Mickey Collectibles Guide Part IX: Mickey's Early Photos
By Kelly Eisenhauer
Other than the President of the United States, Mickey Mantle was arguably the most photographed individual the world has ever known. Oh, Babe Ruth, Muhammad Ali, Marilyn Monroe and The Beatles might come close, but from this author’s point of view, Mickey had to be No. 1. There are so many photos of “The Mick,” that it is mind-boggling. In fact, when George Roy, film director of HBO Sports’ “Mantle,” contacted me to use my Mantle photo collection for their film, he was blown away at the number of different Mantle shots I actually had. It truly is staggering. No wonder Mickey did advertisements for Kodak in the 1960s. It is my opinion that he was directly or indirectly responsible for the company’s dramatic increase in stock price. The fact that Mickey worked in New York and played for the Yankees didn’t hurt either. New York was and still is the media capital of the world.
Before the word “paparazzi” was a part of our everyday jargon, the media would gather around the batting cage on a daily basis to photograph Mickey and do their interviews. They would invade his personal world, whether it was on the golf course or out for a night on the town, and they would even travel to Commerce, Okla., in the offseason to photograph Mickey, his family, and new bride.
As the owner of a website that features mostly Mickey Mantle items (www.hofmemories.com), I get a lot of calls and e-mails from people looking to buy and sell and those just inquiring about what a specific card is worth, etc. One particular call stands out. About five years ago, I got a call from a lady living in Joplin, Mo., who wanted to sell me an original 1949 Commerce High School Yearbook. What’s so special about this yearbook, you may ask? Well, it happens to be Mickey’s senior year.
During our conversation, she told me that she knew Mickey when he was growing up and lived only a few blocks away from the Mantles. As the conversation continued, I inquired if she had any other Mantle collectibles, such as pictures or photographs of him while he played in Joplin. She told me that she didn’t and went on to say that cameras were very rare back in the 1940s and that she saw very few pictures of Mickey growing up. There were no cellular phones with built-in cameras like there are today.
What she said made sense. As a collector of Mantle photographs, I don’t ever recall seeing a picture of Mickey playing baseball for Commerce High School. There are photos of him playing football as the team’s quarterback and of him playing basketball, but I’ve never seen him wearing his Commerce baseball uniform. Now this can be explained to a certain extent. I’ll buy the fact that cameras were luxury items and that in a mining town like Commerce, Okla., those little extras were probably not part of most families’ budgets. I also know that when a high school yearbook goes to print, it usually is sent to the printer before baseball season starts. This is done so that the students get their yearbooks before school is out in June.
Now in Mickey’s case, I don’t know if Mickey’s parents had a camera or not, but I do know that his parents were not rich. In fact, they were probably borderline poor. With a family of six, I am sure that there were very few luxuries in the Mantle household. Even if they did own a camera, it probably wasn’t taken to the ballpark to photograph Mickey. Things weren’t done that way back in the 1940s. If a picture was taken, it probably was taken at home on special occasions like birthdays and holidays.
The Rise to Fame
I really can’t say for sure if Mickey was a standout in high school. I’ve never seen statistics or detailed write-ups about his scholastic career. It was while playing for Baxter Springs under the tutelage of Barney Barnett Sr. that he caught the eye of Yankees scout Tom Greenwade. It was here that Mantle, a 16-year-old, was excelling against kids who were as old as 21.
Mickey’s minor league details are rarely told and pictures from those days are difficult to find. There’s only a handful of different photos available. Original photos and Wirephotos have become very collectible in today’s memorabilia market. In this segment of the Complete Collectibles Guide, I’ll be featuring a collection of some incredibly rare photos from the Mantle family, as well as those that have made their way into the baseball collecting hobby. I will also show some of the Mickey Mantle collectibles that have come our way via Commerce, Okla.
In 1947 and 1948, Mickey Mantle played summer semi-pro baseball for the Baxter Springs Whiz Kids. Three different team photos show Mickey and his teammates and coaches. In the 1947 photo, Mickey is not in his Whiz Kids uniform, but is shown in the team photo wearing a baseball cap. Two different photos of the 1948 team exist. One shows him sitting on the bench in uniform next to Barney Barnett, Sr., with an airplane and automobiles in the immediate background. The other 1948 photo shows the Baxter Springs team with a grandstand of people.
After signing his Yankees contract in 1949 on graduation night, Mickey was sent to the Class-D Independence Yankees of the K-O-M (Kansas, Oklahoma, Missouri) League. Mantle batted .313, while playing shortstop under manager Harry Craft.
In 1950, Mickey and Craft were both promoted to the Class-C Joplin Miners. That summer, Mickey hit .383 and won the Western Association batting title. Mickey’s contract paid him $225 per month. Amazingly enough, pictures of Mickey playing in nearby Joplin are more numerous than any of the other minor league teams for which he played.
