Long live Mickey Mantle!
We remember that Mickey Mantle died in Dallas this week in 1995.
The Mick, as many called him, was the most famous Yankee in those Charlie Stengel teams that dominated baseball from 1949 to '64. They won the A.L. pennant 14 times and the World Series nine times during that run. He joined The Hall of Fame in 1974 along with teammate Whitey Ford.
As every Baby-Boomer kid remembers, Mick used to hit long homeruns, make outstanding plays in center field, and slide without fear. I never got to see him play, but I would hear Mantle stories in Cuba. It was the thing to do in Cuban sandlots to scream out loud that Mantle was at the plate. I did it. I even tried switch-hitting to show everyone that I was the Cuban version of Mick, or something like that. Eventually, I went back to hitting from the right side, because I was no Mantle.
In 1964, our family made it to the U.S., and I remember peeking at the TV to catch the Cardinals play the Yankees in the World Series. It was the thing to do in grade school back then, especially when the super-nice teacher was interested in the game, too. Afternoon baseball had its benefits.
So I never saw him play, but I enjoyed watching every Mantle video that I could get my hands on.
Mickey's "last at bat" was his greatest. He handled his cancer gracefully and spoke candidly about the reckless behavior that contributed to his disease. Mickey's candor humanized him, especially for so many of us who thought he was superhuman. This is from Bart Barnes:
Early in 1994 — warned by doctors that his next drink might be his last — Mantle checked himself into the Betty Ford Center in Rancho Mirage, Calif., for a 28-day program of rehabilitation from alcohol abuse. He later wrote about that experience in a cover story for Sports Illustrated magazine. "God gave me a great body to play with, and I didn't take care of it. And I blame a lot of it on alcohol," he declared.
After leaving the Betty Ford Center, Mantle remained sober, but the damage to his body from years of heavy drinking had been done. He developed liver cancer, and a long-dormant hepatitis C infection flared up. On June 8, he underwent a liver transplant, which appeared to have been successful.
Early in August, the cancer from Mantle's diseased liver was detected in his lungs, and he was readmitted to Baylor Medical Center. Doctors soon discovered that it had spread to other parts of his body. Drugs he had taken to prevent his body from rejecting the new liver had weakened his immune system, making it easier for the cancer to spread, doctors said.
At a news conference several weeks before his death, the man idolized by millions for his grace and power expressed remorse for his years of heavy drinking. He declared that he was no role model for America's youth. "Don't be like me," he warned.
Well, I appreciated his honesty and forgave him as well. Yes, he made mistakes, but who does not? In my case, I regret that I did not get to see him play or catch his 500th home run. I heard about #500 when my father picked up the paper and told my brother and me about it. I guess that's the way it was before iPhones.
How many home runs would he have hit with better knees? Your guess is as good as mine. Long live Mickey Mantle!
Image via Picryl.