For a taste of Lenny Shecter’s no-bullshit, take-no-prisoners style, check out this excerpt from “The Flower of America” chapter of his 1969 book of essays, The Jocks.
By Leonard Shecter
There are famous Yankee players whose public images bear little relation to the kind of men they actually are—Joe DiMaggio, Yogi Berra and Mickey Mantle, to name three.
Suave, sure, husband of Marilyn Monroe, Joe DiMaggio holds a unique place in Americana. He is super-hero. Sixteen years after he completed his remarkable feat of hitting in 56 straight games he was immortalized (if a god can obtain new immortalization) by Simon and Garfunkel in “Mrs. Robinson.”
Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?
A nation turns its lonely eyes to you.
In fact, the nation has not turned its lonely eyes to Joe DiMaggio. As Gay Talese showed in a remarkable article in Esquire in 1966, DiMaggio is a vain, lonely man, who is a tyrant to the sycophants who surround him. Wrote Talese. “His friends [know] . . . that should they inadvertently betray a confidence . . . [he] will never speak to them again.” Talese then described a scene in a restaurant called Reno’s in San Francisco which DiMaggio would often drop into.
They may wait for hours sometimes, waiting and knowing he may wish to be alone; but it does not seem to matter, they are endlessly awed by him, moved by the mystique, he is a kind of male Garbo. They know he can be warm and loyal if they are sensitive to his wishes, but they must never be late for an appointment to meet him. One man, unable to find a parking space, arrived a half-hour late once and DiMaggio didn’t talk to him again for three months. They know, too, when dining at night with DiMaggio, that he generally prefers male companions and occasionally one or two young women, but never wives; wives gossip, wives are trouble, and men wishing to remain close to DiMaggio must keep their wives at home.
His friends fawn on him, call him “Clipper” (one must wonder why a grown man would tolerate that), introduce him to mindless young women and pick up his tabs. At her death he turned a marriage to Marilyn Monroe that didn’t work (she complained that all he wanted to do was watch television) into a maudlin lost love. He held a permanent grudge against Robert Kennedy because he once spent a lot of time at a party dancing with Marilyn. This was aftertheir marriage had disintegrated.
And in the end he took a coaching job—not a managing job, a coaching job—with Charles O. Finley, the erratic owner of the Oakland Athletics. It was the act of a lonely, probably bitter man. No one had offered him a job as manager. In the fall of 1968 Joe DiMaggio was in Japan to teach the batters there how to hit. One suspects he had no more difficulty communicating with them than he did with American batters.
Yogi Berra is a particularly glowing example of an image which has outstripped the man. Of course, it is not his fault. It is not his fault that he is not a lovable gnome bubbling over withbon mots. Nor is it his fault that he is a narrow, suspicious man, jealous of the man other people supposed him to be and which he knew he was not. He was supposed to be a humorist because he said things like “Bill Dickey learned me all his experiences,” and “I want to thank you for making this award necessary.” In fact, there is severe doubt that Yogi Berra ever said anything intentionally funny in his life. The late Tom Meany used to tell this possibly apocryphal story about Berra which, at the least, illustrates the breadth of his knowledge. Berra was introduced to Ernest Hemingway at a party in a restaurant. When he returned to his table, he was asked what he thought of him. Said Berra: “He’s quite a character. What does he do?”
Well, he’s a writer.
“Yeah? What paper?”
After a while Berra and his wife, Carmen, came to believe that he was indeed something of a man of the world, raconteur, sophisticate. After all, weren’t they rich? (Berra has had enormous financial luck. He sold his interests in a bowling emporium at a great profit shortly before the bottom dropped out of the bowling business. And he took a block of stock in return for endorsing a little-known chocolate ”drink”-which means no milk and very little chocolate: the stock sky-rocketed.
There was an autobiography called Yogi. It was a typical baseball autobiography, all shiny and bright for the kiddies, naturally written by somebody else, a man who could have done better. But by the time the world was ready for a book about Berra, the Bern1s were not interested in reality. They wanted the book to be about Berra as they would have liked him to be. So it turned out to be a terrible book, cheap and phony and transparent I reviewed it that way.
It was a lovely spring day in St. Petersburg. The palm trees waved shiny green against the high blue sky. Yogi Berra saw me as soon as I arrived.
“You son of a bitch,” Berra said. “You cocksucker.”
He never said that in Yogi.
But that is not what I remember about him most. I remember most that the other ball players always complained that Yogi Berra would stand naked at the clubhouse buffet and scratch his genitals over the cold cuts.
Mickey Mantle is a quite different man. He was never shoe-horned into a role which, like Berra, he was unprepared by nature and intellect to play. Mantle was a country boy, ill-educated, frightened, convinced at an early age by a series of deaths in his family that he was doomed to live only a short life.
He was simple, naive and, at the very first, trusting. It did not take him long to misplace his trust. He soon found that he was trusting the wrong people and, when this cost him money, it made him withdrawn and sullen, as well as poor. Fortified by Yankee tradition—watch out for outsiders-Mantle was soon responding only to his teammates and the glad-handers and celebrity fuckers who flocked around him. (Mantle is almost universally liked by his teammates because he goes out of his way to be outgoing and friendly with them. He vigorously denies that he decided to behave that way after he, as a rookie, was ignored by the aloof, morose DiMaggio, but a young ball player I trust swears Mantle told him this and I have no reason to disbelieve him.) Pretty soon, as his skills blossomed, it became Mantle and his hedonistic enclave against the world.
And obviously the world didn’t count. The world was made up of crowds of sweaty, smelly little kids who demanded autographs and smeared ice cream on your new stantung suit, middle-aged slobs who accosted you in restaurants in ·mid-forkful to simper about getting an autograph for their little kiddies at home, and cloddish newspaper and magazine people who never got anything right and only wanted to hurt you anyway. When he was playing poorly or when he was especially plagued by one of his numerous injuries, Mantle would become particularly withdrawn and sulky, turn his back even on well-wishers. A great deal of this was sheer self-protection. For Mantle always doubted himself and, most of all, his knowledge of the game.
