A strange goodbye

Last week I told Star-Telegram columnist Bud Kennedy that my Uncle Dick's funeral was at the same time as Mickey Mantle's, and, by gosh, there was no question what I had to do.

"Yeah," said Bud, "Uncle Dick, a fine ol' boy--but he couldn't switch hit."
Hundreds of others placed Mickey Mantle above relatives and friends and jobs last week. That's probably the place the Mick had held all along.

By now you are aware that thousands waited in long lines vying for a seat Tuesday inside the sanctuary of Lovers Lane United Methodist Church. And that hundreds of journalists descended upon Dallas like the monkeys in The Wizard of Oz.

But there was so much that didn't come across your television.
Some of it was kinda funny. Some poignant. And some of it put a real burr in my pantyhose.

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Case in point:
Many of you probably saw a widely published photo of two little boys in long, baggy T-shirts, one with Yankees cap over the heart and the other holding a homegrown sunflower wrapped in wet napkins and foil.

If they look grief-stricken at the loss of a hero, it is probably just that their cheeks have begun to melt there on the asphalt where they are standing, right where the photographers will be when the casket comes out the side door. Augie Furst, 8, and Manie Furst, 5, are engulfed by photogs exiting the church right after the casket and ahead of the funeral crowd. The photogs get the kids' names and ages, but no one asks how they came to care about Mickey Mantle.

As the photographers scurried on, visions of page-one play for that shot dancing in their heads, I asked the boys why they were there.

"I dunno," said Augie, now urged by his father to replace the cap on his head.

Do you know who Mickey Mantle was?
"Ummm," said Augie, "ah, a ballplayer."
All in all, there was a notable absence of the weirdos inherent in most celebrity funerals. And the only thing that woulda probably bugged Mickey was that this one woman who kissed the casket had really bad big hair.

Then again, so did Joe Pepitone, the former Yankee-current rug plate, who is known to have a dresser drawer full of Tony Orlando scalps. Pepitone is best-known for being the first guy to use a blowdryer in a big league clubhouse. And behind his back, people are talking about his fake fur du jour.

As I walked up to the back door of the church to begin the day, I noticed something strange about this event, which could have so easily lent itself to the term "circus."

There was actually a sense of organization. Two church ladies who did not look at all like Dana Carvey were checking penciled names off a yellow legal pad.

Green press passes--several hundred--meant you had to watch the funeral from the adjacent chapel. Gold meant you had the big credit card for a trip inside.

The ladies passed out a program, which looked just like the ones from any ol' funeral--the date, the hymns, the name of an ol' Oklahoma boy who got the cancer and passed early on a Sunday.

They also gave out--and I have yet to hear anyone muse about this--complete bios on Lovers Lane United Methodist preacher William Jennings Bryan III. The one-page bio included, in addition to wife, kids, ages, degrees, and past churches, the fact that Bryan is a nine-time "survivor" of the Hotter 'n' Hell Hundred, plus a plug for his daddy, the late Sonny Bryan, creator of the legendary barbecue.

Does this seem a bit inappropriate, or is it just me?
I got gold pass rights into the sanctuary and the air conditioning. Along with three other reporters, I stood just inside the church at the door where the family and friends came in.

At 12:21 p.m., Doris Manning, who is manning the door, yells that they are bringing in the casket and everybody's gotta clear the area. Manning has this great voice, like Lucy and Ethel's boss on that candy-factory line.

Doris zealously guards the door. Only friends, family and gold press badge folks may go in and out and nobody dares screw with Doris, who is polite but firm. "Sometimes," she says, "this voice and this body come in handy."

The four of us are allowed to stay while the casket comes in, but we need to be against the wall and half-standing on the first stair to the choir loft.

At 1:04 p.m., a hearse the color of thunderstorms opens and a casket is pulled out. And the following is how you came to read in papers across the land that the casket was light mahogany.  

Denne Freeman, Dallas-based Associated Press sports editor, pronounces the casket burnt orange--"just like a UT football jersey."

