He arrived in the springtime of the American Dream, a golden teenager from Oklahoma with milker's forearms and a country-fresh grin. He was going to replace Joe DiMaggio as the beau ideal of our national pastime. He was going to be better than Babe Ruth.
He even had a name that made us smile.
He represented the raw energy and seemingly limitless potential of America after the Second World War. No wonder that today Mickey Mantle bubble-gum trading cards bring top dollar and that an Atlantic City gambling casino hired him to hang out with its high rollers. For most middle-aged men with stiffening joints and fading hopes, memories of Mickey Mantle provide a warm, nostalgic glow.
But Mantle represented something else to me. For most of my professional life, when I thought of him I thought of the hype and the "fakelore" that imbues celebrity athletes, and it wasn't until very recently that I caught a glimpse of the man inside the legend. But I'm getting ahead of my story.
Because I was 13 years old and a Yankee fan when Mantle joined the team in 1951, I grew up on the legend: how his father, Mutt, drove him relentlessly to refine his talent; how Mickey played ball despite the constant pain in his legs; and how his constant pursuit of night life was his way of dulling the dread of an early death—his father died at 40 of Hodgkin's disease and his two uncles died of the same disease in their 30s.
And so, I was more than professionally interested on that afternoon in 1960 when I was assigned by the sports editor of The New York Times to go up to Yankee Stadium and ask Mantle how his jaw felt. Several nights earlier, excited fans had rushed from the stands onto the field and mobbed Mantle after a game, and during a scuffle one of them had inadvertently socked the centerfielder.
Afterward, Mantle was observed eating lasagna instead of his usual steak. Since it was thought he might be sensitive on the subject, it was decided to send an expendable cub reporter to get the story.
I was shaved to the bone, and my rep tie was snug at my Adam's apple as I approached Mantle. He was standing in front of the Yankee dugout, playing catch with Yogi Berra. I think I may have called him "Mr. Mantle" as I introduced myself and politely asked how he was feeling.
Casually, over his shoulder, Mantle made an obscene and virtually impossible suggestion.
I thought I'd heard wrong. Why would Mickey Mantle say such a thing to me? He was rich and famous and handsome. I liked him. And I was only doing my job.
Even more politely, I repeated the question.
Mantle signaled to Berra, and they began throwing the ball back and forth an inch over my head.
I figured that the interview had come to an end.
Mantle's remark didn't appear in The Times the next morning. Even if such language were fit to print, who would believe he'd say such a thing?
I barely believed it. I felt that it was somehow my fault for provoking a kind, thoughtful, gentle hero to what was surely an uncharacteristic outburst of nastiness.
Nothing I'd ever read in newspapers or magazines or boys' sports books had prepared me for what I eventually discovered was standard behavior on the part of many sports stars. In those days, sportswriters rationalized making hard rocks appear to be cream puffs by claiming that they were "protecting" the tender sensibilities of young fans in need of role models.
That night at Yankee Stadium was a wonderful consciousness-raiser for me. I began to look at sports heroes—at all heroes—in a new and searching way. It took a while, but I realized eventually that Mantle had accelerated my education by giving me an early lesson in skepticism.
I was a Times sportswriter for 11 more years, and the lesson I learned from Mantle proved to be a valuable one as I grew older. A willingness to doubt shows you can be compassionate, that you're capable of caring.
Paradoxically, my compassion didn't extend as far back as my first meeting with Mantle. He had kicked me when I was still too young and vulnerable; that was something I couldn't quite forgive.
Over the years, I came to admire his courage as I watched him, after ball games, inching upstairs because his legs gave him such pain. Traveling with the Yankees, I came to believe the stories of his drunken roistering. I thought he was a jerk to waste his talents, but that was his business. He certainly wasn't urging the youth of America to drink along with him. He started becoming easier to interview after the 1961 season when his teammate, Roger Maris, broke Babe Ruth's record of 60 home runs in a single season—a record that should have been Mantle's. The pressure was off—it was clear that Mantle would never be the new Joe DiMaggio, much less the Babe reborn.
Over the years, I interviewed him from time to time without incident, without particular warmth. I never mentioned his earlier suggestion; in fact, I doubt that he remembered having made it. He retired in 1968 after 18 major league seasons, a good run, and 12 World Series appearances, a bonanza. His lifetime batting average was .298. In 1974 he was inducted into the Hall of Fame. True, his "potential"—as viewed by others—hadn't been fulfilled. But then, by the end of his career, the nature and potential of the American Dream was being questioned, too.
In 1983, when Mantle joined the Claridge Casino Hotel's special-events department as Director of Sports Promotions, he was banned from all further contact with baseball. The ruling, handed down by commissioner Bowie Kuhn, seemed unduly harsh, but he accepted it philosophically—after all, nobody in baseball was offering him $100,000 a year to hang out and smile. His middle-aged fans thought it was sad that baseball couldn't find more than a token place for him, and some thought there was something poignant in the golden boy of their youth scrabbling for chips among the big spenders in Atlantic City. I was unmoved.
