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JIM MURRAY

Mantle's Life Was Hit and Myth

August 20, 1995|JIM MURRAY

Show me a hero and I will write you a tragedy.

--F. SCOTT FITZGERALD

*

Scott Fitzgerald never knew Mickey Mantle. Or did he? He may not have known the man, but he knew the type. He knew the fate.

The lives of the celebrated are seldom what they seem. "Success" is often just the opposite. We often envy those we should pity. It was Lord Bryce who said of Napoleon that "his life would be the funniest comedy of modern times were it not caked in human blood."

I suppose Mickey Mantle thought he had the world by the tail. After all, he was the toast of New York; his very name comprised some of the most recognizable syllables of the era.

The name, of course, helped. You wonder if Mickey Mantle were Frank Rogers or Alvin Babbitt if even his athletic feats would carry him to fame. But Mickey Mantle was probably the most felicitous collection of vowels and consonants this side of a Frank Merriwell novel. The Mick. Perfect! Had a nice headline ring to it.

He played in New York, which was just right also. Meant a parade of World Series. He did what he did in prime time. He played the Palace, so to speak. Broadway. The Big Apple. If you can make it there, you make it everywhere.

But did he belong there? Was that really his kind of town?

New York had the highest concentration of media, electronic and print, in the western world, and they held their athletes and politicians and other newsmakers to a standard Joan of Arc would have trouble meeting.

The word "flawed" is probably the most-used word in the Mantle obits. In his case, it simply meant he drank.

Drinking is a classic defense against feelings of low esteem. With a bat in his hands, Mickey Mantle was the equal of anyone in the annals of his sport. But in societal confrontations, the evidence is it was a drink Mantle needed in his hands. It's entirely possible the haut monde of Manhattan frightened the young Mantle. Or gave him feelings of inadequacy. He contracted a destructive habit very early in the game.

I often wonder what turn the Mantle legend would have taken if Texas were in the big leagues when he came up and if he had signed with one of its clubs. Or even if he had played out his career in, say, St. Louis or Kansas City. Minnesota. California. The boy from Commerce, Okla., might have been more comfortable in those places.

Unfortunately, Mickey was a "good" drinker. English translation: not a mean drunk. He drank to get happy and relaxed, not aggressive. Mickey didn't have a mean bone in his body. He was mischievous but never malicious. I can't think of a single instance where The Mick attacked an umpire, a fellow player, a fan.

I got an inkling of the size of his problem when I attended a celebrity golf tournament (put on by Harmon Killebrew) in Sun Valley, Ida., one year. By chance, I flew back with Mantle and his son and an acquaintance. As luck would have it, we had a long layover at a connecting stop in Salt Lake City. On a Sunday.

Mickey was frantic. He needed a drink. But Salt Lake City on Sunday is no place to get one. The bars were closed. So were the state liquor stores.

I volunteered to phone the president of Western Airlines, Art Kelly, to see if the hospitality room could be made accessible. It was. Art phoned in the authorization. It was the kind of thing we did for Mickey Mantle. We were eager to oblige. Wish we hadn't.

Several bottles of vodka later, I wondered if I had done the right thing. Not that Mickey got belligerent. He just got in one of his giggling moods.

The thing I remember clearest about Mickey Mantle is, he didn't have a jealous bone in his body, either. You learn very early in this business that superstars frequently resent one another. After all, Ruth and Gehrig didn't speak for years.

But, I first got to know Mantle fairly well the famous year (1961) when Roger Maris broke Babe Ruth's home run record. Roger hit 61 homers that year. And Mickey hit 54.

There was a historical inequity at work here. It should have been the other way around. Maris hit 40 or more home runs only that one time in his life. Mantle did it four times. Maris hit 275 home runs lifetime. Mantle hit 536.

But Mickey was as genuinely delighted for his teammate as anyone. I remember once waking Mickey in his hotel room at 8 o'clock in the morning. My New York colleagues were stunned he didn't abusively hang up on me. The secret was, I wanted to talk about the fact Mantle and Maris, together, were about to break the all-time tandem home run record. Ruth and Gehrig topped out at 107 their best year.

Mickey liked that approach. He had no trouble at all sharing a spotlight with Maris.

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