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Mickey Country

Tales of reporting on The Mick

I was scared to go to Dallas. Yankee Stadium, too. And Mickey Mantle’s Restaurant on Central Park South. Hell, I was scared to publish the damn book. One night, when I had gone too far to turn back, I told my ex-husband, “Maybe I’ll give the money back.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” he said.

It wasn’t ridiculous. Bob Costas was the first and most prominent baseball sage to counsel me not to write another biography of The Mick. Throughout the five years it took to write the book, I heard Bob’s reasoned caution: Everything’s been said. So why say it again knowing it will bring pain to his loved ones and everyone else who loves him?

I went ahead with trepidation because I wanted to give Mantle the full biography I felt he deserved, honest and complete but not exploitative. I wanted to understand the person he was and, given who he was, to understand his paradoxical hold on a generation of baseball fans, including myself, who revered The Mick despite himself, who were seduced by that lopsided, gap-toothed grin. As I headed to the airport for my flight to Dallas, Mantle’s adopted hometown, I wished I’d packed a flak jacket in my carry-on, or at least worn a thicker skin.

Talmage Boston, a garrulous Dallas attorney/civic leader/baseball historian, had invited me to address a luncheon at the Arlington House in Lee Park, a replica of the Custis-Lee Mansion, which I’d passed en route to Reagan National Airport. This Lee mansion is two-thirds the size of the original but otherwise so perfect a likeness that Oliver Stone used it in a scene for his movie JFK. When Kevin Costner, as New Orleans attorney Jim Garrison, visited President Kennedy’s grave, he was actually kneeling on the lawn of the Arlington House beside a faux Eternal Flame.

Inside the mansion I was engulfed by a profusion of yellow and gilt and marble. The floral arrangement in the Reception Room was taller than me. The double-tiered crystal chandelier was bigger than my wedding cake. I thought: “So this is what the country would have looked like if the South had won the Civil War.”

I was ushered into the Great Hall. Seated at the head table: Mickey’s manicurist (who knew he had one?), and his teammate Bobby Brown, the Yankees infielder who became a cardiologist and later president of the American League. Also in the crowd: my high school boyfriend, who had become a libertarian.

I picked at my lunch. Talmage escorted me to the stage and a leather wing chair in which I looked like Lily Tomlin in an oversized rocker. I prayed nobody noticed that my feet didn’t reach the ground.

Talmage introduced Bobby, who waved and nodded, accepting the warm applause of the home crowd with an athlete’s easy grace. He told a couple of Mickey stories, neither of which I had heard before.

It was Opening Day 1952 at Yankee Stadium. Mantle was beginning his second year in the majors; Brown, the new medical school graduate, was about to ship out to Korea as a medical officer in the U.S. Army. They stood together on the top of the dugout, waiting for a salute for the just-retired Joe DiMaggio to begin.

Among the reporters on the scene was Thomas L. Cummiskey, the sports editor of Fox Movietone since 1929. “When he got within three or four feet of where Mickey and I were standing on that top step, his eyes began to roll up,” Brown told the crowd. “And it looked like he was gonna faint and we grabbed him.”

To Brown’s practiced medical eye, “it looked like he was in the process of dying, which he was.” Mantle’s father, Mutt, was also in the process of dying, of Hodgkin’s disease in a chiropractic hospital in Denver, Colo. Brown needed Mantle to help carry Cummiskey to the trainer’s room. “He became very cyanotic, meaning very blue, because he wasn’t moving any air,” Brown said.

“Of course, there was no CPR in those days. All you could do is take his pulse, which I did. And he had none, which wasn’t surprising because you could see he was slowly doing less and less breathing and getting more and more still. Within a minute or two you couldn’t detect anything. He obviously was dead.

“Mickey was at the door of the training room watching all this. When I got through, he asked me, ‘Is he gonna do OK? Did you help him?'”

Brown summoned his newly certified bedside manner. “I said, ‘No, I couldn’t help him.’

“He said, ‘All that schooling and you couldn’t help him?’

“And I said, ‘Well, sometimes they have catastrophic events.’

“He kind of looked at me and got this grin on his face and says, ‘Was that your first patient?’

“I got to thinking — yeah, it probably was my first patient.”

“And he said, ‘Hell of a way to break in.'”

The practiced punch line got a big hand from everyone except me. All I wanted to know was why Brown hadn’t shared the story when I interviewed him, twice, for the book. “Hey, how come you didn’t tell me that one?”

Brown executed a pivot worthy of a 6-4-3 double play. “You didn’t ask.”

Which goes to show that just when you think you know everything, you don’t. And when you think you can predict how what you know and how you tell it will be received, you can’t.

By the next morning, my fear had begun to abate. At a breakfast held in the old nurses’ dormitory at Parkland Memorial Hospital — a name that had resounded in my memory since that awful day in Dallas in 1963 — a woman approached me while I was signing books. When I was younger I might have called her matronly. In fact, she was well heeled and well bred, waiting politely to have a word while the men in line waited to tell me their Mickey Mantle stories. (Everyone has one, especially in Dallas.)

She didn’t tell me her name and I couldn’t give her my full attention, which I regretted immediately. “I’m a recovering alcoholic,” she said. “I have never heard anyone speak about the disease of alcoholism that way or that well. Thank you.”