He had reason to. Mantle was never much of a student of baseball. Born with marvelous skills, he played it intuitively, never having to pay much attention to what was going on. More than once I heard him ask a teammate about a rival pitcher, “What’s he throw?” This is not an unusual question around a ball club-except if the pitcher had been in the league five years and pitched against the Yankees maybe 30 times.
It is possible that Mantle was incapable of even the minimum amount of concentration the finer points of baseball require. Certainly he refused to work on his own physical conditioning during the off-season, a refusal which, if it not actually shorten his career, obviously did nothing to prevent the pulled muscles in legs and groin which plagued him during almost every season. Year after year Mantle was told to go home and lift weights with his legs. He was begged to keep in good enough physical condition so that he would at least not disarrange a hamstring, as he did so often, in the opening days of spring training. But Mantle’s idea of keeping fit was to have an active social life and play golf out of an electric cart which was outfitted with a bar. He had fun. He also had pulled muscles.
It has become a cliche to wonder how great Mantle would have been had he been physically healthy during his career. What I wonder is how great he might have been had he even tried to keep physically healthy.
In the early years of his career Mantle was booed by the fans because he refused to live up to his promise. Later on the boos turned to cheers as he became known as a man who made a gallant effort despite enormous physical pain. I’m not sure the fans weren’t right in the first place.
Hot off the presses comes Allen Barra’s new book, on sale today.
Here’s an exclusive excerpt from Mickey and Willie: Mantle and Mays, the Parallel Lives of Baseball’s Golden Age.
By Allen Barra
I don’t know that anyone’s ever calculated this, but I wouldn’t be surprised to find that Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays, in that order, are the two most written-about players in baseball history, or at least two of the top three, along with Babe Ruth. The year 2010 saw the publication of a thick and well-researched biography of Willie, Willie Mays: The Life, the Legend, by James Hirsch, and there are countless shorter lives of Willie, several autobiographies and memoirs, and a superb life-and-times account, Willie’s Time, by Charles Einstein that, in my opinion, stands as the best thing ever written about him. Also published in 2010 was Jane Leavy’s Mantle biography, The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America’s Childhood, the most detailed of the nine versions of his life.
There are also six volumes of autobiography, memoirs, and recollections, as well as numerous books by fans and collections of letters to and from Mickey, that have been published since his death. And yet, it seems to me that there has always been one major element missing from the many books on Mantle or Mays: each other. Though they are and always will be linked in the minds of millions, I don’t think it’s ever been noted exactly how much they had in common and how each man’s image reflected the other. The similarities in their lives were uncanny. Both were children of the Great Depression, born in 1931. They were almost the same size (about five-foot-eleven and 185 pounds, at least early in their careers); Mantle had a bit more muscle, and for most of his playing career probably outweighed Willie by five to ten pounds.
Both were heralded as phenoms when they arrived in New York in 1951 after brief but legendary minor league careers. (If integration had come along a couple of years earlier, they probably would have played against each other as minor leaguers.) Both started out playing for Hall of Fame managers, Mantle for Casey Stengel and Willie for Leo Durocher. Both played stickball in the streets of New York with kids (though only Willie was lucky enough to have TV cameras record the games). The burden of expectation caused each of them to break down in tears before his first season was over. Mickey exploded on the national scene in 1953 when he hit the first “tape measure” home run, and Willie the next year when he made the most famous catch in World Series and probably baseball history. In 1958 and 1959, they barnstormed against each other with specially selected All-Star teams.
Together they defined baseball in the 1950s and through the mid-1960s. Both made the covers of Time and Life, and they were the subjects of popular songs. In the 1960s, they were often pictured together on the covers of baseball magazines, including some devoted entirely to them. They were paired off on television on the popular show Home Run Derby, did commercials and endorsements together, and appeared together on numerous TV shows. Together they created nostalgia and the autograph and memorabilia craze. Finally, in the early 1980s, they were both banned from baseball by Commissioner Bowie Kuhn for doing public relations work for Atlantic City casinos.
They had exactly the same talents—everyone who saw them observed that no other players in the big leagues possessed their astonishing combinations of power and speed. And despite Willie’s far greater durability, they were, in terms of effectiveness on the field, remarkably similar. Both batted over .300 ten times and hit over 50 home runs in a season twice. Total Baseball: The Official Encyclopedia of Major League Baseball ranks Mays as the best player in the NL from 1954, the year he returned from the Army, through 1965, except 1959, when he ranked fourth. (For the 1956 and 1961 seasons, he shared the top spot with Henry Aaron.)
Mantle was Total Baseball’s best player in the AL every year from 1955 through 1962; he was also ranked second in 1952 and fourth in 1954. (Mantle was surely poised to top Total Baseball’s ranking in 1963, when he batted .314 but was limited to just sixty-five games by injuries.) In every season from 1954 through 1965, Mickey and Willie were selected for the All-Star teams. From 1951 through 1964, the Yankees or the Giants were in every World Series except in 1959. Their fortunes in the World Series and All-Star Games contrasted oddly. Mays was the ultimate All-Star, hitting .307 in twenty-four games, producing 29 RBIs and runs scored, while Mantle hit just .233 in sixteen All-Star Games without a single home run. But in twenty World Series games, Mays managed just .239 without a single home run; in sixty-five games, Mantle set the all-time World Series home run mark with 18.
That Mickey and Willie were the most dominant players of that period isn’t simply a myth built up by worshipful New York sportswriters—it’s a fact. The ultimate question isn’t “Were they the greatest of their time?” but “Which of them was the greatest?” (That’s a subject I explore in detail in Appendix A.)
