The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America's Childhood
Atlantic City, April 1983
I met Mickey Mantle in the Atlantic City hotel where my mother lost her virginity, three weeks after Pearl Harbor. It was the spring of 1983, the year Mantle’s hometown of Commerce, Oklahoma, was named one of the most toxic waste sites in America. I was a reporter for The Washington Post and a devoted second, who had taken up the gauntlet in the endless verbal duels of protracted childhood: “Who’s better? Mickey Mantle or Willie Mays?” He was the newly appointed Director of Sports Promotions at the Claridge Hotel and newly banished from baseball because of his affiliation with its casino.
My parents’ honeymoon had been brief, one winter night by the Jersey shore—Christmas Day 1941, the only day they could find a rabbi in the pre-nuptial rush to commitment prior to his shipping out. After my father received his orders—he was stationed in the Aleutian Islands for four long, bitter years—my mother moved back in with her parents at 751 Walton Avenue, one very long, very loud foul ball from Yankee Stadium.
The building was called the Yankee Arms and featured a leaded stained-glass window in the lobby with bats crossed over a heraldic shield; the colors were home white and pinstripe blue and yellow-gold to evoke the blondness of ash.
Groundbreaking was in the fall of 1927, just after The Babe swatted his sixtieth home run. Such was his clout that a whole new subdivision of luxury buildings—the Neighborhood That Ruth Built—sprang up in his shadow. Bordered on the east by the Beaux Arts mansions of the Grand Concourse and on the west by the Harlem River, the Stadium area embodied upward mobility. For a time, The Babe himself lived on Walton Avenue, ten blocks north of my grandmother’s kitchen.
The apartment had all the latest amenities of 1920s construction: windows that swiveled on a pivot for washing; a dumbwaiter that brought groceries up from the basement and took trash away; a refrigeration system that circulated cold water through pipes to keep the groceries cold. The halls smelled of butter and borscht, chicken schmaltz and stuffed cabbage. I could smell my grand-mother’s sweet-and-sour salmon two floors away.
The lobby attempted dark Tudor elegance: heavy, brocaded furniture and ocher-colored shellacked stucco walls. Shafts of blue and gold light poured through the stained-glass window, pooling on the hard stone floor. I hopscotched from blue to gold, my party shoes clicking like baseball spikes against a concrete runway.
It was there that I fell in love with Mickey Mantle.
My grandmother’s apartment, 2A, faced east toward the Concourse, away from the Stadium. During home stands, the roar of the crowd threatened the kibitzing in her parlor, ricocheting off the buildings on 157th Street, past the candy store and the greengrocer on the corner of Gerard Avenue, past Nick, the shoemaker, and Mr. Kerlan, the kosher butcher, and through her double-hung windows. Crouched beneath the grand piano—with a damaged right leg as precarious as The Mick’s—I listened to Mel Allen’s honeysuckle baritone, punctuated by the crack of the bat. And then the roar came again as the sound waves vibrated up the street. It was my own primitive version of surround sound and it rattled the glass. I turned up the volume when Mickey was on deck.
In my worldview, Celia Zelda Fellenbaum and Mickey Charles Mantle were linked by something far deeper than mere proximity. Both were stoic in the face of pain and selfless in the pursuit of pleasing others. My diabetic grandmother injected her thigh daily with the insulin she kept in the icebox along with the sweets she stocked for me and my cousins: six-packs of Pepsi, platters piled high with homemade rugelach, and her own seven-layer chocolate cake. How different was it, really—Mantle’s insistence upon being in the lineup no matter how much he hurt and her risky determination to fast on Yom Kippur? Weren’t they both team players?
“Who’s better, Dad? Mickey or Willie?”
My father grew up on the other side of the Harlem River in a tenement hovering above Coogan’s Bluff. In the winter of 1927, he patrolled the Polo Grounds as a water boy for the New York football Giants. “Willie,” he replied firmly, citing the latest box score.
Mickey was my guy. Or: I was a Mickey guy. Either way, the relationship was proprietary and somehow essential. Like Mick, who had to be sent down to the minors three months after his major league debut, I had arrived prematurely. Conceived the week—perhaps the day—he hit his first home run at the Stadium, I was born two months too soon in a Bronx hospital twenty city blocks from where that ball landed. Like Mick, I had a sense of being physically flawed. Other kids practiced his swing; I practiced his limp and aped his grimace.
My grandmother gave me permission to be who I was, a little girl who liked to play boys’ games. One fine spring day, opening day of the baseball season, we took the CC train downtown to Saks Fifth Avenue to buy a baseball glove. The cars still had those old straw seats and the bristles caught in my tights and we almost missed the stop while trying to untangle me. I often got tangled up when I tried to be a proper girl.
We bought me a mitt, the only one they had, a Sam Esposito model, which was firmly attached to the glove hand of a mannequin in the Saks Fifth Avenue window. “I’ll have that for my granddaughter,” she told the flummoxed salesman.
No matter how many times he demurred—“Madam, it’s not for sale”— she would not be deterred. I took Sammy home with me and everywhere else until my mother disposed of the glove in an unhappy spring purge. I told my grandmother that Sam was a Yankee. She had no reason to know better. In the twenty-five years she lived at 751 Walton Avenue, she never once felt compelled to cross the threshold of the cathedral of baseball.
She celebrated the Jewish High Holy Days in the ballroom of the Concourse Plaza Hotel at the corner of 161st Street, where Mickey and Merlyn Mantle spent their first year as newlyweds. No matter what the temperature, she wore her mink coat to shul. It had a shawl collar and no buttons and was big enough to keep her and several grandchildren warm. In fact, her coat was two sizes too large—marked down, wholesale. She didn’t wear it to temple on sweltering fall afternoons of prayer to show off. That would have required a mere stole. It was to accommodate me, Sammy, and my red, plastic transistor radio with a tinny gold flower-shaped speaker at its center. She greeted the New Year, waiting for me by a bench in front of Franz Siegel Park, arms spread wide, an expanse of mink catching me in a satin embrace.
Services were held in the sumptuous ballroom of the hotel, which opened for business the same year as Yankee Stadium. With its vast onlookers’ balcony, the ballroom was well suited to my grandmother’s Conservative congregation, in which men and women worshiped in sacred isolation. The women sat upstairs in the gallery in ballroom chairs facing toward Jerusalem. I faced the opposite direction, called to prayer by the large, green, looming presence of the outfield wall at the bottom of 161st Street. Just down the hill, past Joyce Kilmer Park, where African-American men sold towers of undulating marbleized balloons, past Addie Vallens, the ice cream parlor where Joe DiMaggio enjoyed an ice cream soda between ends of a doubleheader. Mickey was so close, and so far away.
While my grandmother listened for the sound of the shofar, I listened to Red Barber inside a cocoon of heavy red velvet drapery that concealed his voice and my apostasy. While she prayed for my future, I prayed that no one would ever humiliate Mickey again, the way Sandy Koufax did in the 1963 World Series.
The 1964 World Series was my last opportunity to pray with her and for him. Mickey got old fast, and so did my grandmother. I was sitting in my parents’ maroon-on-black Dodge sedan with the push-button transmission in the parking lot of Montefiore Hospital when she suffered the stroke that precipitated her death at age seventy-four. The night she died, Monday, May 2, 1965, the Yankees did not play.
I didn’t go back to Yankee Stadium until September 1968. This time, it was to pay homage to The Mick. It had been an awful year of abrupt and tragic goodbyes. Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., were assassinated. The cover of Time magazine asked if God was dead too. And Mickey Mantle was playing his last season.
The particulars of the game are hazy. Was it a Sunday? A doubleheader against the Senators, perhaps?
Memory returns in shards: traffic whizzing by the pigeons loitering on the median dividing the Concourse; the rumble of the D train below tar-patched macadam; a steel girder buttoned with bolts, blocking the view from our seats in the lower deck behind and to the left of home plate. The netting cut the batter’s box into tidy rectangles of time and space. I don’t remember what Mickey did that day. But then, my view was obstructed.
Just how little I’ d really seen of him became apparent when he agreed to meet me for breakfast in Atlantic City fifteen years later. I was sitting at my desk in the sports department at The Washington Post when he called. “Hi, this is Mickey,” he drawled. “Mickey Lipschitz.”
“I didn’t know you were Jewish.”
“Let me tell you something a guy told me when I first come to New York,” Mickey said. “When you’re going good, you’re Jewish. When you’re going bad, you’re Eye-talian.”
He said he’ d meet me at 11 A.M.
March 26, 1951
The Whole World Opened Up
ON MARCH 20, 1951,
shortly after arriving in Los Angeles for the beginning of their spring training tour of
California, the World Champion New York Yankees visited the lot at MGM where Betty
Grable was rehearsing dance numbers for her newest flick. A PR still, later published in
Movie Fan magazine, was taken to commemorate the occasion. There’s
Yogi Berra front and center wearing a garish paisley sports shirt as bright as his
smile, with a collar as wide as his ears and Grable on his well-tailored arm.
There’s The Scooter, Phil Rizzuto, the unlikely MVP of the 1950 season, and his
double-play partner, second baseman Jerry Coleman; Johnny Hopp, Johnny Mize, and big Joe
Collins offering Grable his right elbow.
In the back row, like a schoolboy who’d wandered into the wrong class
picture, stands the rookie Mickey Mantle, his features as unformed as his future. He
gazes over Grable’s shoulder, his blond hair smartly parted, cowlick neatly
slicked, necktie tautly knotted.
Mantle and his roommate, Bob Wiesler, were the only rookies in the bunch,
both movie buffs. They couldn’t understand why more of the veteran players
hadn’t jumped at the chance to go to Hollywood. They met Esther Williams, Red
Skelton, Howard Keel, and the guy who later played Miss Kitty’s bartender on
Gunsmoke. They saw Debbie Reynolds hurrying down the hall carrying two fur
coats and called out, “Hiya, Deb!” Mantle wrote home to his Oklahoma
sweetheart about the starlets who returned his hello. “Wasn’t any as
pretty as you.”
It was a big time for Mickey Mantle. His childhood friend from Commerce,
Nick Ferguson, who had migrated west after high school, drove up from San Diego in his
old ’42 Plymouth to show him the California coast. Ferguson wanted his Okie buddy
to see the Pacific. They went straight out Wilshire Boulevard to the Santa Monica Pier.
It was Mantle’s first opportunity to feel the surf and sand between his toes. But
he did neither. Baseball was the only thing on his horizon. All he cared about was
getting to the ballpark on time.
Del Webb, the Yankees’ entrepreneurial co-owner, had contrived that
spring to switch training camps with the New York Giants. Webb was a Phoenix real estate
developer, ahead of his time in grasping the westward rush of postwar America.
Sporting News reported that he was considering selling his stake in the
Yankees to his partner Dan Topping as part of a plan to extend major league baseball
beyond the Mississippi.
Bringing the Yankees to train in Phoenix allowed him to play the big shot in
his hometown. Then he sent them barnstorming up and down the California coast in order
to showcase Joe DiMaggio in the Clipper’s home state and whet the appetite for
big league ball. The schedule called for thirteen games in California, mostly against
Class AAA Pacific Coast League teams, with stops at Glendale, manager Casey
Stengel’s home-town; in Oakland, where Stengel had managed the Oaks before being
promoted to the Yankees’ job; at Seals Stadium in San Francisco, where DiMaggio
had made his name; and finally at the University of Southern California against the
Trojans, better known for their gridiron exploits. That spring was the last time the
Yankees would train anywhere other than Florida.
It also marked the opening act of one of baseball’s—or
Broadway’s— greatest hits, an SRO psychodrama with a very long run.
Stengel had seen Mantle for the first time a year earlier at a
pre–spring training camp held in Phoenix for the top prospects in the Yankees
system. The kid, just eighteen, had missed the team bus to the practice field. He was
standing with a teammate, Cal Neeman, neither of them knowing what to do, when a taxi
pulled up. “Well, hop in, boys,” Stengel said, “we’ll go to
Neeman recalled, “And we’re ridin’ along, and he wants
to know who’s in the car. Well, we really didn’t want to tell him. I give
him my name. He come to Mickey and says, ‘Who are you?’ And he says,
‘I’m Mickey.’ And he says, ‘Oh, you’re that kid
that’s all mixed up. You’re not supposed to be able to run like that and
hit the ball so far.’ ”
Mantle was all but invisible until the coaches said, “Take your marks
. . .” Hank Workman, a prospective first baseman, recalled, “They were
timing guys from home to first. Nobody noticed Mantle up to that. He was very quiet and
extremely shy. He would pull his cap down so far over his brow that you could hardly see
his face. Then he ran. And I swear he was going so fast you could still see the tufts of
dust in the air from his footprints a couple of feet back from where he was.”
Bunny Mick, one of Stengel’s lieutenants, timed him from the
left-handed batter’s box to first base in 3.1 seconds, a new land-speed
Workman also recalled Mantle’s debut in intrasquad games: “The
first time Mantle came up, he hit one a mile outta that ballpark. About three innings
later he comes up again. The pitcher’s changed, and he hits one a mile out the
other way. And all he does after is, he trots out to shortstop in his non-ostentatious
way with his hat pulled way down.”
The camp was shut down when Commissioner Happy Chandler got wind of the big
league instructors getting a head start on spring training. But Stengel had seen enough
to see the future. “Mantle’s at shortstop taking ground balls, throwing
’em by the first baseman—and outta the dugout comes Stengel,”
Workman remembered. “He’s got a fungo bat in his hand, and he runs right
at Mantle. He starts waving this bat at him, and he shoos him out into the outfield, and
turns around and loudly announces to all the coaches and everybody that’s
assembled that this guy is gonna be a center fielder. ‘I’m gonna teach him
how to play center field myself, and I don’t wanna see him at shortstop
But that’s where he played for the 1950 Joplin Miners. His .383
batting average deflected attention from his 55 errors and he was named the Most
Valuable Player of the Western League. In January 1951, The Sporting News hailed
him as a “Jewel from Mine Country.”
“Nineteen-year-old Mickey Mantle, dubbed by some big-time scouts as
the No. 1 prospect in the nation, will be off for Phoenix in a few weeks to display the
talents that won him such raves from veteran talent hunters,” baseball writer
Paul Stubblefield declared. And in a special box: The Sporting News announced the
engagement of the Yankees’ big catch—who “didn’t cost a
nickel”—to Miss Merlyn Louise Johnson of Picher, Oklahoma.
The groom to be was a no-show when rookies reported to spring training camp
two weeks later. A reporter and photographer from the Miami Daily News-Record
found Mantle at the Eagle-Picher motor pool and delivered a message from Yankee farm
director Lee MacPhail: “Where are you?”
Helping out the pump crew, came the reply, for $35 a week. The Yankees
hadn’t sent him a train ticket, and Mantle wasn’t a bonus baby like
Skowron ($25,000) and Kal Segrist ($50,000). His half brother, Ted Davis, used his Army
discharge money to pay for Miss Johnson’s engagement ring. The photographer
snapped a picture of the overall-clad prospect with the smudged grin leaning against a
mining company truck. The next day, Tom Greenwade, who would forever be known as the
scout who signed Mickey Mantle, showed up with his fare.
By the time Mantle got off the train in Phoenix, the Yankees’ most
heralded rookies—Bob Wiesler, Moose Skowron, Gil McDougald, Andy Carey, and Bob
Cerv—were working on their baseball tans. They never forgot those early tastes
and smells of the big time. For Al Pilarcik, an outfielder from Ohio, it was the scent
of orange blossoms from the trees outside the team’s motel. For Wiesler, it was
the standing rib roast that circulated through the dining room on a rolling cart. Every
night, waiters would lift the platter’s heavy silver-plated hood and the kids
would help themselves to a juicy slab of promise.
The early reports on Mantle were measured in tone. He was being groomed,
considered, studied. Neither he nor his employers expected him to play in the big
leagues in 1951. Never had anyone in the Yankee system made the leap from Class C to the
majors after only two years in professional baseball. And Jackie Jensen, the California
golden boy, was also waiting in the wings for DiMaggio to exit stage right.
But Stengel was watching, keeping a close eye on his new kid.
“We’d go down through the lobby, Casey would always be sittin’
there,” Nick Ferguson said. “And he never said anything, but he was
eyeballin’ me like he knew I wasn’t a player, and what was I doin’
there with Mickey?”
Spring is a season of profusion, especially for baseball writers, the
inevitable consequence of sending grown men to Florida and Arizona with empty notebooks,
a per diem—and no wives. Red Smith rued the day he received a wire from Stanley
Woodward, his editor at the New York Herald Tribune, ordering him to quit
“godding up those ballplayers.” Nonetheless, in the spring of 1951, Mickey
Mantle was elevated and beatified.
In the thin Arizona air, his home runs soared and florid prose burst forth
from fallow typewriters like desert wildflowers. Just a week after Mantle arrived in
camp, Ben Epstein, the effusive beat writer for the New York Daily Mirror, wrote,
“Thank the fates for Arizona’s ambrosial air. It’s practically
necessary to fuel one’s lungs with the stuff if you want to stay in fashion and
carry on about Mickey Mantle. Latest estimates hoisted the Yankee oakie doakie as the
eventual successor to Joe DiMaggio.”
Bad weather during the first days of camp—snow, even—forced
the players indoors. Indolent scribes still had to churn out copy. Encomiums lit up the
Western Union wires: “Rookie of the Eons,” “Magnificent
Mantle,” “Mighty Mickey,” “Young Lochinvar,”
“Commerce Comet,” “Oklahoma Kid,” “Colossal
Kid,” “Wonder Boy,” “One-Man Platoon,” “The
Future of Baseball.”
Pete Sheehy, the clubhouse man and guardian of Yankee succession, assigned
the lockers and the uniform numbers—the Yankees were the first team to do that.
Sheehy had gone to work for the club when he was fifteen, summoned to his calling while
waiting for the Stadium gates to open one day in 1927—and stayed until his death
fifty-nine years later. The Yankee locker room is named after him. He was the
institutional memory of the club, who divulged nothing. He fetched hot dogs and bicarb
for The Babe and joe for Joe D.; he informed a historically challenged rookie that
George Herman Ruth’s number 3 was not available, nor was Henry Louis
Gehrig’s 4. As for 5, everyone knew 5 was still working on immortality. Sheehy
gave Mantle 6. “The law of mathematical progression,” the Yankees’
public relations man Red Patterson called it.
Veterans reported on March 1. Archie Wilson, a pitcher returning from
military service, arrived to find both beds in his assigned room taken. Archie’s
widow, Sybil Wilson, recalled that as her husband put his things down on a roll-away,
Mantle rose from his bed and said, “You’re not going to sleep on the
cot.” He took it—Wilson was an Army vet and his senior.
On March 2, Stengel announced that he was moving Mantle to the outfield. The
next day, DiMaggio announced that the 1951 season would be his last. His throwing
shoulder was sore, his left knee was swollen, and his pride was smarting. All those
questions didn’t help, either. Louella Parsons, the dominatrix of Hollywood
gossip, wanted to know about a possible reconciliation with his estranged wife, Dorothy.
