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

In the last week, Greer Johnson lived with Mantle and looked after him at Summerall's house. Johnson sensed the gravity of Mantle's condition merely from his appearance. But she insists that neither she nor Mantle was really aware of just how little time was left. "I will tell you," she says, "that neither one of us really knew how bad he was." The couple had been celebrating honeymoons for years, she said, and "he was talking about going to Hawaii because we had never been there."

During that week, though, Mantle also talked about baptism. "The week I was with Mickey in Dallas before he passed away," she said, "we talked about baptism, and he asked me one night, out of the clear blue, '...Do you have to be dunked to be baptized?' I told him, 'No, they can just kinda sprinkle your head with water.' He said, 'Does it have to be done at a church?' I said, 'No, Mick.'" All through the week, she said, they kept talking about it.

But Mantle never was baptized. There was time for very little.
Johnson says that she did not really understand that she and Mantle were saying goodbye when he left Summerall's home to be readmitted to the hospital.

At Baylor, he was placed in a private suite with an adjoining room where guests and family could stay. Merlyn and his sons were with him constantly. Merlyn, who had long since made a life for herself apart from him, once more stepped into the spotlight that had always been as uncomfortable for her as it had been for him. "He's a tough old bird," she told the press, "and he's a fighter. If anyone can make it, it's Mick." She was talking as much for Mantle, who had a television set in his room, as she was for public consumption.

Mantle received blood transfusions the Friday he checked back into Baylor, and then again on Sunday. He was initially listed in stable condition. But three days later, it was announced that the cancer had spread beyond his lungs and his condition was downgraded. The following day, Thursday, Johnson spoke with Mantle by phone for the last time. He was still talking about the future.

On Saturday, the day before he died, Johnson met with his attorney, Roy True, who told her then, for the first time, how grave Mantle's condition actually was. "Two to four days, he told me," Johnson said. "I asked him then if there would be any problem of my coming to the funeral. He said there would be none."

Earlier in the week, True had contacted Mantle's old teammate, Bobby Richardson, in South Carolina and asked him if he would officiate at the funeral when Mantle died. He agreed immediately. Richardson, an evangelical lay minister, had been friends with Mantle since their playing days, and Mantle had made just such a request years earlier.

While in town for the mid-July 1995 All-Star game, held at the Ballpark in Arlington, Richardson had called Mantle to see how he was getting along following his transplant. "He told me then that he was really hurting," Richardson said. "And then the next morning, at around six o'clock, he called my hotel room. My wife answered the phone and Mickey said, 'Betsy, let me talk to Bobby, I want him to pray for me.'" Richardson said he then got on the phone and for a brief time prayed together with Mantle. They had two or three additional conversations like that before he went back to South Carolina. Then, weeks later, on Wednesday, August 9, True summoned him to Dallas.

The next morning, Richardson went alone to visit Mantle at the hospital. Just before he got there, Mantle had a visit from Whitey Ford, and it seemed to have picked up his spirits. As Ford left, Mantle seemed to doze off. When Mantle opened his eyes again, there were just the two of them in the room, and Richardson said Mantle recognized him and smiled.

It was Richardson's understanding--though he could not be specific--that Mantle's doctors had "leveled with him" about his condition and that he knew he was going to die. "What he didn't know was when--and he didn't want to know," Richardson said. Then he said Mantle told him that he had accepted Christ as his savior.

Other friends and teammates visited Mantle that last Thursday. Hank Bauer, Moose Skowron, and Johnny Blanchard came and left together. The old teammates helped Mantle from his bed to his reclining chair so he could watch a golf match on TV for a while. Some time later, the three men helped Mantle to the bathroom. Bauer and Blanchard held him by the arms, and Skowron walked alongside, wheeling a tree of IV medicine bags. When they got him back to bed and Mantle, exhausted, closed his eyes, Bauer suggested they go. Mantle then opened his eyes. "You guys ain't leavin' already, are you?" he asked. The men stayed a little longer.

On Saturday evening, Mantle's doctors told the family they did not think he would last the night. Some time after midnight, the family gathered at his bedside. Mantle was not conscious. Merlyn held one hand, his son David held the other. Then, for just a moment, Mantle opened his eyes.

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