Okay, most people know who Mickey Mantle is. Most people know my opinion on baseball. And most people who know me know I'm not a fan of biographies. If you didn't know, well, it comes down to it doesn't matter how great the person was, said person was still human, and thus any honest biography is going to show us where our hero stumbled and fell, and off the pedestal they fall. Not a fan, I like my illusions, thank you very much.
And so, we have the biography of Mickey Mantle. Why did I read this book? I'm trying to clean my library hold list, and this one was available. I didn't finish it before it was due, but was able to renew, so there's that.
Mantle was a product of his father and of his time. He had the natural talent, the determination of his father for his son to succeed where he did not, the life-long training, and f'ing bad luck. I understand this last one. The first part maybe not so much.
When I mentioned I was going to read Mantle's biography to Kris, he looked at me surprised. "You know, he was a drunk, right?" I shrugged. "He was also a great," I responded. "Yeah, I met him once."
That exchange stuck with me as I read the book. Here we have someone who was great, who could have been better, and life threw him a couple curveballs he couldn't hit, and alcohol became a coping mechanism. Talk about a tale as old as human history.
So, yeah, the man was a great baseball player. He was nice. He was a drunk. He lived, he coped as best he could, he died. The story was interesting, from the perspective of someone who didn't grow up with baseball, didn't really understand it until well into her adulthood, and wanted a reasonable look at the man's life. I appreciated the biography was written by woman.
If you're a fan of Mantle, don't read the book. If you're a fan of baseball, and understand and accept that idols will fall, the book is worth reading.
He always shot from below, the angle of icons, rendering his subjects larger than life. Clouds and foliage were banished from the frame; nothing was allowed to clutter the image.
The photo is a touchstone of another era: when boys were allowed to be boys and it was okay to laugh at them for being themselves, when it was okay not to know and to forgive what you did know.
People who loved him and loathed him agree he was an uncommonly honest man, a trait he bequeathed to his family.
So how do you write about a man you want to love the way you did as a child but whose actions were often unlovable? How do you reclaim a human being from caricature without allowing him to be fully human? How do you find the light within the darkness without examining the dimensions of both?
Tommy Henrich, Old Reliable, was assigned the task of turning him into an outfielder, teaching him how to gauge the angle of the ball off the bat; how to position his body to catch the ball on his back foot and get rid of it in one smooth motion; how to react to a drive hit straight at him.
He called his father and said he wanted to come home. “I was down,
“Everybody was in the room. Then we went outside, but you could hear. I heard him say, ‘If that’s all the man you are, then get your clothes and let’s go home.’ Mutt did not yell. He spoke with authority. Mick was crying, of course. He was embarrassed because he wasn’t cutting the pie.”
Mantle was too eager and too innocent to understand his dangerous indiscretion.
He would play the next seventeen years struggling to be as good as he could be, knowing he would never be as good as he might have become.
A clinic opened in Picher in 1927, but it was for the benefit of the mine operators, who were anxious to cull the sick from the workforce. Doctors provided advice but no treatment. Annual X-ray examinations were compulsory. Miners were required to carry a wallet-sized health card certifying that they were free of disease. Those whose X-rays came back positive were fired the same day and could never be hired by another mine.
Hate this abuse. If you think about it, it wasn't that long ago.
Leaving a holiday party with Mickey, Sr., one year, Larry paused to embrace their mother. “We get outside, and Mick said, ‘I wish I could do that.’
“And I said, ‘What?’
“He said, ‘Kiss Mom on the cheek like that and hug her.’
“I said, ‘Just walk up and do it.’
“I really felt sorry for him that he couldn’t. Because, my goodness, that must be terrible.”
“He was scared to death of everything. Granddad said, ‘I never dreamed he would grow up to be what he was because he was such a sissy.’ ”
At Christmas, when all the other children got a pair of socks, there was always enough money to buy him a new baseball glove. He would cry, he later told a friend, because he didn’t get any toys.
