The News-Leader’s Answer Man: The Mick at a Dillons opening?

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SPRINGFIELD, Mo. — Answer Man:  Many of my younger friends don’t believe that store openings once were big deals. In fact, they doubt that baseball legend Mickey Mantle once came to a Dillons grocery store at St. Louis Street and National Avenue. But he did. On that day, I obtained an autographed ball and autographed photo for my dad.  Can you provide a date and maybe a picture so I can prove this really happened?  — Shelly Melton, of Springfield

It most certainly happened, Shelly.

Our story about Mickey Mantle’s visit ran on Sunday, Sept. 21, 1986.  It did not say what day he was here, but I’m sure it was a day or two prior to that Sunday.

I don’t think Mantle was here for the grand opening of the store.  The News-Leader story, written by former sports writer Scott Puryear, says over 2,000 fans showed up for an “autograph session.” 

Mantle signed photos, baseballs and copies of the book he was promoting, “The Mick.”

In addition, I checked public records and the grocery store was built in 1985 — a year before the event.

At the time, Mantle was 55. He had retired in 1968 at 37 after 18 seasons with the New York Yankees.  

Mantle, who battled alcoholism his adult life, would eventually enter the Betty Ford Clinic in 1994. He was diagnosed with cirrhosis, hepatitis and cancer of the liver.

Mantle later received a liver transplant in 1995 — which stirred controversy over how quickly he was matched — but died of a heart attack on Aug. 13, 1995. He was 63.

Mantle played his first game for the Yankees in 1951, eventually replacing fellow Hall-of-Famer Joe DiMaggio in center field.  Mantle, plagued by injuries throughout his career, is considered the best power-hitting switch hitter ever.

He slugged 536 home runs and was voted the American League’s Most Valuable Player three times (1956, 1957 and 1962). 

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“This guy is a legend”

“He could not have been nicer,” Puryear, now 56, tells me.

He interviewed Mantle in an upstairs office at the grocery store.

“I was young and I was just out of school,” Puryear says. “I might have ‘accidentally’ taken a paperback copy of ‘The Mick’ for him to sign.”

Mantle signed with a personal note.

“Someday I will pass that along to my kids,” Puryear says.

Surprisingly, Puryear recalls, no one else on the eight-person sports staff was interested in interviewing Mantle.  

As low man in seniority, he says, he was assigned the story — and could not have been happier.

“Oh my gosh!  This guy is a legend.

“I grew up in little Noel, Missouri, and Mickey was from Commerce, Oklahoma. I certainly was familiar with who he was.”

Puryear wrote in his story that Mantle lived in Dallas and had a second home in Joplin.

Mantle’s highest annual salary was $100,000 — which would be $826,424 in 2019 dollars. It is estimated he earned a total of $1 million over his 18 years with the Yankees.

In contrast,  Mike Trout of the Los Angeles Angels, considered the best player in baseball today, recently signed a 12-year contract worth $35.5 million a year.

It was not unusual for Mantle to be at a grocery store in Springfield. He was paid to sign autographs.

Players of this era made far less money than today, but they earned considerable money signing memorabilia.  Mantle, for example, made more income signing autographs than he ever made as a baseball player.

Puryear worked here from 1985 to 2005 and eventually became the featured sports columnist. 

Later, Puryear also interviewed DiMaggio, the “Yankee Clipper” and one-time husband of Marilyn Monroe. DiMaggio was infamous for being aloof and not wanting to talk to the media.

DiMaggio, retired at the time, was at an event sponsored in Springfield. 

“I can’t remember why he was here. But he could not have been less enthusiastic about it” he says.  “Mickey was the complete opposite.”

Was Mickey Mantle your babysitter?

I’ll close with an interesting tidbit that links the News-Leader to The Mick.

Journalist Kate Marymont is a 1976 graduate of Missouri State University. She worked here as a copy editor for four years and left to move up the journalism ladder and Gannett corporate ladder. She returned as managing editor from 1994 to 1999. 

Gannett is the corporate parent of the News-Leader.

She retired on Jan. 3, 2017, as Gannett’s senior vice president of news.

Marymount  had an uncle by the name of Tom Greenwade, who lived in Willard.

Greenwade, who died in 1986, was a minor league pitcher whose promise was cut short by a two-year bout with typhoid fever.

He became a baseball scout for the New York Yankees, driving the dusty backroads looking for the young, raw talent needed to continue Yankee dominance.

From 1947 through 1964, the Yankees won 15 pennants in 18 seasons.

So Greenwade was driving through Oklahoma in the summer of 1948  to see several prospects — including a 16-year-old switch-hitting shortstop named Mickey Mantle. 

He saw the teenage a few more times and soon after Mantle graduated high school he signed him for the Yankees.

Greenwade left scouting in 1964 and lived out his days in Willard.  He was not just a baseball scout. He was a legendary scout. What Mantle was to baseball, Greenwade was to scouting.

When Greenwade died in 1986, the New York Times took note:

“Tom Greenwade, the scout who signed Mickey Mantle and helped persuade the Brooklyn Dodgers to bring Jackie Robinson into the major leagues, died Saturday.

“In his time, he had scouted Jackie Robinson for Branch Rickey of the Brooklyn Dodgers, and later found Mickey Mantle, Bobby Murcer, Elston Howard, Hank Bauer, Clete Boyer, Ralph Terry, Tom Sturdivant, Jerry Lumpe, Bill Virdon and Whitey Herzog for the Yankees.

“Tom Greenwade excelled in a time when one scout with a good eye could monopolize the talent in a region. When baseball went to a common draft in 1965, you could have called it the Anti-Tom Greenwade Lottery.”

I ask Marymont if it’s true that the greatest switch-hitter in the history of baseball — and some argue the greatest baseball player ever — was once her baby sister.

“That’s what family lore is,” she says. “But I can’t remember and I can’t verify. If it happened, I was in diapers.”

Wow! I think.

What a journalist!

A lesser one, like me, would have found a way to imprint a memory of that day — so many years ago — when The Mick and I rolled a little ball back and forth.

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