The baseball writers wanted the dope on the new kid. So DiMaggio threw them all a
His retirement was on the horizon, but the Yankees had no idea an
announcement was coming that day. “What am I supposed to do, get a gun and make
him play?” Stengel groused. Overnight, Mantle went from a good story to
the story. “When they’d go into the hotel lobbies, all the
newspaper people would flock to Mickey,” Sybil Wilson recalled. “He would
get down behind Archie and squat down so they wouldn’t see him. He was so scared
Tommy Henrich, Old Reliable, was assigned the task of turning him into an
outfielder, teaching him how to gauge the angle of the ball off the bat; how to position
his body to catch the ball on his back foot and get rid of it in one smooth motion; how
to react to a drive hit straight at him. His arm was plenty strong—legend had it
that minor league ballparks refused to sell tickets behind first base when Mantle was
patrolling the infield or put chicken wire up to protect the spectators. Delbert
Lovelace, a friend from sandlot ball back home, was on the receiving end of more than
one errant heave: “One time he let the ball loose, and it looked like surely that
ball was goin’ to drop into the dirt, and I put my glove down, and it hit me on
the wrist above my glove.”
The seams of the baseball were engraved in his flesh.
In the outfield, Mantle couldn’t hurt anybody—except maybe
himself. Out there, he could outrun his mistakes.
When the New Yorkers opened their 1951 Cactus League season against the
Cleveland Indians in Tucson, Mickey Mantle was the starting center fielder for the New
York Yankees. He got three hits. The next day he was conked on the forehead by a line
drive while trying to adjust his sunglasses; he had never worn them before. The
Southwest sun was so intense that players slathered black shoe polish under their eyes
to minimize the glare radiating off their cheeks. “Still couldn’t
see,” said Al Rosen, the Indians’ third baseman.
In the Indians’ dugout, Mantle’s blunder was greeted with
sympathy and laughter. “Here comes a kid, and everybody is talking about how
great he is,” Rosen said. “First thing, he gets hit with a fly ball.
Everybody says, ‘Some kind of great.’ I never saw him drop another fly
ball, by the way.”
By the end of spring training, when Mantle threw out a runner at third who
unwisely wandered off the bag on a fly ball to right, to complete a rare 9–5
double play, Henrich declared his work done. “Best throw I’ve ever
seen,” he said.
Players size up other players. That spring, rookies and veterans alike
stopped to watch when Stengel’s protégé took batting practice.
“It was like he was hittin’ golf balls,” Yankee pitcher Tommy Byrne
“Who in the heck is this kid?” wondered Yogi Berra.
Mantle’s talents were unprecedented. Only four switch-hitters played
regularly in the majors in 1951, and none of them ever hit more than eighteen home runs.
“He has more speed than any slugger and more slug than any speedster—and
nobody has ever had more of both of ’em together,” Stengel declared.
“This kid ain’t logical. He’s too good. It’s very
Compounding Stengel’s befuddlement was the disconnect between
Mantle’s power and his actual size. At only five feet eleven and maybe 185
pounds, he wasn’t big at all. Yankee pitcher Eddie Lopat was first to observe,
“That kid gets bigger the more clothes he takes off.”
Potential is the most elastic of human qualities. By the time the Yankees
boarded the train for California, the dispatches being wired back east were inflated
with wonder and speculation: How much more might he grow? And if he filled out, what
place in baseball history might he occupy?
Stan Isaacs, writing for the Daily Compass, was the lone voice of
reason, but he had the advantage of being in New York:
Since the start of spring training, the typewriter keys out of
the training camps have been pounding out one name to the people back home. No
matter what paper you read, or what day, you’ll get Mickey Mantle, more
Mickey Mantle and still more Mickey Mantle.
Never in the history of baseball has the game known the wonder to equal
this Yankee rookie. Every day there’s some other glorious phrase as the
baseball writers outdo themselves in attempts to describe the antics of this wonder:
“He’s faster than Cobb . . . he hits with power from both sides of the
plate the way Frankie Frisch used to . . . he takes all the publicity in stride, an
unspoiled kid . . . sure to go down as one of the real greats of
Mantle wasn’t in the starting lineup when the Yankees arrived in Los
Angeles on Friday, March 16, to play the Hollywood Stars. The game was a sellout; across
town the St. Louis Browns and the Chicago White Sox played in front of 235 fans,
including their unhappy owners. (The Yankees would draw nearly 140,000 during their ten
days in California, acccording to the Los Angeles Times.)
The next morning, Nick Ferguson arrived bright and early to take his pal out
to breakfast at a greasy spoon on Wilshire Boulevard. As Mantle inhaled box after tiny
box of cornflakes, Ferguson thought back to the mornings he had spent at the
Mantles’ home watching Mickey and his twin brothers eat big soup bowls full of
cereal. That was one reason the family moved out of Commerce to Dr. Wormington’s
farm east of town, where they could have some cows and enough milk for all those
cornflakes. Mickey milked all nineteen of them before heading off to school.
After breakfast, Mantle and Ferguson drove to Wrigley Field, the minor
league park where Gary Cooper had once stood at home plate to deliver Lou
Gehrig’s farewell speech in The Pride of the Yankees. Mantle hit a mammoth
home run—“cannonading the pellet over the center field bleacher fence 412
feet from home plate and another wall beyond,” according to The Arizona
Gil McDougald, destined to become 1951’s Rookie of the Year, saw a
scene often repeated by unwary center fielders. “Mickey hit a two-iron shot, and
this guy come runnin’ over in center field thinkin’ he was gonna catch it.
He leaps up, and that ball took off like an airplane over the fence. The center fielder
was in a state of shock.”
The next day, at Gilmore Stadium, Mantle went from first to third with such
blinding speed it drew a collective gasp from the crowd of 13,000. After seeing Mantle
in Los Angeles, Branch Rickey, the general manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates, wrote Dan
Topping, “I hereby agree to pay any price (fill in the blank) for the purchase of
Mickey Mantle. And please be reasonable.” Topping’s facetious
reply: Ralph Kiner and a half mill. Frank Lane, the White Sox general manager, fumed at
the Yankees’ dumb luck: “They got him for nothing. Nothing—do you
hear? Why, for a prospect like that I’d bury him in thousand-dollar
New York Daily News, March 19: “Mantle very well could be the
key to the pennant.”
New York Daily Mirror, March 20: “Now the Mickey Mantle
madness has spread to the players. Yankees, old and young, openly debate the ability of
Mantle, whose speed and power in six exhibition games forced the reporters to all but
star him as a daily feature.”
“Who is this Mickey Mantle who knocked my Yogi off the front
page?” wondered Carmen Berra.
The Bay Area was home to Jerry Coleman, Billy Martin, Jackie Jensen, Frank
Crosetti, Charlie Silvera, and Gil McDougald. But it belonged to DiMaggio. At Seals
Stadium, where the wind blew in from right field and the fog rolled in nightly off the
bay, Mantle hit a 400-foot home run that cleared the right field wall. “You had
nineteen or twenty homers in twenty years hit over the right field fence,”
McDougald said. “Bounced up in the park across the street not far from where I
lived,” Silvera said.
On Saturday night, March 24, DiMaggio hosted a party at the family
restaurant on Fisherman’s Wharf for teammates and writers. One impertinent diner
inquired whether Joltin’ Joe would consider moving to left field to make room for
Mantle in center. “There’s nobody taking center from me until I
give it up,” DiMaggio replied.
On March 26, the Yankees were back in Los Angeles to play the Trojans at
USC—their last West Coast game. USC’s new coach, Rod Dedeaux, had played
two games for Stengel when he managed the Brooklyn Dodgers. Dedeaux got a bigger bonus
in 1935 than Mantle got from the Yankees. Three of Dedeaux’s former
players—Hank Workman, Jim Brideweser, and Wally Hood—were Yankee rookies.
He would continue to send talent to the majors for another thirty years: Tom Seaver,
Mark McGwire, Randy Johnson, Fred Lynn, Dave Kingman, Bill Lee, and Ron Fairly, among
The Yankees arrived on campus in time for an 11:30 A.M. luncheon at the University Commons, where, according to pitcher Dave
Rankin, “sorority girls played bridge all day and hoped for the best.” By
then snug Bovard Field was SRO. “Additional stands had been erected and the
outfield roped off to accommodate any spillage of customers,” the Los Angeles
Times reported—the crowd was later estimated at 3,000. Those unable to
find seats could listen to a special broadcast on radio station KWKW.
Cozy, palm-draped Bovard Field (318 feet down the right field line, 307 feet
down the line in left) was tucked into a corner of the campus near the Physical
Education building, which sat along the third base line. Beyond the right field fence
lay a practice field where USC footballers were running spring drills. The
impressionable Mantle importuned USC’s senior team manager to point out the
gridiron stars. Wise guy Phil Rizzuto sent the Trojans’ eight-year-old batboy,
Dedeaux’s son, Justin, to keep Mantle company on the bench—“Hey,
rook, I got somebody here your age.”
The temperature at game time was only 59 degrees, with a wind from the
southeast at 6 miles per hour. Conditions were Southern California dry—it
hadn’t rained in twenty days. The National Weather Service noted “some
haze.” Smog had not yet entered the vocabulary. Tom Lovrich, the Trojans’
ace, had already beaten the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Hollywood Stars that spring. A
sidearming right-hander who threw a heavy, sinking fastball, he would go on to a
respectable career in Triple A ball. When Mantle came to bat in the first inning,
Lovrich didn’t even know that he was a switch-hitter. Dedeaux told him,
“When in doubt, keep the ball low.”
The count, in Lovrich’s memory, went to two balls and two strikes.
His intention was to throw the next pitch low and away, trying to entice Mantle to chase
something off the plate, which he did. The pitch couldn’t have been more than
eight inches off the ground. “Our catcher, John Burkhead, kind of dove or fell to
his side to block a wild pitch,” Lovrich said. “Mantle actually stepped
out of the box and reached across the plate. How he reached it, we never knew. You knew
the ball was hit. It had that sound. A pitcher’s unfavorite
Dedeaux stood, mouth agape. “You heard the swish before
you heard the sound of the bat as the ball disappeared into the day.”
In a 1986 letter to baseball researcher Paul E. Susman, thanking him for his
“unrelenting interest” in the matter, the Trojans’ center fielder
Tom Riach described the play this way: “Riach ran just to the right of the 439
foot sign at the fence. I jumped up on the fence (approximately 8 feet) and watched the
ball cross the practice football field and short-hop the fence on the north side of the
Among the football players preparing for the coming season on the adjacent
field was Frank Gifford, who was also recruited by Dedeaux as a catcher. He watched the
ball bisect the sky. “It went over the fence and into the middle of the football
field where we were playing, which was probably another forty-five, fifty yards,”
he said. “The ball came banging into the huddle. It bounced and hit my foot. I
said, ‘Who the hell hit that?’ Somebody said, ‘Some kid named
Mickey.’ We didn’t like baseball players. We thought they were gay. It was
like, ‘Who are these freaks who would enter our domain?’ ”
Gifford was the last man on the field to see the ball. “It was never
retrieved,” Rod Dedeaux said. “We never saw it again.”
Mantle was greeted in the dugout with hooting and hollering un-seemly for an
exhibition game against a collegiate team. “They pounded him,” Justin
Dedeaux said. “They knew they had seen something.”
The batboy regarded Mantle’s discarded bludgeon with wonder:
“What’s in this bat?”
Another towering home run in the sixth landed on the porch of a house beyond
the left field fence. In the seventh, a bases-clearing triple flew to the deepest part
of center field. In the ninth inning he beat out an infield single on a common ground
ball, well played by the shortstop, who, pitcher Dave Cesca said, “would have
thrown out any normal human being.”
“The greatest show in history,” Rod Dedeaux called it
Ed Hookstratten, a relief pitcher not then on USC’s roster, recalls
leading a search party out to the football field, looking for the spot where
Mantle’s shot fell to the earth. “We walked it off,” Hookstratten
said. “A shoe is a foot. We got over the fence in the football field and paced it
from there. I bet the whole team went out. We were all curious. Six hundred, six-fifty,
going toward seven hundred feet, absolutely.”
Despite Gifford’s eyewitness testimony, reports circulated around
campus that the ball had landed in a Methodist church behind the practice football
field. Or over it. Or in a dentist’s office.
Six decades later, Bovard Field remains sacred ground in Mantleology. Though
the field is long gone, grown men equipped with 1951 Sanborn Insurance maps, Google
Earth satellite imagery, and lots of free time still try to calculate the precise
distance the ball flew when Mickey Mantle announced himself to the world. Estimates
range from 551 to 660 feet, depending on whose diagrams, digital readouts, and
trajectories you consult. Mantle himself claimed not to remember. Ralph Houk, the
Yankees’ backup catcher and future manager, said, “I’ll say six
hundred feet—and I lie a lot.”
Years later, Dedeaux told me he doubted that any ball could have traveled
600 feet—science be damned—given the placement of the diamond among the buildings and athletic fields on
campus. But to the day he died, Dedeaux swore he saw Mantle hit two 500-foot home runs
on March 26, 1951, one left-handed, one right-handed.
In the telling and retelling of the events of that day, memory calcified
into fact and a myth was born. In the fine print of history, and the vaults of
university film, where fact resides, a different version of Mantle’s second home
run emerges. According to the box score, Dedeaux used only three pitchers that day;
Cesca, the lefty, pitched only the ninth inning, which means that Mantle’s
sixth-inning home run had to be an opposite field shot hit left-handed. Ben
Epstein’s game story in the Mirror stated: “Mickey obtained all his
extra-base shots batting left-handed.” The Los Angeles Herald-Examiner
concurred. None of the profuse dispatches filed by New York writers mentioned a home run
from each side of the plate, and none of the Trojans recalled it that way, either.
Proof positive came from the USC School of Cinematic Arts in the form of a
two-second film clip in the 1951 Trojan Review. There’s number six, Mickey
Mantle, batting left-handed in the top of the sixth. His bat is a blur as he steps into
the pitch. Front toe turned inward, back foot lifted off the ground, he follows the
flight of the ball over the left field fence. Everyone is looking that way, the third
base coach, ump, runner, and the news photog squatting along the base line; and all the
fans clustered behind the chain-link fence in the shade of a eucalyptus tree near the
first base dugout. The narrator is solemnly impressed: “Yankee flash, Mickey Mantle,
bangs out his second home run to score a pair of teammates.”
When the game ended, Mantle was hitting .432; DiMaggio was batting under
.200, having left the field after two at-bats, a normal spring training accommodation
for an aging, aching star. Fans besieged the press box, wanting to know the answer to
Carmen Berra’s question: Who is this Mickey Mantle? Coeds swarmed the team
bus. By the time the Yankees got back to Phoenix the next morning, autograph hounds were
offering two of anybody else’s signature for one of Mantle’s.
The press of expectations was upon the nineteen-year-old Mickey Mantle. Six
days earlier, he had been mere background in a Hollywood flack’s snapshot, happy
just to be in the picture. Now he had moved to stage center, where he would remain for
the rest of his life. “It becomes doubtful that Casey Stengel will dare to let
him out of his sight,” Arch Murray wrote in the New York Post.
The future was manifest in the March 26 box score: Mantle, 5 AB, 4 H, 2 HR,
1 3B, 1 1B, 7 RBI. More than a decade would pass before he drove in that many runs
again. Houk and Berra looked at each other and said, “My God, whadda we got
Headline writers invoked classical mythology in an effort to convey the epic
proportions of the day. “One for the Mantle,” the Los Angeles Times
declared. “Yanks Dismantle Troy.”
A half century later, Justin Dedeaux described the wonder of it all more
simply: “This was the day the whole world opened up.”
October 5, 1951
When Fates Converge
A LETTER FROM MANTLE’S father, Mutt, was waiting for him in Phoenix. His local draft board wanted to reexamine him, and wanted to do so within the next ten days. When the Yankees headed east after another week of exhibition games in Arizona, Mantle wasn’t with them. He detoured to Miami, Oklahoma, and then to Tulsa to have his draft status reviewed. Again, he was declared medically unfit to serve; Stengel lobbied hard to put him in a Yankee uniform instead Mantle expected and wanted to be sent to the class AA team in Beaumont, Texas.
His fate was still undecided when he boarded a night flight out of Kansas City for New York on Friday, April 13. The Army’s decision generated suspicion distilled with typical sports page asperity. “So Mantle has osteomyelitis. What’s the big deal? He doesn’t have to kick anybody in Korea.”
Welcome to the big city, kid.
Landing at 7:30 A.M., Saturday, he headed straight for Ebbets Field, where the Yankees were scheduled to play the Dodgers in the second game of the annual interborough exhibition series. Mantle prevailed upon Stengel to put him in the starting lineup, but not before the manager showed him how to play the tough right field corner that had been his turf when he played for the Dodgers at the dawn of the twentieth century. “First time the kid ever saw concrete,” Stengel told his writers; they were always his writers.
On Sunday, the kid went 4 for 4, with a home run over the 38-foot scoreboard in right field. General manager George Weiss put him on the major league roster. The next DiMaggio had arrived before the original departed. There was tension in that for both of them. “How’d you like to replace George Washington?” said teammate Jerry Coleman.
Stengel didn’t make it easier. “Stengel loved Mantle, and didn’t like DiMaggio,” said future Hall of Fame manager Whitey Herzog, “So Joe held that against Mickey.”
That was apparent when the Yankees opened the season against the Red Sox at the Stadium on April 17. DiMaggio pointed him out to columnist Jimmy Cannon: “This is the next great ballplayer.” But when an enterprising photographer posed DiMaggio and Ted Williams on either side of Mantle, Joe D. declined the opportunity to introduce them. The Splendid Splinter handled the niceties himself.
There was a time, back in high school, when Mantle idled through fourth-period study hall with a two-page magazine spread devoted to Joltin’ Joe. He bragged to his classmate Joe Barker, “I’m going to take his place in center field at Yankee Stadium.”
But Stan “The Man” was Mantle’s boyhood idol. He mentioned Musial the day he signed with the Yankees. Weiss immediately corrected that misconception, telling his young star the story line he was expected to follow—Joe D. was his hero. Given DiMaggio’s intimidating frostiness, it was little wonder Mantle never asked for help. Gil McDougald said, “When Joe was in the dugout, nobody would say a word. Joe would sit down. He’d like to smoke, so he’d be sittin’ down close to the runway. Everybody else would be sittin’ down toward the water faucet at the end of the dugout.”
DiMaggio gave three years to the war effort, helping to make the world safe by playing baseball for Uncle Sam. He returned to the Yankees in 1946 with an ulcer, an unwanted divorce, and bone spurs that would plague him for the last six years of his career. By 1951, it was clear to everyone, including Joe’s brother, Dom, the Red Sox center fielder, that this season was likely his last. “He staggered through it,” Dom said.
