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Archives: Baseball great Mickey Mantle dies of cancer

August 14, 1995|By Ross Newhan | Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Mickey Mantle, an almost mythical baseball star who feared he failed to fulfill career expectations because of alcohol abuse and whose recent years were haunted by self-recrimination, died of cancer early Sunday morning. He was 63.

The former New York Yankee center fielder and a member of baseball's Hall of Fame had undergone transplant surgery June 8 to replace a liver ravaged by cancer, hepatitis and cirrhosis, but after being discharged from Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas on June 28, he soon developed anemia as the result of chemotherapy treatments and the cancer was found to have spread throughout his body.

"It was everywhere--all vital organs were affected," Dr. Daniel DeMarco, a gastroenterologist at Baylor, said Sunday.

Dr. Goran Klintmalm, director of transplant surgery at Baylor, said Mantle would not have received the donor liver--even though his life was at stake--if there had been evidence that the cancer had spread, but "we had no reason--not even in retrospect--to see any evidence of that. This was the most aggressive cancer that anyone on the medical team has ever seen."

Klintmalm said there was no way of knowing whether the chemotherapy that was meant to fight the cancer assisted the spread instead.

"We can only speculate," Klintmalm said. "I think his tumor would have taken this course no matter what."

Appearing gaunt and frail, Mantle said at a July 28 news conference that he had squandered a gifted life and warned admirers that he was no role model.

"God gave me the ability to play baseball. God gave me everything," he said. "For the kids out there . . . don't be like me."

How many wished they could, however.

Signed as a teen-age shortstop off the Oklahoma sandlots for $1,100, Mickey Charles Mantle ultimately perpetuated that royal lineage of Yankee immortals.

He succeeded Joe DiMaggio in center field and blazed a Hall of Fame career built on power and speed, a career remembered by many, including Mantle, in a context of what might have been.

Five operations on his right knee, the first as a 19-year-old rookie in 1951, eroded much of his speed and power. Alcohol and late nights cut into what was left.

He was haunted by the genetic specter of Hodgkin's disease--"If I had known I was going to live past 50, I'd have taken better care of myself," he often said--and the pressure of fulfilling the expectations of his father and others.

Former Brooklyn and Los Angeles Dodger General Manager Buzzie Bavasi said of Mantle:

"If he had been healthy, he would have reached the same stratosphere as Babe Ruth."

Wrote Mantle, in a first-person article for Sports Illustrated last year:

"When I retired in the spring of '69 I was 37. Casey [Stengel, the Yankee manager] had said when I came up, 'This guy's going to be better than Joe DiMaggio and Babe Ruth.' It didn't happen. I never fulfilled what my dad had wanted, and I should have. God gave me a great body to play with, and I didn't take care of it. And I blame a lot of it on alcohol.

"My last four or five years with the Yankees, I didn't realize I was ruining myself with all the drinking. I just thought, this is fun. Hell, I used to see guys come into Yankee Stadium from Detroit or Chicago; they'd be out taking batting practice, all of them with hangovers. But today I can admit that all the drinking shortened my career.

"I mean, everybody tries to make the excuse that injuries shortened my career. Truth is, after I'd had a knee operation, the doctors would give me rehab work to do, but I wouldn't do it. I'd be out drinking. The first time I hurt my knee, in the '51 World Series, I was only 19. I thought, hey, I'll be all right. I hurt my knees again through the years, and I just thought they'd naturally come back. Everything had always come natural to me. I didn't work hard at it. I did nothing to strengthen my knees. I never followed the rehab. I never lifted weights.

"When the last World Series game was over, I didn't think about baseball until the spring. I blame that on stupidity."

Mantle, however, would also blame his knee problems, in part, on DiMaggio. The two Yankee center fielders never became close. Mantle long harbored a resentment over his first knee injury in Game 2 of the 1951 World Series against the New York Giants when he had to stop short to avoid a collision with DiMaggio in pursuit of a fly ball hit by Willie Mays, slipped on a sprinkler head and damaged the knee.

"DiMaggio always wanted to look good out there," Mantle told Roger Kahn in his book, "The Era, 1947-1957."

"That was very important to him. So he waited to call Willie's fly until he was damn sure he could reach it in stride. That's why I had to stop so short. If DiMaggio called for it earlier--or if DiMaggio backed off and let me take it--I don't believe I woulda hurt my knee."

Kahn wrote that Mantle then looked into a glass of Jack Daniels and said, "Damn."

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