In August 1995, while riding in a car and listening live to Bob Costas’ eulogy of Mickey Mantle, my wife commented in her innocence: “I don’t understand. Why did people idolize Mantle ? He was, by his own admission, a bad husband, a bad father, a womanizer and an alcoholic. All because he could hit home runs ?” To which I answered, in my innocence: “Well, he could do it from both sides of the plate.”
“Heroes” are a peculiar phenomenon, especially for the young who idealize the world and perceive only the exterior of that world. Mickey Mantle, the handsome slugger and Yankee champion who overcame bedeviling injuries and who seemed on the surface to live life to the fullest and to enjoy it the most, was a natural hero to the youth of a certain age. In my day, every Yankee fan had a “secondary” favorite player, because it was assumed that Mickey Mantle was the favorite. Essentially, to say that “Mickey Mantle was my favorite player” was to say nothing of substance, and even indicated that you didn’t know much about baseball. “Of course he is…but who else do you like?”
Jane Leavy’s compelling biography of the Mick (aptly named, “The Last Boy”) exposes both the perils and rewards of hero worship. Ironically, and perhaps as a testament to Mantle’s iconic status in American life, the more damaging the disclosures – the greater the openness and honesty about his numerous flaws – the more heroic he becomes. Clearly, as the title indicates, he would not have been able to conceal his debauchery and excesses in the modern era. Reporters covered him and covered for him, and were just uninterested in exposing the seamier aspects of his life, even reveling in his sordid “accomplishments.” (In one celebrated case, Mantle’s 1961 pursuit of Babe Ruth’s single season home run record – in competition with Roger Maris – fell short when Mantle was unable to play past mid-September because of a “hip injury.” The injury, apparently, was in reaction to an injection given him by a quack doctor to combat the effects of an STD Mantle had contracted.) Today, Mantle would be scorned, tarred, feathered and publicly humiliated. And yet…
His life story fascinates and he is constantly haunted by tragedy. It is a rags-to-riches story that is part of American legend. He was born in Depression-era Oklahoma to a miner father who would die at 40 (and whose early death Mantle felt he himself would suffer), but who lived his life through his son. Mutt Mantle pushed, challenged and goaded Mickey to baseball greatness, in legendary ways: forcing him to switch-hit, imposing practice and repetition on him, and – in the most famous example – shaming him into continuing to play when Mantle’s first trip to the majors fizzled. Back in the minors, and striking out with abandon, Mantle decided to quit and return home. His father – who unbeknownst to them at the time, would be dead within a year – visited him in Kansas City, and in stark contrast to the soft, tender-loving care and empathy of the modern parent, offered his son this pointed message: “You gutless coward. I thought I raised a man. I guess I was wrong. Come home, I’ll get you a job in the mines, you loser…” or something to that effect. These days, Mutt Mantle would be hauled before Child Services and prosecuted for abuse.
The term “hero” is used in different contexts. As a “man admired for his achievements and noble qualities,” Mantle falls short. Baseball may mirror life, but it is only a sport, a diversion from what is real and important in life. But if a hero is a person “who shows great courage,” then Mantle represents something mythic that still touches the American soul. As a child, he was sexually abused (to which some attributed his persistent infidelities and numerous dalliances, of Wilt Chamberlain-like proportions; Chamberlain, at least, never married) – but he never spoke about his abuse until late in life. He suffered as a teenager from osteomyelitis, a bone inflammation that disqualified him from military service, yet that did not inhibit his speed or ability to generate power. He tore his knee ligaments in the 1951 World Series (his rookie year), and would never again play without pain – even playing with the bad knee for two more years before having surgery, something inconceivable today. In his last four years, he played while barely able to walk, being wrapped in tape like a mummy before each game, grimacing with each swing. So, why play ?
The Mickey Mantle story is alluring because the young, healthy Mantle ran like the wind. Contemporaries testified that no one ever ran as fast from home to first. While not a large person by today’s standards (he played at 5’ 11” and 195 pounds), his bat speed and perfect swing generated such power that his home runs were mammoth blows. No one ever hit the ball harder or farther. In 1953, one famous blast was “measured” at 565 feet, almost unimaginable (indeed, it was; 50 years later, Leavy interviewed eyewitnesses and the boy who caught the ball, and retained physicists to calibrate distance and power, and concludes that the ball traveled perhaps 615 feet ! Still, it is acknowledged to be the longest home run ever hit.) Twice, Mantle’s home runs hit the upper façade at the old Yankee Stadium, with the second shot (in 1963) still rising (according to eyewitnesses) as it struck the overhang – which precluded it from traveling perhaps 600 feet on the fly. (The next day while flying at 30,000 feet, a teammate needled the unfortunate pitcher: “Did you see that ?” “What?” “Mantle’s ball just flew over the plane.”)
He was always gracious to teammates, self-deprecating in his humor, naturally humble (he admitted he knew “nuthin’” about hitting – he just swung as hard as he could at whatever he saw), generous to a fault (giving away most of his money until he found himself broke in the early 1980s and had to re-invent himself as a huckster and autograph signer), and he never complained about pain, injuries or suffering. And he won – 12 pennants and 7 world championships.
And yet he could be rude, crude, inappropriate and downright vulgar in the presence of women, and did not warm to the fans and the media until late in his career, and really only after his playing days ended. He loved his wife, but cheated on her incessantly, even separating from her in the last decade of his life and living openly with a mistress. He considered himself an absent and desultory father, with his main contribution to their education introducing them to alcohol before they were teenagers. The entire family – Mickey, wife, all four sons (two of whom are already deceased) – battled alcoholism. Mantle drank to excess, and literally drank himself to death, destroying his liver and then losing a battle to cancer after he obtained a liver transplant – just months after leaving the Betty Ford Clinic sober. He was 64 when he died.
What to make of such a life ? Where is the heroism that would induce youngsters to want to run like him (head down), don a helmet like him (from back to front), swing like him (with rear leg locked in a power-L that generated more power), and play in and through pain ? “Heroes” reflect both our aspirations for greatness and an opportunity to live vicariously through another, especially when our own lives are mired in routine and produce little that is noteworthy. The search for heroes is then both a human necessity – and a human failing, a weakness that drives us to perceive greatness in fame and not in the enduring accomplishments of happy marriages, moral children, and lives of integrity.
Mickey Mantle saw through the mirage even while he was playing, but perhaps saved his greatest swings for the end of his life. In his last days, Mantle pummeled himself publicly for squandering his life and his talent, for shortening his career by not taking care of himself, and for setting a poor example for his children and others who looked up to him. In perhaps his most famous statement, he was asked in a TV interview about being a role model. Worn and emaciated from cancer, he answered: “I’d like to say to kids out there, if you’re looking for a role model, this is a role model. Don’t be like me.”
As the anti-hero, perhaps Mantle finally became the true hero – a symbol of courage, honesty, contrition and candor. In openly coming to grips with his frailties, he showed authenticity and strength, and offered an enduring legacy of how (not) to live.