Both were consummate all-around athletes who excelled at basketball and football in high school. Reversing the stereotype, Willie was a great passing quarterback at Fairfield Industrial High School in Westfield, Alabama; at the same time, Mickey was a dazzling running back at Commerce High in Commerce, Oklahoma. If circumstances had been different, they might have ended up playing for the two greatest college football coaches of their era: Willie for Bear Bryant, then at Kentucky—Bryant had been hugely impressed when he saw Willie play baseball for the Black Barons at Rickwood Field—and Mickey for Bud Wilkinson at Oklahoma.
They were both natural center fielders, but both played other positions when they were young. Mantle spent more time at shortstop than Willie, but neither of them ever quite got the hang of it. Willie began his rookie season in center field; Mickey began his rookie year in right field while Joe DiMaggio struggled through his final season, and in 1952 Mickey became the Yankees’ starting center fielder. Both had great throwing arms and were told during their early careers that they had a shot to make it as a pitcher. Mickey and Willie both idolized Joe DiMaggio. Both loved Westerns and, as boys, dreamed of growing up to be cowboys.
Their lives were dominated by their fathers, who saw baseball as a way for their sons to escape a life of brutal manual labor. For Cat Mays it was the steel mills, for Mutt Mantle the hellish zinc mines. By the time Mickey and Willie graduated from high school, both their mothers had almost disappeared from the narratives of their lives. It was often said of both that they were “born to play ball.” Whether or not that was true, they were certainly bred to the game. Cat began rolling a ball to his son while Willie was still an infant. Mutt began to throw to his son as soon as Mickey could hold a broom handle.
Both men were southerners. (New York sportswriters were fond of labeling Mickey a cowboy, a westerner—he did, after all, once ride a horse to school—but Mickey regarded himself as a southerner and often said so.) The Mantles and the Mayses were living, breathing Americana. The Mantles were what John Steinbeck’s Joad family might have been had they chosen to stay and scrape a living out of the harsh Oklahoma earth rather than emigrate to California. Willie’s folks were the country cousins of the Younger family in Lorraine Hansberry’s great play, A Raisin in the Sun; they resisted the lure of northern cities like Chicago and stayed near their roots.
They were both the products of two generations of ball-playing men, and both honed their skills through competition with industrial leaguers. Though neither of them was actually a member of an industrial league team, their fathers, uncles, and close friends played industrial ball, and Mickey and Willie played with and against them. Mantle and Mays were probably the last products of the great age of industrial league baseball that died out a few years after World War II. Neither man ever truly understood how to manage money. Mantle envied Willie’s salary; Willie was notoriously jealous of Mantle’s income from commercials and endorsements.
Needless to say, in spite of all these similarities, there were enormous cultural differences. Mickey grew up listening to country stars such as Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys; his favorite singer was Hank Williams. Willie and his family listened to country blues singers like Amos Millburn, the more sophisticated R&B sounds of Louis Jordan, and even jazz artists like Billie Holiday and Nat King Cole. The one singer both men enjoyed was Bing Crosby. The Mantle clan was large and closely knit; Mays came from a broken home. Mickey’s father drove him relentlessly toward baseball; Willie’s father helped him along and let him find the way to baseball on his own.
Mickey drank prodigiously and recklessly from an early age; Willie got sick on his first taste of alcohol and never touched it again. Mantle, though he remained married to his high school sweetheart for decades, led a sex life that was an unreported scandal. Mays, in contrast, was never the subject of rumors of promiscuity; his first marriage, to an older, more sophisticated woman, went badly. He had no biological children and, if the journalists who knew him are to be trusted, seldom saw his adopted son after his divorce.
One Mantle biographer, writing seven years after his death, concluded that “Mickey Mantle, like most heroes, was a construction; he was not real. He was all that America wanted itself to be, and he was also all that America feared it could never be.” Surely, it would be no stretch to say the same thing of Willie Mays. In his mammoth one-volume history of the decade, The Fifties, David Halberstam wrote that “Willie Mays seemed to be the model for the new supremely gifted black athlete. . . . He showed that the new-age black athlete had both power and speed. . . . [Mays was] a new kind of athlete being showcased, a player who, in contrast to most white superstars of the past, was both powerful and fast.” At the same time Mays was at his peak, there was a supremely gifted white athlete named Mantle who had at least as much power and speed. Bob Costas says, “There was one thing about Mantle that screamed out ‘The Natural.’ He was a God-made ballplayer.” Surely the same God made Willie Mays.
“Today,” Arnold Hano, one of Willie’s first biographers, wrote in 1965, “players are as skilled as most stars of the past, but something is lacking. Call it color, call it magic, but you call for it in vain. Except for Willie Mays. Oh, there are a few others. Mickey Mantle has always brought his own sense of excitement to the game.” He most certainly did, and who, at their peak, could have denied that Mantle’s “own sense of excitement” was a brand quite similar to Willie’s?
Though their names are melded in the minds of three generations of American sports fans and their careers ran along uncannily parallel lines, they are still, oddly, segregated. Indeed, for most of their playing careers the realities of American life dictated that they be segregated. It wasn’t until the early 1960s that they could meet together at restaurants and nightclubs in most parts of the country, and even then not in the Deep South. And it wasn’t until the 1970s that they began to appear together regularly at card shows, in commercials, and on television shows. Mantle and Mays were friends, probably as close as it was possible for a white man and a black man to be at that time.
In any event, their work schedules didn’t allow them to see each other more than a couple of times a year. Always, the newspapers kept one apprised of what the other was doing. “We kept an eye on each other, Willie and me. I was always aware of him,” Mantle remarked. “I’d go long periods without seeing him,” Mays said after Mantle died, “but I couldn’t go for two days without hearing about him. It was like we were never far apart.” Mickey and Willie—they were given boys’ names that they never grew out of. The private lives of both men revealed that they were ill equipped for life after baseball, a fact that those of us who loved them found almost impossible to understand. How, though, could we have understood? From our perspective, what could have been better than being Mickey Mantle or Willie Mays? Even after baseball, what better life could a fan imagine than being Mickey Mantle or Willie Mays?
