Mickey Mantle wore life on his sleeve. He hid nothing from us, the good, bad, and the ugly. He had a reason to be so reckless, though, and that was private.
Mickey Mantle grew up surrounded by death. The grim reaper of the Mantle family was cancer, claiming, among others, Mickey’s uncle, his grandfather, and a couple of other relatives, all in their 40s or younger. (Society of American Baseball Research)
Death reaches even closer to Mickey Mantle in the fall of 1951 when he found himself sharing a room at the New York hospital with his dad, Mutt Mantle.
Mickey Mantle: A Career Derailed
Mickey was there with ligaments torn in his knee on a play during the World Series and a ball hit by Willie Mays into the gap in right-centerfield. To this day, many insist it was a ball that Joe DiMaggio should have caught.
Instead, he gave way to Mantle steaking over from right field, at which point Mantle’s cleats got caught in a water drain, and the rest, as they say, is history wrapped up in debates about 600, maybe even 700 home runs – if only.
But that’s baseball, and this is about life.
Mutt Mantle, the man who moved his family from Depression, ravaged Oklahoma to Commerce, Texas, where the promise of work in the mines held some hope.
The mines could never hold their secrets, and for many workers, taking a job was almost akin to signing their death certificate.
The two watched the rest of the World Series from their adjacent hospital beds. Mantle had surgery and was sent home to heal. Mutt was diagnosed with Hodgkins, and was given a grim prognosis and sent home to die. He was 39 years old.
My New Friend – My Good Friend
With his dad and friend gone, it didn’t take Mickey Mantle long to find a new friend – alcohol.
We’re talking about days when major league clubhouses ordered postgame meals in from the local deli with hero subs piled high with cold cuts and tubs of beer prominently on call.
Adequately lit from the “appetizer”, the party moved on to the streets of Manhattan. The Crew consisted mainly of Mantle, Billy Martin, and Whitey Ford. Occasionally, Hank Bauer and Yogi Berra would tag along – but only if wives were invited.
Occasionally, things would get out of hand like the night of May 17, 1957, at the Copacabana nightclub during a celebration of Billy Martin’s birthday.
Stengel’s reasoning had nothing to do with his player’s behavior. Protecting his skin, Stengel offered only that “If I pitched him and he was hit hard, people would wonder what I was doing”.
Also, tellingly, Mickey Mantle was untouched by the incident.
Mickey Mantle: If I’d Known…
Surrounded by enabling “friends”, there wasn’t a bar or restaurant Mickey Mantle could walk into without never reaching into his pocket or wallet.
“I bought Mickey Mantle a drink last night”. Repeat after me. Repeat after me.
He once said and who can say he wasn’t right – “Hell, if I thought it was going to be such a big deal, I’d have done it five or six times.” (New York Times)
And he wasn’t kidding.
Mickey Mantle – Damn It – Every Story Ends Up The Same
But the plain fact is I’ve never written a story about Mickey Mantle that doesn’t include a trace of sadness.
And the reason is based on a simple truth, which is we are all a product of our environment. Consider what I believe to be Mickey Mantle’s last and true testament meant for all of us.
The unanswered question, though, is if Mickey Mantle had known he had those extra years to live on his dad (63-39=24), would anything have been different during those twenty-four years?
CC And The Mick
I’d rather not venture a guess to answer that question. We can only as would he have been, for instance, CC Sabathia, who reached that fateful day in a hotel room in Baltimore when he said, “That’s enough”?
Or, would Mickey Mantle have found new ways to escape his immortality, falling in line with a new generation’s commitment to self-destruction – a la the 21st Century express and Tyler Scaggs?
I choose not to go there either. Why should we?
We can, however, travel to Cooperstown New York and the Baseball Hall of Fame to read the inscription on the plaque dedicated to Mickey Mantle.
A conflicted life, a conflicted man, and, most of all, a conflicted fan base. A baseball story like no other and what a ride it was.