to tell one familiar story in bold detail.
"To me, that's what matters: Tell a good story," he said. "Stats have their place -- that's why we have them down here at the bottom -- but a good story is something that somebody is going to listen to, and when their friend gets back from eating a hot dog or whatever, they're going to re-tell it."
Spencer Fordin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.