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New York Yankees

American Pie

Growing up a kid in New York, you would think I would have been immediately drawn to the greatest franchise in the history of sports. The only problem was that early in my life the New York Yankees were playing like anything but the great teams of their storied past. In fact, it wasn’t until 1996, when my Dad bought me the Official 1996 World Series Home Video that I really started to understand the Yankees and like baseball. I’ve now watched that video so many times, it’s only a matter of time before I wear out its viewings. But even before I learned who the Yankees actually were, I already knew of a man who seemed to be quite popular, but dead now for over a year. His name was even mentioned in the video, as on his birthday, October 20th, the Yankees lost Game One of the 1996 World Series 12-1 to the defending World Champion Atlanta Braves. This mythic figure turned out to be Mickey Mantle. A fan favorite and the first real sports icon of the television era, the Mick had all the characteristics of a great player. Obviously, Mantle was a first ballot Hall of Famer, but it is the story off the field that will forever link Mickey with generations to come.

My mission here is simple: Explain why Mickey Mantle really is a positive role model, not a negative one like he stated shortly before he passed away in 1995.
I know almost immediately some of you may be thinking Mickey’s behavior off the field was unacceptable, especially given his status in life. Most people, however, don’t understand the background from which Mantle came from. It’s just like when people try to say Lee Harvey Oswald did not assassinate President John F. Kennedy in November of 1963. But if you knew more about Oswald, people would realize he is still the perfect candidate for the assassination. Mantle’s background proves the same point.

Mickey Mantle was born on October 20th, 1931 and was immediately bred into a switch hitter by his father Elvin (Mutt) Mantle. What some people don’t realize is in between all the fun, Mickey endured work, sometimes up to eight hours a day with his father in the lead mines of Oklahoma. It was here where Mickey not only learned the true definition of hard work, but the slogan he would base the rest of his life on.

Mutt Mantle realized if he didn’t get cancer, he would probably die of tuberculosis. So Mutt would tell Mickey after a long day, “So what the hell? Live while you can,” he’d say while lighting another cigarette.

By 1951, Mickey, aged only 19 years, was in pinstripes. Deemed “the best prospect I ever saw,” by Yankee scout Tom Greenwade, Mantle was supposed to be better than Joe DiMaggio.

That’s right, Joltin’ Joe himself. Free Image Hosting at allyoucanupload.com

The pressure got to Mantle early and he was sent down to the minors before playing well enough to start in right field during the 1951 World Series vs. the New York Giants.

It was during this time Mantle would suffer a devastating series of events. After nearly quitting baseball at age 19 (his father wouldn’t let him), Mantle was now playing at the highest level of competition in the world.

Manager Casey Stengel told the young Mantle to catch every ball he could during that World Series, and in return Mickey would get an early taste of bad luck when he was called off by DiMaggio on a fly ball. Mantle slammed on the brakes, catching his heel on the rubber cover of a drain hole and tearing ligaments in his knee.

The following spring, Mutt Mantle was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease, at age 39. Mickey would soon lose the man he loved more than Billy Martin and Whitey Ford. His grandpa and two uncles had both died before the age of 45. Now on the heels of his father’s death, Mantle, at 20 years old, decided since he probably didn’t have much time left to live, he was going to live life the way he wanted to.

“When I came up with the Yankees in 1951, at age 19, I’d hardly ever had a drink. My father wouldn’t stand for me getting drunk. But the following spring, when Dad died of Hodgkin’s disease at age 39, I was devastated, and that’s when I started drinking. I guess alcohol helped me escape the pain of losing him.”

Mantle, who was clearly hurt and under intense scrutiny for every move he made, was the perfect man to become a victim of alcoholism.

As the Mick’s stature rose, so did his taste for the “high life”. He gladly accepted transforming from a country boy into a city slicker. He was, after all, a star in New York City, just like Frank Sinatra and that’s what he did.

Mantle, Ford and Martin would form their own 1950s “Rat Pack”.
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But the toll of partying all night long was already starting to affect many key people in Mickey’s life. In 1954, Mantle’s high school sweetheart Meryln left him briefly. Then in 1957, while celebrating Martin’s birthday, a brawl broke out between Yankee players and other members of the club, at the now famous Copacabana. Martin was immediately traded and Mickey lost a brother-like figure.

Still this did not stop the Mick from drinking, it probably only enhanced it more. It was becoming obvious that Mantle was just as fragile on the inside as his body was. Everyone tried to help Mantle. The Yankees even hired detectives to tail Ford and Mantle. The story goes one night Ford spotted them and since they were going to be together all night anyway, they might as well drink together.

A doctor once told Mantle, “Mick, you’ve got to quit this. You don’t know what you’re doing to yourself.” As soon as Mickey left the hospital, he’d go straight to the bar.

By 1969 the Mick was done with baseball. But he would continue to encounter off-field problems for almost the entire remainder of his life. His first post-baseball venture nearly landed him in jail. Mantle even bad-mouthed Yankees owner George Steinbrenner.