“In some ways,” Roger Kahn told me, “I believe they knew each other better than anyone else knew them. They were the only two men in America who understood the experience they had both been through.”
Reprinted from Mickey and Willie by Allen Barra. Copyright © May 2013. Published by Crown Archetype, a division of Random House, Inc.
Let’s stick with baseball now that spring training has begun. Here’s a wonderful Mickey Mantle profile by Diane K. Shah. The story originally appeared in New York Magazine (April 21, 1980) and is reprinted here with the author’s permission.
“Where Have You Gone, Mickey Mantle?”
By Diane K. Shah
I’m in a taxi, trying to get to Yankee Stadium. I’m late and I’ve got my uniform on. But when I get there the guard won’t let me in. He doesn’t recognize me. So I find this hole in the fence and I’m trying to crawl through it, you know? But I can only get my head in. I can see Billy and Whitey and Yogi and Casey. And I can hear the announcer: “Now batting … number 7 … Mickey Mantle.” But I can’t get through the hole. That’s when I wake up. My palms are all sweaty.
July 1979: Mickey Mantle, almost 48, is sitting in Billy Martin’s office on Old Timer’s Day at Yankee Stadium. He is wearing his number 7 uniform and looks much the same as always. The broad shoulders, the thick neck, the sun-faded blue eyes. But the stomach is soft with middle age, and the face has aged too quickly, from either all those summers in the sun or all the nights on the town, to belong beneath the bill of a baseball cap.
“You ever have dreams like that, Billy?” Mantle asks.
Martin, sitting behind his manager’s desk poring over a record book, looks up at Mantle through his reading glasses. “All I ever dream is that I just got fired,” he says and breaks up laughing.
But Mantle wants to be serious. “You know that song by Roy Clark, ‘Yesterday When I Was Young’? Well, that’s what they’re going to play at my funeral. Every time I hear it I could just cry.”
March 20, 1980: Anheuser Busch today unveils a new advertising campaign for its Natural Light beer, involving “the greatest defection since Solzhenitsyn” and “the most radical breakthrough in beer marketing in years.” The campaign features five famous ex-athletes, including three—Mickey Mantle, “Smokin’” Joe Frazier, and Nick Buoniconti—who previously appeared in commercials for Miller Lite. Mantle has taken a break from his Yankee spring training batting instructor job to attend the press conference.
Speaking for the three defectors, Buoniconti says, “Even though the new commercials are lighthearted spoofs, Mickey, Joe, and I are serious about this. This wasn’t just a case of an advertiser offering us a bunch of money. We each did a comparison taste test and preferred the taste of naturally brewed Natural Light. We signed sworn affidavits to that effect.”
Perhaps it is the fate of all great athletes to leave their arenas too soon and to reflect forever more on what was—and what might have been. Mantle was 36 when his career ran out on him. It is that age that still gnaws at Mantle today. “All I’d ever known was baseball,” he says. “And there I was, 36, not even in the prime of my life, and I was through. That’s what keeps hurting.”
For nearly two decades Mickey Charles Mantle was one of the dominant baseball players of his time. There was his power, from both sides of the plate, and those frightening swings that could rattle a stadium. Ten times he smashed home runs right- and left-handed in the same game, a record that stands today. His most famous home run was the tape-measure shot out of Washington’s old Griffith Stadium in 1953 that wound up—was it possible?—565 feet from home. He was a legendary outfielder, his speed—3.2 seconds from home to first—made him one of baseball’s best drag bunters, and his arm was strong and sure.
But always there was the tape.
In his first season, during the 1951 World Series, he tore the cartilage in his right knee when he caught his spikes on a drainage cap in right-center trying not to crash into Joe DiMaggio. After that, despite four operations and the yards of bandage he methodically wrapped around it, the weakened joint could never keep up with the powerful body. Going easy on the right leg, he injured the left. His ailments, one after another, grabbed as much space in the papers as his triumphs.
It was this dramatic interplay of brute strength and fragility, excessive in Mantle’s case, that fueled the Mantle legend and made him a hero to a generation. Even his teammates idolized him—six named sons after him. Like many of the small town boys who came to play baseball in the fifties, Mantle lived only for the game. Other than golf and hunting, he had no outside interests. Money seemed secondary. Once, in 1958, he tried to hold out on his contract. But shortly after spring training started, he spotted a newspaper story that said if he didn’t report to camp right away he would be traded. “I was there the next day,” says Mantle. “Being traded from the Yankees would have killed me.”
In the end, though, his legend proved larger than his legacy. He played at his peak only a few of those eighteen seasons, the ones when his legs held up, and the giant records eluded him. He did not get 3,000 hits (he had 2,415) or 2,000 RBI’s (1,509), and his main goal, a .300 lifetime batting average, slipped away from him in his disappointing final four years, when his average plunged ten points to .298. Finally, in the spring of 1969, his legs would not come around. He called a news conference at the Yankees’ Fort Lauderdale training camp, announced he was finished, and headed unhappily home to Dallas.
But what exactly had become of the great Yankee slugger? How had this athletic superstar, who attained so much success at such a young age, made the transition into real life? Emotionally, he always knew it would be difficult. But financially . . . well, he had half a dozen money-making schemes all lined up. Long ago, he outlined his hope for the future: “I just want to get rich and play golf every day.”
The Longview Mall in Longview, Texas, has barely shaken awake at nine o’clock on a muggy Saturday morning. Everywhere there are signs: APPEARANCE—MICKEY MANTLE. Inside, in a small business office, half a dozen local reporters are sitting around a conference table studying the “Official Mickey Mantle Agenda.”
