Yankee great Mickey Mantle would have been 86 this coming October. And to baseball fans, a sad reminder…that there’s a difference in role models and heroes. A Press Pros tribute to one of baseball’s true icons.
(Ed. Note: Published on Press Pros originally on August 13, 2014, it marked the 15th anniversary of the passing of Mickey Mantle; and it touched a lot of hearts. Many wrote, or texted, or mentioned face to face…how much they enjoyed the tribute, and how surprised they were to hear the truth about one of baseball’s best-known icons. As we approach the anniversary of his passing, we again present The Day “The Mick” Died for those who might have missed it – for those who remember Mickey Mantle as the most special ballplayer of his era.)
He played for 18 years and at some time or another captured the heart of every baseball fan in America, including mine. And to many, August 13th ranks with the saddest days in American history. It’s the day Mickey Mantle died…August 13, 1995.
He used to joke after his retirement in 1969, “If I had known I was gonna’ live so long, and be somebody, I woulda’ taken better care of myself.” Prophetic perhaps, because for his 63 years Mickey Mantle’s celebrity as a New York Yankee put him in the company of America’s best…even in death.
Florence Nightingale…writer H.G. Wells…television chef Julia Child…and Yankee teammate Phil Rizzuto…they all died on that same August 13th date. They were all famous, but Mickey Mantle -“The Mick” – was in a class by himself.
He hit 536 career home runs, and would have hit a hundred more had he not missed so much time with crippling injuries.
He won the American League Triple Crown in 1956, hitting .353, 52 home runs, and 130 runs batted in.
He won three American League Most Valuable Player titles and played in 16 all-star games.
He still holds the record for most World Series home runs with 18!
He retired prematurely in 1969 at age 36 and later admitted that he regretted it for having let so many people…so many Yankee fans…down by leaving the game, and by the way he left it!
He played hard, but he lived even harder, notorious for his after-hours binges with teammates like Whitey Ford and Billy Martin. In later years he admitted to his addiction to alcohol.
“Not because I was trying to forget anything,” he said in a 1994 interview with Bob Costas. “Mostly, I did it because of the baseball environment that came with being a celebrity.”
But for that celebrity and good times he had, Mickey Mantle knew more than his share of sorrows.
His father died at the age of 39 from Hodgkin’s disease.
Mickey and his wife Merlyn would have four sons before their separation in 1980…Mickey Jr., David, Billy, and Danny. All four battled alcoholism as adults, and like so many men in the Mantle family, Billy developed Hodgkin’s disease and died of a heart attack in 1994, one year prior to his father’s death. Namesake Mickey Jr. would die of cancer in 2000.
Yet, for his sorrows and heartaches, Mickey Mantle chose to spend the final years of his life as a living testimony, reminding all that would hear to do as I say and not as I have done.
“I don’t think that I ever hurt my team by my drinking,” said Mantle. “But I know I screwed up. I know I could have had a better career. I could have played longer and I could have lived a better life. I could have been a better dad. When I retired in 1969 I felt so bad about it that I really believe I started drinking then with a purpose.”
Mickey Mantle’s death, now nearly twenty years ago, still haunts me – depresses me. As a bare-foot kid hitting rocks over the barn roof with a tomato stake, Mickey Mantle was my undisputed baseball idol. And yes, as I grew older I heard the stories about his life style and personal habits. But it didn’t matter to me. I didn’t look to Mantle as a Sunday school teacher. I was living vicariously through Mantle the ballplayer.
In his final years the inner conflicts ate away at him as his depression increased. At the urging of friends and other influential athletes he finally sought professional help at the Betty Ford Clinic in 1994.
“One of the things I learned at Betty Ford was to recognize that I wasn’t a very good father figure,” admitted Mantle afterwards. “I was never there for my kids like my dad was there for me growing up.”
Mantle would later say that if his career and lifestyle was an influence on his boys and their eventual issues with alcohol…he truly regretted it. Ironic, for the fact that so many viewed his public persona as that of a positive role model…the millions of sports fans who urged their kids to look to his example as a ballplayer, and as a Yankee.
In his autobiography, published in 1985, Mantle went out of his way to say that he was not a role model, and to discourage anyone from following his life path outside of baseball.
“I wouldn’t have wanted the kids to look up to me like I looked up to Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, Stan Musial and guys like that. Those guys were role models…not what I was at the end of my career.”
And yet, if not a role model, Mickey Mantle was nonetheless a hero to many, and that was enough to so many who admired him, yet never knew. And had they known odds are they would have looked beyond his shortcomings. He was, after all, Mickey Mantle.
Few remember when role models die. But everyone remembers their heroes and the shock that we feel when we hear of their passing…John Kennedy, John Wayne, even John Lennon. I wish I could remember them all.
But this week, on the day he died, August 13, 1995, I still remember…”The Mick”!
Note: Click on the link below to view the Bob Costas interview with Mickey Mantle, filmed in 1994.