Remembering Mickey Mantle
It seems like only yesterday that we learned Mickey Mantle had lost his last battle. In the days after Mickey’s death on August 13, 1995, his fans left flowers, and a poem, and other modest, heartfelt tributes beneath his plaque in the Baseball Hall of Fame Gallery. The Mick was sixty-three when he succumbed to liver cancer–too soon, but not truly an athlete dying young; he had outlived Babe Ruth and Jackie Robinson by ten years. We mourned as much for ourselves, for a vital part inside of us that died, as we did for him.
We remember where we were and, more importantly, who we were when “The Commerce Comet” picked up a random bat (a Loren Babe model), strode to the plate at Griffith Stadium one afternoon in 1953, and parked a Chuck Stobbs pitch 565 feet away. We remember his astonishing blend of power, speed, and grace; his dash into left-center field to snare a Gil Hodges line drive and keep Don Larsen’s perfect game alive on October 8, 1956. We remember his chase of the Babe’s record in 1961, when he kept pace with Roger Maris until a September injury forced him to the sideline. We remember his baseball cards, and his Maypo commercial, and that silly movie he and Roger made with Doris Day and Cary Grant. We remember the Copacabana scrape, and the drinking and carousing, and the bad business deals he got into.
We remember the pain he endured, from the bone inflammation that almost cost him his leg as a teenager to the torn-up knee in his rookie year to the wrecked shoulder, and the wounds that the yards of tape could never heal, especially his belief that he, like his father, would die young. “If I’d have known I was going to live this long,” he would say, half jokingly, “I would’ve taken better care of myself.” Yes, we will remember him.
“As a ballplayer,” President Clinton said after the announcement of his death, “Mickey inspired generations of fans with his power and grit. As a man, he faced up to his responsibilities and alerted generations to come to the dangers of alcohol abuse. He will be remembered for excellence on the baseball field and the honor and redemption he brought to the end of his life.” Maybe in some larger way his passing even served to redeem baseball itself.
Heroes provide role models through their achievements and their ability to overcome adversity. Their greatness enlarges us all. The greatest achievement of Mickey Mantle’s life was not his home runs or MVP trophies or World Series heroics; it was the dignity he brought to his death, when he said to America’s youth, “Don’t be like me.” As Lou Gehrig’s death did so much for the funding of treatment and, one day, cure of ALS, Mickey Mantle may have done more than anyone for the cause of organ donation.
His exploits are on display in the record books, his likeness on a plaque at the Hall of Fame; his legacy, not so easily captured, is everywhere.