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

"But I think honestly what got to him was his sense that he was more and more dependent, and he was really badly physically deteriorating...He had gotten to the point where he could hardly get up and down the stairs at the club."

After a physical exam, Mantle's doctor recommended an MRI. The experience of lying in a tube for an hour and 15 minutes was terrifying; Mantle said that it was hard for him to keep from crying. When the results of the MRI came back, Mantle's doctor told him how bad the condition of his liver was and that the next drink he took might be his last.

Summerall arranged for Mantle to be accepted at the Betty Ford Center. He went on a Friday. About two weeks later, Summerall got a call from Mantle. "He asked me if I had liked that place except that his language was a helluva lot stronger. I told him, 'no, I didn't like it, I didn't go there for a good time.'...He calmed down after a while, and then he said to me, 'I want you to make me a promise.' He said, 'If we're ever together, and you see me have a drink, I want you to kill me right there.'"

The way back was anything but easy or certain. Within weeks of his getting out of Betty Ford, his son Billy died of a heart attack in a local drug-rehab program. Around the same time, Mantle's mother died. The strongest pressure on him to stay sober, Greer Johnson said, came from this sense of his life being overturned, and from his sense that it was now expected of him to stay sober, just as it had once been expected of him to drink--or to excel on the ball field.

"After he sobered up, he used to say all the time, 'I'm not much fun anymore, am I?' Ever heard the song. 'I'm Not Fun Since I've Stopped Drinking?' Every time we heard that song, he'd say, 'That song was meant for me.'"

Mantle's closest friends were skeptical about his chances of remaining off the bottle. But Mantle, so far as anyone could tell, did stay sober. Once he had begun his days with a witch's brew of dregs from the night before called "A Breakfast of Champions." Now when he was out in public, he drank soda water and Diet Coke. "I'll tell you what," said Johnson, "of all the surprises in 10 years, that was probably the biggest one of all."

On June 1, 1995, Mickey Mantle, age 63, was hospitalized for what was termed "a little stomach disorder." Mantle's son David told reporters his father would be returning home the next day.

When it was announced to the world a week later that Mantle was suffering from liver cancer and would need a transplant to survive, the media shock waves were seismic. It was as though a president or a pope had been stricken.

The owner of a well-known New York memorabilia shop told a reporter for Newsday that Mantle's nearly priceless rookie card "would jump $10,000 overnight if his condition got worse."

But there was more than money on most people's minds. The news of the gravity of his illness was quickly replaced by fresh headlines about the liver transplant he received at Dallas' Baylor University Medical Center on June 8. Because there was so little time--24 hours--between the announcement that a transplant was needed and Mantle actually receiving one, his identity was again magically transformed. "Mickey Miracle," screamed one tabloid headline after the operation. Another paper, and many reporters questioning doctors at Baylor, suggested that the real "miracle" had to do with a famous and privileged patient receiving preferential treatment.

When Mantle's cancerous liver was removed, additional cancer was found at the site of the bile ducts, strongly suggesting that his survival would not be long-term. Mantle was on a regimen of both immuno-suppressive and anti-cancer drugs, the one to prevent organ rejection, the other to fight tumor growth. The drugs counteracted each other and, said many specialists, may have had the effect of spreading his cancer throughout his body. The cancer became a wildfire. Mantle lost almost 40 pounds in a little less than three weeks, when he was finally released from the hospital and allowed to go home.

One of the last times Summerall saw Mantle was at the men's grill at Preston Trail. His friend was sitting there, waiting for him. Though he had seen photographs of Mantle's hospital news conference, Summerall was still not prepared for what he saw with his own eyes. Mantle rolled up his trousers. "He said, 'I want to show you my damn legs. You know I used to have pretty good legs.' His legs were like--not a pencil, but the pencil lead. They were all black and blue from where he had taken the chemotherapy treatments."

Mantle was about to start a new round of chemotherapy, and he very quickly began looking and feeling even worse. "The week before he went back into the hospital for the last time, I gave him my house," Summerall said. "I was going to be out of town, and he wanted to get away from all the pressure and the phone calls and the publicity. When I told him to take my house, he said to me afterwards, 'You know, you gave me your damn house--no strings, no nothing, you just gave me your damn house. That's the nicest thing anybody has ever done for me.' He really said that."

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