Playtime was over when Mutt got home from work. Every afternoon was punctuated by the rhythmic bang of the ball against the corrugated metal siding of the ramshackle shed.
“Every day at 4 P.M., Mickey had to be home, no matter where he was or what he was doing, to do batting practice,” Max said. “They’d throw a tennis ball. They’d stand him up against that leaning shed. He’d hit it up against the house. If it hit the ground, it was an out; below the window, a double; above the window, a triple; over the house, a home run. Every day.”
If Mickey got out, they all got out. It was a huge—if unarticulated—burden to place on one boy’s shoulders.
By the next baseball season, he began to look like a ballplayer. Probably it was just the natural order of things, a boy growing into a man, but the change in him was so immediate and so dramatic, it reinforced belief in a connection between the penicillin and the growth spurt that followed.
“When he got that penicillin in him, boy, his body shot out and the muscles in his arms jumped out,” Mosely said.
Greenwade asked why he was pitching instead of playing the infield. “Someone’s got to do it,” he replied.
Greenwade, who later claimed he didn’t know Mantle was a switch-hitter until that game, played down his talents when he spoke to Mutt. Marginal prospect. Might make it, might not. Kind of small. Not a major league shortstop. Imagine how galling it must have been every time Mantle heard Greenwade later boast, “The first time I saw Mantle, I knew how Paul Krichell felt when he first saw Lou Gehrig.”
“What gripes you about those scouts in those days is they sign a guy out of poverty and he’d make the big leagues and then they’d brag about how cheap they got you,” Terry said.
Mantle was afraid the Yankees would send him home before his $750 bonus kicked in on June 30. His insecurity was palpable; teammates found him softhearted and unexpectedly tender.
Failure also made him petulant. When Mutt asked Lombardi how Mickey was doing, Lombardi replied, “He’ll be great if he quits pouting.”
Gaynor gave him a weighted boot and a set of exercises to strengthen the quadriceps muscle and give support to his knee. Mantle ignored his instructions, preferring, he said later, to sit around, watch TV, and feel sorry for himself.
As his friend Joe Warren said, “When you don’t raise your children to make their own decisions, then they grow up and they don’t know how to make decisions.”
Without Mutt, there was no one with the moral authority to insist, no one to say no to Mickey Mantle. He would never grant anyone that authority again.
Without Mutt, he was adrift, save for the organizational imperatives imposed by the baseball season. Free to make his own decisions, he made bad ones.
How did Mantle play with a torn ACL? It can be done, Haas says. “Mickey Mantle can be classified as a ‘neuromuscular genius,’ one of a select few who are so well wired that they are able to compensate for severe injuries like this and still perform at the highest levels, overcoming a particular impairment at a given moment. It is a phenomenon comprised of motivation, high pain threshold, strength, reflexes, and luck.”
In 1968, the last spring of Mantle’s career, Soares observed: “Mickey has a greater capacity to withstand pain than any man I’ve ever seen. Some doctors have seen X-rays of his legs and won’t believe they are the legs of an athlete still active.”
“Later, the people in the medical department told me he never followed the instructions. I thought he did. He told me he was better. He didn’t follow the directions. I don’t think he followed anyone’s directions. He was a great athlete, a very poor patient.”
The point of the argument was having it, not solving it. It was sustaining and somehow defining. Who you chose as your guy told you something about yourself—who you wanted to be and how you wanted to be.
Branch Rickey, baseball’s most original thinker, planted the seeds of this new math by hiring the first team statistician in 1947—the same year he and Jackie Robinson defied baseball’s color barrier. Seven years later, he and his stat man, Allan Roth, pioneered the formula for on-base percentage. This arithmetic innovation was met with predictable disdain: “Baseball isn’t statistics,” groused Jimmy Cannon. “Baseball is DiMaggio rounding second.”
He would hate what the game became.
Jim Bouton seconded that opinion years later: “Statistics are about as interesting as first base coaches.”
Unless you're a stats-geek, and then it's heaven.