Two photographs taken in the Yankees’ locker room documented the imminent succession. Pete Sheehy had given Mantle the locker next to DiMaggio’s. In the first photo, taken five days before opening day, Sheehy is filling the empty cubicles in preparation for the new season, hanging Mantle’s crisp number 6 beside DiMaggio’s venerable number 5. A week later, Life magazine photographed them in street clothes in posed post-game chat, Mantle sitting on his stool in pants too short to cover his white socks, with DiMaggio towering above him. Joe looks immaculate, the way he always did—white shirt, braces, Countess Mara tie—the whole upwardly mobile bit. “Looked like a senator,” Billy Martin said, and Mantle agreed: “Like you needed an invitation to approach him.”
Red Smith devoted his opening-day column in the Herald Tribune to the rookie who played his first major league game wearing “impoverished baseball spikes” and “soles flapping like a radio announcer’s jaw.” The Commerce Comet hadn’t gotten any sleep the night before. He gave the cabbie who took him to the Stadium the next morning a nickel on a $3.00 fare. The son of the undertipped hack said his father never forgot the slight.
Another Yankee rookie, public address announcer Bob Sheppard, filled the Stadium for the first time with a stentorian voice that sounded older than his years. In right field, number six, Mickey Mantle. Number six. A speech teacher who became an adjunct professor at St. John’s University, Sheppard immediately appreciated the qualities and construction of Mantle’s name: soft, flowing sounds that conveyed his grace alternating with hard, tough consonants that suggested his power—a staccato rhythm that implied speed. It was almost as if his name embodied the traits that defined him. “It said, ‘He’s an American guy from the Midwest,’ ” Sheppard said. “If it was Michael, it wouldn’t be as good.”
Mantle went 1 for 4 in his first big league game with a single and an RBI. But he was monosyllabic with reporters who wanted to know his every thought. How could he explain himself to people who believed Commerce, Oklahoma, was a made-up name?
“I was shy, scared,” Mantle told me decades later. Too scared to get off the bus and go to the reception at Whitey Ford’s wedding, too scared to face the scrum of sportswriters who dogged his locker room. “They called me aloof. I thought that meant horny.”
Hank Bauer and his roommate, Johnny Hopp, took him in and took him on as a project. They worked to purge the rube of his wardrobe and introduced him to the finer things in New York: corned beef and other pleasures of the flesh. They had an apartment above the Stage Deli on Seventh Avenue. Hymie Asnas provided food on the house; Bauer took care of him when World Series time came around. “He weighed 170 pounds,” Bauer said. “By the end of the season he weighed 190.”
In those days, veterans taught rookies how to look and how to act major league; they enforced the code of clubhouse etiquette and on-field behavior. They took care of one another. Bauer’s generous example—as well as DiMaggio’s cold shoulder—would inform the way Mantle treated rookies for the rest of his career. “I knew he didn’t have the proper attire,” Bauer said. “He came in Hush Puppy shoes, white sweat socks, rolled-up pants a little bit short, and a big white tie with a peacock and a tweed sports coat. Next day, I said, ‘Come with me, and I’ll buy you a couple of sports coats.’ Took him to Eisenberg & Eisenberg.”
Bauer made him presentable, but he couldn’t make him savvy. Mantle spent $30 apiece for “cashmere” sweaters that turned out to be made of a flammable synthetic. He would later purchase $2,700 worth of stock in a nonexistent insurance company. He was an easy mark. “Very naive about people,” Merlyn Mantle told me. “He would trust shady characters.”
Older, wiser teammates tried to help. Bobby Brown took him aside in the outfield one day: “You’ve got the world by the tail. Take good care of yourself, work hard, stick with the straight and narrow. You’ll make a lot of money.”
Mutt Mantle knew better than anyone that his son was easily led—he made him that way. He approached Red Patterson, the Yankees’ publicity man, for help. In a rough draft from an unpublished memoir provided by Patterson’s son, Bruce, he wrote: “During a rainout in St. Louis, he came to my room and asked if he could discuss a matter with me which had him disturbed. ‘I would like you to take good care of Mickey when he goes all the way up to the Yankees. He is going to get a lot of attention and there will be people making him offers but I wish you would handle him. He can use all of your advice.’
“In effect, he was asking me to act as a sort of agent for Mickey. I explained that as a Public Relations man for the club I would give him as much help as possible but I could not be his agent.
“True to his Dad’s concern Mickey was beset by agents and somehow got tangled up with two at one time. It took legal action by the club to straighten out the mess. I can recall one conversation Tommy Henrich and I had with Mickey in which we asked him if he had obtained a lawyer to represent him in his transactions. ‘No, I didn’t have to. They had a lawyer up in their room.’ ”
An opportunistic agent named Alan Savitt waylaid Mantle in the lobby of the Concourse Plaza Hotel his first week in New York, promising $50,000 a year in endorsements, to be split fifty-fifty. Short of cash, Savitt soon sold a 25 percent interest in Mantle futures to a showgirl named Holly Brooke, who introduced the rookie to scotch and the art of picking up a check.
Carl Lombardi, Mantle’s minor league teammate and friend, tried to warn him off the deal—and the girl who came with it. Lombardi recalled trying to reason with his obdurate friend during an evening at a Jersey roadhouse. “I said, ‘Mick, before you make a commitment, do yourself a favor, go to the front office and talk to them about it.’ Like I said, he was stubborn. After he signed it, he said to me, ‘Boy, I’m sorry I didn’t listen to you.’ ”
On the field he did well enough to merit a major profile in the June 2 issue of Collier’s magazine. But as the pressures and distractions of New York mounted, his production decreased and his temper flared. He kicked water coolers and lost his cool—often enough that DiMaggio confided to New York Times beat writer Louis Effrat, “He’s a rock head.”
Pitchers began to figure him out and exploit the holes in his swing, particularly when he batted left-handed. Satchel Paige, then pitching for the St. Louis Browns, made Mantle look so bad he laughed out loud at him. By mid-July, his batting average had dropped to .260. “I was striking out about four out of every five times up,” he told me.
Not true. By then Mantle had bought into the revisionist history that exaggerated his futility. He struck out only .9 times per five at-bats during the first two months of the season, according to Dave Smith of Retrosheet. Between May 30 and July 14, he struck out 25 times in 97 at-bats, 1.56 strikeouts per five at-bats. (For the season, he averaged 1.09, just a little above his lifetime average of 1.06 strikeouts per five at-bats.) The fawning newspaper hacks turned into jackals: “The next DiMaggio struck out on three pitches.”
On July 14, in Cleveland, Mantle broke up Bob Feller’s attempt for his second no-hitter in two weeks with a sixth-inning double. Asked what he had thrown the rookie, Feller said tartly, “A baseball, I presume.”
After the game, the Yankees announced the purchase of pitcher Art Schallock from Brooklyn, meaning that someone had to be dropped from the roster. Four days later, Mantle, the team leader in RBI, cried when Stengel told him that he was being sent down to the Triple A Kansas City Blues. For years afterward, Mantle would recount the mutually tearful conversation. “This is gonna hurt me more than you,” the manager insisted.
Joe Gallagher, a young gofer doing stats for Mel Allen, saw Mantle in the lobby of the Cadillac Hotel as he was getting ready to leave. He was still crying. “Kind of like it was the end of his career,” Gallagher said. “All I could say to him was ‘You’ll be back.’ ”
He played his first game for the Blues in Milwaukee in a fog so thick he said he might wear a catcher’s mask in center field. He dragged a bunt down the first base line for his only hit, showcasing his speed. Manager George Selkirk minced no words letting him know he was there to regain his swing, which promptly went south. He didn’t hit a home run for twelve days. Johnny Blanchard spent four days with him before being sent to Double A. “He said, ‘Make room for me, Blanch, I’m coming down,’ ” Blanchard recalled.
When his minor league buddy Keith Speck came to visit, Mantle told him, “I ain’t never getting back up there.”
Folks back home and some in the Yankees organization thought he had already acquired too many big-league habits. Hank Bauer later told Tony Kubek that when Mantle moved into the apartment above the Stage Deli, a bottle of Jack Daniel’s arrived with him. “A lot of people thought that he’d just got to drinkin’ and carousin’ so much with Billy [Martin] and some of these other guys, he got completely out of whack,” said Frank Wood, whose father played American Legion ball against Mantle in Picher, Oklahoma.
One night, Mantle treated his boyhood friend Bill Mosely and his wife to a night on the town in Kansas City. Mosely was in the Army, stationed at Fort Scott, fifty miles away. The evening was a revelation—not just because of the style to which Mantle had become accustomed but because of the bravado with which he indulged and the conviction that it would not interfere with his ability to play the next day.
“We’re drinkin’ there and eatin’ and everything, things I never heard of before. Caviar. Is that right? And a guy by name of Harold Youngman, he’s Mickey’s sugar daddy, so he’s footin’ the bill. I’m thinkin’ all we had there comes to around a thousand dollars. In my time that was a lot of money. Still a lot of money. But anyway, we had a ball and I got to talkin’ to Mickey and come to find out he’s got a doubleheader to play the next day! I don’t know how in the hell he did it, but he did.”
In fact, he wasn’t doing much. Welcomed to town as a “tonic” by the Kansas City Star on July 16, he became a “dejected and harassed young man” by August 4. After that bunt single in his first at-bat, he told me, “the next twenty-two times up I didn’t even hit the ball at all.” His statistical recall was slightly off—he had had three hits in his first eighteen at-bats for the Blues—but the memory of his futility was indelible. “I was pretty scared. Probably I was more disappointed than scared that I wasn’t doing better because of my dad, y’ know. He lived and died for me to be a baseball player, and it looked like I wasn’t going to do it.”
He called his father and said he wanted to come home. “I was down, really down.”
“You wait right there,” Mutt said. “I’ll be up there.”
The day before he left for Kansas City, Mutt called Ed VonMoss at the Blue Goose Mine to say he wouldn’t be at work the next morning. “I gotta go get that lazy kid of mine,” Mutt told him.
According to VonMoss’s son Jerry, his father reassured Mutt that there was still a place for Mickey in Commerce: “I’ll have a job for him.”
It is unclear exactly when Mutt delivered his ultimatum. The June 1997 edition of the Ottawa County Emporium, a historical newsletter featuring reprints of newspaper stories from Miami, Oklahoma, included this report: “Mr. and Mrs. E. C. Mantle and their son, Larry, as well as their daughter, Barbara, and Miss Merlyn Johnson, visited Mickey after his home debut for the Blues on Sunday, July 22nd.”
In his many tellings of the woodshedding session, Mantle edited every one else out of the meeting at the Aladdin Hotel. But Mutt took the whole family along. Merlyn remembered the long, quiet drive to Kansas City. So much was at stake. When they got to the hotel, she recalled, “Everybody was in the room. Then we went outside, but you could hear. I heard him say, ‘If that’s all the man you are, then get your clothes and let’s go home.’ Mutt did not yell. He spoke with authority. Mick was crying, of course. He was embarrassed because he wasn’t cutting the pie.”
Mantle had expected solace and support, not paternal fury. “I thought he was coming up to give me a pep talk,” Mantle told me. “He comes up, walks in the hotel room, and starts throwing all my shit in a bag. I said, ‘What’s the matter?’ He said, ‘I thought I raised a man. You ain’t nothing but a goddamn coward.’
“I said, ‘Wait a minute.’
“He said, ‘Ah, bullshit, you come and work with me in the mines. I didn’t raise a man. I raised a baby.’
“He was crying, and I was crying. I said, ‘Well, let me try again.’
“He said, ‘Bullshit. Come on. I came on all the way up here. You’re going back with me. You ain’t got a gut in your body.’
“He made me feel I was about that tall. Finally he says, ‘I’m gone. If you can’t play, get a bus and come home.’ ”
The message was delivered with vehemence that the younger Mantle couldn’t possibly understand. True, he had noticed that his father’s khakis were hanging loose on his frame. True, he had always worried about the old man’s smoking. But most nineteen-year-olds don’t spend their days contemplating parental mortality. Mantle was too young, too immature, too caught up in the thrall of his new life to see the signs of fatal illness and desperation in his father’s gaunt, angry face.
There was no opportunity for Merlyn to be alone with him, much less comfort him. “I wouldn’t have,” she told me. “Nobody did.”
Truth to tell, she wouldn’t have been disappointed if he had come on home.
After they all went out to dinner, the group headed back to Commerce at Mutt’s cautious 35 miles per hour, leaving Mantle to decide whether to pack for a three-week road trip or buy a ticket for Commerce. “I thought about it a long time that night,” Mantle told me.
He opted for the future Mutt wanted for him. And he began to hit— four hits in one game in Milwaukee, a home run in Louisville, two more the next day in Indianapolis (one left-handed, one right-handed), then another one the following day. Two days after that, in Toledo, he hit for the super cycle, banging a single, double, triple, and two home runs. Within the month, he had 11 home runs, 52 runs scored, and 60 RBI.
By late August he was on his way back to the Bronx, but not without another Army-mandated detour—a third reconsideration of his draft status prompted by angry letters to the White House and front-office concern about negative PR. When he finally arrived in the Yankee clubhouse, he found lucky number 7 hanging in his cubicle. Pete Sheehy had given away number 6 in his absence.
The Yankees clinched the pennant in Philadelphia on September 28, the same day the Giants tied the Dodgers for first place in the National League. Mutt, his brother Emmett, and his pals Turk Miller and Trucky Compton drove east for the World Series. The kid showed them the town. In The Mick, Mantle described his father’s parochial confusion upon seeing the statue of Atlas in front of Rockefeller Center: “Shoot, the Statue of Liberty’s smaller than I thought.”
The Oklahoma boys didn’t know how much money it cost to go to the movies; they didn’t know where to get off the subway for the ballpark (and ended up walking three miles). They sure didn’t know how to hold their big-city liquor; riding the train, pressed between New York City straphangers, Compton threw up in the hat of an unlucky passenger.
But Mutt knew trouble when he saw it.
Her name was Holly Brooke. Mantle introduced her to his father as his “very good friend.” He recounted the conversation in The Mick:
Maybe she winked at me. I don’t know. But Dad knew something was up—and he didn’t like it a bit. Later, he took me aside.
“Mickey, you do the right thing and marry your own kind.”
“It’s not what you think, Dad.”
“Maybe not, but Merlyn is a sweet gal and you know she loves you.”
“Yeah, I know.”
“The point is, she’s good. Just what you need to keep your head straight.”
“Well, then, after the Series you better get on home and marry her.”
I half turned from him, nodding silently. There was nothing more to discuss.
“She was older,” Merlyn told me. “She had a kid almost as old as Mick. She more or less got in with this attorney. Mutt saw the situation. He knew it was trouble. Mick could be very easily swayed.”
While Brooke trysted with him in major and minor league cities, Merlyn was back in Oklahoma, wearing his engagement ring and receiving love letters penned on Yankee letterhead. In one letter, written early on a sleepless road-trip morning, he pleaded with her to write to him the way the other wives did. Another letter, written in the clubhouse, began:
Honey I sure will be glad to see you—I’m going to make up for all the loving I have missed from you when I get home—The only thing is I will just want to stay there and hate it all the more when I have to leave you again. We haven’t been together very much since we have been engaged have we? When we get married we’ll make up for it.
It was signed, “All of my love, Mickey M—”
“He wrote like he loved me,” Merlyn told me six decades later.
Mantle’s dalliance with Brooke set a precedent for a double life that persisted long after the relationship ended and would continue throughout his married life. Nor was Brooke that summer’s only leggy temptation. Among them was a Copa girl named Peaches, a close personal friend of the mob boss Joe Bonanno. Mantle was too eager and too innocent to understand his dangerous indiscretion.
“He was gonna have Mickey rubbed out,” said Mike Klepfer, a friend in later life whose longshoreman father heard the waterfront scuttle-butt about a contract on the amorous ballplayer. Decades after the fact, Klepfer’s father told Mantle, “I remember when they were going to kill you.” “Mickey looked like he’d seen a ghost,” Mike said.
• • •
On October 3, Yogi Berra was making his way home from the Polo Grounds, trying to beat the traffic on the clogged streets of upper Manhattan, when “whatchamacallit” came to the plate in the bottom of the ninth inning of the deciding play-off game between the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Giants. With the Giants trailing 4–1, Berra thought the outcome was a foregone conclusion. Like everyone else in New York, Berra was sure the Yankees would face the Dodgers in game 1 of the World Series the next day.
Bobby Brown also missed Bobby Thomson’s historic at-bat, which was seen across the country on the first coast-to-coast baseball telecast. Brown was waiting for his father behind the wheel of his new Chevrolet outside the press gate at the Polo Grounds. He had given his dad his ticket to the game. They learned the outcome at a red light on Amsterdam Avenue from the driver of a car in the next lane—Brown couldn’t afford a radio in his new sedan.
Mickey and Mutt were still in the ballpark when Thomson stepped to the plate. Like most everyone else in the Polo Grounds, the Yankees were rooting for the Giants. “Bigger ballpark, bigger World Series money,” Gil McDougald said.
They saw Ralph Branca lumber to the mound, summoned by Dodger manager Charlie Dressen to relieve the exhausted Don Newcombe. Probably they didn’t notice, as Dodger center fielder Duke Snider did, the ominous change in Dressen’s demeanor. “Usually Dressen liked to bring the relief pitcher up to date, give him all sorts of instruction,” Snider said. This time, Dressen was mum. “I said, ‘Charlie’s worried,’ ” Snider recalled. “So I became worried.”
They saw Willie Mays, New York’s other rookie center fielder, kneeling in the on-deck circle. “Willie, he was scared to death,” Snider said.
Mays was still kneeling in the on-deck circle when Thomson rounded the bases at 3:58 P.M. Snider had a better view than anyone else of the ball that broke Brooklyn’s heart, a line drive that sent Andy Pafko to the left field wall. “I ran over,” Snider said. “It was a low line drive. I was there to receive the carom. I thought I was going to hold him to a double.”
Thomson’s home run would soon be known as the Shot Heard Round the World and the Miracle at Coogan’s Bluff. When Snider saw it dip over the fence, he said, “I took a right turn and went into the clubhouse in center field and didn’t break stride.”
Snider left the Polo Grounds with his parents, counting effigies of the luckless Ralph Branca hanging from Brooklyn light poles. The Yankees headed to a pre-Series bash at the Press Club; Mantle went to the hotel room of Tom Greenwade, the scout who had landed him there. Greenwade’s wife, Florence, answered the door. “He said, ‘Would you mind if I came into your room and just stayed here awhile ’til he gets back?’ ” their son Bunch recalled.
He didn’t offer an explanation for his appearance at her door or for his glum mood. Florence Greenwade assumed homesickness was the cause. It was a Mantle story she often told, and her daughter Angie remembers it well: “So he spent his evening sitting with my mother. She said he was so miserably unhappy; wondered what he’d gotten himself into. I think he was scared and nervous. He knew that so much was expected of him.”
Mrs. Greenwade didn’t ask any questions. She didn’t ask anything of him at all. Angie said, “He basically sat there quietly. I’m sure he knew nobody would be knockin’ at the door looking for him. He didn’t have to do anything but be.”