Mantle is delayed on the 140-mile drive from Dallas by a sudden downpour. When he finally appears in the doorway, 50 minutes late, he apologizes, smiles weakly, and slouches into a chair. He is wearing tan slacks, a pastel plaid shirt, and the look of a man who has been railroaded into coming to a party he didn’t want to attend. He hikes his left ankle onto his right knee and looks gloomily around the room. “Aren’t you supposed to ask me questions?” he says.
The questions are the same ones he’s heard a zillion times. What was his biggest thrill? Wouldn’t he like to manage? Doesn’t he wish he could be playing at today’s high salaries?
You can see Mantle is trying to do his best. He answers every question politely, and when he finishes, if no one jumps in with another one, he continues belaboring it.
“We were going to give you some pictures to look at ahead or time to help you, but …”
“Pictures,” says Mantle, “0f what?” Mantle, it seems, has no idea what his appearance at the mall entails, only that it will take four hours and pay him $2,500. As he’s being escorted from the press conference, Mary LaTourneau, the mall’s marketing director, tries to explain about the look-alike contest. There will be two: one for children, one for middle-aged men.
Suddenly, Mande stops cold in the hallway. “You mean.” he says incredulously, “I’m supposed to pick out some guy who looks like me?”
“The thing is,” Mary says apotogetically, “only one man entered.”
Before a small crowd of several dozen curious shoppers. Mantle lumbers onto a makeshift stage and comes face to face with his look-alike. The man, a 43-year-old dime store manager from nearby Marshall, Texas, is wearing pastel green slacks and a face wreathed in smiles. He’s overweight, his ears stick out, and if he resembles anyone, it’s a middle-aged Howdy Doody.
“Congratulations,” mumbles Mickey, at a loss.
“I used to play ball in high school with your twin brothers,” the pleased man gushes.
Mantle hands him a letter from the mall telling him where to collect his $100 reward, then he looks around helplessly. Below him are the upturned faces of a dozen youngsters who are participating in the other look-alike contest. “Pick out the one who most looks like you did at that age,” someone prompts him.
Mantle turns and studies them. He hesitates before a blond, freckle-faced boy of eleven. “Best I can remember,” he drawls. “Stanley here looks like me.”
Stanley Woods, shy and as embarrassed as Mantle is, collects the ballplayer’s autograph and then scampers off to join his aunt, a large, fat woman with a ponytail and a white T-shirt. “I used to be married to a pitcher for the White Sox,” she sings happily, “but he died.” Then, patting Stanley’s head, she says, “I just knew he would win. He looks exactly like Mickey did. I just know it.”
Judging look-alike contests at shopping malls is not what Mantle intended to do with his life. But that’s the way it’s worked out.
He still lives in Dallas, where he is a vice-president of Reserve Life Insurance Company. He shows up at company “victory” dinners, where agents who have sold a lot of policies get to rub his elbow over cocktails. In addition, he does a week-or-two-long “informal golfing excursion” each year with Allied Chemical. and in the spring George Steinbrenner pays him to throw out baseballs at Yankee farm club openers. He also makes appearances. These, his TV commercials, and his Reserve contract pay him more than the Yankees did—$150,000 to $200,000 a year.
He knows he should not complain. In fact, he is genuinely flattered that people even remember him. Last year, a New Jersey housewife paid Mantle an appearance fee to show up at her husband’s fortieth birthday party. When Mantle arrived, the man, once an avid fan, burst into tears. Mantle was moved by this, and when he got home he impulsively shipped the man the uniform the Yankees had given him when they retired his number.
Nevertheless, after all these years, Mantle still finds himself dreading public occasions. When Gerald Ford invited him to the White House for a state dinner honoring the president of France, Mantle’s response was to throw out the invitation. “Why do they want me there?” he kept complaining as the White House barraged him with phone calls. “I don’t know anything about politics.” As it turned out, Mantle was seated at the president’s table, his wife beside Vice President Rockefeller. Ford talked golf with Mantle; Rocky inquired endlessly about the Mantle boys. “They were so elated that they had such a good time,” says his attorney, Roy True, who had urged Mantle to attend, “that the next day they hopped a plane to Las Vegas as a sort of dessert.”
Now, driving to Oak Forest Country Club for lunch, Mande says little. He is being escorted by three cheerful young women from the shopping mall who are polite but out of their element. To them, Mantle is a celebrity whose name rings a distant bell.
Mary is reminded of an anecdote. “I heard a story about you,” she begins, “from a guy who parks cars at another country club in town!”
Mantle jerks his head around. “What was it?”
“Well, I don’t think I can tell.”
Mantle looks uneasy. “It can’t be that bad,” he says hopefully.
“Well … er, he said you went outside and … I can’t.”
By now the slugger is turning red. “Come on,” he says, “what’d I do?”
Taking a deep breath, Mary blurts, “You used the bushes for a toilet.”
That afternoon’s activity consists of two autographing sessions—one, for an hour, at Dillard’s department store, the other at J. C. Penney. The local radio men cover Mantle’s arrival at Penney like a papal visit. “He’s entering the housewares department … he’s climbing onto the platform….”
The lines stretch from housewares into bedspreads and sheets, past shower curtains and gift wrappings, along the cafeteria, beyond the credit desk—all the way to the rest rooms at the back of the store. Dan Whyte, a retired Marine who nearly had his head shot off in Vietnam, has been anxiously awaiting Mantle’s visit all week. A native of the Bronx, he has brought with him a yellowed scrapbook filled with pictures of the Yankees of yore. There are several of the early Mantle, who looks about fifteen years old in his baggy pinstriped uniform. “Mantle,” gushes Whyte, “is like the John Wayne of baseball. Still looks good, doesn’t he? Too bad about his knees. He would have made a good marine.”
At last, Whyte’s moment comes. He steps up to the platform and thrusts his scrapbook under Mantle’s nose. Mantle starts to sign “Mickey Mantle”—for his hand is too tired now to pen “Best Wishes”—but Whyte is trying to flip through the pages, to show him. Mantle stares blankly, smiles, and reaches for the next piece of paper.