And then one afternoon, in Atlantic City on an assignment, I followed him around a windswept golf course. Ostensibly, he was participating in a tournament sponsored by the hotel, but it was really a stunt staged to get publicity for the casino. Mantle appeared to be having a good time. He was laughing and drinking and playing golf, all of which he surely would have done for free.
That evening we sat down to talk. His face was still chapped from the afternoon, but now it was also flushed from a hot shower and a shave and a few more quick drinks. He nursed a tall one as we talked about his playing days. He seemed determined to knock down some of the old myths: He said his legs were never as bad as the sportswriters had made them out to be, nor had he lived in such fear of an early death. In fact, he said, slipping me a needle, he rarely ever thought of it unless someone brought it up. "Now, I'll probably have a hard time sleeping tonight," he said.
I slipped a needle right back. "Well, I'll just buy you another drink so you can sleep." I was surprised at my flinty tone. Mantle's cool blue eyes flicked over my face, but he let it pass.
I asked him if he had any regrets.
"My only regret is that I didn't take better care of myself," he said, "like Willie Mays and Stan Musial and Hank Aaron and Pete Rose, the guys who really made the records. If I had it to do all again, I would take better care of myself and I think I could have played a lot longer."
I asked, "Specifically, what would you have done?"
He shrugged his big shoulders, shook his head. He mumbled something about more rest and more muscle exercises for his bad legs.
As politely as I possibly could, I asked if taking care of himself would include drinking less.
His eyes narrowed. "Let's close this off," he snapped. "Haven't you got enough?"
I felt myself stiffening, and my voice sounded colder and harder than I imagined it could. It also seemed to be coming from a great distance, perhaps all the way from Yankee Stadium in 1960 while a ball whipped over my head.
"Are you in a hurry," I asked, "or is all this bothering you?"
That let some of the air out of Mantle. He seemed momentarily confused. "Well, I'm not in a hurry." His voice softened. "We've been doing this for 30 minutes...."
My voice softened, too. I explained that people are concerned about their health these days, and that athletes are important role models for those interested in their well-being. Given that so many athletes are currently abusing themselves with alcohol and cocaine and steroids, I told Mantle, whatever he had to say on the subject could be useful.
He relaxed. "I used to never do anything," he said, "except go back to Oklahoma and drink the whole winter, you know. It was stupid. I wouldn't do that again. I would stay in shape the whole year round."
Gently, I reminded him that he didn't always seem to be in the best of shape during the season, either.
He shook his head. "That wasn't right. But I understand why. It was through not having anything else to do. From say, 1960 to '68, when I did retire, my wife and kids didn't come to New York with me. And I stayed in a hotel and from the time the game was over till the next day there wasn't very much for me to do, you know, except I would go out to eat and I would start drinking."
He looked at me, forcing a smile. "I think it was just from monotony, from just not having anything else to do."
"Didn't you have any other interests?"
"No, playing baseball was all I knew and that's all I wanted to do."
"Did you think baseball would just go on forever?"
Mantle shrugged. "I don't think I ever really thought about it, I just did it. Everything was spontaneous to me. I didn't think out anything. Maybe I really did think that baseball was going to go on forever.
"Or maybe in the back of my mind I did think I wasn't going to last till 40. I just know that the one thing I would change, I would take better care of myself. I would. I'm sorry about that."
His voice trailed off. His eyes seemed damp and tinged with red. Were they still watering from that windy round of golf, I wondered, or from the liquor, or were they misty with regrets?
"You still think about baseball a lot?"
"I dream about it," he said. "Every night almost."
"What kind of dream?"
"Well, first of all I take a cab to the ball park, and I'm in my uniform and I've got a bat. And I get there and the game's going on and I hear them say, Mickey Mantle batting, Number Seven, Mickey Mantle.
"But I'm not in the ball park, and the gates are closed. There's a hole that I can crawl under, and halfway through the hole I get stuck and I can still hear the guy saying, now batting Number Seven, Mickey Mantle.
"And I can see Casey and Billy, Whitey, Hank Bauer, all the guys are looking around, like where's he at? And I'm stuck in the hole and they can't hear me and...then I wake up. And I usually can't get back to sleep."
We talk a while longer, about his envy of current player salaries and of his own financial condition. He says he hasn't done as well with his money as he might have, but he hasn't done that badly, either, from various business ventures and public relations jobs. He lives in what is now a half-million dollar house in Dallas with Merlyn, the wife he started out with. They've raised four sons.
There are people waiting to drink with him, and though he no longer seems in a hurry, I decide to end the interview. Now I'm the one who wants to get away quickly, to think about what I've heard this evening.
Driving home from Atlantic City, I wonder how often Mantle trots out his dream; it seemed too slickly Freudian, too polished in the telling. The skepticism he once instilled in me won't let me buy it whole. And yet....
I wonder if Mantle will have his dream tonight. And I wonder about that night in 1960. What was on his mind? Was he hung over, distracted; was he already burdened by his regrets? Even then, was he stuck in a hole?
I feel a warm spot for the graying golden boy. I wish I could reach back in time so a 22-year-old cub reporter could feel that warm spot, too.