Topeka Capital Journal
June 14, 1995
In his second year in professional baseball, Mickey Charles Mantle, at age 19, played the entire season for Joplin, Mo., in the Western Association, a Class C league that included Topeka, Hutchinson and Salina. The year was 1950, and Mantle had the kind of season that left no doubt he was headed for fame and fortune in the majors.
It would be wrong to say he led the league in everything but stolen towels, a popular swift phrase of that day. In fact, he led only in runs, hits and batting average, but that gave you some idea of what he could do with a bat.
In 137 games, he hit .383, scored 141 runs and drove in 136 more. He had 199 hits, 26 of them home runs, and was walked 94 times. Obviously, he was a productive young man, very dangerous at the plate, so why didn’t he lead the league in homers, runs batted in and walks?
Considering the career he had, why didn’t he light up this minor league?
And if he didn’t, who did?
Elmer “Butch” Niemann of the Topeka Owls did. In 139 games the playing manager of the locals hit .314, some 70 points below Mantle, but Niemann had 28 home runs, drove in 149 runs and walked 149 times. He struck out only 71 times to Mantle’s 90, and stole 18 bases to Mantle’s 22.
The difference was, Niemann was 32 years old, had been to the major leagues and was on the way to that dreaded day all old ballplayers of his era feared, the day he’d have to start carrying a lunch bucket. Mantle was on his way to the show and had nothing to fear.
Mantle also was on his way to a long battle with booze that almost cost him his life. Niemann had that behind him, too, and soon would start a new career at Goodyear. He retired from there some years ago, and died here earlier this year at age 77.
Two of Mantle’s 26 home runs in 1950 came in one game in the old Owls ballpark in North Topeka. A switch hitter, he first put one over the left field fence batting right handed, then hit one so far over the right-center field fence batting left handed that Niemann, playing center for the Owls, never moved, except to turn his head and watched the ball go into orbit.
That year, however, Mantle was out of place in at least two respects. For one thing, he was playing shortstop, but would become a New York Yankee immortal as a center fielder. For another, he wasn’t much of an interview. He just wouldn’t talk.
The late Stu Dunbar, sports editor of the old State Journal, and I would try to interview him when he played here, but we would wind up talking to each other. Mantle would answer questions with one word, and if that didn’t work he’d simply act like he hadn’t heard the question.
Joplin was a Yankee farm club and the manager was Harry Craft, a soft spoken former big leaguer who had encouraged Mantle to talk. He would say, “Tell him about that game in Muskogee,” and Mantle would say, “Nah.” We would say, “What happened in Muskogee?” And he would say, “Nothing.”
Years later, when he was the brightest Yankee star, Maury White of the Des Moines Register and I tried to interview him in the visitors’ dugout in Kansas City. Mantle was breaking in a new glove, and all we got from him was grunts and short answers as he kept pounding a ball into the pocket of the glove.
I asked him if he remembered playing in Topeka.
“Yeah,” he said.
What did he remember about it?
“The guy playing the organ,” he said.
That was Ole Livgren, who played at every Owl home game and was one of the extras owner Link Norris provided that helped Topeka lead the league in attendance.
Mantle’s answer was the longest sentence I ever heard him utter until some 20 years after. I was sitting in a Dallas hotel bar with Jimmie Vickers of Wichita and my brother, Al, when a friend of Vickers came by and invited us to a small gathering in the suite of Bobby Murcer, who was then the star Yankee centerfielder.
We went up, and Mantle was there. He had a full head of steam and was telling stories, and most of them included Yankee pals Whitey Ford and Billy Martin, and booze. I remember meeting Mercer, and I remember listening to Mantle for a couple of hours. I have no idea who else was there.
Because he is a fellow Okie, born in Spavinaw and raised in Miami, and because I met him here, before most of the rest of the world did, I followed Mantle’s career, and his life after baseball, by reading about him and watching him and hearing about him on television.
The funny thing is, until he wrote his Sports Illustrated story about his 40-plus years on the bottle, I never fully realized how serious his drinking problem was. When I sat in those dugouts and tried to get something out of him I used to think, what this guy needs is a drink to loosen him up.