“I guess he was kind of busy,” sighs Whyte.
At three o’clock, with the lines still stretching, Mantle is escorted from the platform, visibly tired now, his official engagement over. He walks out into the heat of the parking lot and climbs into his 1976 Cadillac Eldorado.
On the ride back to Dallas, he says, “I think about baseball all the time. I think about how I didn’t finish with a .300 batting average. I think about what it would have been like if I’d played in a different ball park. It was 480 to center, you know, and I lost a lot of home runs. And my legs. My right knee hurt almost every day. I really do believe I would be way up at the top of everything if I hadn’t been injured. When I was healthy, I really believe I was the best of anyone I ever saw play.
“But,” he adds dolefully, “you have to go by the records.”
Mantle switches on his C.B. to see if there are any Smokies ahead. Then he says, “My biggest regret is not being able to play at least five more years. The Yankees wanted me to. But it was embarrassing to me to screw up like I did. I couldn’t hit worth a shit.
“It was all I lived for, to play ball,” he says. “I used to like to play so much that I loved to take infield practice. I couldn’t walt to go to the ball park. I hated it when we got rained out.”
Then, fearing perhaps that he’s left the wrong impression, he adds, “Look, it’s not that I’m not happy now. I am. But to be 25 years old and rounding the bases, the hero of the Yankees…”
Times have changed, so has his life, but Mantle, it seems, has not. From age 3, when his father first put a bat in his hands, until age 36, he was consumed by baseball. The hope of being the greatest ballplayer still runs through his dreams. By day, he makes a living off the dream. By night, he tries to recapture it.
He drops me off and heads for home—the end of another road trip.
“Mickey and I were in New York on a business deal in the spring of 1969,” said Roy True. “We were sharing a suite at the St. Moritz. One morning I woke up and found him wrapped in a towel, standing in front of some French doors that opened onto a balcony. I said, ‘What are you doing?’
“‘Just looking out at the city.’ he said. ‘It’s some city.’
“‘Yes, it is,” I told him.
“‘And that son of a bitch used to be mine,’ said Mantle, ‘all mine.’”
Mantle’s transition into the appearance business came largely at the hands of Roy True. Mantle first approached the Dallas attorney ten years ago on a Florida land deal, but it quickly became apparent to True that Mantle was hardly going to galvanize Wall Street. “Mickey is not a businessman,” says True. “He hates meetings. He isn’t interested in the ongoing process.He just wants to know the results.”
Before True came along, the results had been abysmal. His first big “deal” came the very day he arrived at Yankee Stadium when a fast-talking stranger “grabbed me and said he could make a million dollars for me in five years. All I had to do was give him half of everything I made for ten years,” Mantle recalls. “A million dollars is a lot when you’re making $7,500. I signed right away.”
Legally, Mantle was not old enough to sign a contract, so he got out of it. But he never did learn to distrust strangers. Even at the end of his career he was boasting about an investment that would make him rich for life. He bought 12,500 shares of stock at $10 each. Years later he sold them at $4.
True figured Mantle had better start promoting himself. Mantle balked. “The problem was he felt he didn’t have anything to contribute,” says True. “So I talked strong and long to him. Once he found out that people were interested in what he had to say, he gained the confidence that he was something other than a ballplayer.”
True came up with the Mickey Mantle speaking format—twenty minutes of baseball yams followed by Q and A—and set the Mickey Mantle fee, now $3,000. He books Mickey only into cities that are easy to reach. Still, Mantle becomes anxious before an appearance, worrying that his sponsors will want him to have tea with Aunt Tillie or something, and that if he refuses, “people will think I’m an ass.” Thus, True devised the official Mickey Mantle itinerary—pay for it and stick to it.
On Monday, I arrive at Roy True’s law offices right on time for my interview with Mantle and am surprised to find the ballplayer already there. He is wearing tan slacks and a yellow knit shirt, nicely dressed as always. We go into the law library, and again he seems uncomfortable. He sits in his chair, clutching a batch or letters, fidgeting like a well-behaved child who has been made to say a few polite words to grown-ups. As Mantle talks, I begin to understand: He was, and remains, a modest man who worked hard at the game he loved, wanting to excel through sheer competitiveness, never quite comprehending the acclaim that came with it.
“Coming out of Commerce, Oklahoma, which is 2,000 people, and going to New York when you’re nineteen would be tough on anyone,” he says. “But after my first spring training they started writing that I was going to be the next Joe DiMaggio. In a way I was lucky, I had time to grow with my fame. It wasn’t until 1956 that I did what the papers said I should do, and by then I was used to the attention and it didn’t bother me.”
“Do you miss the limelight now?”
“No, I don’t think it ever meant much to me. People come up to me and they say, ‘You remember that home run you hit in Boston in 1954?’ And I don’t. And they begin to describe this particular home run, inch by inch. It was like they were talking about someone else. It’s hard for me to remember what it was like then, or how I felt. Even now I’m not very conscious of being Mickey Mantle.”
Mantle is still fidgeting—though he has finally put the letters down—alternately scratching his enormous biceps, stretching, and yawning.
Outside of baseball, the continuing obsessions of his life are his children and his golf. Of his four boys—Mickey Jr., 26; David, 24; Billy, 21; and Danny, 19—the two youngest still live at home. And though Mantle brightens when speaking of his kids, he is oddly elusive about what they do. One close friend confides, “Mickey thinks the boys would be more active participants in the traditional sense of working men if they hadn’t been brought up the way they were. He always let them know he would take care of everything. He feels it’s his fault they haven’t really shown the ambition to pick something out and go get it.”
Of golf Mantle talks a blue streak. Every day he is in Dallas, save Mondays, when his club is dosed, he plays eighteen holes at Preston Trails, “where they don’t allow women—even as waitresses,” he says with delight. “Before they started building houses out there, we used to play naked.”
