I’m in a taxi, trying to get to Yankee Stadium. I’m late and I’ve got my uniform on. But when I get there the guard won’t let me in. He doesn’t recognize me. So I find this hole in the fence and I’m trying to crawl through it, you know? But I can only get my head in. I can see Billy and Whitey and Yogi and Casey. And I can hear the announcer: “Now batting … number 7 … Mickey Mantle.” But I can’t get through the hole. That’s when I wake up. My palms are all sweaty.
July 1979: Mickey Mantle, almost 48, is sitting in Billy Martin’s office on Old Timer’s Day at Yankee Stadium. He is wearing his number 7 uniform and looks much the same as always. The broad shoulders, the thick neck, the sun-faded blue eyes. But the stomach is soft with middle age, and the face has aged too quickly, from either all those summers in the sun or all the nights on the town, to belong beneath the bill of a baseball cap.
“You ever have dreams like that, Billy?” Mantle asks.
Martin, sitting behind his manager’s desk poring over a record book, looks up at Mantle through his reading glasses. “All I ever dream is that I just got fired,” he says and breaks up laughing.
But Mantle wants to be serious. “You know that song by Roy Clark, ‘Yesterday When I Was Young’? Well, that’s what they’re going to play at my funeral. Every time I hear it I could just cry.”
March 20, 1980: Anheuser Busch today unveils a new advertising campaign for its Natural Light beer, involving “the greatest defection since Solzhenitsyn” and “the most radical breakthrough in beer marketing in years.” The campaign features five famous ex-athletes, including three—Mickey Mantle, “Smokin’” Joe Frazier, and Nick Buoniconti—who previously appeared in commercials for Miller Lite. Mantle has taken a break from his Yankee spring training batting instructor job to attend the press conference.
Speaking for the three defectors, Buoniconti says, “Even though the new commercials are lighthearted spoofs, Mickey, Joe, and I are serious about this. This wasn’t just a case of an advertiser offering us a bunch of money. We each did a comparison taste test and preferred the taste of naturally brewed Natural Light. We signed sworn affidavits to that effect.”
Perhaps it is the fate of all great athletes to leave their arenas too soon and to reflect forever more on what was—and what might have been. Mantle was 36 when his career ran out on him. It is that age that still gnaws at Mantle today. “All I’d ever known was baseball,” he says. “And there I was, 36, not even in the prime of my life, and I was through. That’s what keeps hurting.”
For nearly two decades Mickey Charles Mantle was one of the dominant baseball players of his time. There was his power, from both sides of the plate, and those frightening swings that could rattle a stadium. Ten times he smashed home runs right- and left-handed in the same game, a record that stands today. His most famous home run was the tape-measure shot out of Washington’s old Griffith Stadium in 1953 that wound up—was it possible?—565 feet from home. He was a legendary outfielder, his speed—3.2 seconds from home to first—made him one of baseball’s best drag bunters, and his arm was strong and sure.
But always there was the tape.
But what exactly had become of the great Yankee slugger? How had this athletic superstar, who attained so much success at such a young age, made the transition into real life? Long ago, he outlined his hope for the future: “I just want to get rich and play golf every day.”
In his first season, during the 1951 World Series, he tore the cartilage in his right knee when he caught his spikes on a drainage cap in right-center trying not to crash into Joe DiMaggio. After that, despite four operations and the yards of bandage he methodically wrapped around it, the weakened joint could never keep up with the powerful body. Going easy on the right leg, he injured the left. His ailments, one after another, grabbed as much space in the papers as his triumphs.
It was this dramatic interplay of brute strength and fragility, excessive in Mantle’s case, that fueled the Mantle legend and made him a hero to a generation. Even his teammates idolized him—six named sons after him. Like many of the small town boys who came to play baseball in the fifties, Mantle lived only for the game. Other than golf and hunting, he had no outside interests. Money seemed secondary. Once, in 1958, he tried to hold out on his contract. But shortly after spring training started, he spotted a newspaper story that said if he didn’t report to camp right away he would be traded. “I was there the next day,” says Mantle. “Being traded from the Yankees would have killed me.”
