NEW YORK — One thing you can always count on with Mickey Mantle. He won't lie to you.
He said Monday that he went to a hospital in Dallas last week after discovering two lumps on his neck. He thought he'd better get a checkup.
But his visit there, plus his having to skip Roger Maris' annual golf tournament in Fargo, N.D., gave rise to rumors that he was suffering from cancer. Maris, a close friend of Mantle, was unable to attend his own tournament because he's fighting cancer at his home in Gainesville, Fla.
Mickey Mantle is in the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. The baseball world considers the 53-year-old former New York Yankee center fielder one of its immortals although he certainly doesn't think of himself in those terms.
"People ask me what does it feel like to be a living legend," Mantle said. "You know that joke. 'He's a legend in his own mind.' I never considered myself a legend. I was good, but I wasn't a legend. I was like Billy, Whitey, Roger and Yogi. You have to look far down the list of records to find my name. Except in strikeouts." He laughed.
Mantle always has this dark, haunting cloud over him, a shadowy uneasiness that he isn't going to live too long.
Much of that has to do with his father, Elvin (Mutt) Mantle, whom he loved so much and who died at 39 of Hodgkin's disease, a form of lymphatic cancer. Two of Mantle's uncles also died in their 30s, and his grandfather died in his 50s, all of the same ailment, so there's a natural awareness and apprehensiveness about the disease in the family.
Mantle was in town Monday to plug his new book, "The Mick." He was resplendent in a stylish banker's gray business suit and he looked good, albeit a bit drawn. Because of those lumps on his neck, he moved his head a little stiffly whenever he had to turn it.
Asked if he was worried or frightened, he said:
"When I get a lump I worry, and I've got two of 'em now. I'm not frightened, but I'm anxious to find out why I've got these headaches. I can take Tylenol to make 'em go way, but you can only take so much of that, also.
"I saw two doctors in the hospital, and they did a CAT-scan. I also got two separate examinations. They said the vertebrae in my neck had broken down and were sitting on a couple of nerves. They didn't know why it happened. Maybe from swinging too much.
"They said I don't have Hodgkin's, but they couldn't tell me what's causing the lumps. I hope I don't have cancer. If I have it, they missed it."
Mantle speaks to Maris every week by phone, asking him about his progress.
"I felt bad not to be able to play in his tournament, but he said for me not to worry about it," Mantle said. "I told him about the lumps I got and these headaches, and he told me that's how all his trouble started."
Mantle and Maris got along well from the start. That was the case even in 1961, when Maris broke Babe Ruth's single-season record by hitting 61 home runs, and Mantle, who had challenged him for a while, finished with 54.
In his book, Mantle tells about some of the drinking he did while he was playing, pointing out that it took a near-serious driving accident to make him realize the error of his ways. It shook him up.
Nowadays, Mantle works for a Dallas insurance firm, does color commentary on 25 of the Yankees' cable telecasts, and public relations for the Claridge Hotel and Casino in Atlantic City, N.J. He hardly drinks at all anymore. Not nearly the way he once did.
"If my father was still alive and read everything in the book, I think he would've been a little mad at my drinking," Mantle confessed. "He thought I was gonna be the best ballplayer born, but it didn't turn out that way. I think I could've done more in baseball if I had taken better care of myself the way guys like Hank Aaron, Willie Mays and Stan Musial did.
"If there's a moral to this book of mine, then it's that Little Leaguers and other kids playing ball should take better care of themselves. I was over the hill at 34 and had to retire at 36."