Longform

The Last Days Of Mickey Mantle

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 nave and totally inexperienced when it came to business.

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David Falkner