In 1951 before the start of spring training, Mickey was sent to Phoenix, Ariz., for the Yankees instructional camp. This is where Casey Stengel and Mickey met for the first time. The “Ole Professor” noticed Mick’s Ruthian power and sprinter’s speed and decided that he would be a good fit as a member of the 1951 New York Yankees. As most true Yankee fans know, Mickey was given No. 6 and wouldn’t wear his famous No. 7 until Aug. 24, 1951. Pictures of Mickey wearing No. 6 are very collectible, especially if the photo shows Mickey’s face and a side view of his original number.
Growing up in Commerce
As a kid growing up in a mining town, I guess it can be said that Mickey led a pretty normal life. His father worked in the mines and raised Mickey to be a switch-hitting ballplayer. His grandfather, Charlie, and his father Elvin or “Mutt,” as he was called, would throw countless hours of batting practice to him so that Mickey could practice from both sides of the plate. The family tin barn would serve as a backstop for Mick’s batting practice sessions. Their house was very basic and typical for a mining town. Pictures of the Mantle’s house show just how basic the house really was.
The Mantle family was very close-knit. Mickey had twin brothers, Roy and Ray, a sister, Barbara, and another brother, Butch. Family pictures and Wirephotos would often show the family watching television or playing cards together at home. Mickey’s twin brothers Roy and Ray were also talented athletes in their own right. They both played Class-D ball in 1954 for McAlester in Oklahoma and were even given Yankee minor league contracts. They also played football at Commerce High School.
Reporters would love to photograph Mickey with his brothers dressed in their high school football and baseball uniforms.
Other than family photos, the next best source for early pictures of Mantle came from the school district’s yearly photos. The earliest school picture shows Mickey posing for his first-grade class picture.
He is shown second from the right in the first row. What makes this photo unique is the fact that the reverse side has one of the earliest Mickey Mantle signatures known to exist.
Other adolescent pictures of the Mick show him celebrating his birthday on a horse and another has him dressed up with a shirt, tie and a cowboy hat. Bloomingdales of department store fame even used one of his “horse” pictures for one of its advertising campaigns. Some of the more popular photos that have made their way into the memorabilia market show a young Mick on his Dad’s lap and with his family in gathered in the living room. Mickey was also photographed coming back from a hunting trip with his dog. Other wire photos show Mickey’s mother, Lovell, pouring him a glass of milk in the kitchen and also watching him talk on the telephone. Most of these Wirephotos were staged to make it look like candid shots of the Mantle family, but all know better.
In 1942, Mickey started his Pee Wee career as a catcher for Douthat. Then in 1944, he started to play second base for Douthat in the Gabby Street League. The following summer as a 13-year-old, Mickey played shortstop for Miami in the Ban Johnson League. A picture of Mickey in his Miami uniform is one of the first pictures of him in his baseball uniform. In 1954, General Mills used Mickey’s 11th-grade school photo in an advertisement promoting Mickey’s love for Wheaties cereal.
Probably the best source of Mantle photos from his high school days is the Commerce High School Yearbook. Mickey was very active in sports and very photogenic while in high school. He played three sports while at Commerce: football, basketball, and baseball. He is shown in his high school yearbook as the assistant editor of the Bengal Tales, the high school yearbook, and as a staff member of the school’s newspaper, The Tiger Chat. He is also shown in a group photo as a member of the senior class play and while posing with fellow classmate Bonnie Smith in front of the school’s Coke machine.
As time marched on, so did photos of Mantle. In 1950, he is shown working during the offseason as an electrician’s helper at Eagle-Picher lead and zinc mines. On Dec. 23, 1951, Mickey married Merlyn Johnson, whom he had met at a high school football game in October of 1949. As Mickey and Merlyn dated and became engaged, the media would take countless photographs of the All-American couple. Photos of their wedding were distributed worldwide and have made their way into many Mantle collections.
More Commerce collectibles
A few rare collectibles from 1952 have made their way into the Mickey Mantle memorabilia hobby. On Oct. 17, 1952, the town of Commerce, Okla., honored their favorite son by holding a Mickey Mantle Day Celebration. Mickey was the guest of honor that day as Commerce High School and other surrounding school districts, along with the Lions Club, sponsored a special dinner and football game between Northeastern Oklahoma A&M and Eastern Oklahoma A&M. A game program with Mickey’s picture in the upper-left corner was made to commemorate the event, as well as a banquet program and ticket. The banquet program features a hand-drawn art sketch of Mickey batting in his Yankee home pinstriped uniform. If you were fortunate to be in attendance that night, Mickey didn’t disappoint the crowd; he made himself available to autograph just about everyone’s program. New York Yankee pitcher Allie Reynolds was also in attendance. (Note the old-styled Mantle script signature that Mickey used in the early 1950s.)
Kelly R. Eisenhauer of Lehighton, Pa., has been a fan and collector of Mickey Mantle memorabilia for more than 40 years. He supplied photography for the HBO documentary “Mantle, The Definitive Story” and is featured in Richard Wolfe’s current book, For Yankee Fans Only – Vol. 2. Eisenhauer owns and operates his own Mickey Mantle webpage at www.hofmemories.com. Anyone with questions or comments can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Many of the photographs from this multi-part series, including a remarkable number of one-of-a-kind pieces, came from the Mickey Mantle Collection of B.S. Alpert.