On January 7, 1968, Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays put in an appearance at a sporting goods fair at the New Yorker Hotel. By that time, they had become relaxed enough with each other to exchange a few good-natured barbs. "You sure you know how to use one of these things?" Willie quipped as Mickey held up a glove. "Man," Mickey said in reply, as he tried on Willie's mitt, "some people said I couldn't carry your glove. Now I see why. It's so damn big."
The fair was also an opportunity for Esquire magazine to put together a photo shoot and dual interview, which appeared in the August issue: "Mantle Fans Mays/Mays Fans Mantle—Willie and Mickey Appraise Each Other in Relation." Mickey's text (written, as he revealed to me at a 1985 party for The Mick, by Dick Schaap, who had written Mantle's paperback biography in the Sport magazine biography series) contained some genuine appreciation and insight: "Outside of Joe DiMaggio, Willie Mays is the greatest all-around baseball player of my time. Certainly he's been the most daring. Mays would steal home, a tough play and one in which you've got a great chance to look bad. Willie didn't even think of that, he'd just go. Nine times out of ten, he'd make it." (Mickey was almost right—Mays stole home eight times in ten tries in his career.)
"He was always a better glove man than I was because he had that same confidence. I'd run up to a single to center, say, squat down and block it in case I missed it. I always had that little doubt in the back of my mind that I might not catch it. But Willie would come charging in, scoop up the ball on the dead run, and fire. The basket catch is easy for him, so he has fun with it. He makes it so easy that sometime people think he's showboating. I think some of his style is for the fans, but I don't see anything wrong with that.
"I used to feel I was as good as he was, but now Willie has finally gotten out a little ahead of me. He's kept his health better than I have. He seems to run as well as he used to, although not quite so much. He's a leader, too, and I'm not. He'll go to the young players and try to help them. [Note: As Sport magazine revealed several times, so did Mantle.] He talks it up on the bench. He wants to be a leader. I just want to be one of the players."
Mantle was surprisingly candid about another matter that was increasingly close to Willie: "People keep asking him if he thinks he can break Babe Ruth's lifetime home-run record. What do they expect him to say? I'll tell you that I don't think he can do it. He came into this season 150 home runs behind Ruth. He's 37 now. Say he plays three or more years. Even if he plays four more, he must average more than 35 home runs a year, and that's a lot. But I hope he does it."
Toward the end of the piece Mantle grew reflective. "I suppose the toughest thing for both of us is the thought of quitting. Baseball's our business, our life. But if we have a couple of days in a row where we strike out three times and don't get a hit, people say, 'Maybe he's had it.' You don't want to reach a point where people just think you're hanging on."
Clearly the subject was very much on Mickey's mind.
Mays's essay—actually written by Charles Einstein—started with the Mantle performance that had most impressed him: his two home runs in the 1960 World Series. "I would rather be compared to Mantle than pitch to him. He didn't just beat pitchers, he broke their hearts."
"It's difficult to imagine a successor to Mantle; no one is likely to combine the speed and power and be able to hit so well both right-handed and left.
"Mickey used to get booed a lot at Yankee Stadium. I didn't have any problems like that until later when the Giants moved to San Francisco. Then I got booed. It wasn't so much what we were, it was more what we weren't. Neither of us was Joe DiMaggio.