Too Late the Hero

A fitting tribute to one of the best the game ever had. Photo Courtesy: Wally Gobetz
A fitting tribute to one of the best the game ever had. Photo Courtesy: Wally Gobetz

By Will Martin

Eighteen years have now elapsed since an iconic figure in the world of sports has passed from liver cancer and complications thereof.

In 1981 his name was one of three honorably mentioned when ‘Talking Baseball’ along Willie and the Duke. Living in fear of dying young from an arbitrarily hereditary disease of Hodgkins. Unaware that inhalation of lead and zinc also contributed to to familial demise. To say nothing about the ravages of alcohol.

October 20th in Spavinaw Oklahoma, Mickey Mantle was born into the world. From 1951 to 1963 he ruled the baseball world on and off the field. 536 career home runs, 18 blasts in the World Series (three better than Babe Ruth), Triple Crown winner in 1956. 12 World Series, 7 championships, home runs that defied gravity as a switch hitter.

Bad luck seemed to always hound The Mick. A kick to the shins almost cost him a career in sports when osteomyelitis almost led to an ankle being amputated. Penicillin thankfully came to the rescue. A horrific knee injury during the 1951 World Series when his leg caught on to an exposed sprinkler while backing up Joe DiMaggio on a Willie Mays drive.

The days and weeks and months of not remembering due to being under the influence. A marriage that was severely tested with Merlyn and children. A latter relationship with Greer Johnson and the awkwardness brought on when both ex and current were in attendance at Mickey Mantle Day June 8th 1969.

It was July 14th, 1973 when I went to my first ballgame at the original Yankee Stadium. Three weeks later I watched Mickey Mantle crank a home run off the arm of Whitey Ford at an Old Timers Game. To see Mickey Mantle hobble around the basebaths I remembered reading after his passing that for 18 years (little technology then) Mantle played with a torn ACL and could STILL run from home to first base in 3.1 seconds. One gets to wondering.

What if Mickey Mantle were more like a Bobby Brown or Bobby Richardson? Two men of faith who dabbled in the drink. What if the Mick wasn’t beset by so many setbacks of bad luck with injuries? What if Mickey Mantle only batted left handed? Perhaps he and not Babe Ruth would be your all time Yankee home run king.

This is not an attempt to attack the character of a man from years past who needs defending. Rather, a memory of 18 years removed from a very emotional funeral in Dallas Texas on a very hot and steamy August day 1995 when Mantle was being honored from all walks of life in addition to friends and family.

With all the revelations going on in baseball these days about fallen heroes or cheaters maybe it’s good to have this reminder of a player who was connected to so many for his Herculean abilities amidst human frailties.

Towards the end, with a strong assist from family and men like Pat Summerall, Mickey Mantle was able to turn his life around, see the errors of his ways, try to make as many amends as possible amongst the people he had wronged. He did commercials for a younger public in which Mickey said, ‘This is a role model. Don’t be like me!’

The Commerce Comet was never comfortable in the spotlight of New York City and all those beat writers who were sympathetic to his predecessor Joe DiMaggio and Babe Ruth prior to that. Beyond the adversarial tone that stood between the writers and the mighty Yankee there was shock and awe and respect. How can you not be impressed by at least two instances in witnessing a home run off the lefty bat travel almost completely out of Yankee Stadium?

The 503 foot blast to straightaway centerfield that went event further than the monuments at 461 feet. A 565 foot blast off the arm of Chuck Stobbs in the nations capital. Prodigious, Gargantuan, and if there was no Babe prior we’d not have to Ruthian. We’d say Mantle-monious or something to that effect.

Yes, Mickey Mantle lived hard thinking he was going to die young. He made it all the way to 64. Ironically the same year New York was last in the World Series before his retirement. If the Beatles tune were indeed about him, John and Paul would just about have nailed it.

The stories oft told about himself alongside Billy Martin and Whitey Ford back in the day. Let’s face it times were different then. Society looked the other way at peccadilloes so long as you performed on the field. We did that with the Babe, Mick, Bobby Layne, and countless others who might not have made the print medium the next day but went about said vice quietly albeit eminently obvious.

Some of the best tributes tend to be shared long after one has passed or after a tragedy happens. Could you imagine the field day social media would have had in the 50’s in New York and Los Angeles alone? Hedda Hopper or Walter Winchell going the TMZ route to report a story? Think of what a source would field monetarily then. That’s not really the point.

18 years since we said goodbye to Mickey Mantle it occurs to me that a long line of athletes are doing amazing things on the field of competition for a great wage and living. The same maybe cannot be said off the field. May the memory of ‘The Commerce Comet’ be one in that you live your life, you make your mistakes, you take the good with the bad, and still have an ability to live, give, forgive, and move ahead.

To idolize a person and persona for acts perceived as superhuman is normal in the eyes of fanaticism. To be able to lead quietly, humbly, maybe even charitably away from the field of play even more appreciated, desired, and needed in these days of instant story with A.D.D. drive by reaction.

As a Who fan a 1981 song by John Enwistle voices my sentiment even more so. Thanks Mickey for living quite the life. In the game of life you became a symbol for hope toward the end. Hope you and Billy are keeping safe in heaven.