In the end, though, his legend proved larger than his legacy. He played at his peak only a few of those eighteen seasons, the ones when his legs held up, and the giant records eluded him. He did not get 3,000 hits (he had 2,415) or 2,000 RBI’s (1,509), and his main goal, a .300 lifetime batting average, slipped away from him in his disappointing final four years, when his average plunged ten points to .298. Finally, in the spring of 1969, his legs would not come around. He called a news conference at the Yankees’ Fort Lauderdale training camp, announced he was finished, and headed unhappily home to Dallas.
But what exactly had become of the great Yankee slugger? How had this athletic superstar, who attained so much success at such a young age, made the transition into real life? Emotionally, he always knew it would be difficult. But financially … well, he had half a dozen money-making schemes all lined up. Long ago, he outlined his hope for the future: “I just want to get rich and play golf every day.”
The Longview Mall in Longview, Texas, has barely shaken awake at nine o’clock on a muggy Saturday morning. Everywhere there are signs: APPEARANCE—MICKEY MANTLE. Inside, in a small business office, half a dozen local reporters are sitting around a conference table studying the “Official Mickey Mantle Agenda.”
Mantle is delayed on the 140-mile drive from Dallas by a sudden downpour. When he finally appears in the doorway, 50 minutes late, he apologizes, smiles weakly, and slouches into a chair. He is wearing tan slacks, a pastel plaid shirt, and the look of a man who has been railroaded into coming to a party he didn’t want to attend. He hikes his left ankle onto his right knee and looks gloomily around the room. “Aren’t you supposed to ask me questions?” he says.
The questions are the same ones he’s heard a zillion times. What was his biggest thrill? Wouldn’t he like to manage? Doesn’t he wish he could be playing at today’s high salaries?
You can see Mantle is trying to do his best. He answers every question politely, and when he finishes, if no one jumps in with another one, he continues belaboring it.
“We were going to give you some pictures to look at ahead or time to help you, but …”
“Pictures,” says Mantle, “Of what?” Mantle, it seems, has no idea what his appearance at the mall entails, only that it will take four hours and pay him $2,500. As he’s being escorted from the press conference, Mary LaTourneau, the mall’s marketing director, tries to explain about the look-alike contest. There will be two: one for children, one for middle-aged men.
He knows he should not complain. In fact, he is genuinely flattered that people even remember him. Last year, a New Jersey housewife paid Mantle an appearance fee to show up at her husband’s fortieth birthday party. When Mantle arrived, the man, once an avid fan, burst into tears.
Suddenly, Mantle stops cold in the hallway. “You mean.” he says incredulously, “I’m supposed to pick out some guy who looks like me?”
“The thing is,” Mary says apologetically, “only one man entered.”
Before a small crowd of several dozen curious shoppers, Mantle lumbers onto a makeshift stage and comes face to face with his look-alike. The man, a 43-year-old dime-store manager from nearby Marshall, Texas, is wearing pastel green slacks and a face wreathed in smiles. He’s overweight, his ears stick out, and if he resembles anyone, it’s a middle-aged Howdy Doody.
“Congratulations,” mumbles Mickey, at a loss.
“I used to play ball in high school with your twin brothers,” the pleased man gushes.
Mantle hands him a letter from the mall telling him where to collect his $100 reward, then he looks around helplessly. Below him are the upturned faces of a dozen youngsters who are participating in the other look-alike contest. “Pick out the one who most looks like you did at that age,” someone prompts him.
Mantle turns and studies them. He hesitates before a blond, freckle-faced boy of eleven. “Best I can remember,” he drawls. “Stanley here looks like me.”
Stanley Woods, shy and as embarrassed as Mantle is, collects the ballplayer’s autograph and then scampers off to join his aunt, a large, fat woman with a ponytail and a white T-shirt. “I used to be married to a pitcher for the White Sox,” she sings happily, “but he died.” Then, patting Stanley’s head, she says, “I just knew he would win. He looks exactly like Mickey did. I just know it.”
Judging look-alike contests at shopping malls is not what Mantle intended to do with his life. But that’s the way it’s worked out.
He still lives in Dallas, where he is a vice-president of Reserve Life Insurance Company. He shows up at company “victory” dinners, where agents who have sold a lot of policies get to rub his elbow over cocktails. In addition, he does a week-or-two-long “informal golfing excursion” each year with Allied Chemical, and in the spring George Steinbrenner pays him to throw out baseballs at Yankee farm club openers. He also makes appearances. These, his TV commercials, and his Reserve contract pay him more than the Yankees did—$150,000 to $200,000 a year.
