The coincidences are too startling to overlook.
So are the differences.
Derek Jeter, the face of the Yankees — and maybe the face of Major League Baseball for two decades — is scheduled to play his final game Sunday, Sept. 28, 2014, at Fenway Park.
Mickey Mantle, the face of the Yankees — and maybe the face of Major League Baseball during his two decades — played his final game on Sept. 28, 1968, at Fenway Park.
In both cases, the Red Sox were defending champions, but wrapping up disappointing seasons.
And there, the similarities end.
While Jeter goes out with the conclusion of a farewell tour season, fans had no idea that it would be the Mick’s last game. He did not announce his retirement until the following spring.
Some thought the Yankees conspired with Mantle to withhold the announcement so they might sell more season tickets in the offseason.
But there was no conspiracy. Mick did not really want to retire — he was only 36 — but his .237 batting average told him otherwise, even in the “Year of the Pitcher.”
He played in more games than any Yankee in history — his mark now surpassed by Jeter — but he should have had a lot more left. He came to admit that his failure to take better care of himself brought his game down too quickly. His last Mantle-like season came at age 32.
The year 1968 was difficult for him in many ways. “Who are these guys?” he must have thought as he looked around the clubhouse. (Not unlike Jeter today.) He was the last of the Casey Stengel-era players still going. These were the Horace Clarke years. The cupboard was bare.
There was in fact, only one other future Hall of Famer on the Yankees that year, and few would have guessed it was their weak-hitting third baseman, a fellow named Bobby Cox.
There wasn’t even a Yankees-Red Sox rivalry as we know it today. The rivalry really took hold in the Thurman Munson-Carlton Fisk era, when both teams got good. In ’68, the Red Sox were “good” — coming off the “Impossible Dream” season — but the Yankees were still in the throes of their awful CBS-ownership years. George Steinbrenner was five years away.
So the Yanks rolled into Boston for the final weekend of the ’68 season. Mantle had 536 home runs — third on the all-time list behind only Babe Ruth and Willie Mays. He hit his final one on Sept. 20 in New York off Boston’s Jim Lonborg. (It would be his last hit, as well). Since then he’d dropped under .240. It was embarrassing but part of a season in which he had fallen under .300 lifetime.
The Yankees checked into the Staler Hilton and then played a Friday night game, losing 12-2. Mantle was 0 for 3, which made him 0 for 19 since the homer.
On Saturday afternoon, the 28th, he was in the lineup, listed at first base, the position he had played in his final two seasons to ease the stress on his legs. Center field was no longer an option. His right knee and right ankle were killing him.
He came to bat in the first inning, again facing Lonborg. It would have been nice if his former teammate Elston Howard was catching, but Russ Gibson was behind the plate and most of the 25,534 rose to cheer him on a beautiful 75-degree day in the final season before divisional play kicked in.
(Howard was in his final weekend as an active player, as was Mantle’s old home run buddy, Roger Maris. Maris however, would still play in the World Series with St. Louis.)
Mantle was, throughout his final years, the most popular player in the game, cheered everywhere. Now, with the crowd seated, Lonborg delivered. With Clarke on second and one out, Mantle swung and cracked his bat, lofting a popup to short left field. Rico Petrocelli moved back to catch it and Mantle returned to the dugout, scooping off his helmet from the rear, as was his style.
But he didn’t go to first base in the last of the first. Andy Kosco did. Mick was already getting dressed and preparing to go to Logan Airport. He was done. There would be no Sunday game for him, no season finale, no goodbyes.
The tank was empty. His career was over, finishing 0 for 20. The last of his biweekly paychecks, from his $100,000 salary, was paid.
He had no idea what his future held, and he wasn’t exactly rolling in dough. This was not a happy time.
For Derek Jeter, of course, it’s all quite different. Patches on the sleeve and on the cap, a pregame ceremony, ovations, wealth, parents at the game, MLB marketing at full strength.
The contrasts are huge.
But the date, the place, and the importance of the player all match.
Marty Appel was a longtime member of the Yankees’ public relations department and author of ‘Pinstripe Empire’ and ‘Munson,’ and was first hired to answer Mantle’s fan mail in 1968. He retrieved the cracked bat from that final at-bat (not knowing its significance at the time), and owned it for almost 30 years, before its auction helped pay for his son’s first year of tuition at UMass. That son, Brian, later co-founded the Boston Calling Music Festival. They will be together at Fenway for the Jeter finale.