“Golf,” continues Mantle, “is the only thing I can still do. I can’t play racquetball or tennis or even ride a bike. And I have this need to compete. What bothers me is that my knee is getting worse, and when I’m 55 I may not be able to play at all. Then I don’t know what I’ll do.” His eyes looks sad.
“Don’t you still hunt and fish?” I ask.
“What do you hunt?”
For the first time Mantle grins. ” Puss,”‘ he say.
But the old devilishness simply is not there, and after a moment that smile fades and a more subdued Mantle reflects, “The one thing I would have done different in my life was to take better care of myself while I was playing. I really burned the candle at both ends. And it caught up with me.”
Suddenly he stands up. “Let’s drive by the house,” he says. “You can meet Merlyn.” He is out the door in a flash. The interview is over. The jailer has released him.
The Mantles’ four bedroom beige house sprawls on an acre of emerald green lawn in an upper-clan section of North Dallas. Its two wings wrap around a sparkling turquoise swimming pool that looks like it hasn’t been used for some time.
Merlyn Mantle, a tiny platinum blonde with large blue eyes is in the den talking to Joe Warren, a regional sales manager for Reserve Life, who had dropped by with two box of baseballs for Mantle to autograph. Mutely, Mickey carries the boxes to an easy chair. Balancing the boxes on his knees, he begins scrawling his name.
As Warren is speaking, Merlyn turns and says softly to her husband. “Do you want your glasses?”
“No,” mumbles Mantle in embarrassment, and keeps writing.
Later I am led through a spotless white kitchen to the back of the house, where, stuck on like an appendage, the trophy room is. It is an awesome treasure trove or memorabilia, every square inch of wall crammed with the mementos of Mantle’s extraordinary achichievments. Encased behind glass are an enormous sterling tape measure honoring his longest blast, a solid silver bat denoting his American League batting titles, the big, jeweled Hickock Belt for athlete of the year. Trophies that do not fit into the credenza spill out into the far comers of the room. One wall crawls with magazine covers of Mantle. Another holds a framed swatch of the number-7 pinstripe.
Throughout Merlyn’s tour, Mantle stands impassively in the doorway. He rarely comes into the room anymore, he says, and seems uninterested in it.
“When Mickey first retired,” Merlyn says, “I thought it was really great—he’d be home all the time. But he isn’t.”
“The last three months I haven’t been home hardly at all,” Mantle concedes. “That promotion I did for Cameron Wholesalers? I went to twenty cities all over Texas. They had this deal called Mickey Mantle Grand Slam Specials. You buy 50 doors and get one free”—he laughs—”or something like that.”
“Do you enjoy these appearances?” I ask.
“No,” says Mantle quietly. “It’s just a monetary thing. It doesn’t do anything for my ego. If somebody gave me $2 million I wouldn’t do another one.” Then, not wanting to sound ungrateful, he adds. “Really, I don’t mind it, though. It makes me feel good that people want me to come.”
It is only quarter to twelve, but itchy as ever, Mantle suggests we go out and eat lunch.
At the restaurant, the Mantles pick at their food and apologize that it is not very good. Mickey notes that he weighs 205 pounds—not much over his playing weight. “But it’s shifting,” he says with a small, sad smile.
Then abruptly he puts down his fork. “I just hate getting old,” he blurts.
Merlyn Mantle nods and looks away.
It is, sadly, the wrong note to end on. But perhaps that’s how it must be. “Mickey comes to me from time to time and says this guy or that guy wants to write a book about him,” says Roy True.”And I tell Mickey it’s not time. And Mickey says, ‘Well, what are we waiting for?’
“And I tell him,” says Roy True, “I’m waiting until we can have a happy ending.”
Here is a thoughtful piece on Milton Bradley by Eric Nusbaum over at the new-look Pitchers and Poets:
Vintage Bradley is patient, collected, and dangerous. His swing is compact in the legs and the hips, and from both sides of the plate an aesthetic pleasure. His arms lash across the zone with smooth and level grace. He gets on base like a professional, never seeming dissatisfied with a walk. Once upon a time, he was a decent enough outfielder too. But not even the glimpses of effectiveness reveal Bradley to be a superstar. Instead they reveal him to be simply above average – a good ballplayer, a pleasure to watch, but hardly a superstar, hardly exciting, hardly excitable.
But of course he is excitable. He is practically a caricature at times. He loses his temper during games. He tore his ACL while arguing with an umpire. He broke a bat over his knee (why is this a magnificent achievement of brutal strength for Bo Jackson but a pathetic sign of anger and weakness for Milton Bradley?). I once saw him empty the entire contents of a bag of baseballs onto the field at Dodger Stadium, then fling ball after ball into center field in what appeared to be complete obliviousness to his surroundings. From where I was sitting, I could see whites in his eyes. They boiled.
What’s the right way to understand a player who swirls in so many self-imposed narratives, a player who requires so much? The trait that defines Milton Bradley, the one trait that sets him apart, even from the other smart and vulnerable and self-aware players, is that he demands to be taken seriously as a human being first and a ballplayer second. The earnest statements, the tearful pledges, the tremor in his voice during post-game interviews, the on-field incidents, the off-field arrests: they all reinforce the same subconscious drive to be appreciated or understood or at the very least accepted.
Also, check out this follow-up–Is Derek Jeter more like Mantle or DiMaggio?
Jane Leavy’s Mickey Mantle biography, which I finished over the holiday weekend, is nothing if not meticulously fair. It features a staggering amount of reporting. Leavy talked to anyone and everyone alive with anything to say about The Mick, and includes all available sides of every story. (Sometimes this can be almost excessive – she expends quite a bit of time and effort, and nearly 20 pages, tracking down the then-teenager who found the ball Mantle hit out of Griffith Stadium in 1953, in an effort to find out just how far the home run had really traveled). The result is a careful and detailed character study that manages to describe all Mantle’s many glories without lionizing him, and all his many faults without demonizing him — no easy feat in either case.