By 2001, James, paterfamilias of the stat-geek generation, had conceded that clarity had been all but lost in the numerical dust storm of mutating calculations and
Ah. Okay. Heh.
To the gimlet eye of a modern stat geek, walks are the key to Mantle’s superior on-base percentage and the reason he fares so well in a pre ponderance of the new offensive metrics. Nor is Mantle’s self-flagellation over his lifetime .298 batting average warranted.
“He was measuring himself with the yardstick he grew up with in the 1930s,” Thorn said. Little wonder that teammates fulminated at all the “what ifs.”
“I hate it when people say how much he wasted,” said Clete Boyer. “Jesus Christ, how much better could he have been?”
Reggie Jackson turned away from tracking the flight of one hundred batting-practice hacks to consider the question of Mickey Mantle and white-skin privilege.
It is the one “what if” nobody wants to talk about. If Mickey had been black and Willie had been white, what kind of conversation would there have been? Would there even have been a conversation? How much does race influence the way they are remembered?
This confused me at first, because I didn't know about the Mays Mantle comparison. I had no frame of reference for this conversation until I had read through it. I didn't reread it for clarity, though.
I think character flaws bring compassion for all colors.
Irvin watched with admiration as Mantle improved himself first as an outfielder and later as a public person. He listened when fantasy campers asked Mantle the question.
“‘Well,’ he’d say, ‘Mays was a better fielder. I had more power and hit the ball farther.’ He came out and told the truth.
“He made people like him. I told Willie, ‘You should be a little more personable. They’d like you the way they like Mickey.’
“But he never did.”
Mickey shrugged. “He had to do it. He did it to Willie. He made his mistake when he did it to Willie. In the back of my mind it bugs me a little. It sounds worse than it is. A guy or two said, ‘Jesus Christ, you were my boyhood idol, now you’re banned. You must have done something bad.’ I feel really kind of bad no one took up for me. It’s, like, ‘Well, fine, he’s gone.’ ” Mays took up for him, sort of. “He’s never gonna harm baseball or anybody else,” Mays said. “The only one he ever harmed was himself.”
He decided to lighten the mood with a joke. “God calls Saint Peter over, and he says, ‘Saint Peter, I was down on Earth and I made this man and this woman and I forgot to put their sexual organs on them. You take this pecker and this pussy down there and put ’em on them.’ “Saint Peter says, ‘Okay.’ And he’s getting ready to leave, and God says, ‘Be sure to put the pussy on the short, dumb one.’ ”
Yeah, did I mention the fall off the pedestal?
Recklessness was always part of his charm, his cheerful, who-gives-a-fuck élan. But with each increasingly precarious turn threatening to upend the cart, with every vicious twist of his lower body as he swung through the ball, his limp became more pronounced and the consequences of his wildness more patent.
That fall, in the sixth inning of game 4 of the World Series, Roebuck threw him a sinker that “hung out over the plate.” Not for long. Duke Snider admired the parabolic view in center field.
“I don’t mind you not charging it,” Roebuck told him later. “But you don’t have to stop to see how far it went.” Roebuck understood: length is a guy thing. Size matters.
“Seriously,” he said, laughing. “That’s what made the male regard Mantle that way. Forget God. Mickey Mantle can hit the ball farther than anybody.”
Mantle had no idea what he did right or wrong or differently batting right-handed and left-handed. More than likely he would have had little truck with present-day baseball pedagogy.
They don’t talk baseball; they discuss the “relationship amongst the sweet spot, COP, and vibration nodes in baseball bats,” the topic of a treatise published in Proceedings of the 5th Conference of Engineering of Sport.
Kandel, a physician trained in psychiatry and neurobiology, explained: “There are two kinds of memories. They’re called implicit and explicit. Explicit memory is a memory of people, places, and objects. If you think of the last time you sat in a baseball stadium and remember who you were with, you’re doing explicit memory storage. “Implicit memory storage is hitting a tennis ball, hitting a baseball, doing anything that involves sensory motor skills.”