On October 4, 1951, parking meters were installed in downtown Brooklyn, adding insult to the injury of the heartbroken borough. An American in Paris opened at Radio City Music Hall in Manhattan. And in the Bronx, Mantle played in his first World Series game.
Baseball was on the cusp of radical change. Babe Ruth was three years dead; DiMaggio was taking his curtain call. His successor, Mickey Mantle, the first telegenic star of the new broadcast age, was installed in right field. Mantle’s charismatic foil, Willie Mays, was playing center field for baseball’s first all-black outfield.
Unlike Mantle, Mays arrived in New York without tabloid fanfare. Unlike Mantle, Mays pleaded to be sent to the minors when he struggled during his first days with the Giants. But they had more in common than it appeared, more than a shared future on similar real estate.
Born the same year to fathers who rolled baseballs across the floor to baby boys who could not yet walk, they were in their major league infancy. What the 65,000 paying customers at Yankee Stadium saw that afternoon were two works in progress whose unlimited potential would fuel unending debate. They would improve each other and everyone who played with them and against them.
Arriving at the Stadium that morning, Mantle was startled to see his name in the starting lineup—batting leadoff. The Giants had had no time to catch their breath or sit still for the usual briefings. “We just went out and played,” outfielder Monte Irvin said. “We didn’t know anything about anybody.”
Their scouts had alerted them to Mantle’s uncompromised speed; nonetheless, when they saw him on the base paths in game 1, they were stunned by the fact of it. “Fastest white guy we’ve ever seen to first base,” shortstop Alvin Dark said.
Adrenaline carried the Giants to a 5–1 victory in the first of the sixty-five World Series games Mantle would play. The second of them would be the most pivotal game of his career.
Fifth inning, game 2. DiMaggio is in center; Mantle is in right. Mays steps to the plate. The collision of fates is almost operatic, triangulating the future of the game. On the mound, Eddie Lopat goes into his windup. Mays gets wood on the ball but not a lot. The result is a tepid opposite-field fly ball, not deep, not well hit, not difficult to catch except that it’s what ballplayers call a tweener, splitting the difference between DiMaggio in center and Mantle in right.
Here’s DiMaggio, shaded over toward left center, asserting his proud prerogative—This is my turf! Mine! And here’s Mantle, chasing the future across America’s most famous lawn. Isn’t that what Stengel had told him to do? The dago’s heel is hurtin’. Go for everything.
He was new at this outfield play. Hell, everything was new for him. Maybe he didn’t understand the etiquette—if the center fielder can get there, it’s his ball. Especially if that center fielder is DiMaggio. Hank Bauer learned that the first time he made the mistake of taking a ball hit between them. Jogging back to the dugout, DiMaggio gave him a lethal stare. “I said, ‘Joe, did I do something wrong?’
“He said, ‘No, but you’re the first sonofabitch who ever invaded my territory.’ Center fielders don’t call for nothin’. When I heard the grunt, I got the hell out of the road.”
The past and the future converged on a routine fly ball in Mantle’s ninety-eighth major league game. Imagine Mutt watching. He sees the geometry of disaster. The ball is dropping. Joe’s coming. Mickey’s charging. “I was running as hard as I could,” Mantle told me. “At that time, I could outrun anybody. I ran over to catch it. Just as I was getting ready to put my glove up, I heard him say, ‘I got it.’ Well, shit, you don’t want to run into Joe DiMaggio in center field in Yankee Stadium. I slammed on my brakes like that.”
Embedded in the outfield sod that sloped downhill at perhaps a 10-degree angle from the right field fence was a six-inch round depression. “Actually it was a sewer drain, maybe four by four inches,” said former batboy Frank Prudenti. “There was, like, a piece of metal in the center. You could pull it up, and you could push it down. Like a cork on a bottle.”
The cover was made of thin plywood with a rubber coating, Prudenti says, maybe three-fourths of an inch thick. “It was wedged in there, belowground. You had to hit it with your heel, wedge it down real tight. If it wasn’t, somebody could definitely trip on it.”
Generations of Yankee outfielders and their opponents were well acquainted with this ancient piece of Stadium infrastructure. “Been in it, been on it, been around it, and fell on it,” said Bobby Murcer, another of Greenwade’s Oklahoma finds.
Bauer used it as his anchor. Berra was taught to play off it. “Never stand on the drain,” Tommy Henrich told him.
Gil McDougald, the second baseman, had retreated into right field, following the flight of the ball. “You could see the whole thing coming in your mind. I knew that it looked like trouble. Mickey, you gotta understand, was playin’ pretty deep because he had to come down that hill, or incline, I guess you’d call it, out there. So it wasn’t what you’d call a short fly ball. It was like a humpback job. It was Mickey’s ball, but DiMag, being the icon he was, and Mick being a rookie, he gave way instead of really taking charge.”
From the visiting dugout Al Dark also tracked the flight of the ball. “All of sudden, Mickey throws on the brakes and his legs went out from under him and he slipped as you would slip on an ice thing. Then he couldn’t get up and it didn’t look like he wanted to get up.”
Mantle was motionless. Yankee Stadium was still.
A sequence of news photographs documented the progression of the disaster in right center field.
There’s DiMaggio camped under the ball, his glove open at his side, looking up into the sun. There’s Mantle splayed on the grass in front of the 407-foot sign. The shadows of the championship banners ringing the Stadium point toward his fallen form. His right leg is folded beneath him, the injured knee bent backward at an ugly angle. His left leg extends upward toward the sky. To his left, there is a faint indentation in the grass.
Now DiMaggio cradles the ball, his glove pressed against his stomach, and turns toward Mantle. He lowers his uninjured leg like a drawbridge, shifting his full weight onto his side. He buries his head in his arms on the turf. Behind him, the polite grandstand crowd, some in fedoras, some in coats and ties, begins to rise, Windsor-knotted necks craning to see.
DiMaggio kneels beside him, whispering words of reassurance, a consoling hand resting on his shoulder. They’re coming with the stretcher, kid. Mantle said it was their first conversation of the year.
Now his teammates come running from the bullpen, their spikes churning up an urgent trail in the warning track dirt. The backup catchers, Charlie Silvera and Ralph Houk, are first to reach him. “The only time Houk and I got our picture in the paper,” Silvera said.
Mantle lies curled in an almost fetal position. “He was going full speed,” Houk said. “He was about to get the ball.”
“Joe more or less ran him off it,” Silvera said.
They told him not to move, as if he could. “He was kinda moaning,” relief pitcher Bob Kuzava said. “The trainers, they wanted him to stay still because they didn’t know what happened. They tried to immobilize him so he isn’t gonna injure himself anymore.”
It looked like he’d been shot. He wasn’t sure he hadn’t been. “I was running so fast, my knee just went right out the front of my leg,” he told me, trying and failing to reproduce the sound of rupturing flesh and broken promise.
It was so sudden, so painful, so shocking that he soiled himself. “Shit my pants,” he told me, and dared me to write it.
“Must be like giving birth,” he told his friend Mike Klepfer years later.
Newsweek reported, some spectators thought he’d had a heart attack. “He lay like he’s dead,” Jerry Coleman said. “Seemed like he was there twenty minutes before they finally got around to getting him out of there.”
Five Yankees carried him off on a stretcher, three on one side, two on the other, like pallbearers. Mutt was waiting in the dugout.
A pool photographer was allowed in the trainer’s room, an exception to the “off-limits” norm. Still in uniform, his sanitary socks dirty with exertion, a towel demurely draped across his waist, he props himself up on his elbow, looking in blank disbelief at what used to be his right leg; surely it no longer felt like his own.
Sidney Gaynor, the team physician, stands impassively at his side, checking the ice pack fixed to his leg. Gaynor initially diagnosed the injury as a torn muscle on the inside of his knee. A day later, he called it a torn ligament. Over time, it would be variously described (by Mantle and a legion of reporters) as torn cartilage, torn ligaments, torn tendons, and a combination of all of the above.
Later, in the locker room, Mutt squatted by his son’s side as he struggled to put on his argyle socks and his wing-tip shoes, glancing up at an inquiring photographer from beneath an errant forelock. Mantle never looked that young again.
The Yankees sent him back to his father’s hotel, his leg splinted and tightly wrapped. “Come all the way up here, and you bung your knee,” chided one of Mutt’s Okie pals.
“Thought you fainted,” Mutt said. Mantle wasn’t sure he hadn’t.
“Naah,” he replied with youthful bravado. “I felt like fainting my first game in the Yankee Stadium.”
“Yanks’ Joy over Triumph Is Tempered by Loss of Mantle for Remaining Games,” the New York Times declared the next morning. It was the first time he appeared on the front page of the paper of record.
On October 5, 1951, a game was won and a fate was sealed. The drain in right center field became a baseball landmark. On opening day of the 1952 season, Mantle would make a pilgrimage to the spot “where he had come to grief,” as Arthur Daley put it in the Times. “I couldn’t find it,” he told the columnist, grinning and shuddering at a memory. Daley wrote, “He still could not fully comprehend or remember.”
More than fate was at play. When Howard Berk, the Yankees’ vice president for administration from 1967 to 1973, reviewed plans for the Stadium’s renovation in the early 1970s, architects told him that a groundskeeper had forgotten to put the rubber cover on the right field drain. “Not the first time a groundskeeper forgot to put something on the field that endangered a player,” Berk said.
DiMaggio chose Willie Mays Night at Shea Stadium in 1973 to offer his account: “I said, ‘Go ahead, Mickey. You take it.’ I called out to him as we converged . . . Luckily, I was close enough to make the catch.”
Mantle never blamed DiMaggio publicly. “He had his own opinion, but he never said it,” Merlyn told me. “He ruined his career.”
The morning after, his knee was so swollen he couldn’t walk. Mutt took him to Lenox Hill Hospital for X-rays. “I couldn’t put any weight on my leg,” Mantle told me. “So I put my arm around his shoulder. Now, this guy’s as big as me, maybe a little bigger. When I jumped out, I put all my weight on him and he just crumpled over on the sidewalk. His whole back was eaten up. I didn’t know it. But my mom told me later he hadn’t slept in a bed because he couldn’t lie down for, like, six months. And no one had ever told me about it. They never did call me.
“So when he crumpled over, we went to the hospital and we watched the rest of the Series together. That’s when they told me when I got home I’d better take him and have him looked at because he’s sicker than I think he is.”
“Hodgkin’s disease,” was the diagnosis.
Mutt’s illness was not disclosed. His distress was said to be profound. The Times reported: “Mantle’s father became so upset when his son slipped that he too required hospitalization.”
They watched the last four games of the Series on a small black-and-white TV with rabbit ears. Mutt seized the opportunity to point out things Mickey might have done better. Pain became a teachable moment. The Yankees won their eighteenth world championship. Mutt was sent home to die.
Mantle’s knee was slow to heal. The front office decided to send him to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore for a second opinion. The verdict came on October 22: no surgery needed. Go home and rest.
In less than twenty-four hours, all the supporting structures of his life imploded. His father had only months to live; his potential was irrevocably circumscribed; his knee and his heart were never the same. A wire service reporter filed a prescient deadline dispatch: “His mind is already shackled with the thought that the knee might pop out whenever subjected to strain.”
That October afternoon was the last time Mantle set foot on a baseball field without pain. He would play the next seventeen years struggling to be as good as he could be, knowing he would never be as good as he might have become.
October 23, 1951
That the earth would give way beneath his feet was a grim irony for Mickey Mantle. Growing up in Commerce, Oklahoma, in the dead center of the Tri-State Mining District, fatalism was an inheritance. It percolated up from the tainted, unstable earth. That forgotten corner where Missouri, Oklahoma, and Kansas meet was hardly the Oklahoma of Rodgers and Hammerstein. A century of mining lead and zinc from the ancient bedrock had left the ground as hollowed out as the faces of the men who worked it.
The lead went into munitions used to fight the Hun in World Wars I and II, into lead-based paints and pigments, into sinkers for fishing rods and weights for balancing tires. It was also crucial to the manufacture of lead-acid storage batteries. Zinc was needed to galvanize steel, to cure rubber, and to line sinks and washstands. It was an essential ingredient in pharmaceuticals and cosmetics.
Two blocks west of the front door of Mantle’s boyhood home was a hulking, ashen heap of mineral detritus disgorged from the abandoned Turkey Fat Mine, where the first shaft was sunk in Commerce. Three blocks from the house he purchased for his parents with his first World Series check was a crater twenty to thirty feet deep, an insidious reminder of how easily life could give way. That house at 317 South River Street, with the family’s first telephone, was where he went to recuperate when doctors at Johns Hopkins told him he could go home. By the time he arrived, Mutt had gone back to work as the ground boss at the Blue Goose Mine.
Even before Mutt got sick, before Mantle ripped up his right knee trying not to run into Joe “Fuckin’ ” DiMaggio, he had reason to doubt his own longevity. Everything about the world that produced him undermined confidence in long life. When a reporter came to call, Mantle told him that three hundred feet below his chair, men like Mutt were trying to claw out a living from exhausted mines. It was only a slight exaggeration.
Mining had created a tenth circle of Hell, turning a verdant swath of the Great Plains into alien terrain, flat except for the mammoth piles of mineral waste known as chat. Locals call this range of bleached man-made dunes the “Chatanagey” Mountains. Cruel Billy Martin called Merlyn “Chat Pile Annie.”
The highest of them, at the Eagle-Picher Central Mill, a mile and a half northeast of the Mantles’ home, was a twenty-story behemoth built from over 13 million tons of chat. Long after the ore played out, the meta-static landscape remained disfigured by 5,000 acres of tailing piles and sludge ponds so toxically opaque that no shadows were cast upon them; 1,200 open or collapsing mine shafts lurked beneath the overgrown, contaminated grass; 40,000 drill holes and hundreds of water wells reached deep into the Roubidoux Aquifer.
The worst desecration was centered in Ottawa County, Oklahoma, where 2,500 acres were left undermined, 50 of them punctured by cave-ins. Also left behind when the ore played out were 300 miles of tunnels that wound their way through parts of three states and underground caverns, one as big as the Houston Astrodome. Some folks swear you can walk the twenty-eight miles from Commerce, Oklahoma, to Joplin, Missouri, without ever seeing the sky.
Only 6 percent of what miners like Mutt hauled out of the ground was ore-grade—thus the aptly named Discard Mine on the Kansas- Oklahoma border. Waste laced with cadmium, magnesium, copper, and gallium was strewn over 41 square miles.
When the Mantles arrived in the area in 1935, a time of unprecedented and violent labor unrest in the Tri-State region, these towering buttes were a source of pride for a workforce known for its fierce independence and anti-union ways. Adults regarded them as protectors against the tornados that spiraled across the land. Children rode their bikes up the dusty slopes in summer and slid down them on rusting car hoods in winter. In the shadow of these bleak mounds, they roasted wieners, ate cake, and sang “Happy Birthday.”
Boys learned to play baseball on dried-out sludge ponds of chemical residue, alkali flats as smooth as the most manicured major league infield but not as forgiving. There was one a block from Mantle’s home and the ball would roll forever, which is why, he confessed later, he preferred to play the infield. “They was full of lead and zinc—it’s a wonder we all didn’t end up with lead poisoning in our blood,” his boyhood friend LeRoy Bennett said. “There was no grass that growed on ’em because it was so heavily slanted one way or the other on the chemical chart.”
Everyone but Mantle learned to swim in the quarries created by cave-ins, leaving them with rat-red eyes; his mother would haul him home in a fury when she caught him so much as wading. He could barely manage the dog paddle. Cave-ins were routine yet shocking. One night driving home from work, Merlyn’s uncle felt the pavement give way beneath his wheels. “Went over and it crashed in,” Merlyn told me.
Route 66, the Mother Road connecting Chicago and Santa Monica, California—and Mickey and Merlyn’s hometowns—was not immune. “I never will forget, one time, the highway splittin’ wide open,” Bennett said. “Miners were always gettin’ killed and that kind of thing, but it was kind of expected. Eventually it was gonna happen and you couldn’t do anything about it anyway, so most people just accepted it.”
Everyone knew the air the miners breathed wasn’t good, that the work was lethal, the earth’s crust precarious, but Paul Thomas, the undertaker who buried Mickey’s father and Merlyn’s mother, never thought he would have to bury the entire place. No one could have imagined that one day the government would pay citizens to leave their toxic homes. Hanging from the beams in Thomas’s Picher garage above three shiny hearses were rusty relics of the miners he interred: helmets with carbide lamps, lanterns, and kettles. The walls were covered by wide-angle portraits of proud mining crews, including Mutt Mantle’s at the Hum-bah-wah-tah Mine. Posed in front of the doghouse where they changed their clothes, lunch pails at their feet, the roof trimmers, hookers, bumpers, and rope riders peer at the camera through masks of exhaustion and soot. An Eagle-Picher sign declares: we use safety here. The photo is dated June 8, 1941.
In the language of the mines, men worked on top or in the ground, never above or below. In 1935, when Mutt went to work for Eagle- Picher, a common underground worker earned $2.80 a day, according to Union Busting in the Tri-State, a definitive history of the industry written by George Suggs, Jr. In an eight-hour shift, miners filled as many as forty-five to sixty 1,250-pound cans, all by hand, lifting up to 75,000 pounds every day.
They rode to work in the buckets they loaded, falling into the darkness at the force of gravity. Everything needed below went down the same five-by-seven-foot shaft, including the air they breathed—there was no other ventilation. The mules that pulled the cans to the shaft lived out their lives in the ground inhaling the smell of mother earth in a climate-controlled 65-degree tomb. The working conditions for man and beast were appalling. Miners carved the rock face, inhaling the dust generated by their labor. A roof trimmer standing atop an 80-foot ladder chipped ore from the ceiling while four rope riders steadied the precarious perch. Their backbreaking labor required teamwork and bred a mordant camaraderie not unlike that of baseball teams. It’s no accident that so many of them, including Mutt and his brother Eugene —known as Tunney—spent their off days playing baseball in the sunshine and arguing over pitch selection.
The mine whistle summoned Mutt and his crew at 7 A.M. and sent them home at 4 P.M., fifteen minutes after the dynamite charges were lit in preparation for the next day’s dig. The ground shook; wives and children went about their business and hoped for the best. “Sirens were a dreaded, scary thing, because that did mean there had been some kind of a cave-in and somebody was hurt,” said Ben Craig, a banker in Kansas City who played sandlot ball with Mantle. “It was just, always, hold your breath.”
“It would be rare to have two in one day, but you didn’t go very many days at a time without hearing one,” Craig said. “It was not unlike the tornado warning sirens we have out in this part of the country. I don’t think it was as loud as these are now, though. Nobody wanted to spend that much money.”
Mantle’s best friend, Bill Mosely, lost his father one day when he set the charges and didn’t get out in time.