Leavy (who was interviewed by our own Hank Waddles just a few weeks ago) grew up idolizing Mantle; I never got to see him play. I think my earliest real memory of him has to do with my father’s surprised reaction to Mantle’s openness and honesty about his alcoholism and stint at the Betty Ford Clinic in 1994. Leavy’s book details decades of Mantle’s uncontrolled debauchery and downward spiral, which dragged in teammates and friends and lovers and, most upsetting, his entire family. But it also does a good job of explaining why, despite all of that, he was still so beloved, not just by fans but by almost all of those same teammates and friends and lovers and family, no matter how severely he hurt them. She also digs up some new information about possible childhood sexual abuse that, while deeply uncomfortable to contemplate, could explain some of the facets of Mantle that hadn’t previously made much sense.
Fans and columnists today often decry modern players’ lack of privacy, but I can’t help wondering what effect that level of scrutiny might have had on the Mick. Maybe it would have ended his career – then again, maybe it would have saved him decades of suffering; maybe it would have saved his life. Mantle was publicly drunk and inappropriate quite literally hundreds if not thousands of times over his career; the Yankees did nothing more than scold and fine him and the papers never reported it. Today, the tabloids would feast on that kind of story, but at the same time I have to believe that the Yankees or Major League Baseball would’ve pressured him into getting help sooner.
Given all the Jeter-contract shenanigans over the holiday weekend, I couldn’t help drawing some comparisons between Yankee superstars — Mantle held out for better contracts from the Yankees multiple times, and was villainized by reporters and fans as greedy, though the parallels are hardly exact since Derek Jeter made more per base hit last season than Mantle ever got paid in a year. Mantle of course ended up a proud lifelong Yankee and, something I didn’t know, was buried in pinstripes (I still haven’t decided if that’s touching or unsettling; both I suppose). Jeter is as controlled and buttoned-down and sophisticated as Mantle was raw and out of control, although I suppose it’s quite possible that, as with Mantle’s fans back then, we simply don’t know him as well as we think we do.
On that note, I wanted to share one revealing Jeter-related passage from the book that cracked me up:
On a flawless spring training day in 2006, arms folded over a slight pinstriped paunch, Reggie Jackson turned away from tracking the flight of one hundred batting-practice hacks to consider the question of Mickey Mantle and white-skin privilege. Forty-five minutes into Jackson’s disquisition, Derek Jeter jogged over to find out what was holding Mr. October’s attention. “We’re just talking about how Mantle would have been remembered if he was black,” Jackson said.
Jeter, a post-racial hero who has perfected the art of public speaking without saying anything at all, executed the patented mid-air pirouette usually reserved for hard-hit balls in the hole and headed in the opposite direction.
Keith Olbermann reviewed Jane Leavy’s Mantle book in the New York Times Book Review over the weekend. He liked it:
Leavy comes as close as perhaps anyone ever has to answering “What makes Mantle Mantle?” She transcends the familiarity of the subject, cuts through both the hero worship and the backlash of pedestal-wrecking in the late 20th century, treats evenly his belated sobriety and the controversial liver transplant (doomed mid-surgery by an oncologist’s discovery that the cancer had spread), and handles his infidelity with dispassion. Sophocles could have easily worked with a story like Mantle’s — the prominent figure, gifted and beloved, through his own flaws wasteful, given clarity too late to avoid his fate. Leavy spares us the classical tragedy even as she avoids the morality play. “The Last Boy” is something new in the history of the histories of the Mick. It is hard fact, reported by someone greatly skilled at that craft, assembled into an atypical biography by someone equally skilled at doing that, and presented so that the reader and not the author draws nearly all the conclusions.
“The Last Boy,” Jane Leavy’s long-awaited biography of Mickey Mantle hits bookstores tomorrow. Last week, SI ran an excerpt that is sure to whet your appetite.
In the spring of 1957 Mickey Mantle was the king of New York. He had the Triple Crown to prove it, having become only the 12th player in history to earn baseball’s gaudiest jewel. In 1956 he had finally fulfilled the promise of his promise, batting .353, with 52 homers and 130 RBIs. Everybody loved Mickey. “Mickey who?” the singer Teresa Brewer chirped. “The fella with the celebrated swing.”
Men wanted to be him. Women wanted to be with him. His dominion was vast, and his subjects were ardent. (One fan asked Lenox Hill Hospital for Mantle’s tonsils, which doctors there had removed following the 1956 season.) Mantle accepted his due with that great drawbridge of a smile that yanked the right-hand corner of his mouth upward to reveal a set of all-American choppers. “When he laughed, he just laughed all over,” his teammate Jerry Lumpe said.
Why wouldn’t he? Wherever Mantle went in the great metropolis—Danny’s Hideaway, the Latin Quarter, the “21″ Club, the Stork Club, El Morocco, Toots Shor’s—his preferred drink was waiting when he walked through the door. Reporters waited at his locker for monosyllabic bons mots. Boys clustered by the players’ gate, hoping to touch him. It wasn’t enough to gawk at his impossibly broad shoulders and his fire-hydrant neck. They wanted tactile reassurance that he was for real. They scratched his arms, his face and the finish of every car he rode in. A burly security detail became mandatory.
Women—none more beautiful than he was—waited in hotel lobbies. Arlene Howard, the wife of Yankees catcher Elston Howard, says that when she met Mantle for the first time, she thought, My God, who is that? Just the physical body, I’d never seen anything like that. There was something about his presence that was just absolutely stunning.
“He was adorable,” said Lucille McDougald, the wife of Yankees infielder Gil McDougald. “We used to joke about it: Who wouldn’t hop into bed with him, given the opportunity, just for the fun of it?”