Kandel was in a conversation I recently had with Bob. I'll likely add his latest book to my reading pile, really soon, like, done.
Muscle memory is a form of implicit memory that is recalled through performance, Kandel said, “without conscious effort or even the awareness that we are drawing on memory.”
It’s also why the greatest athletes usually make the lousiest coaches.
Let me tell you a story about Tyler Grant.
... forcing them to articulate what they do and how they do it, their performance deteriorates. Compelled to surrender what he calls “expertise-induced amnesia”—in short, to make an implicit memory explicit again—“ they start thinking about what they’re doing and mess everything up,” he said.
The brain can bulk up, too. Repeated experience can form new synaptic connections, especially if you start building up those implicit memories before puberty. The right genes nurtured the right way—meaning early enough and often enough—creates the potential for a particular kind of genius.
A 90-mile-per-hour fastball doesn’t leave much time for thought. Traveling at a rate of 132 feet per second, it makes the sixty-foot, six-inch journey from pitcher to batter in four-tenths of a second. The ball is a quarter of the way to home plate by the time a hitter becomes fully aware of it. Because there is a 100-millisecond delay between the time the image of the ball hits the batter’s retina and when he becomes conscious of it, it is physiologically impossible to track the ball from the pitcher’s hand to the catcher’s glove.
Neurologically speaking, every batter is a guess-hitter. That’s where implicit memory comes in. The ability to infer the type of pitch and where it’s headed with accuracy and speed is inextricably linked with stored experience—the hitter has seen that pitch before, even if he can’t see it all the way.
“The report was, you had to jam him,” said Osteen, then in the eighth of his eighteen years in the majors. “If you’ve got a guy like Mantle who’s standing miles away from the plate, where there is so much daylight between the inside corner and his hands, it’s frightening. It’s right down the middle of the plate for a guy like that.”
“I went in there. It was a fastball, right on the black,” he said. “Right away he went straight into the ball and closed that daylight up.”
The margin of error was a sliver of daylight. Which explains why when he was asked how he had pitched to Mantle, the late Frank Sullivan said, “With tears in my eyes.”
“Oh, that night,” Carmen Berra said, recalling Billy Martin’s twenty-ninth birthday, the last one before you get old.
Baseball writers ate, drank, and traveled with the team. Their tab was often paid by the team. “You couldn’t write one word of it, the debauchery,” said Jack Lang, the longtime executive secretary of the Baseball Writers Association of America. “It wasn’t just liquor. It was the women.”
The locker room code of honor was inviolable: What happens in the clubhouse stays in the clubhouse—even if it doesn’t take place in the clubhouse.
“The Yankee clubhouse was, like, below street level,” Mantle told me. “We had windows, like, where people are walking along. Girls used to come stand there, and we used to shoot water guns up in their puss. We could see ’em kind of flinch. They’d be looking around trying to figure out where the fuck that water is coming from.”
Mantle once said that Martin was the only guy he knew who “could hear someone give him the finger.” He negotiated life with a chip on his shoulder, and those in the know gave him a wide berth.
Yet Billy Martin’s birthday party was a watershed event, and not just because it gave Weiss the occasion to trade him. It was the day sportswriting began to grow up. The era of hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil could not withstand TV’s increasingly intrusive cathode glare or the skepticism of an irreverent cohort of young sportswriters for whom questioning authority was a generational prerogative.
Mantle sat out game 5, the ninth World Series game he had missed due to injury, and the Yankees lost 1–0. They won game 6 without him but lost game 7—and the World Series—despite his return to the lineup. His throwing arm would never be the same.
“Guided differently, he could have done better for himself as a human being,” Jerry Coleman said. “He would have liked himself more.”
And the guy poured him at least two more jiggers in that one, and he threw that one down. He wanted that anesthetic feeling up there in the prefrontal lobe.”
She never could get accustomed to the familial reserve. “Mick’s family was cold,” she told me. “They didn’t visit. He didn’t visit.” And when they did pay a call, they didn’t show up emotionally.
