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The Stories Never Stopped, but Neither Did the Abuse

MIKE DOWNEY

June 09, 1995|Mike Downey

Mickey Mantle tells great stories. This could be the predictable and natural result of a drinking life, of bending elbows, swilling booze and closing bars with the boys. Alas, so is cancer of the liver, which has the Mick today in a sick bed, fighting for his life.

One day in 1956, Mickey and the mighty Yankees were playing the lowly Kansas City Athletics, a couple of whom had just been brushed back by the New York pitcher. According to Mantle, everyone in the Yankee dugout could hear the A's manager yelling, "That's what's wrong with this lousy club! Everyone is afraid of the Yankees."

At that, a newly acquired A's pitcher, Tom Lasorda, told the manager, "Put \o7 me\f7 in there!"

Mantle: "He did, and Tommy knocked down the first two hitters, then threw two pitches behind the head of Hank Bauer and two behind the head of Billy [Martin]. Well, you can guess what happened next. Martin yelled something, Lasorda yelled back--and pow. The two of them went after each other like pit bulldogs.

"In the middle of the action, Bauer tried to get at Lasorda, who shouted at him between punches, 'Stay out of this, Bauer. This is an Italian fight.'

"When the blood dried, Billy and Tommy shook hands and they became great pals."

The great Mickey Mantle has spent much of his life surrounded by great pals. He left his stool in a Texas topless bar one night, minutes before Martin got the living tar kicked out of him. They played hard and drank hard, those Yankees did, and Martin stayed drunk to the very last drop, years later when the truck in which he was a passenger went into a ditch.

We all dread reading Mickey Mantle's obituary, and I shudder at the thought of writing one. Please let that new vital organ transplanted Thursday take hold and save him, so as to bring the great and golden outfielder to his feet. I have known men who adored Mantle so much, they might have donated that liver if they could have.

Let them not be left with only Willie and the Duke.

Willie Mays, whose glove was immortalized vividly by Vin Scully as "where triples go to die," broke in as a rookie in 1951 along with Mantle, who began in right field because Joe DiMaggio was still in center. By October, according to Mays, Casey Stengel, the Yankee manager, told the speedy Mantle, "Take everything you can get over in center, because [Joe's] heel is hurting pretty bad."

But it was Mantle who ended up hurting.

Mays hit one to right-center during a World Series game. As he later told it, "Mantle, following Stengel's instructions, chased the ball even though it was closer to DiMaggio. When DiMaggio yelled, 'I got it,' Mantle stopped short. As Joe made the catch, Mickey suddenly fell as if he had been shot. He was on the grass struggling and they had to carry him off on a stretcher."

Mantle's spikes had snagged in a rubber lid on a drainage ditch, leaving him with a shredded knee. And from that day on, Mays said, Mickey "seemed to be marked with a sort of pity. People were forever saying, 'Just think what he could have done if his knees weren't bad.' "

The one who never pitied Mickey, of course, was Mickey.

No one told juicier stories than he told on himself. It was Mantle who told of homering with a hangover, returning to the dugout and telling teammates, "You'll never know how hard that was." It was Mantle who years later said, so memorably, that if he had known he would live this long, he would have taken better care of himself.

Way back in 1948, Mickey's father, Elvin (Mutt) Mantle, a zinc miner from northeast Oklahoma, packed up some newspaper clippings about his teen-age son and drove to St. Louis to ask the Browns for a tryout. They declined. The Cardinals, though, sent a scout to see the Baxter Springs (Kan.) Whiz Kids play a game, during which Mickey tagged two homers right-handed and another left-handed.

A Card scout named Runt Marr made Mantle's old man swear that Mickey wouldn't sign with another club. "I'm still waiting to hear back from Runt," Mickey said in 1992.

The author Roger Kahn wrote: "We would have seen a pretty fair St. Louis Cardinal outfield, come 1951 or 1952: Stan Musial in left field, Enos Slaughter in right field and Mickey Mantle in center field. I suspect that outfield would have wrenched pennants away from the Dodgers and the Giants."

His New York life was rich and satisfying. Mantle palled around with Yogi Berra ("He said maybe a third of what he has been quoted as saying.") and denied ever feuding with Roger Maris ("We never exchanged a cross word."). He admired the dignity of DiMaggio but preferred the shenanigans of Martin and Whitey Ford, the three of whom caused Stengel to hire a private detective.

"Or," Mantle said, "if Casey wanted to know if the players were hitting the night spots and breaking curfew, all he did was tip the elevator operator, give him a new baseball and tell him to ask for the autographs of each player who came in after midnight. The next morning he checked the ball and had all the evidence he needed."

If the Mick hadn't had so many late nights, he might not be in the fix he is now. But he is.

"But as the saying goes," Mantle once said, "if Ifs and Buts were candy and nuts, we'd all have a merry Christmas."

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