|Mathews, Mantle and Aaron pose for a picture in spring training|
It's fascinating how much their personal lives and baseball careers overlapped. They were born one week apart in October, 1931 in the rural Midwest, with Mathews hailing from Texas and Mantle a progeny of Oklahoma. Both signed as amateur free agents in 1949 and played their first full season in 1952 with similar results; Mantle had 23 home runs in 142 games, Mathews slugged 25 in 145, and both drew MVP votes despite leading their respective leagues in strikeouts.
Thus marked the beginning of two outstanding careers that lasted until 1968, when both posted the worst batting averages of their careers and promptly retired, clearly done. But not before they hit milestone homers in that Year of the Pitcher, with Mantle taking Denny McLain deep to pass Jimmie Foxx and Mathews, by then a teammate of McLain's eclipsing Mel Ott with the last home run he'd ever it.
In between they didn't see a whole lot of each other, as they played in different leagues during a time when AL and NL players met twice a year; in the Midsummer Classic and the Fall Classic. They were All-Stars in the same year nine times and crossed paths in two World Series--in 1957 and again the following year. Milwaukee won their first meeting but New York took the rematch, with both series going the full seven. Mathews played better in the first one, Mantle fared better in the second.
In the end, Mantle was clearly the better player and enjoyed the superior career, but some of their numbers look remarkably similar:
Mantle: 2,401 G 2,415 H 344 2B 72 3B 536 HR 1,509 RBI 4,511 TB 109.7 bWAR
Mathews: 2,391 G 2,315 H 354 2B 72 3B 512 HR 1,453 RBI 4,349 TB 96.4 bWAR
They were both patient power hitters who drew their fare share of walks and weren't afraid to strike out. They both established themselves as great young players and peaked early on, but by the same token crashed and burned rather prematurely in their mid-thirties. They ended up as one of the five best to play their respective positions, even if their walk-drawing and run-scoring skills wouldn't get the credit they deserved for many years. Mantle wasn't fully appreciated until Roger Maris arrived midway through his career and took most of the heat off him, and Mathews remains criminally underrated to this day.
Off the field, they both led difficult lives and drank too much, which may have led to their somewhat early demise as players and as men (neither one played past 36 or lived to 70).They were ultimately tragic figures then, exceptional players but flawed human beings with a whiff of unfulfilled potential. The Commerce Comet was frequently criticized for not living up to his great Yankee predecessors of Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and Joe DiMaggio, while it was Mathews' fate to be overshadowed by teammate Henry Aaron.
Not surprisingly, Mathews is rated as Mantle's closest comp on Baseball-Reference. Mantle is the fourth-best match for Mathews, following Mike Schmidt, Ernie Banks, and Willie McCovey. Pretty good company.
With so many similarities, it's easy to see why:
- Both had four seasons with at least 40 home runs (Mantle topped 50 twice) and 14 with at least 20. Mathews had 10 seasons with more than 30 bombs, one more than Mantle's nine.
- Because they walked so much, neither one knocked in as many runs as one would expect given their huge power totals. Mantle exceeded 100 RBI four times, while Mathews did so five times. Each managed five additional seasons in which they plated more than 90 (but less than 100). Additionally, Mathews' career high of 135 barely exceed's Mantle's personal best of 130.
- Because they walked so much, both scored tons of runs. Mantle had 11 straight seasons with at least 90 runs, including nine with over 100. Mathews had 10 consecutive seasons with 90 or more runs, including eight with at least 100.
- Both struck out a lot. Mantle led the league in the dubious K statistic five times, something Mathews did in 1952, when both led their respective leagues, with Mathews' 115 edging Mantle's 111 for the ML-lead.
- Both finished their careers with near 1:1 strikeout to walk ratios. Mantle walked 23 more times than he whiffed for a 1.01 BB/K ratio, while Mathews fanned 43 more times than he walked and thus had a 0.97 BB/K ratio.
- Neither one hit a lot of doubles. Each had only one season with more than 30.
- Mantle was caught stealing 38 times, one fewer than Mathews.
- Mathews bounced into 123 doubles plays, Mantle 113. Both had more than 10 in a season only three times, and never bounced into more than 11.
- Mathews had six seasons with at least 300 total bases, one more than Mantle's five.
- Mantle was intentionally walked 126 times, but Mathews wasn't far behind at 107. Both were clearly feared by opposing pitchers and managers.
- They were both All-Stars in 1953, then every year from 1955 through 1962