He knows he should not complain. In fact, he is genuinely flattered that people even remember him. Last year, a New Jersey housewife paid Mantle an appearance fee to show up at her husband’s fortieth birthday party. When Mantle arrived, the man, once an avid fan, burst into tears. Mantle was moved by this, and when he got home he impulsively shipped the man the uniform the Yankees had given him when they retired his number.
Nevertheless, after all these years, Mantle still finds himself dreading public occasions. When Gerald Ford invited him to the White House for a state dinner honoring the president of France, Mantle’s response was to throw out the invitation. “Why do they want me there?” he kept complaining as the White House barraged him with phone calls. “I don’t know anything about politics.” As it turned out, Mantle was seated at the president’s table, his wife beside Vice President Rockefeller. Ford talked golf with Mantle; Rocky inquired endlessly about the Mantle boys. “They were so elated that they had such a good time,” says his attorney, Roy True, who had urged Mantle to attend, “that the next day they hopped a plane to Las Vegas as a sort of dessert.”
Now, driving to Oak Forest Country Club for lunch, Mantle says little. He is being escorted by three cheerful young women from the shopping mall who are polite but out of their element. To them, Mantle is a celebrity whose name rings a distant bell.
Mary is reminded of an anecdote. “I heard a story about you,” she begins, “from a guy who parks cars at another country club in town!”
Mantle jerks his head around. “What was it?”
“Well, I don’t think I can tell.”
Mantle looks uneasy. “It can’t be that bad,” he says hopefully.
“Well … er, he said you went outside and … I can’t.”
By now the slugger is turning red. “Come on,” he says, “what’d I do?”
Taking a deep breath, Mary blurts, “You used the bushes for a toilet.”
That afternoon’s activity consists of two autographing sessions—one, for an hour, at Dillard’s department store, the other at J.C. Penney. The local radio men cover Mantle’s arrival at Penney like a papal visit. “He’s entering the housewares department … he’s climbing onto the platform….”
The lines stretch from housewares into bedspreads and sheets, past shower curtains and gift wrappings, along the cafeteria, beyond the credit desk—all the way to the rest rooms at the back of the store. Dan Whyte, a retired Marine who nearly had his head shot off in Vietnam, has been anxiously awaiting Mantle’s visit all week. A native of the Bronx, he has brought with him a yellowed scrapbook filled with pictures of the Yankees of yore. There are several of the early Mantle, who looks about fifteen years old in his baggy pinstriped uniform. “Mantle,” gushes Whyte, “is like the John Wayne of baseball. Still looks good, doesn’t he? Too bad about his knees. He would have made a good marine.”
At last, Whyte’s moment comes. He steps up to the platform and thrusts his scrapbook under Mantle’s nose. Mantle starts to sign “Mickey Mantle”—for his hand is too tired now to pen “Best Wishes”—but Whyte is trying to flip through the pages, to show him. Mantle stares blankly, smiles, and reaches for the next piece of paper.
“I guess he was kind of busy,” sighs Whyte.
“After my first spring training they started writing that I was going to be the next Joe DiMaggio. In a way I was lucky, I had time to grow with my fame. It wasn’t until 1956 that I did what the papers said I should do, and by then I was used to the attention and it didn’t bother me.”
At three o’clock, with the lines still stretching, Mantle is escorted from the platform, visibly tired now, his official engagement over. He walks out into the heat of the parking lot and climbs into his 1976 Cadillac Eldorado.
On the ride back to Dallas, he says, “I think about baseball all the time. I think about how I didn’t finish with a .300 batting average. I think about what it would have been like if I’d played in a different ball park. It was 480 to center, you know, and I lost a lot of home runs. And my legs. My right knee hurt almost every day. I really do believe I would be way up at the top of everything if I hadn’t been injured. When I was healthy, I really believe I was the best of anyone I ever saw play.
“But,” he adds dolefully, “You have to go by the records.”
Mantle switches on his C.B. to see if there are any Smokies ahead. Then he says, “My biggest regret is not being able to play at least five more years. The Yankees wanted me to. But it was embarrassing to me to screw up like I did. I couldn’t hit worth a shit.
“It was all I lived for, to play ball,” he says. “I used to like to play so much that I loved to take infield practice. I couldn’t wait to go to the ball park. I hated it when we got rained out.”
