Mickey Mantle, an almost mythical baseball star who feared he had failed to fulfill career expectations because of alcohol abuse and whose recent years were haunted by self-recrimination, died of cancer early Sunday. He was 63.
The former New York Yankees center fielder and a member of baseball’s Hall of Fame had undergone transplant surgery June 8 to replace a liver ravaged by cancer, hepatitis and cirrhosis, but after being discharged from Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas on June 28, he soon developed anemia as the result of chemotherapy and the cancer was found to have spread throughout his body.
“It was everywhere - all vital organs were affected,” Dr. Daniel DeMarco, a gastroenterologist at Baylor, said Sunday.
Dr. Goran Klintmalm, director of transplant surgery at Baylor, said Mantle would not have received the donor liver if there had been evidence the cancer had spread, but “we had no reason - not even in retrospect - to see any evidence of that.”
Appearing gaunt and frail, Mantle said at a July 28 news conference that he had squandered a gifted life and warned admirers he was no role model.
“God gave me the ability to play baseball. God gave me everything,” he said. “For the kids out there, … don’t be like me.”
How many wished they could be, however.
Signed as a teenage shortstop off the Oklahoma sandlots for $1,100, Mickey Charles Mantle ultimately perpetuated that royal lineage of Yankee immortals.
He succeeded Joe DiMaggio in center field and blazed a Hall of Fame career built on power and speed, a career remembered by many, including Mantle, in a context of what might have been.
Five operations on his right knee, the first as a 19-year-old Yankee rookie in 1951, eroded much of his speed and power. Alcohol and late nights cut into what was left.
He was haunted by the genetic specter of Hodgkin’s disease - “If I had known I was going to live past 50, I’d have taken better care of myself,” he often said - and the pressure of fulfilling the expectations of his father and others.
Former Brooklyn and Los Angeles Dodger General Manager Buzzie Bavasi said of Mantle:
“If he had been healthy, he would have reached the same stratosphere as Babe Ruth.”
Wrote Mantle, in a first-person article for Sports Illustrated last year:
“When I retired in the spring of ‘69, I was 37. Casey (Stengel, the Yankee manager) had said when I came up, ‘This guy’s going to be better than Joe DiMaggio and Babe Ruth.’ It didn’t happen. I never fulfilled what my dad had wanted, and I should have. God gave me a great body to play with, and I didn’t take care of it. And I blame a lot of it on alcohol.”
Mantle’s regret-laced reminiscences may have been too harsh.
Seldom has there been a more popular or storied performer. He hit 536 home runs to rank eighth on the all-time list. A prodigious homer in old Griffith Stadium in Washington gave birth to the tape-measure home run when the late Red Patterson, then Yankee publicist, measured it at 565 feet.
Mantle launched a legendary rocket at the prerenovated Yankee Stadium that nearly cleared the upper deck in right field, caroming off the facade. He was “Mr. October” long before that sobriquet was applied to Reggie Jackson.
Mantle, as the centerpiece of the last Yankee dynasty, played in 12 of 14 World Series between 1951 and 1964, setting a series record with 18 homers.
He holds four other World Series records - for most runs, runs batted in, total bases and strikeouts.
He won the American League’s most valuable player award three times and the triple crown in 1956 with a .353 average, 52 home runs and 130 RBIs. When teammate Roger Maris broke Ruth’s record by hitting 61 home runs in 1961, Mantle hit 54, his own pursuit of Ruth’s record curtailed by an infection late in the season.
Mantle was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1974.
It was a different era when Mantle made his debut at 19. The electronic media were just starting to plug in. A celebrity could still live something of a private life; a periodic binge did not carry the stigma it now does. Mantle and teammate Billy Martin and friends could engage in a brawl at the legendary Copacabana nightclub in Manhattan without it dominating the headlines for more than a few days.
Mantle left small-town Oklahoma for the biggest of the big cities as something of a hayseed, longtime teammate Whitey Ford once said. Friends and teammates, people he didn’t know, put drinks in front of him, and Mantle quickly adapted to the new lifestyle. Play hard. Live hard.
The drinking turned serious when his father, Mutt, a tough and demanding miner who had enough energy after long days underground to pitch backyard batting practice to his son as dinner turned cold, died of Hodgkin’s disease at 39, soon after Mantle’s rookie season.
“I was devastated, and that’s when I started drinking,” Mantle wrote in the Sports Illustrated article. “I guess alcohol helped me escape the pain of losing him.”
And coping with the genetic time bomb. A grandfather had died of Hodgkin’s disease at 40; two uncles died of the same lymphatic cancer before they were 40.
Billy Mantle, one of Mickey Mantle’s four sons, battled the disease, became addicted to a painkiller and died of a heart attack at 36 in 1994.
Danny, another son, went through the Betty Ford Center in Rancho Mirage, Calif., and convinced his father to take the anti-addiction treatment there.
“One of my biggest regrets is that I wasn’t more of a father to the boys,” Mantle once said. “I don’t ever remember playing catch with them in the back yard. I’d invite them to lunch, which meant we shared drinks. If I hadn’t always been drinking, I might have helped Billy get off the drugs, and Danny might never have had to go through Betty Ford.”
Instead, the years after his retirement became a blur, events of the preceding night forgotten the next morning.
At his restaurant in Manhattan, Mantle and his best drinking buddy, Martin, started many mornings with what they called the breakfast of champions - a shot or more of brandy mixed with Kahlua and cream. They joked about whose liver would go first. Martin was killed in an alcohol-related car accident in 1989.
For Mantle, the sobriety he found at Betty Ford came with regret and recrimination but also the hope that his final years would generate new and clearer memories to be remembered and savored.
Unfortunately, he did not have much time to enjoy that sobriety, but Klintmalm, the Baylor surgeon, said Mantle’s “ultimate home run” may be the impact his illness already has had and will continue to have on organ donations.
Mantle is survived by his wife, Merlyn, and three sons, Danny, David and Mickey Jr.
The funeral is scheduled for Tuesday in Dallas.
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