“Nobody would talk. It was weird. Nobody would say anything,” Merlyn told me. “And the only way they could really talk was when everybody got bombed. Everybody had to have the beer. They could not relax and visit with each other unless they were having beers.”
“All they said was hello and goodbye,” Danny Mantle said.
His people skills—emotional intelligence in modern parlance—made a lasting impression on Mark Freeman during the brief time they played together in 1959. “I think he’s basically one of the most decent guys I’ve ever met,” he told Leonard Schecter of the Post.
Beat writers suspected there was another Mantle, one who didn’t begin every conversation with “Fuck you” or “Go fuck yourself” or, when he was pressed for time, just plain “Fuck.”
He was a guy’s guy who called everyone “bud” or “pard.” But he cried easily. He wept at mournful country-western tunes, and at the morning headlines. “Somebody got killed or something, he’d get tears in his eyes,” Irv Noren said.
In the clubhouse, Mantle shed the residue of bias he had brought with him from Commerce.
One in the plus column.
“He’d say, C’mon, there’s a great place across the street.’ One of his favorites was having Coke and milk together. After a while it really didn’t taste too bad. He loved that drink. He’d have it even on airplanes. It’s like a root beer float.”
He replied to the incessant inquiries for medical updates by pinning a sign to his chest: “Slight improvement. Back in two weeks. Don’t ask.”
It was his first—albeit unacknowledged—hangover home run. “Pinch-hit, eighth or ninth inning, when he was too drunk to play,” Linz said, one of perhaps three or four times he saw Mantle play in that condition.
This was the only time the bat actually bent in his hands.
This would have been amazing to see.
By the time the morning papers rolled off the presses, the “Man of Mishaps” had been transmogrified into “a tragic figure,” “the champion hard-luck guy,” and “the most fabulous invalid in the long history of sport.”
The Yankees were trailing by a run in the bottom of the seventh inning of the second game when Mantle emerged from the dugout to pinch-hit. The ovation began at the bat rack and reached a crescendo when Bob Sheppard announced his name. The roar “shook the windows of the Bronx County Courthouse,” one paper said.
Equally shaken, Mantle dug his spikes into the dirt on the right side of the plate and told himself, “Don’t just stand there and take three pitches—swing.” The Orioles were well aware that it was his first at-bat since the injury in Baltimore.
“Big George Brunet was on the mound,” Brooks Robinson said. “He just reared back and threw on every pitch.” Brunet threw one pitch, which Mantle took for a called strike, and then another. “Mantle swung his bat in anger for the first time in 61 games,” the Times reported, redirecting the ball into the left field stands.
“The most amazing thing is, it was not a pitch that most right-handed hitters are ever gonna get airborne,” Downing said. “And not only was it airborne, it was airborne about twenty feet off the ground and just hit those seats and ricocheted like a rocket!”
Mantle wasn’t sure he had pulled the ball enough. When the umpire signaled home run, he thought, “Gee, I’m a lucky stiff.” He broke into a cold sweat and something that resembled a trot. Later, he said he wasn’t sure how he made it around the bases and, in fact, didn’t remember doing so.
The roar of adulation eclipsed the two-minute standing ovation that had greeted him when he hobbled to the plate. It got louder and louder as he headed toward home. The Orioles applauded silently. “Gives you chills standing over there at first base,” Powell said. “Just being in the ballpark gave you chills.”
As Mantle rounded third base, Brooks Robinson thought “That’s why he’s Mickey Mantle.” By the time he reached home plate, “there was tears runnin’ all over his face,” Yankee pitcher Stan Williams said. He noticed because it was one of the rare occasions when Mantle allowed the outside world to see “how much it meant to him, how much the fans meant to him, how much the moment meant to him.”
“Mantle hit the most god-awful tomahawk-swing line drive into the left field bleachers,” McCormick said.
“Over the hedges,” Bauer said. “Honest to God, I didn’t think he’d make it around the bases,” Boyer said.
“He kinda sobered his way around,” McCormick said. He would hear about it for the rest of his career: “Even the drunks can hit home runs off of you.”