Then, fearing perhaps that he’s left the wrong impression, he adds, “Look, it’s not that I’m not happy now. I am. But to be 25 years old and rounding the bases, the hero of the Yankees …”
Times have changed, so has his life, but Mantle, it seems, has not. From age three, when his father first put a bat in his hands, until age 36, he was consumed by baseball. The hope of being the greatest ballplayer still runs through his dreams. By day, he makes a living off the dream. By night, he tries to recapture it.
He drops me off and heads for home—the end of another road trip.
“Mickey and I were in New York on a business deal in the spring of 1969,” said Roy True. “We were sharing a suite at the St. Moritz. One morning I woke up and found him wrapped in a towel, standing in front of some French doors that opened onto a balcony. I said, ‘What are you doing?’
“‘Just looking out at the city.’ he said. ‘It’s some city.’
“‘Yes, it is,” I told him.
“‘And that son of a bitch used to be mine,’ said Mantle, ‘all mine.’”
Mantle’s transition into the appearance business came largely at the hands of Roy True. Mantle first approached the Dallas attorney ten years ago on a Florida land deal, but it quickly became apparent to True that Mantle was hardly going to galvanize Wall Street. “Mickey is not a businessman,” says True. “He hates meetings. He isn’t interested in the ongoing process. He just wants to know the results.”
Before True came along, the results had been abysmal. His first big “deal” came the very day he arrived at Yankee Stadium when a fast-talking stranger “grabbed me and said he could make a million dollars for me in five years. All I had to do was give him half of everything I made for ten years,” Mantle recalls. “A million dollars is a lot when you’re making $7,500. I signed right away.”
Legally, Mantle was not old enough to sign a contract, so he got out of it. But he never did learn to distrust strangers. Even at the end of his career he was boasting about an investment that would make him rich for life. He bought 12,500 shares of stock at $10 each. Years later he sold them at $4.
True figured Mantle had better start promoting himself. Mantle balked. “The problem was he felt he didn’t have anything to contribute,” says True. “So I talked strong and long to him. Once he found out that people were interested in what he had to say, he gained the confidence that he was something other than a ballplayer.”
True came up with the Mickey Mantle speaking format—twenty minutes of baseball yams followed by Q and A—and set the Mickey Mantle fee, now $3,000. He books Mickey only into cities that are easy to reach. Still, Mantle becomes anxious before an appearance, worrying that his sponsors will want him to have tea with Aunt Tillie or something, and that if he refuses, “people will think I’m an ass.” Thus, True devised the official Mickey Mantle itinerary—pay for it and stick to it.
On Monday, I arrive at Roy True’s law offices right on time for my interview with Mantle and am surprised to find the ballplayer already there. He is wearing tan slacks and a yellow knit shirt, nicely dressed as always. We go into the law library, and again he seems uncomfortable. He sits in his chair, clutching a batch of letters, fidgeting like a well-behaved child who has been made to say a few polite words to grown-ups. As Mantle talks, I begin to understand: He was, and remains, a modest man who worked hard at the game he loved, wanting to excel through sheer competitiveness, never quite comprehending the acclaim that came with it.
“Coming out of Commerce, Oklahoma, which is 2,000 people, and going to New York when you’re nineteen would be tough on anyone,” he says. “But after my first spring training they started writing that I was going to be the next Joe DiMaggio. In a way I was lucky, I had time to grow with my fame. It wasn’t until 1956 that I did what the papers said I should do, and by then I was used to the attention and it didn’t bother me.”
“Do you miss the limelight now?”
“No, I don’t think it ever meant much to me. People come up to me and they say, ‘You remember that home run you hit in Boston in 1954?’ And I don’t. And they begin to describe this particular home run, inch by inch. It was like they were talking about someone else. It’s hard for me to remember what it was like then, or how I felt. Even now I’m not very conscious of being Mickey Mantle.”
Mantle is still fidgeting—though he has finally put the letters down—alternately scratching his enormous biceps, stretching, and yawning.
Outside of baseball, the continuing obsessions of his life are his children and his golf. Of his four boys—Mickey Jr., 26; David, 24; Billy, 21; and Danny, 19—the two youngest still live at home. And though Mantle brightens when speaking of his kids, he is oddly elusive about what they do. One close friend confides, “Mickey thinks the boys would be more active participants in the traditional sense of working men if they hadn’t been brought up the way they were. He always let them know he would take care of everything. He feels it’s his fault they haven’t really shown the ambition to pick something out and go get it.”
