When Mickey Mantle says that he's concerned about something—health, hitting, television, anything—he seems very much out of character. The Mickey Mantle that we think of never worried. That Mantle simply hit home runs, the 536th and last of which came 17 years ago, a solo shot into Yankee Stadium's rightfield stands off Boston's Jim Lonborg.
But now he's sitting in his New York hotel suite before leaving for Yankee Stadium, where he's been pursuing a new career as a color commentator for SportsChannel, a New York—area pay-TV service. And he is concerned.
"The thing I worry about most is whether I'm doing a good job or if they're just telling me that," he says. "I know I'm still too nervous. I'm sitting there with my microphone on, I'm ready to go and I'm trying to think of what I can say. They have this 'Ask Mickey' part of the show. I'm always thinking, 'Well, gol-lee, there could be some embarrassing questions here.' I don't want Bill White [his partner at the mike] to ask me a question and me go, 'Duuuuuuuuuuh!'
"I'm not Vin Scully, Bob Costas, Tony Kubek or Don Drysdale right now, but if I hang around for two or three years, I think I will be. When I was playing ball, people could take me or leave me, I didn't care. Now I want people to like me, to think that I'm getting good. It means something to me now."
Since last March, when commissioner Peter Ueberroth restored Mantle and Willie Mays to baseball's good graces. Mantle has been much in the public eye. While he still works quietly for Claridge's casino, he has a bestselling autobiography on the market. The Mick, published by Doubleday. He has made appearances on all the interview shows. And, for the first time since 1969, when NBC put him on its Saturday Game of the Week, Mantle is in the TV booth, working 25 Yankee games for SportsChannel, which can be received in 425,000 homes.
Like Dizzy Dean before him, Mantle has a country-cookin' twang and a dump truck full of broken syntax. Ol' Diz used to talk about "me and Paul" and "them thar umpires" and how it was when he "slud" into second. The Mick tells us about "me and Billy" and the night he "drug" a bunt against Luis Tiant. Well, if Marlon Brando can get away with mumbling simply because he's Brando, Mantle can be excused his occasional double negatives simply because he's Mantle.
A former player, especially a great player, should be able to add an extra dimension to a broadcast through insights and anecdotes that have a bearing on the action at hand, and I've found a few of Mantle's observations fascinating. Once he debunked the notion that leftfield, the notorious sun field at Yankee Stadium, is any harder to play than center. You see the same sun and the same white shirts when you're playing center, he said; you also have more ground to cover.
Viewers want to hear Mantle precisely because he is Mantle and therefore sees the game a bit differently from other former players. While he may never become a superb announcer, his down-home warmth radiates through the tube. And although his efforts to make fun of his rare shortcomings as a player seem forced, he is genuine in his attempts at self-effacement.
But so far, the jury is out. In some respects, Mantle still suffers from a kind of new-kid-on-the-block syndrome, occasionally asking White painfully uninformed questions ("Do the Yankees have a captain?"). At least SportsChannel is light-years removed from NBC in '69. All Mantle did then was stand between Curt Gowdy and Tony Kubek and smile when the red light went on. "I should have worn a shirt with F-I-L-L on it," he says, "because all I did was fill up the booth."
Mantle's TV contract covers only this year, so in effect he's on trial. "I have a feeling I'm kind of like public relations for SportsChannel," he said at his hotel. He also admitted to another much larger concern. Late in June, Mantle, 53, began suffering a persistent headache and noticed a small swelling at the base of his neck, near his lymph glands. The swelling. Mantle says, can be a sign of Hodgkin's disease, which claimed his father and two uncles and which his son Billy is now fighting. Frightened, Mantle underwent tests at the Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas. The doctors ruled out cancer, "but they really don't know what it is.
"Sometimes," Mantle says with a certain detachment, "I sit in my den at home and read stories about myself. Kids used to save whole scrapbooks on me. They get tired of 'em and mail 'em to me. I must have 75 or 80. I'll go in there and read 'em, and you know what? They might as well be about Musial or DiMaggio. It's like reading about somebody else."
The truth is, the Mickey Mantle we remember was never a proper likeness. Right now, he's an apprehensive Mantle concerned about his new career.
Mantle brings some vintage Dizzy Dean to the language.