The sparse crowd was treated to an unfamiliar sight: Mantle batted right-handed against the right-hander, a transgression his father had abhorred. The departure in form was duly noted upstairs in the press box. Queried about it later, Mantle said he wanted to see if he could hit behind the runner batting from the right side.
This amused me. I love that he was still experimenting.
“I got my butt chewed pretty bad. I said, ‘Eddie, what difference does it make?’
“We played baseball for fun.”
“Then he struck him out with a fastball around the letters,” Roseboro said. “Mantle looked back at me and said, ‘How in the fuck are you supposed to hit that shit?’”
Kids who imitated his stiff-legged arrival at second base didn’t realize it was the only way he could bring himself to a stop.
Mickey had two different batting strokes: right-handed, he would hit on top of the ball. He would tomahawk the ball. Even his home runs to left field, a lot of ’em were line drives with top spin on ’em. They get out there real quick and sink and dive down into the bleachers. Left-handed, he undercut the ball. So here’s Barney Schultz throwing right into his power. Barney Schultz’s ball is breaking down, and Mickey’s bat goes down and . . .”
Mantle stood in. Schultz wound up. McCarver knew right away: “Nothing good was gonna come of this pitch.” It didn’t dance or flutter or defy expectation. It didn’t do anything at all.
“It wasn’t thrown,” McCarver said. “It was dangled like bait to a big fish. Plus it lingered in that area that was down, and Mickey was a lethal low-ball hitter left-handed. The pitch was so slow that it allowed him to turn on it and pull"
“When he left at 6: 30 A.M., Mickey and Whitey were in no condition to play baseball,” Lolich said. “He had done his job as far as he was concerned. He said, the next day Whitey pitched nine innings of shutout ball and Mantle hit two home runs.”
There are two kinds of baseball fans: those who bellow invective at the opposition no matter what and those who stand for a worthy adversary.
“I wake up most every day at 5: 30 or 6: 00 A.M.,” he said. “All those dreams.” A medley of recurring nightmares that make the long nights longer. Missed trains, missed planes, missed curfews—missed opportunities. “The hard part is just getting through it,” he said. Buses don’t stop. Fly balls don’t fly. Doors no longer open for The Mick. “I always felt I should have played longer.”
“People have always placed Joe and Mickey on a pedestal,” Tony Kubek told Daily News columnist Bill Madden years later. “The difference is Joe always liked being there and Mickey never felt like he belonged.”
His jealousy was palpable. “He would never look at Mickey Mantle until Mickey spoke to him—every time,” Clete Boyer said. “Mickey never said a bad word to the public about Joe D. Just to us.”
When he was in Dallas, Mantle organized his life around the clubhouse at Preston Trail, the posh all-male Dallas golf club he had joined as a charter member in 1965, trying to re-create the camaraderie of the locker room.
“Near the end he was really terrible to her, humiliating her,” said a friend who spent time with them at the Claridge. “She’d say she wanted to go to the hairdresser and ask for money. Mick would peel off a $ 1 bill and hand it to her in front of people, making her grovel.”
Sometimes he spoke of suicide. “I’m not sure he cared if he died,” Merlyn told me. “Mick just felt guilty. He wanted to lay down on the railroad tracks.”
“The misery would be over,” David said.
Mantle told him about seeing Ryne Duren on TV talking about his recovery. “That guy, when he was playing ball, was a wreck and he whipped it. He goes around talking, and he does a lot of good. If I can go out there and come back and the fact that I’ve whipped the drinking can help somebody else, then, sure, I want that known.”
Somewhere, sometime, he figured out that the best defense isn’t a good offense—it’s being as offensive as humanly possible. He deflected scrutiny like an unhittable pitch hacking away, until he got something he could handle. Most people never saw through it. The rest quit trying.
Bob Costas gave the eulogy, speaking for the child he once was, the children we all were before Mickey Mantle forced us to grow up and see the world as it is, not as we wished it to be.