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

Mickey Mantle never saw himself as a hero, never felt comfortable in the role, and he rebelled against it all his life.

After he had been out of baseball for several years, he was contacted by the New York Yankees, who wanted information from him for a publicity package they were preparing for an upcoming old-timers' game. Like other players, Mantle was sent a questionnaire asking him to describe his most outstanding experience at Yankee Stadium. In his own hand, Mantle wrote a wildly unprintable account of a sexual encounter he had with an unnamed partner "under the right field bleachers by the Yankee bullpen." After giving the details in the most graphic terms possible, he signed the questionnaire, placing an asterisk next to his name. The asterisk was translated at the bottom of the page: "The All-American boy."

In 1983, the Claridge Casino in Atlantic City offered Mantle a job as a greeter. Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn told Mantle that he had a choice--turn down the job, or accept and be banned from all future major league employment.

The contract the Claridge offered was for $100,000 a year, essentially for shaking hands, hanging around, and playing golf for five days out of each month. The work had nothing to do with gambling per se, and the money was more than Mantle had seen since his last year in baseball; he was not about to turn it down. The issue for Mantle had nothing to do with legal or moral hair-splitting. The Claridge had offered him a job; baseball had not.

Kuhn's act of banning Mantle--just as he had done with Willie Mays under almost identical circumstances three years earlier--had the unanticipated effect of reinforcing his position as a symbol of baseball's better days.

When Peter Ueberroth became commissioner, simple common sense finally persuaded him to reinstate Mays and Mantle. Sentiment aside, it had become important to officially rehabilitate these old stars in the eyes of the game's paying customers, both fans and advertisers alike. Baseball's past was beginning to become a lucrative part of the game's business. And in the baseball memorabilia business, the biggest hero of them all was Mickey Mantle.

Mantle seemed to reemerge in mint condition from inside pristine wrapping paper to satisfy this need to recreate a past that never existed. The fact that he was older, slower, heavier, and had problems with alcohol made all the more poignant who he was long ago--a symbol of youth, confidence, achievement and vulnerability.

Alan Rosen, one of the biggest baseball card dealers in the business--in one year, he did $6 million worth of business--sponsored a reunion of the 1961 Yankees at Trump Castle in Atlantic City. Thirty-four Yankee old-timers were there, including Mantle, whom, Rosen says, he paid $150,000 for three days work. The players and other guests had waited around through the late afternoon until dinnertime for Mantle, the principal guest, to appear. Rosen finally contacted him on a house phone. "You know what he told me?" recalled Rosen, "'Fuck your mother, fuck your show, and fuck Donald Trump!' Now, he wasn't being hired to have sex with me in Macy's window for $150,000; all he had to do was show his face. When he finally did show, we had a crippled kid in a wheelchair who wanted him to sign a bat. He wouldn't do it, because one of his rules is he doesn't sign bats."

At about the same time that Rosen began working with him, Mantle met a woman named Greer Johnson, a divorced 34-year-old elementary school teacher from Georgia. She was visiting the Claridge in 1983 with friends. "It was Mickey's job to entertain us, to take us out to dinner," she said. What was not part of the job description was that the two became close business associates--and also fell in love.

Johnson said that when she met Mantle she was looking for a career change. She never anticipated, though, that her career change would involve Mickey Mantle. "He had known that I wanted to do something in the business world, so one day he asked me if I had ever thought about being an agent for celebrities," Johnson said. "I just laughed...But he kept at it." When Johnson finally decided to go ahead, the line of division between romance and business was missing. "It was a Cinderella story in the beginning. I traveled, met people, did things I never imagined would be possible in my life."

But Johnson also took her new work seriously. As a "celebrity agent," she represented Mantle and a number of his old teammates like Whitey Ford and Yogi Berra. But her main client was always Mantle. She saw him from the start through very different eyes. "I traveled with him all the time...He was like a little boy to me; he was very na•ve and totally inexperienced when it came to business.

"When he'd screw up--and he did--I'd tell him. You know, if he'd been drinking and he used foul language, I'd tell him. I wouldn't pull any punches, and I think that's what he respected and trusted." When he lashed out at someone, he would send Johnson out with a signed card to find the person, bring them back, do something to make amends. Says Johnson: "He could crush people, and he just didn't realize it." Mantle, with Johnson's help, slowly learned to rein himself in. He could make as much as $50,000 a day signing autographs.

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.

"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."

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.

"Hi, Mick," Merlyn said. He said nothing. Forty minutes later he was dead.

In those last days and weeks, even as his body was breaking down, Mickey Mantle had acquired, quietly and with an almost ethereal elegance, a strength and dignity he did not know he possessed. He faced his own death with that strength and became a new kind of hero.

There was something in the images of his shrunken frame that was as inspiring as it was haunting. Shriveled, with a white ball cap on his skull, and an old man's sweet, vacant smile on his face, his eyes blinking into bright lights, he implored others not to be like him and asked people to think of signing organ-donor cards. In the final moments of his final summer, Mantle's voice was weak and frail, but his words were strong. In his last months he had stopped worrying about what others wanted him to do for them, and urged them to take time out to do something for each other.

Mantle's funeral was held on a bright, blazing Texas day at the Lovers Lane United Methodist Church in Dallas. Though there was room for 1,500 people in the church and another 3,000 standees outside, the mourning for Mickey Mantle was nationwide and involved millions. In every major league ballpark around the country, outpourings of affection and remembrance took place.

It was a family funeral, too. The Mantle family, along with honored guests, were seated in the front of the church, near the casket. Greer Johnson was assigned a seat near the back of the church. Pat Summerall sat with her until an usher came down the aisle and told him that a seat had been reserved for him in the first rows. Summerall frostily told the usher he was quite happy where he was. A photo of a grieving Johnson--identified by name, but with no indication of her role in Mantle's life--would appear prominently in the next day's Dallas Morning News.

Mantle had wanted a song sung for him at his own funeral. As he had asked Bobby Richardson to preside at his service, he had many years before asked Roy Clark, the country-and-western star, to perform the song "Yesterday When I was Young."

The song is a lamentation for a life wasted, life as sweet as rain, played at as foolishly as a game. Clark sang on an unamplified guitar so that the words and music seemed as elemental and simple as the occasion itself. Pat Summerall believed all of Mantle's life was contained in the song, and so did many of the mourners gathered there. It was almost possible to imagine Mantle's presence hearing and feeling the words:

"I ran so fast that time and youth at last ran out...There are so many songs in me that won't be sung...the time has come for me to pay for yesterday when I was young.

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