The Last Days Of Mickey Mantle

Booze, baseball, and broads: A tarnished hero's deathbed regrets--and final redemption Exclusive Observer excerpt from David Falkner's new biography

Over the years sportscaster Bob Costas, who delivered the principal eulogy at Mantle's funeral, became a friend. Costas had always puzzled about who Mickey Mantle the person was when he became Mickey Mantle the icon.

"I had dinner with Mickey one night," Costas said. "It was in January in New York, and it was really cold. We were walking back to the Regency, where we both were staying, and I had noticed that Mickey had asked for a doggie bag for his dinner in the restaurant--which was sort of strange. Anyway, he asks me to take a walk with him. Now this wasn't the kind of night where you wanted to take a stroll, but I went along, over to Madison Avenue, where he knew this homeless guy who was in a cardboard box. He knocks on the cardboard and suddenly this guy pops up his head. He looks frightened--and frightening--not knowing who's there, and suddenly when he sees us, the guy's face softens. He says, 'Oh, hi, Mick.' And Mantle hands him his dinner. It was clear to me he had done this many times before.

"Did it mean that Mickey was the greatest humanitarian in the world? No--just that that was part of him, just as an hour later he could have been drunk in a bar and told some very nice autograph-seeker to go fuck himself."

Mantle's drinking, and his remorse and fear over its many consequences--for his wife Merlyn, his four sons, and himself--hounded him. All through the period when he reemerged as a hero, he had wild anxiety attacks during which he would hyperventilate and shake. In 1985, while making a personal appearance in Portland, Maine, Mantle began suffering blinding headaches.

Mantle was asked during this period in an interview what he felt when he saw pictures and film footage of himself as a young player. He answered: "I can be watching these things and I keep thinking, you know, that I can't really hardly remember playing. It's like it's somebody else.

Mantle increasingly seemed to be a bystander in his own life. After decades of boozing and womanizing, his marriage fell apart, and his oldest friendships became strained to the breaking point. When Mantle spent time in Dallas, he drew a tight, small circle around himself. Most days he could be found at the Preston Trail Golf Club.

Most of the time, he was at home--and home was falling apart. His sons, all of them, now had serious alcohol problems. The sons and father had formed a partnership to run a fantasy camp, but their real partnership, Mickey said in Sports Illustrated in early 1994, was in passing the bottle. "They all drank too much because of me...We never played catch in the backyard. But when they were old enough to drink, we became drinking buddies. When we were together, it kind of felt like the old days with Billy [Martin] and Whitey [Ford]."

But the circle had closed. His sons were not his teammates, and he was older. His body no longer could simply accept what he was doing to it. The panic attacks were increasing. He began experiencing disturbing lapses of memory. "I'd forget what day it was. What month is was. What city I was in..."

When Mantle was not in Dallas, he spent much of his time with Greer Johnson, who had her business in Atlanta but had a home at the Harbor Club on Lake Ocomee in Greensboro. Though there had been no formal divorce from Merlyn, Johnson was--in every respect but the one of public acknowledgment--Mantle's second wife. The two traveled together, socialized together, shared a life together.

More than anyone else, Johnson saw what drinking was doing to Mantle. "It got progressively worse," she said. "I tried to have an intervention with him--and he would balk at that."

Pat Summerall, the broadcaster and ex-football player, was a close friend of both Mantle and Johnson and had known them for years. Several years ago, Summerall himself moved to Dallas. There, the two often played golf and lunched together. Mantle eventually sponsored his friend for membership at Preston Trail. "So then we were golfing buddies and drinking buddies," Summerall said.

It was during this period that Summerall dealt with his own long-standing problems with alcohol. A group of friends carried out a carefully planned intervention, loading Summerall onto a plane and sending him off to the Betty Ford Center in Rancho Mirage, California. When he got back to Dallas, Summerall told Mantle about what he had been through and found that his friend was curious.

"I told him as best I could what happened and that I sure didn't want to go back, but I thought I had actually accomplished something there...Gradually, he started asking me more and more questions. I remember him saying to me at one time, 'They don't get into the religious shit, do they?' I said, 'Well, yeah, they do.' Anyway, we'd inevitably get into a conversation about his early childhood and his dad. Pretty soon, we'd both be crying at lunch, and then we'd go and play golf.

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