Between 1924 and 1931, there were 24,464 reported accidents in the Picher field, according to statistics in documents kept by the Tri-State Zinc and Lead Ore Producers Association, to which only half the mine operators belonged. During that same period, 173 miners were killed, many as a result of falling rock. Archives from the Tri-State Mineral Museum in Joplin document the grim ordinariness of death in terse, numbing language: “Machine man. Killed by a falling slab.” “A shoveler. Killed instantly by a falling rock.” “Bumper. Killed by a fall of rock.” “A miner. One of 4 miners killed by falling slab.”
Some slabs were larger than a city block.
Little wonder Mutt didn’t want this for his son. Mosely says a school field trip to the bottom of the earth was as close as they ever got to going in the ground. In the summer, when he wasn’t playing baseball, Mantle worked for Eagle-Picher, hacking away combustible blue stem grass that grew up around the poles that carried electrical wires to the mines. “They’d take him ten miles out of town and have him dig ten-foot circles, one foot deep, around every telephone pole,” Merlyn told me. “He had to dig his way back in.”
In the winter of 1950–1951 Mantle worked as a roustabout earning $33 a week. “I know every job Mickey had with Eagle-Picher,” said Frank Wood, a metallurgical engineer, whose father owned a store that supplied equipment to miners, and who himself worked on the subsidence report to the governor of Oklahoma. “He worked with the Eagle-Picher pump crew, maintaining all the pumps that were above ground, pumping the water out of the mines. Now, this is a rascally bunch of hard-drinkin’, hell-raisin’ fellas that did this work, but they were very diligent and did very professional work. Mostly what Mick did for ’em was a gofer. They’d send Mick over to get bearings and repair parts for the pumps, and he’d set there at the engineer’s desk and practice his signature on the Yellow Transit notepads. I got three notepads of Mickey Mantle signatures.”
“The bull gang, they called it,” his cousin Max Mantle said. “They’d go from one mine to another working on the equipment. They had to go down in. As far as being a miner, he wasn’t.”
The best days of the Tri-State Mining District were ten years gone when Mutt moved his family to the region. The land’s lucre was first discovered in 1848, the year Mantle’s great-grandfather, an English coal miner, immigrated to America. The Twenties were the glory days. Between 1908 and 1930, the ore that came out of the mines was worth more than $300 million. The human cost of extracting the wealth was clear as early as 1915, when doctors noted pulmonary disease in almost two out of three miners. Laws passed in 1923 by the Oklahoma Department of Mines required operators to wet the muck piles prior to shoveling the ore into buckets. But miners paid by the bucket were reluctant to waste precious time wetting down the ore, and the laws were loosely enforced. They choked on the air they breathed, and when they tried to cough up the fragments of chiseled rock caught in their lungs, they choked on their own blood.
Silicosis was more feared and far more common than the random but inevitable collapse of rock. A clinic opened in Picher in 1927, but it was for the benefit of the mine operators, who were anxious to cull the sick from the workforce. Doctors provided advice but no treatment. Annual X-ray examinations were compulsory. Miners were required to carry a wallet-sized health card certifying that they were free of disease. Those whose X-rays came back positive were fired the same day and could never be hired by another mine. An attorney for Eagle-Picher explained the company’s methodology for ridding the area of silicosis and the rampant tuberculosis that ensued: “When they get sick and can’t work, we throw them on the dump heap.”
That explains why Mutt never went to the doctor.
Between 1927 and 1932, almost 30,000 miners were examined; more than 5,000 of them had both silicosis and tuberculosis, which spread throughout the mining towns as quickly as they were built. Picher was the corporate, civic, and cultural center of the area, a town of 10,000 people that grew to have 5 movie theaters, 43 grocery stories, 28 boardinghouses, 2 hospitals, and no place to park. “About every other business was a bar,” Paul Thomas said.
In the beginning, the mining camps were little more than shanty-towns with flimsy houses built one on top of another. Later, mining companies built “shacks” for their workers like the one the Mantles lived in on Quincy Street. “Everybody had a little wood frame house with a porch on the front,” said J. Mark Osborn, a physician from Miami, Oklahoma, who played a central role in bringing the government’s attention to health problems in the blighted region. “One day you’d walk along and see a guy, and he’d be coughing up blood into a spittoon. In a couple of weeks he’d be gone and you’d go three or four houses down and there’d be another guy coughing up blood and dying in a couple of weeks.”
His grandfather was one of those men.
Whatever fears and prejudices Mantle took with him when he left Commerce were the residue of growing up in an insular, homogeneous world fraught with unifying peril. The indigenous population was Native American; the eviscerated land was a Quapaw reservation until 1897. Blacks were not welcome after dark. “It was an informal thing, and the police departments and the county sheriffs and ‘the country club set’ set the rules,” said Bennett, who left town for the Naval Academy and graduate school at MIT. “As far as I can recollect, there was not one black in Commerce, not one. I didn’t know what Jews were.”
One night years later while visiting Mantle in New York, they went to hear Les Paul and Mary Ford perform in New Jersey. On the way back in the car, Bennett recalled, Mantle saw “a black person, and Mickey purposely rolled down the window and yelled to this guy, ‘Hey, you black bastard, go home and take a bath.’ ”
Parochialism and prejudice were offset by public schools that were the hub of the community and teachers who saw the best in their students. Among them were Ed Keheley, a nuclear engineer who returned to Picher after retiring as site manager of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, and Kim Pace, a learning specialist who became principal of the elementary school she had attended as a girl. Keheley came home to raise cattle but found the pastureland toxic, and his hometown despoiled—mired in controversy about the impact of long-term exposure to lead on Picher’s children. It wasn’t so much a question of the level of lead in the blood as the length of exposure that caused the problem— damage suffered before the age of six is irreversible. “These kids were known to the schools,” said Keheley, who has conducted historical research on the Picher Mining Field for the United States Department of Justice and private organizations for more than a decade. “They passed them from class to class, gave them diplomas. It was certainly better than ten percent.”
Pace says her students needed seventy-five repetitions to master reading skills that average students retained after fourteen to twenty-five repetitions. What should have taken two or three weeks to learn took six to eight weeks for her children. Once they fell behind, they stayed behind.
No one wanted to believe it, least of all the parents of the children ridiculed as “chat rats” and “lead heads.” Suspicion redoubled when, in May 2006, workers involved in a University of Oklahoma study confessed to having submitted fraudulent blood samples. But everyone knew somebody who struggled to learn to read. Merlyn Mantle told me she was among them. Two of her sons were later diagnosed with dyslexia, a learning disability in which letters and symbols are reversed. “I think it came from my side of the family,” Merlyn told me. “My aunt had a child with problems. It was all on my side.”
She never saw signs of learning disabilities in her husband, but Mantle’s friend Pat Summerall did. He too has a son who is dyslexic. He says he and Mantle talked about their shared experience on several occasions. “He couldn’t pronounce the word, but he knew what he was saying,” Summerall said. “He thought he had that disease. He’d see different things in road signs. He’d see it going one way when it was going the other.”
At the end of Mantle’s life, doctors tested his blood as well as that of his sons for elevated levels of lead. “Some scientist out of Tulsa was saying ‘What’s wrong with his liver was the lead,’ ” Danny Mantle told me. “They made all of us kids, me and David and Mick, do all this blood work. It wasn’t in our blood. They did find it in Dad’s.”
“You haven’t got a problem that God cannot solve.”
That optimistic promise greets worshipers at the entrance to Jerry VonMoss’s Exciting Southeast Baptist Church, just off Mickey Mantle Boulevard—old Route 66—in downtown Commerce.
His father was a supervisor at the Blue Goose Mine. His parents and Mickey’s parents were friends. On the desk in his office he keeps a reminder of a dead way of life: a ten-pound ingot of lead ore his father made into an ashtray. Zinc was far more abundant than lead in the Tri-State area, by a ratio of six to one. Miners called it Jack. Until Mickey Mantle came along, it was the only name in town.
On the shelf behind his desk, VonMoss keeps a Bible, a photocopy of a Sporting News questionnaire filled out by Mantle when his nickname was still “Muscles,” and his father’s map of the mining district. Mine operators named their stakes after their children, their wives, their lovers, lives and luck lost and found: Cactus, Emma Gordon, Lead Boy, Nancy Jane, Dew Drop, Prairie Chicken, Bull Frog, Skeleton, Lawyers (because it was full of snakes), Darling, and No Dinero.
After the ore played out, after B. F. Goodrich closed its Miami plant in 1987, there wasn’t much commerce left in Commerce or the rest of the Tri-State region. Picher became a ghost town. Rusted industrial skeletons stood sentinel on city street corners behind government-mandated chain-link fence—derricks, pinions, and those massive 1,250-pound cans. Colored banners adorning public buildings warned STAY OFF THE CHAT! and offered the only respite from the bleak palette.
After nearly three decades as the most toxic waste site on the EPA’s Superfund list and, Keheley says, after the infusion of more than $240 million of taxpayers’ money, government officials accepted the findings of the 2006 subsidence report his committee prepared for Oklahoma senator James Inhofe. The money had been spent on a well-intentioned but misbegotten attempt to rid yards of the mineral residue that arrived on every breeze; to plug open mine shafts; and to rid Tar Creek of the acidic water that reached the surface and municipal water supplies a decade after the last mine closed in 1970. But it was all to no avail, Keheley’s committee found, because Picher’s underpinnings were as unstable as Mantle’s.
Merlyn’s hometown was declared unsalvageable. The government began offering buyouts to residents who never wanted to leave and often couldn’t afford to do so, a protracted process that generated enmity and litigation.
Finally, on May 10, 2008, Ed’s wife said, “The Lord looked down and said, ‘Enough.’ ”
An EF4 tornado roared across the Kenoyer chat pile, killing seven of Picher’s citizens and destroying 114 homes, including one belonging to Merlyn’s late mother, one to her sister, and one built by Picher high school students for Sue Sigle, an elementary school teacher who grew up across the street from Merlyn. The only thing Sigle cared about was the unlocked safe holding her late husband’s collection of Mantle memorabilia, including a ball he had autographed for her son. He had planned to open a baseball card shop when he retired.
She was in Branson, Missouri, when the tornado struck. When she got home, all that remained of the two-story brick home was the fireplace. Highway patrolmen escorted her through the rubble, past the camera crews stationed on the front lawn. There, among the ruins, she found the open safe, with the precious family heirloom. Neighbors had retrieved it for her. She felt blessed.
After decades of despoliation, Mickey Mantle’s memory was the only resource left to mine. Everyone became a prospector. And that ore was pretty much played out, too. Memorabilia hunters had excavated every attic for anything he might have touched, used, or signed. Jerry VonMoss provided a guided tour of Mantle-area landmarks, with his wife, Corrine, and friend Jim McCorkell in the backseat. She pointed out an empty pasture west of town where Bonnie and Clyde spent the night before robbing the bank, killing the constable, and abducting the chief of police. The scandalous thing was . . . Bonnie wasn’t wearing underwear.
Across the way lay a field where the charred remains of a house once occupied by the Mantles had once been hidden by high grass. “This guy stomps around and finds some boards that were on the house,” VonMoss said. “He takes those boards and sells ’em to an old boy in Florida, who takes the boards and cuts them up into little pieces and sells them. Now, who made the most money?”
VonMoss eyed McCorkell in the rearview mirror. “Jim’s the guy who sold ’em. The deacon of the Southeast Baptist Church selling boards off of Mantle’s house!”
McCorkell sold each ten-inch board for $200 to a Florida merchant, who cut them down further and resold them at a generous markup— marketing them as relics of the house at 319 South Quincy Street, where Mantle had taken his first swings as a switch-hitter.
Two local entrepreneurs purchased the house, hoping to develop it into a tourist attraction. They were optimistic about their prospects. After all, Branson, Missouri, the entertainment mecca, was only two and a half hours away and, said Miami mayor Brent Brassfield, “nine to fifteen thousand cars pass by Miami on the Interstate every day.” His brother owns half interest in the house.
They were surprised by the modern amenities and hung a plaque by the bathroom door: MICKEY MANTLE IN-DOOR PLUMBING. They planned to straighten the humpbacked shed the Mantles used as a backstop. But when Mantle visited, he told them, “It leaned when I was a kid.” So they braced it to lean forever. A sign advertising RESTORATION IN PROGRESS, MICKEY MANTLE COMMERCE COMET BOYHOOD HOME was stolen off the front porch.
For a time, hopes rested with plans for a Mickey Mantle Museum. Board members of the Mickey Mantle Memorial Trust, many of them childhood friends and classmates, envisioned a 33,000-square-foot educational facility that would celebrate the history of the region and its contributions to America—Mick and Jack. But the plan died for lack of funds, support, and potential visitors. The Mantle family informed the trust that they preferred to see a statue of The Mick erected at Mickey Mantle Field, according to Brian Waybright, chairman of the trust and director of the annual Mickey Mantle Wooden Bat tournament. A nine-foot, nine-hundred-pound bronze likeness—stationed behind center field—was unveiled at 6:07 P.M. on June 12, 2010.
Nonetheless, townsfolk like Ivan Shouse, Mantle’s high school classmate, were disappointed and perplexed by the fate of the museum and of the town he left behind. “Why did Mick move out, anyway?” he asked.
May 27, 1949
The Mantles of Brierley Hill, a soot-draped coal-mining town in England’s West Midlands, fled the “Black Country” fifty years before the ore played out. Elihu Burritt, the American consul to Birmingham, described the landscape, pitted by collieries and ironworks, in 1862 as “black by day and red by night.”
Fourteen years earlier, Mutt Mantle’s great-grandfather George brought his family to America, seeking light and air and a new way of life. They arrived in New Orleans after a months-long trial at sea. When the wind died and the Sailor Prince was becalmed, the women set about washing clothes on deck, only to see the wash barrels swept overboard when the breeze returned. It was a harbinger of the life of privation that lay ahead.
A riverboat ferried them up the Mississippi to St. Louis, where George and his sons found initial employment in nearby coal mines, according to a family history shared by Max Mantle. Three years later, they headed west for Missouri’s Osage country to try to eke out a living aboveground as farmers and grocers. But within two generations, Mantle men would be working in the ground again.
Elven “Mutt” Mantle was eight years old when his mother, Mae, died of pneumonia a month after giving birth to her fifth child, Emmett. His father, Charles, never remarried, and struggled to raise the children alone. An aunt and uncle reared the new baby as their own thirty miles away in Pryor, Oklahoma. Mutt was eighteen when he met and soon after married Lovell Thelma Richardson Davis, a divorcée—a rarity in that time and in that place—who was eight years his senior. Family lore has it that when Mutt arrived to call on Lovell’s younger sister, she stepped forward and declared she would have him for herself. “Mutt married himself a mother,” relatives said.
That was true enough; Lovell already had a daughter and a son from her marriage to Bill Davis. Still a teenager, Mutt took on the responsibilities of a much older man.
It was a union of opposites. “Daddy was a very passive individual,” his youngest son, Larry Mantle, said. “My mom was a hellcat. He did whatever she said.”
The first of their five children, Mickey Charles, was born on October 20, 1931, in Spavinaw, Oklahoma, in the depths of the Great Depression. Mutt picked the name before he knew the child was a boy in honor of his hero, Hall of Fame catcher Mickey Cochrane, and his father, Charlie, a semi-pro southpaw pitcher. He ordered Mickey’s first baseball cap six months before he was born. He placed a baseball in the newborn’s crib and seemed surprised when he showed equal interest in his bottle.
Before the boy could walk, Mutt and Charlie propped him up in a corner and rolled balls across the floor to him. Lovell fashioned his first sliding pads from Mutt’s old wool uniforms and had a cobbler fix spikes to an old pair of shoes to fabricate his first pair of cleats.
When Mutt lost his job grading roads in Spavinaw, he took up tenant farming, tending 80 parched acres for four futile years until drought chased him from the Dust Bowl for good. He quit the land for the promise of employment in the mining towns forty-five miles to the northeast. Within a decade, he had ten mouths to feed: his father; Lovell’s children, Ted and Anna Bea Davis; Mickey, his twin brothers, Ray and Roy, Larry, the baby, known as Butch, and the only girl, Barbara, who was called Bob. She never knew why.
Mutt moved his family first to the small mining town of Cardin, then to the Quincy Street house in Commerce, where they slept four to a bed for ten years. The modest one-story structure, measuring twenty-five by thirty feet, had four rooms, including the kitchen, which had a wood-burning stove, and tin can lids pressed into knotholes in the plain pine floors. “I cannot believe that many of us lived in that little bitty house,” Barbara DeLise said.
In 1944, much to Lovell’s consternation, Mutt traded it for an old farmhouse with a calf on the outskirts of town. He wanted better air for his ailing father and to live off the ground, not in it. “She was so mad,” DeLise said. “The house was a two-story, and it was a wreck. The cracks in the floor were so bad. And when the wind blew, the linoleum would be standing this high off the floor. So we didn’t stay there too long. It had no bathroom. Had to take a bath in the washtub. We didn’t have nothin’. You just went outside and went to the bathroom. That was pretty bad.”
Grandpa Charlie died soon after, just as his oldest grandson was entering eighth grade. He was laid out in the front parlor, such as it was. “Say goodbye to Grandpa,” Mutt said, escorting the oldest boys to the open coffin.
“From there we moved to Dr. Wormington’s place,” DeLise said. “He lived in town, and Dad took care of his farm. We weren’t growing anything that I know of. Dad just took care of the animals. We had cows and chickens and four or five horses. We had one rooster. This is probably why Mickey got so fast. We had a rooster that was meaner than any dog you ever, ever saw. Every time you stepped outta that house, that dang rooster was right there. And, man, it would jump on you. He would take a ball bat and run to that bathroom, just trying to beat that rooster.”
There was yet another move, to Whitebird, before the family settled back in Commerce. There was always enough to eat—especially biscuits and beans. Enough, Larry recalled, to feed Mutt and Lovell’s friends Jay and Eunice Hemphill, who often showed up just in time for dinner and left as soon as it was done.
Pauline Klineline, a cousin on Lovell’s side of the family, said her mother always laughed when she saw childhood pictures of Mickey in a clean white shirt because he never owned one. Lovell took in ironing to supplement the family income. “They could just barely eke out a living,” said LeRoy Bennett, Mantle’s first childhood friend.
Though Lovell’s father was a church deacon and Mutt’s English forefathers were known as “dissenters” because of their fidelity to the Primitive Methodist Church, religion was not stressed in the Mantle household. Nor was education—Mantle later said he never saw his father read anything but the sports page.
In the Mantle canon, Mutt is portrayed as a tough man in a tough world who was tough on his oldest son. Kind? “That’s an interesting question,” Bennett said. “Yeah, I’d say so. But he probably didn’t realize that himself. He was just an ordinary, hard-rock miner.”
Mutt was a surrogate father to two of Mickey’s pals, Nick Ferguson and Bill Mosely, and to his nephew Max. “He’d just grin at you,” Mosely said. “You could tell when you were doin’ somethin’ wrong and everything, but he was pretty quiet. Everybody wanted to please Mutt, seems like. He’s the type of guy, he didn’t have to really tell you a lot what to do, but you just felt that you wanted to do what he wanted.”
