I was nine or ten, listening to a Yankee game on the radio, when it started to rain and the game was delayed. A year or two earlier, in 1964, the great Mickey Mantle had his last great year as the Yankees won the pennant right at the end of the season. 1964 was my first season as a Yankee fan and it would be the Yankees’ last pennant for the rest of my childhood.
I remember watching the celebration on TV, black and white, the guys in their grey baseball undershirts dousing each other with champagne. Joe Pepitone describing how earlier in the year, before he went on a tear and finally fulfilled his potential (for about the only time in his career) he had been ‘fustrated’. Mantle poured champagne over him as he was being interviewed. Everybody laughed. Mantle later hit a couple of dramatic home runs, a total of three in the World Series to break Babe Ruth’s career record, and the Yankees lost in a dramatic game seven to Bob Gibson and the Cardinals. David Halberstam wrote a great book about the 1964 season called October 1964, well worth a read if you’re interested in baseball, history and how the world changes.
Mantle was the hero of many boys in New York in those days and I would always take his side in the eternal argument against those who idolized Willie Mays and insisted Say Hey was a better ball player. Sure Mays was a first ballot Hall of Famer, unquestionably one of the very best ever to play the game, a five tool guy who could do everything on a baseball field and make it look easy. Mantle’s skills were the equal of Mays’, we’d argue, and he was doing it all on one leg. Before Mantle got hurt he was faster than Mays, we’d say. The argument for the Mantle guys was the mythic hero tragedy centering on Mantle’s limitless potential, his heroism in overcoming his disabilities playing through pain, doing it all on one leg, on crutches, with the clock ticking, a career-ending injury always one play away. It was a tragic position: imagine what Mantle could do if he had Mays’ health! In the end their career stats, corrected for longevity, would be virtually identical with Mantle having a slight edge in a couple of categories (slightly better base stealing percentage, for example), Mays in a couple of others. It was the kind of vehement, futile, idealistic argument kids love to have.
Unbeknownst to us, Mantle was getting drunk virtually every night during his playing days while Willie took care of himself. The Mick would get shit-faced and fall down, get into fights, wind up in bed with a woman he didn’t recall meeting, was sneaked back into the Yankee hotel by teammates, the loyal press corps helping cover up most of his alcoholic episodes. We didn’t learn until years after his star-crossed yet magnificent career that he had been his own worst enemy.
Haunted by his father, Mutt Mantle’s, early death, and the early deaths of his uncles, he believed he was cursed to lead a short life, so why not have as much fun as he could getting shit-faced every night? The irrefutable logic of the bottle, I suppose. Toward the end of his career, as his skills diminished by the day, he played on a series of very bad Yankee teams. For one of the few times in their history the Yankees were a second division team, finishing last at least once during my childhood.
One day in 1965 or ’66, (could have been ’67 or ’68), there was a rain delay. I listened to Rizzuto and Bill White (I think it was White– though it’s unlikely, now that I think about it– White was probably still playing, he played first base on that great 1964 Cardinals team. Must have been Joe Garagiola) as they stalled, trying to keep fans tuned in during the delay. Not long afterwards radio networks would cut away from the stadium during rain delays and return to regular programming, but in those days they killed time telling baseball stories and talking about how it looked like it might be clearing up, how the ground crew was about to take off the tarp, until it started raining harder again. During this particular delay Mickey Mantle came into the broadcast booth and was greeted happily by the broadcasters.
This was a rare treat, you rarely heard players on the radio, and never during a game. But there was The Mick, loose and happy as could be, larger than life, talking with his Spavinaw, Oklahoma twang. The subject of a recent fight on the field between two baseball teams came up.
“You ever been in a fight on the field, Mick?” asked one of the broadcasters.
“Well, I’m not really much of a fighter, you know,” Mick said in his aw shucks way. He was one of the strongest men in baseball, with muscles like few other players, and this disclaimer struck me as a great aw shucks statement. “There was one time in Detroit that we got into it on the field, somebody got hit and people ran out of the dugouts. When this happens I look for a friend on the other team, and so I found Norm Cash, me and Norm are buddies, and we kind of held each other and pretended to fight. I kind of had Norm in a headlock and he says to me “hey, Mick, ever see a picture of your wife naked?” And I say “no.’ And he says “wanna buy some?””
“We’re going to break for a commercial,” said one of the broadcasters (almost certainly not Rizzuto) quickly. When they returned there was no sign of Mantle, nor even more than a passing mention of his visit to the broadcast booth.