And then she was gone, lost in the jostle of pinstriped suits and regimental ties, clamoring to tell me what Mickey Mantle meant to them. It’s been that way ever since. In Naples, Fla., I met a self-made man, a multimillionaire, whose round penthouse apartment is home to Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Claude Monet, Henry Moore, and Mickey Mantle. He had purchased the most coveted items auctioned by the Mantle family at Madison Square Garden in December 2003. He even let me hold the silver bat Mickey won when he led the American League in batting in 1956. But he actually crowed with pleasure when I was able to identify Mickey’s teammates on the 1950 Joplin Miners team photo. “Patty, she knows!” he bellowed to his wife, whose taste runs more toward Chuck Close and Hans Hofmann.

At a book festival in Fort Lauderdale, I met David Eisenhower, Ike’s grandson, who was promoting his book Going Home to Glory: A Memoir of Life with Dwight D. Eisenhower, in which he describes attending the Yankees’ 154th game in 1961. The whole family had been following Mantle and Maris chase Babe Ruth’s home run record across the country. His father told him Mantle would never have to worry about getting a job.

That evening, in Baltimore, Maris would have to hit two home runs in order to equal Ruth’s record or risk having an asterisk attached to his name in the Hall of Fame should he attain the lofty goal. En route to Memorial Stadium, David heard on Phil Rizzuto’s pregame show that Mantle was feeling too poorly to play. The same illness that had caused him to send Mrs. Babe Ruth a letter conceding defeat would keep him on the bench. But he saw Maris hit his 59th home run and just miss the one that would have tied Ruth’s record in his hometown.

I told David the real reason for Mantle’s visit to Dr. Max Jacobson, a.k.a. Dr. Feelgood, the following week in New York. Jacobson had a devoted clientele, including Mel Allen, the voice of the New York Yankees, and John F. Kennedy, who were energized by Jacobson’s concoctions of amphetamines and, among other things, eel cells. Allen famously made the introduction — and the appointment — for The Mick. Nixon, as David referred to his late father-in-law — was not so famously responsible for making the introduction for JFK. “He and Jack were actually good friends before 1960,” David said, mildly.

I heard from a retired Baltimore beat cop who recounted the night he arrested his hero, Mickey Mantle, for public drunkenness and described the look on the old-salt lieutenant’s face when the paddy wagon arrived with The Mick at the central booking station. “Do you know what the fuck you’ve done?”

I heard from the niece of an Oklahoma physician who was on the ward at The Crippled Children’s Hospital in Oklahoma City in the summer of 1946 when a young boy from Commerce was brought in with an acute case of osteomyelitis. Her uncle, who later became dean of the medical school at Oklahoma University, was sent on an odyssey to procure the penicillin needed to save Mantle’s leg.

I heard from my pal Richard Sandomir, at the New York Times, who found an item about Mantle’s visit to Lawrence, Kans., on November 12, 1951 buried in a story headlined: “Joe DiMaggio, Arriving on Coast, Evades Queries on Baseball Future.” Five weeks after Mantle was injured in Game 2 of the World Series (trying not to run into Joe “Bleeping” DiMaggio), three weeks after orthopedists at Johns Hopkins told him he didn’t need surgery on his ravaged right knee, he was having trouble walking without a brace. So he went to see osteopath Dr. Forrest Allen, better known as Phog Allen, basketball coach of the Kansas Jayhawks. The wire dispatch made no mention of a diagnosis or prognosis for DiMaggio’s heir apparent.

I heard from an old girlfriend, who told me about meeting The Mick in the first-class cabin of a Dallas to New York flight in the late ’80s. They flirted but nothing more until they met again years later. “He said, ‘I’m taken but I would take you out tonight,'” she recalled. “He was trying to be a better man.”

I heard from careful readers, who made this a better book by correcting errors I shouldn’t have made and liked it anyway. Those who did not share their opinion were for the most part gracious enough to keep that to themselves. Wherever I went, National League cities as well as American League towns, Mickey preceded me. In Boston, I sold out Fenway Park — well, not really. I sold out a reading at “The Great Writers At Fenway Park” series at the Commonwealth Hotel. In St. Louis, 100 people showed up to hear about The Mick. Everywhere was Mickey country.

He was a fixture in the collective unconscious and individual memories. I was a lightning rod, conducting the extraordinary electrical charge his name still carries. It was my hope to ground him in reality, to give him back his humanity. It had been my fear that doing so would elicit bolts of anger from the baseball gods and his devout worshippers.

It wasn’t until I visited the outskirts of Philadelphia, the City of Brotherly Love, that trepidation disappeared. I was signing books at an event organized by Michael Smerconish, the majordomo talk show host. Time was short, the greetings harried. For a brief instant, standing in a tight circle of undivided attention, I had an intimation of what it must have been like to be the man with the high-voltage grin expected to light up every room. I understood finally how the unremitting glare of expectation and adulation distorts a sense of self and of reality just the way the whole world looks different when you’re staring into the sun.

The last guy on line was named Vinny. Short, swarthy, possessed of a receding hairline and an impeccable Philly accent, he said: “I just wanted to tell ya — ya got behind the myth without destroying the legend.”

I wanted to ask, “Are you single?”

To read an excerpt of The Last Boy, click here.

Jane Leavy is the author of the New York Times best-sellers Sandy Koufax: A Lefty’s Legacy and The Last Boy, Mickey Mantle and the End of America’s Childhood, which was released in paperback this week. She is a former staff writer for the Washington Post.

Previously from Jane Leavy:
One of the Only Female GMs in Baseball
Remembering Mike Flanagan
One Round

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