In the family he was known for his prowess in cards and dominoes and his caution behind the wheel. “Mutt had a team of horses and a wagon,” Max Mantle recalled. “He drove the horse and wagon down to Afton, traded it for a car. Ray said, ‘We made just about as good time gettin’ down there with the horse and wagon as we did in the car on the way back.’ ”
When Mickey got old enough to drive, Mutt’s speed limit was strictly enforced. “Mick’d kick it up to forty-five or fifty miles per hour,” said Jimmy Richardson, Mantle’s first cousin on his mother’s side. “Mutt, he’d be squirmin’ around, and he’d say, ‘Slow down, son! You’re airplanin’ it!’ ”
Mutt’s two youngest children remember a gentle man, worn out and worn down by the mines, who came home every day, lay down on the divan in the parlor, and had them brush his hair. He was very particular about his dark, reddish black hair, which he wore combed straight back from his brow. “He’d say, ‘Okay, Bob, get your brush and your comb,’ ” DeLise said. “And I’d set down on the divan and comb his hair for hours and he’d take a little nap. I’d get a nickel for every hour.”
Larry didn’t get paid.
Like her husband, Lovell came into a world fraught with uncertainty and peril. A tornado demolished the family home when she was an infant, injuring an aunt who also had a newborn, Pauline Klineline’s mother. “Mickey’s grandmother took my mother and Mickey’s mother and nursed ’em both,” she said.
Lovell grew to be “a fair-sized woman,” Max Mantle said, who was also stout of opinion. She was patient with Mickey’s crew on winter afternoons, when they ran wild in small quarters. But she had no tolerance for anyone who messed with her boys. Mutt refused to sit with her at Mickey’s ball games. Her bellowed motherly support would have made her deacon father wince.
Nor did she shy away from occasional fisticuffs. At one Friday-night barn dance, Commerce men took umbrage at the attention lavished on their women by some out-of-town dandies. “Daddy stepped up, said, ‘Ain’t no women for you to pick up. Ya’ll need to leave,’ ” Larry said. “Sure enough, Daddy and this guy start out in a fight. Then here comes Lovell, getting in the road.”
Mutt tried to move Lovell out of the way. But, Larry sighed, “he couldn’t keep Mom out of it.”
When one of the twins got banged up on the final play of a football game, the enraged Lovell lit out for vengeance. “She grabbed ahold of my hand, and off we went across this football field,” Larry said. “ ‘Who’s the Afton coach?’ Guy says, ‘I am.’ She hit him, wham, hit him over the bench.”
Ted, Lovell’s son from her first marriage, spent much of his childhood at his grandmother’s house, his widow, Faye Davis, recalled. He suffered from osteomyelitis, the bone disease his half brother Mickey would contract. Ted told his wife that his mother had little patience with his infirmity. “When he was seven or eight years old he used to cry because it hurt,” Davis said. “But Lovell told him, ‘Shut up, people have to go to work in the morning.’ ”
Expressions of tenderness were few. Merlyn figured that was the reason her husband didn’t know how to show his feelings. “Mick’s family was cold,” she told me. “His mom was cold. I never heard her call her children ‘honey.’”
“She used to whip him, too, something he didn’t like to admit,” David Mantle wrote in the family memoir, A Hero All His Life.
Young as they were, Larry and Barbara don’t remember much about their parents’ marriage except, he says, that she ran everything. Were they affectionate? “No, not that much,” Barbara said. “I don’t remember them ever bein’ smoochie smoochie.”
Larry Mantle’s warmth was the exception to a familial reserve handed down through generations of Mantle men. When he tried to hug his nephew Mickey, Jr., at a family gathering, “he almost jumped straight back.” Leaving a holiday party with Mickey, Sr., one year, Larry paused to embrace their mother. “We get outside, and Mick said, ‘I wish I could do that.’
“And I said, ‘What?’
“He said, ‘Kiss Mom on the cheek like that and hug her.’
“I said, ‘Just walk up and do it.’
“I really felt sorry for him that he couldn’t. Because, my goodness, that must be terrible.”
Mutt and Lovell’s oldest son was as quiet as his father and as pugnacious as his mother. An “ornery little varmint,” Cousin Max called him.
Everyone else called him Little Mickey. He didn’t weigh but ninety pounds when he was a freshman in high school, qualifying him to play on the Midget basketball team. What there was of him was all boy. He set fire to the trash and raced the flames to the outhouse, trying to douse them with a bucket that had a hole in the bottom. He was five then. He tied himself to the hind quarters of a calf, pretending he was a rodeo rider. “That old calf bolted out the side door of the barn,” DeLise said. “We thought it killed him.”
He was the big brother who organized the games, made the rules, and played the pranks. “Usually it was fun for him at other people’s expense, like mine and Barbara’s,” Larry said. “We had this old barn with a big wasp nest. He’d do a deal where he’d go in and tear down the wasp’s nest. No one could run ’til it started falling.”
At Whitebird, he turned the porch into a fort with dynamite crates from the mines. “We used to build rubber guns from tires that had inner tubes,” Larry said. “I was on his side a lot. Cannon fodder.”
But he was scared of heights, particularly the roller coaster the twins rode to death in St. Louis, and as a little boy scared of bugs. Mike Meier’s grandma babysat for the Mantles. “Granddad used to laugh,” Meier said. “He was scared to death of everything. Granddad said, ‘I never dreamed he would grow up to be what he was because he was such a sissy.’ ”
He loved country music—especially Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys. Every time they came through Commerce, they saw the same redhaired, freckle-faced boy waiting by Route 66. One day, Mantle wrote, they stopped to introduce themselves. Their young admirer asked to tag along to their performance in Joplin. Wills told Mantle, “You get your parents’ permission.” Next time, the Playboys took him along.
He hid his own musical ambitions and his guitar in the culvert in the front yard, his artistic impulse trumped by competitive zeal. He used the money set aside for guitar lessons to play pool instead. “He didn’t worry a lot about world news or wars or things,” said Bennett. “He was sort of loose as a goose. He just wanted to play baseball. He was pretty simple, really—his main worry was hittin’ a big curve ball.”
In the Commerce High School yearbook—he was sports editor—the caption under his senior picture read: “They’re great pals, he and his baseball jacket.” He was also listed as Most Popular on the Who’s Who page, assistant editor of Tiger Chat, the school newspaper, a member of the Engineers Club, and a cast member in the senior play, Starring the Stars.
His siblings remember him as an enthusiastic babysitter and compelling storyteller who drove the young ’uns under the bed with tales of the Headless Horseman lurking outside the window. “And Mickey sat in the living room just dying laughin’,” Barbara said.
Max Mantle recalls a different ending to the tale: “He was under the bed. He was the furthest one under the bed.”
But Cousin Mickey would never spend the night at Max’s house; he was always heading home at bedtime. He wet his bed until he left home for his first year in minor league baseball. It had to be embarrassing in a house where everyone lived and slept in such proximity. Perhaps that’s why Lovell was so diligent about starching and ironing his boxer shorts every morning.
Dick Cavett broached the delicate subject when Mantle appeared on his late-night talk show in the spring of 1969 with Whitey Ford and Paul Simon. Cavett was asking about the psychological impact of being made to switch-hit, and noted that when “parents teach a kid who’s right-handed to become left-handed,” it can lead to emotional trauma.
Then he threw Mantle a spitter. “I wondered if any troubles showed up in your personality because of that? Maybe I can just ask Whitey, ‘Was he a bed wetter?’ ”
“It’s true,” Mantle replied with an easy grin. “ ’Til I was about sixteen years old. You think that’s what went wrong?”
The camera cut to a reaction shot of the shaken singer. “Mickey Mantle wet his bed?” Simon gasped, as Ford steadied his arm.
Shortly after the show aired, Daniel Zwerdling, a Washington Post reporter working on a story about new treatments for bed wetting, decided to call his childhood hero. “I thought he’d hang up on me,” Zwerdling said. “I was more embarrassed than he was. He said something like ‘ ShitIdunno, all I know is, I was pissin’ in my bed.’
“I asked, ‘Did you have any scars? Did you go to therapy?’
“He said, ‘Hell no, my daddy was a lead miner.’ ”
In a family where doing without and making do were the norm, Mutt and Lovell always made room in the meager budget for baseball. “Mickey came from a baseball family,” Mosely said. “They’d give up anything, but not baseball.”
Mickey was often the beneficiary of their largesse. At Christmas, when all the other children got a pair of socks, there was always enough money to buy him a new baseball glove. He would cry, he later told a friend, because he didn’t get any toys. When he was fourteen, Mutt took him to St. Louis to see his hero, Stan Musial, and the Cardinals. Providence offered a chance meeting in the hotel elevator, but Mutt wouldn’t allow Mickey to ask for an autograph. A glimpse of a hero was enough.
Lovell was equally devout about baseball. Mosely recalled: “During the day, when the kids were in school and her husband was workin’ in the mines, she had the St. Louis Cardinals game on the radio, and when she was ironing or doing her housework, she was keepin’ score of what every one of those guys did!”
At the dinner table, she would re-create all nine innings. Lovell knew as much about baseball as any woman, but she was uncharacteristically low key in offering her opinions. “She could critique Mickey, but she would do it real quiet so Mutt wouldn’t hear anything,” his pal Nick Ferguson said.
Mantle got his fierce, competitive intensity from her. “She is the one that instilled all this fire that made him not the ballplayer but the person that he was,” said Larry, the baby brother who was on the receiving end of bullet backyard passes and lethal glares when the football wasn’t caught. “Mickey didn’t tolerate people not giving their best. Those passes were ninety miles an hour. If you didn’t catch it, you’d get this terrible look.”
The look Bil Gilbert of Sports Illustrated later likened to “a nictitating membrane in the eye of a bird.”
“It wasn’t that much of a fun game,” Larry said. “I quit all the time.”
But his threats were meaningless; his big brother would never let him leave the field.
On Sundays, instead of church, the Mantles attended Mutt’s semi-pro games in Spavinaw and Whitebird. No one was allowed to get out of the car if the sports report was on the radio. “Mutt was a catcher/pitcher,” said Jerry VonMoss, whose father, Ed, managed the Whitebird Bluebirds. “His brother Tunney was also on the team. One day, Mutt was pitching and Tunney was catching. Tunney called for something, Mutt threw something else. They threw down their gloves, met midway between the mound and the plate, and had a fight.”
Mickey always bragged on his father. “Best semi-pro ballplayer in Oklahoma,” he told me. But others remember his talents more objectively. “He was a very mediocre ballplayer,” Ferguson said. “He was not as good as a lot of other players on the teams there. Nowhere near.”
“He was good until he broke his leg sliding into second,” Barbara said.
If Mickey Mantle was the product of Mutt’s thwarted ambition, he was also the beneficiary of his undivided attention during the best, healthiest years of his life. Mutt would not have the time, energy, or drive to invest in his younger sons. His health was failing by the time Ray and Roy and Larry came of age for team sports. Mickey was his one chance to get it right. Maybe that’s why, VonMoss says, Mutt “drove him like a nail.”
Playtime was over when Mutt got home from work. Every afternoon was punctuated by the rhythmic bang of the ball against the corrugated metal siding of the ramshackle shed. “Every day at 4 P.M., Mickey had to be home, no matter where he was or what he was doing, to do batting practice,” Max said. “They’d throw a tennis ball. They’d stand him up against that leaning shed. He’d hit it up against the house. If it hit the ground, it was an out; below the window, a double; above the window, a triple; over the house, a home run. Every day.”
Everyone in town knew about the day Mutt came home early from work and caught Mickey batting right-handed against a right-handed pitcher in a Gabby Street League game at the Paul Douthat field outside Picher. Climbed his ass. Raised holy hell. “Boy, the crap hit the fan over that,” Max said. “That was a no-no. Mickey never done it again.”
Of Mutt’s hard schooling, Larry Mantle said, “I don’t know how good friends they were, Mickey and Daddy. Daddy was Daddy, and Daddy was the boss.”
Mutt was a baseball savant far ahead of his time in envisioning the future of baseball specialization. He was also a realist who recognized his son’s personality and talent and the discipline needed to harvest it. “He wanted him to be good and knew what he had to do, and that was it,” said Mosely, who made his living as a high school phys ed teacher and football coach.
Like any father, Mutt wanted better for his sons. By the early Fifties there was precious little ore to gouge out of the earth—except for the supporting pillars, in the mines the ore in the Tri-State area had pretty much played out. A job at the B. F. Goodrich plant in Miami represented the highest ambition for most boys Mantle’s age. “Get out of school, get rich, marry your high school sweetheart, and buy a new car on time—that was the hope and the prayer,” his cousin Jim Richardson said.
If Mickey got out, they all got out. It was a huge—if unarticulated— burden to place on one boy’s shoulders. “He was their summer wishes and their winter dreams,” his oldest son, Mickey, Jr., wrote later.
Will Rogers, Oklahoma’s most famous export before Mickey Mantle, once said, “Oklahomans vote dry as long as they can stagger to the polls.” They continued to do so until April 1959. Prohibition was written into the state constitution in 1907, when the “wets” lost the battle for the soul of the Oklahoma and Indian territories. Although near beer was legalized nationally in 1933, bootlegging and home brew were as much a part of Oklahoma culture as going to church. Ted Davis was driving for a bootlegger, bringing booze in over the state line, when he was seventeen. Uncle Luke, one of Lovell’s brothers, made home brew, Barbara said. “If he didn’t sell it, he gave it away.”
In Commerce, dreams and diversions were few: beer, baseball, and brawling. “That’s what we done, drink and fight,” said Herman Combs, who worked for Mutt at the Blue Goose Mine. Mutt’s brother Tunney (after boxer Gene) got his nickname after knocking a guy’s eye out in a barfight while trying to rescue one of Lovell’s brothers.
Alcoholism wasn’t recognized as a disease, much less a hereditary one. But it ran deep in Lovell’s family. “The alcoholism came from Mickey’s mother’s side,” Merlyn told me. “Her brothers all had a problem. Two or three of them were alcoholics. I don’t know if they died of it, but they were real alcoholics.”
Lovell’s sister Blanche did. Aunt Blanche was “a sneaky alcoholic,” Barbara said. “You never saw her drink, but she did every day. She lived with us for a while, and you knew she was drinking.”
How? “Because she was drunk.”
Blanche’s body was found in her apartment a week after her death. “Ted was one of them who found her,” Faye Davis said. He had been sober for five years when she married him, but the damage was done. “He didn’t drink anymore, but he lost his mind. He just went nutty as a fruitcake. He started carrying a pistol and seeing things that weren’t there, and I thought, ‘Better take him to the doctor.’ And he had to go to a nurse’s home.”
His father, Bill Davis, was an alcoholic, she says; Lovell didn’t drink. Mutt kept a bottle of liquor in the icebox. Larry remembers the look on his father’s face when he downed a shot. “He’d take a couple swallows of whiskey and then drink the Coke right quick and then give this terrible sound—ps’shooow—and shake all over. If somethin’ affected me that bad, I don’t think I would drink it.”
None of the family members I spoke with thought Mutt was an alcoholic. Mantle offered contradictory accounts of his father’s drinking. In his 1994 Sports Illustrated confessional, he said, “Dad would get drunk once in a while, like when he went to a barn dance and might have five or six drinks. Hell, for me five or six drinks wouldn’t have been a full cocktail party!”
Merlyn confided in the wife of Mantle’s friend Larry Meli at a dinner in the Eighties. “Mickey can’t help the carousing. Mutt was like that.”
He described Mutt as a habitual drinker in conversations with Herb Gluck, the ghostwriter of The Mick, with his friend Pat Summerall, and in a family history taken by his Georgia physician, Dave Ringer. “I think he thought his dad was an alcoholic,” Ringer said. “Didn’t talk a lot about it. Didn’t talk much about his dad at all. But I do recall that.”
Mantle told Greer Johnson, his companion during the last decade of his life, that when he was a boy of nine or ten “his father would take him to the bars, sit him up on the stool while he drank.” He wouldn’t have been the first guy in town to do that. “He always led me to believe that his dad was an alcoholic,” Johnson said.
Nick Ferguson recalls outings to local watering holes with Mutt when he and Mickey were teenagers. “I guess he was about sixteen and I was two years older,” he said. “Mutt took us both to a local drive-in-like thing and got beer for Mickey when he was underage.”
“Wasn’t no such thing as underage,” Max Mantle said.
Mutt did not want his son to go out for football. Mickey did it anyway, which may be the only documented act of rebellion in his young life. Mosely was the starting quarterback and star athlete at Commerce High. “I think he just played because all the rest of us did,” Mosely said.
He was good and he was fast, scoring ten touchdowns in seven games as a fullback in a single-wing formation during the one season he played. Showed the opposition “a good, clean white ass,” he bragged later to minor league teammates. Ralph Terry, a future Yankee whose hometown played in the Lucky Seven Conference against Commerce, said, “He’d run sixty yards for a touchdown. Two or three plays later, he’d limp off.” Max, the team manager, would rub his legs on the bus ride home.
Mutt’s worst fears were realized one October afternoon when Mickey was kicked in the left shin during practice just twelve days shy of his fifteenth birthday. He was the second-string quarterback behind Mosely. While the ball was being handed off, there was a mix-up in the timing of the play. He was helped off the field by his teammates and taken to Max’s house, which was close to school. His leg turned “black and blue and red and hot,” Max said.
The Commerce football coach, Allan Woolard, didn’t think it was anything serious until Mantle failed to show up for school the next morning. “I went over to his house to check with Mick and he was on the divan with his ankle propped up,” he told a reporter in 1951. “It was swollen terrifically and was as red as watermelon. He also had a temperature of 103.5 degrees. We immediately took him over to the Picher hospital, and they started treating him at once.”
In telling the story of his infamous childhood infirmity, Mantle always minimized its impact as well as its duration: he got kicked in the shin, went to the hospital, doctors threatened to cut off his leg, and he and his limb were saved by the heroic intervention of his mother, who told the sawbones, “Like hell you are.” A new wonder drug called penicillin also helped.
In fact, he was hospitalized five times over a period of thirteen months. During those forty days in the hospital, he was exposed to more than a whiff of mortality. “It was a wonder he didn’t die,” said Bennett. “He was yellow in color and pale.”
The sequence of events was recounted in a local newspaper in 1951, and reprinted in a 1997 Ottawa County historical brochure:
Medical records at the hospital show that Mantle was first admitted on Oct. 10, 1946 for treatment of an “infection at the lower end of the tibia on the left leg.” Penicillin treatments of approximately 50,000 units every three hours were given. He received approximately 300,000 units a day. He was first dismissed on Oct. 22. At the time osteomyelitis was suspected but there were no definite indications.
A short time later—on November 15, 1946, Mickey again was admitted, received treatment and was dismissed Nov. 18.