No way, it's like...a mahogany, I counter.
"No, nah," says Tom Korosec of the Star-Telegram. "It's too light to be mahogany."

OK, it's a light mahogany, but that's a mahogany.
Another AP staffer buys into my light mahogany pitch.
"Then light mahogany it is," says Freeman, who, as a wire service grand poobah, has just decided for the nation the color of Mickey Mantle's casket.

Then the doors swing open. The crushed-velvet burgundy skirt doesn't even flutter under the light mahogany casket, and suddenly it seems very surreal that this could be the hallway in the church where they are having the funeral for Mickey Mantle and the body of one of the greatest ballplayers that ever lived is in there.

Behind the casket, one at a time, celebs straggle in. Reggie Jackson is wearing a remarkably ugly tie. It is dark and has multi-neon ballplayers on it; you can see him posing for the cameras from the time he steps onto the sidewalk outside where the paparazzi wait until he walks into the sanctuary of the church foyer.

Over by the guest book, there is a set of notes for some funeral insider. They appear to be printed on an actual typewriter, and they begin in an odd, mundane way--"Mickey Mantle Funeral," in capital letters.

The first notation is that George Bush's office has requested three seats up front.

Then a simple "New York and Georgia governors," with no names.
Then, a curious note. "Carroll Robertson, minister from Georgia called, worried about Mickey's spiritual condition. Bobby [Richardson] witnessed to Mickey and he did accept Christ as savior."

Closer to 2 p.m., two golfing buddies of the Mick walk in straight from Preston Trail, where the slugger shared both two-putts and double shots quite regularly through the years. Eight rows were reserved for Preston Trail, the crowd that may have been more family to Mick than the members of his own household.

The two golf buddies are still in their golf clothes. As Eugene "Geno" Teague signs the guest book, on the same page with "Laura and Gov. Bush," he respectfully takes off his Panama hat with "Tom Landry FCA Open" on the brim and lays his golf glove inside before setting it down in the back of the church.

Out in the line for the general public--about 70-80 percent professional men in suits playing hooky--there was a funeral director from Oklahoma who had buried Mickey's mom not that long ago. He and Mick used to haul hay together. I ask if this is the biggest funeral anyone from their neck of the woods has ever had.

"Well," he says. "There was this Indian chief. Name was Olds. Now they had 3,000 for his."

Mick missed beatin' Chief Olds by about 1,000. But said chief didn't get a Bob Costas eulogy. Nor have about 100 photographers chasing his casket to the hearse.

As they closed the door on the hearse to take Mick away, one could hear a photog complaining about his F-stop and how he "didn't get a casket shot worth a shit."

No wonder no one likes the press.
The steel gray hearse pulled away onto Northwest Highway. Lost in the melee were the church bells.

There were no signs lining the route as with, say, the string of grievous posters lining Bear Bryant's last ride.

You could see the roses in the windows as The Mick took one last ride past the Chevron and the florist and the Starbucks and passed all opportunities to turn that damn hearse at the light and head to Preston Trail.

The cameras and pens were moving swiftly back at the church. Bob Costas walked out and quickly snuck off to the right, and out of sight. He seemed very sad. Billy Crystal was cornered by a small group of reporters. He made jokes, but like everything else this day, they had a hollow feel about them.

There was this strange sense of melancholy, even irony. While Mickey was yukking it up and being the life of every party but his own, how many people in those 2,000 who had drunk with him, laughed with him, and encouraged him in his loneliness by their very company, had ever really, forcefully tried to help the Mick?

Probably several. He probably bitched at them for it, too. Word out of Baylor was that Mick could be pretty crotchety even in those last weeks--though transplants and terminal cancer allow one a certain leeway.

And who could feel good when that casket rolled down the aisle as Mickey Mantle was carried out of a party by friends one last time? The pallbearers were Yankee greats, idols of a grown generation. Conspicuously missing: Billy Martin, best running buddy of Whitey Ford and Mick, who died in an alcohol-related truck accident.  

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