I didn’t realize it until I read this post on another blog, but New York Yankees slugger Mickey Mantle died 15 years ago today.
(Feel free to click on the above link to Florida writer Kenn Shapiro’s story of his encounter as a youth with the legendary baseball star, but don’t forget to come back. I liked Shapiro’s piece because it says a lot about the way people experience sports and how we form our perceptions of the people who play them)
Mantle was retired by the time I started writing sports for newspapers, and I barely even have memories of him in action, as he was literally on his last legs as a player when I first became interested in baseball.
But I have a specific memory of him playing in a late-season game on TV during his final season in 1968. Hobbled by injuries and old in athletic terms for his 36 years, the slugger who hit 536 career home runs gamely legged out a bunt single for one of his last major league hits. (I wonder how long the designated hitter rule might have extended his career if it had been around at the time?)
After his baseball career, he was one of the first retired players to make big money in the memorabilia business and he also held a variety of “public relations” jobs, as a casino greeter in Atlantic City and later for an insurance company in Dallas — making public appearances, talking to customers and clients, being paid just for being Mickey Mantle. (He became quite prosperous after losing money in bad business ventures in the Seventies and lived in a spacious home in the high-toned Preston Road area of Dallas. Jayne and I once spent an evening looking for that house when we lived in the Dallas area in the late Eighties.)
Mantle himself seemed amazed that people would continue to make a fuss over him long after his playing career was over. I remember reading a story about him in what the Dallas Morning News used to call its “High Profile” page in the Features section, mostly fairly “soft” profile-type stories about Dallas celebrities. In it, the author described how high-powered business executives would turn speechless and awkward when introduced to their boyhood baseball hero at one of the functions he would attend.
(I also remember that he said in that story that his favorite comedian was Richard Pryor, a bit of trivia I always found amusing.)
But behind the baseball heroics was a flawed human being — moody and difficult sometimes, and a notorious philanderer and carouser whose drinking spiraled into alcoholism and shortened his life. I remember the July 1995 news conference that Shapiro refers to in the beginning of his piece, where a tired and gaunt-looking Mantle met the press to discuss the transplant operation he had undergone a month earlier to replace a cancerous liver. Dave Anderson’s marvelous column in the New York Times described his last days.
“Don’t be like me,” he urged anybody who was listening to learn from the mistakes that he had made. That statement took more courage than anything he ever did on a baseball field. Would that some of our more miscreant athletes of this day and time — Pacman Jones are you listening? — might be honest enough say that to their young fans after a scrape with the law instead of trying to justify their behavior.
A month later Mantle was dead at the age of 63.
Broadcaster Bob Costas captured what was important about The Mick and his “late innings” in the eulogy he delivered at Mantle’s funeral.
“In the last year, Mickey Mantle, always so hard on himself, finally came to accept and appreciate the distinction between a role model and a hero. The first, he often was not. The second he always will be. And in the end, people got it.”