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TOYS AND GAMES: Mickey Mantle Went Out a Hero

Today marks the 20th anniversary of Mickey Mantle’s death.

1954_Bowman_Mickey_Mantle 1954 Bowman Mickey Mantle card

Talk about feeling the years. I can still see the little boy sitting on the linoleum floor, box scores spread out in front of him early on summer mornings. I lived and died with whatever The Mick did the day before. Has there ever been a sports figure more elegant than No. 7 in pinstripes?

Mantle reigned as the consummate American hero in an era when the media would create heroes rather than examine them. He died a contemporary hero just after getting his house in order for all to see.

The former Yankees slugger, who played and partied with equal gusto, died on August 13, 1995 of a rapidly spreading cancer that progressed from his liver to all his vital organs.

Mantle forever will be “No. 7” and “The Mick,” the bigger-than-life cornerstone of a Yankees dynasty. He was the biggest star for baseball’s best team in the nation’s largest city.

Mantle arrived in the major leagues in 1951. Hailed as the heir to Babe Ruth and Joe DiMaggio, he was booed at first because of all the publicity touting him as the next DiMaggio. But, as he struggled through injuries to his knees, thighs, shoulders, fingers and hip, he managed to turn those boos to cheers.

Despite a lifelong battle with osteomyelitis, a crippling bone disease, and the hard-partying nightlife, Mantle put up numbers that still rank him among baseball’s best.

He retired at age 37 after the 1968 season with 536 regular-season home runs, third behind Babe Ruth and Willie Mays at the time. His 18 homers in World Series play is a record that still stands. Mantle led the Yankees to 12 American League pennants and seven World Series. Along the way he won the triple crown in 1956, racked up three Most Valuable Player awards and four A.L. home run titles.

Mantle and the long ball were synonymous. He could hit prodigious home runs from either side of the plate.

On April 17, 1953, he hit a home run in Washington off Chuck Stobbs that measured 565 feet. And, although no one has ever sent a ball out of Yankee Stadium, Mantle almost did on May 22, 1963, crushing a pitch off the facade of the third deck in right field, inches from the top of the roof.

Mantle’s physical prowess was legendary. So were his after-hours escapades. A fixture on the Manhattan nightclub scene with teammates Whitey Ford and Billy Martin, Mantle often was hung over for the next day’s game. Even so, he was a marvel.

Mantle lore includes a game against Cleveland when he was inserted as a late-inning pinch hitter. Nursing a bad hangover, Mantle still hit a towering home run and received a standing ovation. Back in the dugout, he squinted at the stands before telling his teammates: “Those people don’t know how tough that really was.”

Life was different back during Mantle’s prime. Former teammate Jim Bouton, who offered the first glimpse of Mantle on a bar stool in the controversial book, Ball Four, said drinking “was such a part of baseball back then.”

“When you started you were almost issued a uniform and a beer bottle opener,” said Bouton, who was reviled by many baseball players and fans for his revelations. “After the games you celebrated victories with beers or you drowned your sorrows with beer if you lost.

“And there were always people buying you free beers. If you go 40 years without buying a drink, you’re bound to have some problems. It’s like getting free eclairs for 40 years, you’re going to get fat.”

The summer before his death, Mantle admitted he was an alcoholic, checked himself into a substance-abuse clinic and began to tell the haunting truth about his life.

In his first-person account of his alcoholism in the April 18, 1994, edition of Sports Illustrated, Mantle described his daily regimen:

“I began some of my mornings the past 10 years with the “breakfast of champions’ — a big glass filled with a shot of brandy, some Kahlua and cream. Billy Martin and I used to drink them all the time, and I named the drink after us. Sometimes when I was in New York … and Billy and I were together, we would stop into my restaurant around 10 in the morning and the bartender would dump all the ingredients into a blender. After one drink I was off and running.”

Mantle’s father died from Hodgkin’s disease, a lymphatic cancer, at a young age, as did his grandfather and an uncle. One of Mantle’s sons also had a long struggle with the disease, then died of a heart attack.

“Hell, I only figured I’d live ’til 40,” Mantle once said. “That’s why I had as much fun as I could while I was young.”

A month before his death, he acknowledged at a news conference in July he had squandered a gifted life and warned admirers 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.”

No. 7 entered the public eye a hero, and after a lifetime of tribulations, he departed a hero.

bchastain19@gmail.com

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©2020 by Bill Chastain. Photo credits: Jill Doty Photography