Osteomyelitis is a bacterial infection of the bone, usually caused by trauma. Recognized by physicians since antiquity, it was little understood in Commerce, where it was called “TB of the bone” or “cancer of the bone.” Neither was a trivial diagnosis in an area ravaged by tuberculosis and in a family that had just lost a grandfather and an uncle to cancer. Prior to the advent of antibiotics, osteomyelitis was treated with maggots, which ate away the diseased flesh, or by amputation. Mantle’s half brother, Ted, was treated with maggots during a childhood bout with the disease and suffered a recurrence due to shrapnel wounds he received in the Korean War. Mantle never mentioned receiving maggot treatment, but a physician in Picher later told Max Mantle’s wife that he had, his cousin said.
Osteomyelitis can be chronic or acute; and it can recur without warning. Mantle never spoke of having a prior occurrence or a later one. But friends and family remember him as puny and sickly, with boils on his arms and legs. “Bad blood” was the common diagnosis. A nurse for the Tri-State Zinc and Lead Ore Producers Association, a local Florence Nightingale named Ruth Hulsman, inoculated children against typhoid fever, smallpox, and diphtheria and provided them with shoes and clothing. “One of her patients was Mickey Mantle who had osteomyelitis when he was nine,” wrote Velma Nieberding in The History of Ottawa County.
After Hulsman’s death, her daughter told the Miami News Record, “One of her biggest thrills was watching Mickey Mantle reach success since he was one of the children she took to Oklahoma City when he was just a boy for treatment of osteomyelitis. She would always watch his ball games and tell us, ‘That’s one of my children.’ ”
This account suggests the possibility of an earlier infection reactivated by the football injury. Certainly, that was Bill Mosely’s suspicion. “I felt like he’d had that all along and that it was holding him back,” Mosely said.
In June 1942, there was just enough penicillin in the United States for ten patients; two years later, 2.3 million doses were available to treat the wounded during the invasion of Normandy. The price dropped from $20 per dose in 1943 to 55 cents in 1946. But the patent for mass production of the drug was not granted until May 1948. It’s difficult to say which is more miraculous: that the drug was available in Picher, Oklahoma, in the fall of 1946 or that Mantle recovered from the disease after receiving approximately 7 percent of today’s standard dose. And Mantle wasn’t exactly diligent about taking his medicine. His cousin Jim Richardson remembers “seein’ all those pills laid out there” on the ground outside the hospital room window.
According to the Ottawa County newspaper reprint,
It was during his third trip to the hospital that definite evidence of osteomyelitis was found, showing up in x-rays of the bone. This was Mantle’s longest stay in the hospital, beginning March 27, 1947 and ending April 10. The swelling of his leg became more prominent and the pain was more noticeable according to a hospital physician. During this stay an operation was performed on the injured leg with an abscess being opened and drainage started.
The procedure didn’t have a fancy name. “Scraped the bone,” Max Mantle said. It left an indentation in his shin large enough that “you could lay a pickle jar lid over it,” said Don Seger, a former assistant trainer for the Yankees. “And it wasn’t a pretty scar, either. It had a keloid effect.”
When they brought him home from the hospital, his mother had to carry him on her back to and from the outhouse. The infection and the mortification persisted. Lovell applied for public assistance in order to get the funds for him to stay at the Crippled Children’s Hospital in Oklahoma City in late July and early August, where he received increased treatments with sulfa drugs and penicillin. “They gave him fifty shots of that stuff every thirty hours,” Max said.
He was in Children’s Hospital when Max’s father, Tunney, died of cancer at age thirty-four. Mantle was hospitalized in Picher for one more week at the end of November.
By the next baseball season, he began to look like a ballplayer. Probably it was just the natural order of things, a boy growing into a man, but the change in him was so immediate and so dramatic, it reinforced belief in a connection between the penicillin and the growth spurt that followed. “When he got that penicillin in him, boy, his body shot out and the muscles in his arms jumped out,” Mosely said.
In the sickly summer of 1947, Mantle was invited to join Barney Barnett’s Whiz Kids, a prestigious semi-pro team in the Ban Johnson Baseball League. He was so small that Barnett couldn’t find a uniform to fit him. Though he played in only four games (batting .056), Barnett saw something in him. Like Mutt, Barnett was a ground boss for Eagle-Picher. He called his boys “honey.”
Later he would talk Mantle up with the local birddogs and build him up with off-season jobs digging graves and hauling gravestones. He also got him a job as a lifeguard, which struck everyone as funny because Mantle couldn’t swim. In spite of his best efforts, when Mutt took Mickey to St. Louis for an early workout with the Browns, they took one look at him in uniform and sent him home. He didn’t even get on the field.
By the summer of 1948, Mantle had put on nearly forty pounds and four inches and had outgrown everything but his shyness. The Whiz Kids played in a small ballpark tucked into a hollow beside the Spring River. The water’s edge was a long poke from home plate—400 feet at least. One night Mantle hit three home runs—two right-handed and one left-handed—that headed straight for the water’s edge. The folks in the stands passed the hat in his honor—the $53 they collected briefly caused him to lose his amateur status.
That was the summer Tom Greenwade got his first look at him. Green-wade was a free-range baseball scout, though he didn’t dress the part. You wouldn’t catch old Tom in chaw-stained socks. Tall, lanky, and resolutely thin—the consequence of a bout with typhoid fever in his twenties—he cut a swath through the ball fields of Missouri, Kansas, Arkansas, and Oklahoma in a three-piece pinstripe suit and a crisp felt hat. Greenwade traveled the back roads in a shiny new Cadillac with a Babe Ruth jersey stowed in the trunk, a useful prop when trying to pry raw, young talent such as Tom Sturdivant, George Kell, Rex Barney, Bill Virdon, Jerry Lumpe, Hank Bauer, Ralph Terry, and Bobby Murcer away from the competition. How would you like to play baseball in the biggest city in the world, son?
Greenwade had been a prospect once, with an arm live enough to stone rabbits for dinner. His pitching arm had gone dead one cold night in the Northeast Arkansas League when the temperature hovered in the thirties. After his playing days ended he went to work for a pipeline company and for the Internal Revenue Service; he studied law, managed in the minor leagues, raised tomatoes, voted Democratic, and befriended Harry Truman, who stopped by on occasion for a piece of pie at the kitchen table. He was hired by the Yankees in 1946 after scouting for the Browns and the Dodgers. He knew everyone in the territory, and everyone knew him. But Greenwade didn’t become a legend until he discovered Mickey Mantle.
It may be baseball’s most frequently and variously told tale. The way Bunch Greenwade heard it at his father’s knee, Tom was heading back home from a scouting trip in 1948 when he saw the bright lights Barney Barnett had installed for the Whiz Kids at their home field in Baxter Springs and stopped to catch a few innings. That first night, Bunch Green wade said, “Dad went and talked to Mickey. He wanted to know how old he was. Mickey told him he was a junior. Dad told him just point-blank, ‘Well, I can’t really talk to you right now, you know, because I can’t ’til you’ve graduated from high school.’
“But he said, ‘I’m kind of interested in you, and I’ll be back sometime to watch you play. Would you be interested in ever playing ball for the Yankees?’
“Dad always kind of did that, to get their attention you might say.”
Mantle remembered the promise, but the way he heard it, Greenwade had come to scout the Whiz Kids’ third baseman Billy Johnson. Johnson never made it to the bigs and he never exchanged a word with Greenwade until 1955, when he was playing for an Air Force base team. Greenwade asked why he was pitching instead of playing the infield. “Someone’s got to do it,” he replied.
In another account sanctioned by local cognoscenti, Johnny Sturm, the manager of the Yankees’ Joplin farm team, had to stoke Greenwade’s flagging interest in Mantle by threatening to go over his head to the front office. Bunch Greenwade says his father was just playing possum. “Dad went back four different times, and he did it as secretly as possible, telling Mutt on the Q.T., ‘I want to watch Mickey play some. He might, possibly, someday, turn into something.’
“And then he would come home and worry.”
He had reason to be discreet: rules prevented scouts from talking to underage prospects; also, he didn’t want to drive up Mantle’s price by eliciting interest from the competition.
The night before Mantle was to graduate, Greenwade couldn’t sleep. “He sat up all night—he said he smoked cigarettes and drank coffee all night long,” his son said. “And he just knew that when he got to Commerce there were going to be at least three or four other scouts there trying to sign him. He was worried about the Cardinals because he knew that Mickey and his dad were big Cardinals fans.”
The next morning Greenwade went to principal A. B. Baker for help. Baker had already furthered the Yankees’ cause by telling the Indians’ scout Hugh Alexander that the school had no baseball team, that Mantle had been injured playing football and that he had arthritis in his legs. The principal’s motivation was unclear, but Alexander tossed the piece of paper with Mantle’s name away when he got back to his car. He would remember forever the scrap of paper carried away on the breeze.
The principal directed Mutt and the new Commerce baseball coach, Johnny Lingo, to see the superintendent of schools about getting Mantle excused from that evening’s commencement exercises. The biggest night in his brief academic career paled in importance to the Whiz Kids’ big game in Coffeyville, Kansas. Whatever the adult petitioners said, it was persuasive. Lingo described Mantle’s ad hoc graduation ceremony in a 1953 article by Milton Gross for SPORT magazine: “Albert Stewart, our superintendent of schools . . . came Friday and he handed Mickey his diploma in advance and told him he was graduated.”
The scholar was given no say in the decision. But he did get a new pair of baseball spikes. Because he had graduated, he had to turn in his school-issued equipment. Lingo told his wife, Charlene, “I ended up buying him a pair of cleats so he could play that night.”
That evening in Coffeyville, Mantle went 3 for 4 with two home runs, one from each side of the plate. Greenwade, who later claimed he didn’t know Mantle was a switch-hitter until that game, played down his talents when he spoke to Mutt. Marginal prospect. Might make it, might not. Kind of small. Not a major league shortstop. Imagine how galling it must have been every time Mantle heard Greenwade later boast, “The first time I saw Mantle, I knew how Paul Krichell felt when he first saw Lou Gehrig.”
Greenwade told the Mantles he had an appointment to see Jim Baumer, another highly touted shortstop, the next evening but promised to return to see Mantle in Baxter Springs on Sunday night. Heavy weather was expected and it arrived as promised, along with Greenwade, who pulled his car onto the grass behind home plate. When the heavens opened up, the haggling over Mantle’s future began in earnest in Greenwade’s Cadillac. Whiz Kid Wylie Pitts swears that lightning struck the light stanchions—bulbs popping and fizzing and showering the field with sparks—the moment Mantle became a Yankee. “Just like The Natural,” he said.
Negotiations proceeded in the dark. Greenwade offered less than what Mantle could make working in the mines and playing semi-pro ball. Mutt objected. The scout affected some math on the back of an envelope and added a sweetener: “a bonus of $1150 to be paid by the Independence club as follows: $400 upon approval of contract and the remainder $750 payable on June 30th, 1949 if player retained by Independence or any assignee club.”
The salary for the remainder of the 1949 season was $140 a month. It was New York’s biggest steal since Peter Minuit paid the Indians $24 for the island of Manhattan. Mantle accepted, he later told Leonard Schecter of the New York Post, because, “I didn’t think anybody else wanted me.”
It’s not as if bonus money was unavailable; baseball didn’t impose limits on signing bonuses until 1955. Kal Segrist, who was signed by the Yankees in 1951 with a $50,000 bonus, played in twenty major league games. Jim Baumer received a $25,000 bonus from the Chicago White Sox and played eight games. But Greenwade spent the Yankees’ money carefully. He gave pitcher Ralph Terry a $2,000 bonus in 1953. “What gripes you about those scouts in those days is they sign a guy out of poverty and he’d make the big leagues and then they’d brag about how cheap they got you,” Terry said.
The Yankees sent Mantle to Independence, Missouri, a 150-mile round trip from home. Mutt wanted him close by—to eyeball him and to keep an eye on him. In June 1949, Mutt delivered him to a boardinghouse at 405 South Tenth Street in Independence, where he shared a double bed with his roommate, Bob Mallon. Mutt unloaded his luggage, spoke earnestly to his son, telling him to mind manager Harry Craft and to be a team player, and left.
The 1949 roster for the Independence Yankees of the Class D Kansas-Oklahoma-Missouri (KOM) League was a melting pot of rawboned boys and veteran ballast, married men and teenagers, prospects and has-beens. The lights were bad, the pitchers threw hard, and Mickey Mantle was just another ballplayer. He answered to his given name, Mickey Charles, and addressed his elders as “sir” or “mister.” Bunny Mick, a Yankee instructor, thought, “He was Jack Armstrong.”
To his teammates, he was a fun-loving, prank-playing teenager whose idea of a good time was hanging boogers from the ceiling of a friend’s car. Dingleberries featured prominently in his comic patter. He liked to go frogging at night with Joe “Red” Crowder, another country boy with a taste for the local delicacy; one held a flashlight to blind the unsuspecting amphibians while the other grabbed dinner. Mantle also liked to spy on Crowder and his wife, who lived in the next apartment. “Mick would say, ‘Bob, come here, they’re doin’ it,’ ” Mallon said. “You’d hear the bed squeak. We’d get in the closet and listen.”
He threw his knuckleball relentlessly if not well. Teammates quit warming up with him. First basemen dreaded being on the other end of his strong but errant throws. “I’m a married man!” cried Cromer Smotherman in 1950.
Mantle proved a generous shortstop, making more than 100 errors in the 184 games he played in two years in the minors. Hit it to Mantle and run like hell was the opposing strategy. In 1949, he didn’t show much power either, hitting only seven home runs. Overmatched by pitching and by homesickness, he pleaded with his childhood pal Nick Ferguson to try out for the team. “He probably would have came home right then if Mutt hadn’t insisted that he stay,” Ferguson said.
Early one morning, he sat on the front porch with Mutt and Mallon, confiding his fears that he would never be good enough. “He was hitting, like, .230,” Mallon said. “And his dad said, ‘You wanna go back in those damn mines? You haven’t even given it a chance yet. Here you wantin’ to quit.’ He mighta said some cusswords too.”
Mantle was afraid the Yankees would send him home before his $750 bonus kicked in on June 30. His insecurity was palpable; teammates found him softhearted and unexpectedly tender. Keith Speck recalled the last day of the 1949 season, when Mantle cried on the team bus because the guys “weren’t going to be together again.”
“I think Mickey was probably more fragile than most folks realize,” Bunch Greenwade said. “His feelings ran deep.”
They all heard about his uncle Tunney, who had died two years earlier, and his grandfather, who had died three years before that. “Every part of my family’s dying,” Mantle would say, crying on roommate Carl Lombardi’s shoulder. They all remembered it because it was jarring to hear a teenage boy say he didn’t think he’d see age forty. He fretted about a recurrence of osteomyelitis and limped on the base paths. “He feared that more than anything,” Lombardi said. “He said to me many a time, ‘You know, this can kick up anytime.’ ”
His teammates barely recognized him when he reported for spring training with the Class C Joplin Miners in 1950. “What the hell did you do?” demanded Steve Kraly.
He looked like a blacksmith and sprinted like a cheetah. “The ground shook when he ran by,” Jack Hasten said.
His strength and speed were equaled by intensity and temper. Team-mate Al Billingsley remembered a game in 1950 when Mantle struck out and flailed out in anger and frustration, hurling his bat and several choice words. “That’ll be the last damn time he gets me out.”
Then he hit two home runs. “When he got angry the best came out,” he said. “I think he fed off of it. There was something special about him and maybe he knew it.”
Billingsley also recalled a 3-for-4 game, with a home run, after which Mutt reproved his son: “You would have had four hits if you would have hustled on that groundball.”
Failure also made him petulant. When Mutt asked Lombardi how Mickey was doing, Lombardi replied, “He’ll be great if he quits pouting.”
Manager Harry Craft asked Smotherman to stick by Mantle’s side and see if he could steady the boy. He sat beside Mantle on the bench and on the team bus, sometimes passing him a piece of gum on which to take out his frustrations. “I lived mentally with him as much as anybody could,” Smotherman said. “He had mood swings. He expected to get a hit each time he was at bat. He was never, ever satisfied.”
When the last game ended and the pennant was won, Mantle was despondent. He hadn’t gotten enough hits. “He was the league leader in every department, including strikeouts,” Smotherman said.
He needed a way to blow off steam. When the Miners were home in Joplin, Mutt took him back to Commerce after the game, in part, Lombardi said, to save the rent, and in part because he was concerned about how much time his son was spending in the local pool hall drinking beer. It was often enough, Lombardi said, that “sometimes Mickey used to come to the ballpark and say, ‘Hey, Carl, I don’t feel that good. You’d better cover up for me.’ Not that I wanna condemn him for it, because we all drank. We all had beer, but it continued when he went home with the boys and went to the pool hall.”
Mantle finished the season with a batting average of .383 with 199 hits, 30 doubles, 12 triples, 26 home runs, 90 strikeouts, 94 walks, 136 RBIs, and 141 runs and was named the Most Valuable Player of the Western League. In his end-of-year report Craft called him “just an average ss” and recommended sending him to the Yankees’ Double A team in Beaumont, Texas, in 1951 to learn another position and incubate for another year.
The Yankees rewarded him with a two-week call-up to the major leagues. Smotherman took him to a men’s store in St. Joe’s to buy a big-league suit. Mantle asked him to pick it out. No one figured he was going up to stay. And no one would have predicted they had seen Mantle as whole as he would ever be in a baseball uniform. “I saw him at his peak,” Hasten said, “when he was eighteen years old and could do anything on the ball field.”
May 20, 1952
In the Ground
At the end of September 1951, when Mutt and his friends headed to New York for the World Series, the local newspaper reported that Miss Merlyn Johnson, an employee at a Commerce bank, had gone west to take a job in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Though she was still wearing her engagement ring, no wedding date had been set. She and Mickey had agreed to date other people. A week after Miss Johnson decamped for the Southwest, the same paper noted that she had returned to Picher. The dispatch gave no explanation for the change in plans, but it was just about the time Mutt told his son, “Go home and marry Merlyn. She’s one of our kind.”
A wedding was all Mutt wanted for Christmas. “He knew he was dying,” Merlyn told me. “He wanted him to be settled. He wanted a redheaded, freckle-faced grandson.”
She fell in love with Mickey Mantle the first time she laid eyes on him at the annual Picher-Commerce football game. She was a twirler in the Picher High School band. She and her friend Lavenda Whipkey spotted him in the stands sporting his varsity jacket and a crew cut. “I thought he was the most handsome guy I’d ever seen,” Merlyn told me.
He was meticulous about his appearance, immaculate, and he smelled so good. “I thought he had a perfect body, big shoulders, tiny waist, muscles he made hisself,” she said. “They wasn’t fake-looking.”
She barely noticed the residual blemishes of youth that were airbrushed out of publicity photos. She loved him so much, she wrote later, “I wanted to crawl inside him and live underneath his skin.”
His high school classmate Ivan Shouse made the introduction at the Coleman Theater in Miami. “We were sitting upstairs in the balcony. The girls were downstairs,” Shouse said. “He sent me downstairs to negotiate a date.”