Of golf Mantle talks a blue streak. Every day he is in Dallas, save Mondays, when his club is dosed, he plays eighteen holes at Preston Trails, “where they don’t allow women—even as waitresses,” he says with delight. “Before they started building houses out there, we used to play naked.”
“Golf,” continues Mantle, “is the only thing I can still do. I can’t play racquetball or tennis or even ride a bike. And I have this need to compete. What bothers me is that my knee is getting worse, and when I’m 55 I may not be able to play at all. Then I don’t know what I’ll do.” His eyes look sad.
“Don’t you still hunt and fish?” I ask.
“What do you hunt?”
For the first time Mantle grins. “Puss,” he says.
But the old devilishness simply is not there, and after a moment that smile fades and a more subdued Mantle reflects, “The one thing I would have done different in my life was to take better care of myself while I was playing. I really burned the candle at both ends. And it caught up with me.”
Suddenly he stands up. “Let’s drive by the house,” he says. “You can meet Merlyn.” He is out the door in a flash. The interview is over. The jailer has released him.
The Mantles’ four bedroom beige house sprawls on an acre of emerald green lawn in an upper-clan section of North Dallas. Its two wings wrap around a sparkling turquoise swimming pool that looks like it hasn’t been used for some time.
Merlyn Mantle, a tiny platinum blonde with large blue eyes is in the den talking to Joe Warren, a regional sales manager for Reserve Life, who had dropped by with two boxes of baseballs for Mantle to autograph. Mutely, Mickey carries the boxes to an easy chair. Balancing the boxes on his knees, he begins scrawling his name.
As Warren is speaking, Merlyn turns and says softly to her husband. “Do you want your glasses?”
“No,” mumbles Mantle in embarrassment, and keeps writing.
“I just hate getting old,” he blurts.
Later I am led through a spotless white kitchen to the back of the house, where, stuck on like an appendage, the trophy room is. It is an awesome treasure trove of memorabilia, every square inch of wall crammed with the mementos of Mantle’s extraordinary achievements. Encased behind glass are an enormous sterling tape measure honoring his longest blast, a solid silver bat denoting his American League batting titles, the big, jeweled Hickok Belt for athlete of the year. Trophies that do not fit into the credenza spill out into the far comers of the room. One wall crawls with magazine covers of Mantle. Another holds a framed swatch of the number-7 pinstripes.
Throughout Merlyn’s tour, Mantle stands impassively in the doorway. He rarely comes into the room anymore, he says, and seems uninterested in it.
“When Mickey first retired,” Merlyn says, “I thought it was really great—he’d be home all the time. But he isn’t.”
“The last three months I haven’t been home hardly at all,” Mantle concedes. “That promotion I did for Cameron Wholesalers? I went to twenty cities all over Texas. They had this deal called Mickey Mantle Grand Slam Specials. You buy 50 doors and get one free”—he laughs—“or something like that.”
“Do you enjoy these appearances?” I ask.
“No,” says Mantle quietly. “It’s just a monetary thing. It doesn’t do anything for my ego. If somebody gave me $2 million I wouldn’t do another one.” Then, not wanting to sound ungrateful, he adds. “Really, I don’t mind it, though. It makes me feel good that people want me to come.”
It is only quarter to twelve, but itchy as ever, Mantle suggests we go out and eat lunch.
At the restaurant, the Mantles pick at their food and apologize that it is not very good. Mickey notes that he weighs 205 pounds—not much over his playing weight. “But it’s shifting,” he says with a small, sad smile.
Then abruptly he puts down his fork. “I just hate getting old,” he blurts.
Merlyn Mantle nods and looks away.
It is, sadly, the wrong note to end on. But perhaps that’s how it must be. “Mickey comes to me from time to time and says this guy or that guy wants to write a book about him,” says Roy True.” And I tell Mickey it’s not time. And Mickey says, ‘Well, what are we waiting for?’
“And I tell him,” says Roy True, “I’m waiting until we can have a happy ending.”
[Photo Credit: Preston Mesarvey, 1988 c/o Wikimedia Commons]