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by William H. Benson

June 12, 2008

     “So it happened that my father, Mutt Mantle, decided that if he couldn’t become a professional baseball player, I should. He was almost comic in his determination to make a baseball player out of his little boy.” So wrote Mickey Mantle. Both Mickey’s father and his grandfather, Charles Mantle, had played amateur and semi-pro ball throughout the northeast corner of Oklahoma, but Mutt wanted far more for Mickey: he wanted his son to play in the majors.

     Mutt worked in the zinc mines near Commerce, Oklahoma, but from the time he arrived home until it was dark, nearly three hours, he pitched right-handed to young Mickey. Charles would join them and pitch left-handed to his grandson, and so Mickey learned to switch-hit, batting from each side of the plate. From his father and grandfather, he learned to hit, what were called, tape-measure home runs.

     When still a boy he played Class D ball, but well enough that he caught the eye of a Yankee scout. At eighteen, he joined the Yankees at their spring training camp in Phoenix, and they then sent him to Kansas City to play with their minor league team. A slump in his hitting there—twenty-two times at bat without a hit—compelled him to write his father to come and get him: he was quitting baseball.

     Mutt Mantle told him, “If that’s the way you’re going to take this, you don’t belong in baseball anyway. If you have no more guts than that, just forget about the game completely. Come back and work in the mines, like me.” Mickey stayed with baseball.

     For the Yankees he played 18 seasons—1951 through 1969, and hit a lifetime 536 home runs. During those seasons, often away from home, he partied and drank, especially with his two best friends then on the Yankee team—Whitey Ford and Billy Martin. “I drank because I thought we were having fun,” he later wrote.

     Then, once he had retired, his drinking accelerated. “My thirst went from steady to almost non-stop. . . . By the late eighties, I was drinking at lunch more frequently. Sometimes that would continue into the night. The weeks, months, and years began to be a blur. I was getting drunk more frequently.”

     As it always does, the drinking took its toll. His wife Merlyn separated from him, after raising their four boys on her own. About his boys—Mickey Jr., David, Danny, and Billy—Mickey wrote late in his life: “We gave them everything but discipline and a sense of purpose. . . . My greatest regret was that I didn’t spend a lot of time with my sons until they became my drinking partners. I just never learned how to be a father.”

     In public, he acted like a drunk. “I am embarrassed by what I did when I drank: the foul language, the rudeness, having to face people the next day, whom I didn’t remember insulting the night before.”

     In the early 1990’s Mickey’s friend, Pat Summerall, a television sports announcer, checked into the Betty Ford Center; eventually, Mickey decided he too should follow: the stomach pains, the memory loss, and the panic attacks had overwhelmed him. Standing up in a group at the Center, he said the words, “I’m Mickey, and I’m an alcoholic.”

     A month later, he returned home, and he claimed, and others have verified it, that he remained sober from then on, but filled with self-loathing for his forty years of drinking.

     On May 28, 1995, a case of severe stomach cramps required that he seek medical attention at Baylor University’s hospital, and the doctors diagnosed liver cancer. On June 8, he underwent a liver transplant, but on July 28, the doctors announced that the cancer had spread to his new liver, his lungs, and pancreas. Mickey Mantle passed away on August 13, 1995 at the age of sixty-five.

     “I was too busy to stop for Death, so Death stopped for me,” wrote Emily Dickinson.

     These four generations of Mantle’s—Charles, Mutt, Mickey, and Mickey’s four sons—underscores the overpowering influence that fathers have upon their sons. Tinged with undeniable remorse, Mickey late in life had stated what he believed: “Mickey, Jr. could have been a major league baseball player if my dad had been his dad. . . . Our lives have been in shambles for a lot of years, much of it flowing from my drinking.”

     Sunday is Father’s Day, a day reserved for, among other things, sobriety.