One thing Mickey always could do well was lie to himself about his alcohol problems. Deep down, Mantle knew he had problems. Things were so bad he would start to get recurring dreams. The Mick even lost his best friend, Martin, during an alcohol related car accident in December of 1989.

It took an embarrassing incident in December of 1993, at a charity gold outing for the Harbor Club Children’s Christmas Fund near Atlanta to finally make Mantle face up to alcoholism. The next day, after learning of a series of bad events, Mickey was horrified to learn the bad things he had done.

Mickey Mantle had hit rock bottom.

To make matters worse, Mickey’s son, Billy, died of a heart attack at age 36. This was an especially crucial blow.

Mantle decided it was time he take a physical and after an MRI result came back as a bad liver, Mantle had some tough decisions to make.

“Mickey, your liver is still working, but it has healed itself so many times that before long, you’re going to have one big scab for a liver. Eventually you’ll need a new liver. Look, I’m not going to lie to you: The next drink you take might be your last.”

Mickey finally asked for help.

After always trying to avoid anything emotional, controversial, or serious, Mantle finally became himself again. Stories Mantle had always found funny he now thought sounded stupid. Mantle had almost killed his wife Meryln while driving drunk and he later blamed himself for what happened to his son Billy.

Mantle admitted all his kids drank too much because of him. They never got to experience a father-son relationship, but when they became old enough to drink, they became drinking buddies to Mickey. It was the only way the kids could spend time with Mickey, so they never turned him down.

Mantle now had a new plan. When he asked his kids out to dinner, he really meant to eat, not to drink. He was going to spend more time with his three sons, Mickey Jr., David and Danny, as well as his two grandchildren, Mallery and Marilyn.

For as many years as he could remember, everyone expected Mickey Mantle to drink. Now they expected him NOT to drink. A cartoon character for all those years, Mickey was now determined to be a real person.

Mickey Mantle couldn’t even remember the last ten years of his life, but he looked forward to the future and the next ten years. Unfortunately, Mantle’s life of drinking would finally catch up to him before he could live out those ten years.

During one last public appearance, Mantle told kids that he was a role model, a role model of what not to be. “Don’t be like me,” he said.

Mickey Mantle passed away on Sunday, August 13th, 1995 at 1:10 am at Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas, Texas. It can be argued that the last few years of Mantle’s life are more important to his legacy then the first 60. Mantle was able to leave a positive legacy behind, one people probably never thought possible at one point. A star without equal or ego, Mantle will always be a symbol of America.

With all his drinking problems and not being a good father and husband, it’s easy to say Mickey Mantle is not a positive symbol of America. But just when everyone thought Mickey was down and out, he asked for a second chance, and embraced the opportunity ever so greatly.

Mickey Mantle never let anyone down. On the baseball field he was spectacular; off the field he was anything but spectacular. But Mickey made up for all his bad doings by using his own life as a story of how not to live. Even the greatest sinner of them all was given forgiveness.

We have learned from Mickey Mantle you can never take anything in life for granted. If you do, you will never be able to reach your full potential in life. We have also learned if you get a second chance, take advantage of the opportunity and make the best of it.

Finally, if you don’t get anything out of this article, please remember the “breakfast of champions” is not something you can buy to eat on a Denny’s menu.

I know when I get older I am going to tell the stories, good and bad, of the life of Mickey Mantle. The Mick is a positive role model. His is a role model of what not to be, but also a role model of how one must always have a positive outlook on life in order to be successful.

Everyone made the Mick out to be Superman. Seriously, who could live up to that?

Thank you Mickey Mantle, you will always be my hero.

Copyright ©2006 Colin Cerniglia. All Rights Reserved.
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7 replies on “American Pie”

Comment “cigaret” –> cigarette
“stores” –> stories

Good article, this must have taken a ton of time.

took a whole night you know, i thought thats how cigarette was spelled, but i swear i saw it different when i was reading an article. i think your way is correct. thanks for the feedback.

I agree… Mantle was a hero in many ways, on/off the field. As you mentioned he made the most of his second chance and in my opinion created an influence on himself, his family and the community of the world. To understand why he took his second chance you have to go back to another point you brought up. His work ethic in the coal mines and his family’s history of Hodgkins diesease. He finally put all that aside and was determined to changed. The Mick is the man. If it wasnt for Lou Gehrig, he cold have been the Iron Man of baseball. Good Story. Keep it up.

                                Utmost Respect,
                                       Happy Valley

Funny Mantle story Ok, here’s a pretty funny Mantle story. As told by my theology teacher:

 So, my theology teacher works for some company back in the 80’s, and they have Mantle over for a motivational talk. Afterward, a clearly hung over Mantle is signing autographs, shoulders slumped, propped up against the wall. My teacher, he has this ‘stache at the time, the classic 80’s one that Donnie Baseball had. So, he goes up to his hero Mantle, ball in hand, and the Mick does a double take.

Mickey: Shoot sir… are you Mexican?

Mr. Ramp: [Shocked] No. Italian.

Mickey: [Slurring words] Same Goddamn thing…

    Being Italian, I wasn’t even offended. It’s just too funny. So out of nowhere, especially from a famous ball player.

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