That first night the boys took them to the Spook Lights, a local lovers’ lane illuminated by mysterious, unexplained lights—an Indian holding a torch while looking for his head, legend has it. Mantle was paired up with Lavenda. “Next morning, Mickey said ‘I want to make a change,’” Shouse said.
In The Mick, Mantle offered a slightly different account: he said he called Merlyn because Lavenda was busy. Pretty soon, Merlyn and Lavenda were cruising the main drag in Commerce looking for him. His friends at the local pool hall teased: “Merlyn’ll be by here in a minute.”
They didn’t have that much in common except being young and country. He lived for baseball; she thought the seventh inning stretch was the time to go home. She was a gifted soprano who would give up a scholarship to Northeastern Oklahoma A&M College to become Mrs. Mickey Mantle. Decades later, she was wistful about that choice. “It would have given me stability in my life to do something else,” she told me. “I do regret it.”
They set the wedding date after the doctors at Johns Hopkins cleared him to go home at the end of October 1951. Three weeks before the wedding, the Yankees summoned him to New York for a reexamination of his knee. He had been complaining about pain in his right thigh. “We called him back here for a check to determine whether the cartilage in his leg was affected by the accident,” team physician Sidney Gaynor told the Times. “Examination reveals the cartilage was not damaged and that the torn ligament on the inner side of his right leg has completely healed.”
Gaynor gave him a weighted boot and a set of exercises to strengthen the quadriceps muscle and give support to his knee. Mantle ignored his instructions, preferring, he said later, to sit around, watch TV, and feel sorry for himself.
He didn’t have to worry about limping down the aisle. The ceremony took place at the Johnsons’ home on December 24. The bride emerged from the bedroom on her daddy’s arm. The groom made his entrance from the bathroom, hair slicked back, a boutonniere in his lapel. Mutt’s best friend, Turk Miller, was the best man. Miller’s brother-in-law, Paul Thomas, the undertaker, was the photographer.
They were married in “a setting of flowers and lighted candles,” a local newspaper reported. The bride wore “a faille suit with collar and pockets trimmed with seed pearls and rhinestones, a close-fitting chartreuse feathered hat and a pale pink rosebud corsage accented the delicate champagne color of her ensemble.”
“Next to me the groom’s father was the happiest person in the room,” she wrote later in the family memoir, A Hero All His Life. “Mick was somewhere in the top five.”
Would he have married her without his father’s dying command? Five decades later she wasn’t sure. “I do know he wasn’t ready to get married,” she told me. “He was very immature.”
Mantle invited Bill Mosely, home on furlough from the Army, to come along on their honeymoon. He and his wife, Neva, hadn’t been able to afford one of their own. “I said, ‘You kiddin’, Mick?’ He said, ‘No, no.’
“So come to find out, we was goin’ to Hot Springs, Arkansas, and I believe the baseball player Johnny Sain had a motel and a bar there. So he told Mick, when he got married, ‘You come down, bring anybody you want to. Everything’s gonna be on me.’ ”
The girls took turns behind the wheel on the 340-mile drive. The boys sat in the back. “Maybe havin’ a drink or two,” Mosely recalled. “We had some good times there in that place. Johnny told everybody it was Mickey Mantle, put up with whatever he gives you, you know. And they did. They had a bouncer there that Mickey started callin’ Hoghead. I said, ‘Mick, let up. That guy’s bigger ’n both of us.’
“Well, Hoghead wouldn’t do nothin’ ’cause Johnny’d already told him, ‘Whatever Mick does, that’s all right.’ ”
Back home, the newlyweds rented a room in a cheap motel near the bowling alley in Commerce—Dan’s Motor Court. “I was named for that motel,” their youngest son, Danny, would tell me later. “It was a dump,” his mother recalled. “It had an open gas fire. Mutt would come every night to see if we were all right. He was scared to death we’d get gassed.”
By then, Mutt wasn’t sleeping much. He was in too much pain to lie down. “He had a color,” his nephew Jim Richardson said. “Kind of a yellowish brown.”
After the wedding, Mickey and Merlyn took him to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. They stayed five nights in a fleabag hotel while doctors performed exploratory surgery. “One night we were both lying in bed reading and watching TV, and Mick scratched his head and he had crabs,” Merlyn told me. “We jumped up. We both started washing our hair. Probably a dollar-a-night place. That was awful.”
The medical report was icier than the roads they negotiated at fifteen miles per hour on the long, painful trip back to Oklahoma. “Take him home,” the doctors said. “Let him die in peace.”
Mantle avoided physicals for years.
Mutt had watched his father, Charlie, and his brother, Tunney, melt away with cancer. “When my Dad died, he had it in his stomach,” his son Max said. “We found out on July 4. On August 6, he died. He went from 225 to 90 pounds in a month. When it was Uncle Mutt’s turn, he didn’t want the rest of us to see.”
Three weeks after Mickey and Merlyn went to Florida for spring training, Mutt and Lovell left for the Spears Chiropractic Sanitarium and Hospital in Denver in Paul Thomas’s ambulance.
“He didn’t want to die around his kids,” Larry said.
In Mantle’s retelling, Mutt always dies a hero’s death, a lonesome, solo voyage into the hereafter, going it alone in order to spare his family. But Lovell never left his side. An aunt and uncle stayed with Larry, Barbara, and the twins. They never saw their father alive again, and they didn’t see their mother for two months.
It was a 700-mile drive to Denver on rutted, rudimentary roads and a misery for all. Thomas and his wife, Wanda, sat up front. Lovell sat in back with Mutt. He was too ill to talk, too weak to sit up. “Too sick to make a trip like that,” Thomas said. “That stuff was all over the body. We drove out to Liberty, Kansas. I said, ‘We better stop and get a motel and get some rest.’ That wind blowed that night. I mean, I thought that wind would blow us away.”
The Spears Chiropractic Hospital had been the subject of litigation and controversy since it was founded in 1943. Its controversial proprietor, Dr. Leo Spears, papered the Midwest with advertisements promising cures for everything from cerebral palsy to muscular dystrophy using the “Spears Painless System” of spinal manipulation. A glossy forty-eight-page brochure trumpeted a new “Chiropractic Answer to Cancer . . . Sensational Guarantee . . . Cancer Relief or Money Back!”
Mutt probably did not see the May 26, 1951, issue of Collier’s magazine that listed Spears among America’s most infamous “Cancer Quacks.” Spears sued Collier’s for $24 million. “At trial he admitted that five out of six persons giving testimonials in the Spears cancer pamphlet were actually dead,” according to At Your Own Risk: The Case Against Chiropractic, by Ralph Lee Smith. “It also came out that Dr. Leo did not recognize a malignancy in a child that was brought to the hospital; she was treated for rheumatism. He lost the case.”
Paul and Wanda Thomas left Mutt and Lovell in Dr. Leo’s care and headed home. “When my wife and I got back,” Thomas said, “they called and said, ‘Come back and get him. There’s nothing we can do for him.’ ”
Merlyn’s father, Giles Johnson, and Ted Davis volunteered to make the trip. “Merlyn’s dad had epileptic seizures, and he was driving the ambulance,” Barbara said. “He went into one of those seizures and Theodore was trying to get the wheel, but he was so strong with that seizure that he had to literally kick his leg off the gas.”
When they got to Denver, Thomas said, “Mutt told them, ‘Well, boys, I’m not going to go. They said they can cure me.’ They turned around and come on back.”
Mickey and Merlyn Mantle’s first marital address was a swank one. In 1952, the Concourse Plaza Hotel at the corner of 161st Street and the Grand Concourse was still the locus of Bronx society—its gilded ballroom hosted everything from bar mitzvahs to the annual Yankees welcome-home luncheon. Its residential apartments offered temporary refuge to generations of Yankee rookies and their brides. The apartments varied. Suites had white linen and room service; efficiencies had Murphy beds. When Frank Scott, the Yankees’ traveling secretary, showed Yogi and Carmen Berra their first apartment, Yogi said, “Whaddya supposed to do, sleep standing up?”
The Mantles’ efficiency apartment had no air-conditioning and no television. One of those cost $10 a month to rent. They had four walls, a bed, a chair, a closet, and a telephone. In hot weather, they put on their bathing suits and positioned themselves in front of a fan to watch TV in Billy Martin’s apartment.
When the Yankees were home, they ordered lobster downtown at Toots Shor’s and prayed that Toots would cover the check. When the Yankees were on the road, their wives depended on the generosity of the bellboys to augment their hot-plate meals and accessorize their bleak accommodations. Joey the bellhop saved the leftovers and opulent floral arrangements from the weddings and bar mitzvahs held in the ballroom. “Desserts, lots of desserts,” said Donna Schallock, whose husband, Art, pitched briefly for the Yankees in 1952. “He’d say, ‘Go down and take what you want before they throw them out.’ ”
Since blue jeans were not permitted in the lobby, women who wore them were asked to use the freight elevator that serviced the hotel kitchen. That’s how Schallock acquired a complete set of professional copper pots and pans, which she was still using six decades later. When the Schallocks moved out, Joey the bellhop asked, “What have you got, half the hotel?”
When the Yankees left Florida for the opening of the season, Merlyn drove north alone, a daunting journey that foreshadowed years of loneliness as a baseball wife. The transition to New York was even more overwhelming. She didn’t know how to put on makeup. She didn’t know how to dress and she couldn’t afford the right clothes anyway. “Didn’t know how to be,” she told me.
When Donna Schallock took her shoe shopping on Fifth Avenue, she wrote a check and signed it “Mrs. Mickey Mantle.” “Yeah, right,” the salesman said. “Wait, she is Mrs. Mickey Mantle,” Schallock told him. “Oh, yeah, she got the shoes.”
As a new Yankee wife, Merlyn was still blissfully oblivious to the more blatant expressions of adoration showered on her handsome young husband. She was clueless about the peroxided and painted exotica that fluttered around celebrities at Manhattan nightspots and hotel lobbies. She had not read the New York gossip columns.
Tom Morgan and Gil McDougald were in their second year with the Yankees, and their wives tried to make Merlyn welcome. Tom’s wife, Wanda, invited Merlyn to stay at their home in New Jersey while the Yankees were away on a road trip. When Lucille McDougald met the two women there, she blurted out to Merlyn, “Thank God you two got married and you’re here.
“And she said, ‘Why do you say that?’
“ ‘Oh, well, now we can be done with these nasty headlines.’ ”
When Lucille left, Merlyn asked Wanda Morgan just what she had been talking about. She told Merlyn about the juicy tabloid items devoted to her tomcatting young husband. “Apparently, when he came back from the road trip, she lit into him like a blue dart,” McDougald recalled. “And he would never talk to me again after that.”
Merlyn couldn’t help but notice the girls who dawdled on 161st Street, waiting for him to make his way up the hill from the ballpark. She loathed their audacity, how they grabbed at him as if he belonged to them, not to her. Their bold sense of entitlement was her first intimation that she had married public property.
It was an uncertain time. He was still limping when he reported to spring training as DiMaggio’s heir apparent. The Times labeled him “an uncertain factor on the physical side,” pointing out that he had not “shown any of the hustle and assurance one would expect of a young man about to move into an important post.”
On May 3, the Yankees traded the other Golden Boy, Jackie Jensen, to Washington for Irv Noren. Jensen had been Mantle’s rival for the throne but had fallen into disfavor. Noren was an excellent outfielder and contact hitter. The trade gave the Yankees insurance in case Mantle’s knees didn’t hold up. But it also cleared the way for him to make center field his own, news he ordinarily would have shared with his father. He had not spoken to Mutt since leaving for spring training the third week of February. He had not written to his father, either.
Tuesday, May 6, was a rainy day in New York. Showers would dampen the gate at the game against the Cleveland Indians that evening. The Yankees had been expecting a big early-season crowd. From the apartment window, Mantle watched the cars on the Grand Concourse splatter the pigeons in residence on the island dividing the Concourse. The field would be wet too.
He was getting dressed to go to the ballpark when the phone rang. It was Casey Stengel. Lovell Mantle, who had grown up in a world where baseball was played in afternoon sun, had called the Stadium assuming that that’s where she would find her boy.
Stengel’s message was succinct: Mutt Mantle had died at 10:30 A.M. He was just forty years old.
Mantle pummeled the wall with rage and resisted Merlyn’s attempts to console him. He broke free from her embrace, saying he would make arrangements to fly home in the morning. There was no need for her to come. He remembered slamming the door in her face as he left for the ballpark. She remembered being ordered from the room, banished to the hall, as she had been the previous summer during Mutt’s do-or-die lecture in Kansas City. Shut in or shut out: either way, it hurt. This was patrimony, not matrimony.
He played that night because his father would have wanted him to, he wrote in The Mick, a narrative of unyielding filial devotion. The box score from May 6, 1952, tells a different story: the Yankees lost 1–0. Noren played center field and grounded out with bases loaded in the third inning. Mantle remained in the dugout in uniform. He had not been able to get in touch with his mother.
Baseball wives are used to being left behind: to make a home, to raise the children, to kill time while trying not to think about how their husbands are filling their empty hours. But when Mantle left for his father’s funeral alone, Merlyn was devastated. What would people think back home? Hopefully, they would consider the cost of travel prohibitive. “I never did know why I wasn’t invited to the funeral unless he just wanted it to be with his family,” she told me fifty years later. It was a harsh way to learn her place in her husband’s life.
Mantle found his father laid out in an open casket in the front parlor of the home he had purchased with his 1951 World Series check. “Had him in a shirt and tie,” said Larry. “Probably weighed only eighty pounds,” said Barbara.
Larry was ten years old. The boy cowered in the parlor corner, hoping no one else would arrive to pay their respects and make him talk about it all over again. But come they did. “Every time somebody new would come, it would seem like they would come and get me and take me over to the casket and tell me how sorry they was,” Larry said. “I would no more get over cryin’ and get away from there and about that time, here come somebody else. The next thing I’d know, they’d drag me up there to that casket. It seemed to me like it just happened for two days, just continually.”
The funeral was held at the First Christian Church in Commerce at 2 P.M. on Friday, May 9. Though Lovell’s father had been a Methodist deacon, the Mantles weren’t churchgoing folk, which made them unusual in a community where every day’s labor was a leap of faith. “When we pulled up to get out to go in, it just seemed to me like everybody in the world was there,” Larry said. “Most people I remember seeing gathered at one place in my life.”
Mutt was buried in the Grand Army of the Republic Cemetery along Route 66 between Miami and Commerce. When it was time to leave him in the ground for good, Mickey refused to go with the rest of the family. He stayed behind, berating himself for never having told his father he loved him.
The family plot, with its hard stone markers, became the locus of the legend of damned Mantle men claimed before their time by non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. “It just seemed that all my relatives were dying around me,” he wrote in The Mick. “First my uncle Tunney, the tough one, then my uncle Emmett. Within a few years—before I was thirteen—they had died of the same disease.”
This belief became so central to his being that he conflated ages, gravesites, and perhaps even cause of death. In fact, Grandpa Charlie lived until age sixty and is buried some fifty miles away in Adair, Oklahoma. There is no hard evidence of the kind of cancer that took his life. Tunney, the first Mantle man to die too young, is buried near Mutt in the G.A.R. Cemetery. His son, Max, who lived at Mickey’s house while his father lay dying at home, said Tunney died of stomach cancer. “I didn’t hear about Hodgkin’s until Mutt died.”
Like Tunney, Emmett Mantle, the youngest of Charlie’s sons, also died at age thirty-four, but not until 1954. He is buried in Tulsa, Oklahoma. By then, the convergence of familial and cultural fatalism and Mantle’s own brush with a life-threatening disease had merged into a personal narrative that imposed structure on fear and attempted to keep it at bay.
Mutt’s dread diagnosis of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma was first made at Lenox Hill Hospital in October 1951. A year earlier, Mantle told a team-mate that Mutt had miner’s lung; he told Pat Summerall the same thing thirty years later. Paul Thomas assumed as much and was surprised at the cause of death penned on the death certificate still on file in the garage of his funeral home fifty years later: “carcinoma of the bowel with generalized metastasis.”
Whatever the cause or causes of Mutt’s death, it was the defining moment of his son’s life. Mutt had decided how he would make his living, what position he would play, and what side of the plate he would bat from and when. Mutt decided when he would receive his high school diploma, whom he would marry, and when he would marry her. They weren’t bad choices, but they weren’t his own. “There was never any talk about what I’d be in life,” Mantle once said. “Dad and I knew I was going to be a ballplayer.”
Someone else would always decide—father, coach, manager, the American League schedule maker. As his friend Joe Warren said, “When you don’t raise your children to make their own decisions, then they grow up and they don’t know how to make decisions.”
Just barely out of his teens, he accepted Mutt’s responsibilities (much as Mutt had accepted responsibility for Lovell’s two young children) and took on the obligation to live for him. “When he was alive, I was Dad’s life,” he would say. “Now, making good for Dad is my life.”
Without Mutt, there was no one with the moral authority to insist, no one to say no to Mickey Mantle. He would never grant anyone that authority again. And, his brother Larry said, “No one challenged him.”
Without Mutt, he was adrift, save for the organizational imperatives imposed by the baseball season. Free to make his own decisions, he made bad ones. “He wasn’t under anybody’s finger anymore,” Merlyn told me. “He could do what he wanted.”
A day after the funeral he headed back to New York and to the life and the wife his father had bequeathed him. “He was different,” she told me. “For one thing, he was going to have to take care of a wife, mother, and four kids. He was worried. He was making peanuts. The Yankees told him if he was still there in June or July they would raise him to $10,000.”
Two weeks later, Mantle took sole possession of center field—47,000 square feet of prime Bronx real estate. Built atop landfill displaced by the construction of the Grand Concourse, on the site of a former silent movie studio, it was home to a legion of ghosts, Yankee greats and great Yankee fans who importuned the right people to have their ashes scattered by the monuments in center field. “You got to feel the glow of the ghost,” former tenant Mickey Rivers said. “Not just the living ones but the dead ones, too.”
Mantle was possessed by his father’s ghost. Sometimes they had imaginary conversations in the outfield—one-sided as those talks might be. That home run, the one that went 500 feet? It should have gone 502. Mutt’s ghost would remain the animating force in his son’s life for the next forty years.
A last family photograph, taken on December 15, 1951, captured the Mantle men at the dining room table playing canasta. Mickey is the center of familial and photographic attention. Sleeves rolled up, collar undone, he reaches forward, putting his cards on the table. His crisply pressed dress shirt strains against the seams. Mutt sits to his left, his chest sunk inside a flaccid undershirt, his proud thinning hair, brushed away from his brow, the way he liked it, accentuating the hollows of his cheeks and the caverns of his eyes.
The twins fill out the foursome. Butch stands at Mutt’s shoulder. No one at the table is making eye contact. Lovell presides over her brood, Donna Reed style, gazing over Mickey’s shoulder at his cards. Her right hand rests on his back as he plays the hand he has been dealt.