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Mickey Mantle
April 18, 1994
After 42 years of alcohol abuse, a legendary ballplayer describes his life of self-destructive behavior and hopes his recovery will finally make him a true role model
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April 18, 1994

Time In A Bottle

After 42 years of alcohol abuse, a legendary ballplayer describes his life of self-destructive behavior and hopes his recovery will finally make him a true role model

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I also asked my doctor to give me a physical. He ran some tests, and he told me that I had a bad liver. He got me to go to another doctor to have an MRI of my liver. For an hour and 15 minutes, I lay in that MRI tube, and I thought, What am I doing here? This must really be serious. It was hard to keep from crying, thinking about the bad shape I was in, how I had abused myself with alcohol for 42 years, all of the people I'd let down. I was worried that fans would remember Mickey Mantle as a drunk rather than for my baseball accomplishments. I had always thought I could quit drinking by myself, and I'd do it for several days or a couple of weeks, but when I got to feeling good again, I'd go back to getting loaded. I was physically and emotionally worn out from all of the drinking. I'd hit rock bottom.

When the MRI results came back the following day, the doctor called me into his office and said, "Mickey, your liver is still working, but it has healed itself so many times that before long, you're just 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."

I was killing myself. I asked for help.

If alcoholism is hereditary, if it's in the genes, then I think mine came from my mother's side of the family. Her brothers were all alcoholics. My mother, Lovell, and my father, Mutt, weren't big drinkers. Dad would buy a pint of whiskey on Saturday night and put it in the icebox. Then every night when he came home from working eight hours at the Eagle-Picher Zinc and Lead Company in Commerce, Okla., he'd head for the icebox and take a swig of whiskey. Dad would get drunk once in a while, like when he went to a barn dance and he might have five or six drinks. Hell, for me five or six drinks wouldn't have been a full cocktail party!

Besides the Lucky Strike cigarettes that constantly dangled from the side of his mouth, I'd have to say that if my father was addicted to anything it was baseball. He loved baseball, played semipro ball on the weekends and was a tremendous St. Louis Cardinal fan. In fact, he named me after Mickey Cochrane, the Hall of Fame catcher for Philadelphia and Detroit who was a great hitter. Dad had high hopes for me. He thought I could be the greatest ballplayer who ever lived, and he did everything he could to help me realize his dream.

Even though he was dog tired after long days in the mines, Dad would still pitch batting practice to me in the backyard when he got home from work, beginning from the time I was four years old. My mother would call us to dinner, but the meal would wait until Dad was finished instructing me from the right and the left sides of the plate. Dad was a tough man. If I'd done something wrong, he could just look at me—he didn't have to say anything—and I'd say, "I won't do it no more, Dad." I loved my father, although I couldn't tell him that, just like he couldn't tell me. He'd put his arm around me and hug me, but he'd be playing a joke at the same time, kicking me in the butt with his foot. But I knew he loved me.

When I came up with the Yankees in 1951, at age 19, I'd hardly ever had a drink. My father wouldn't have stood 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.

The Yankees traveled to away games by train in those days, and Casey Stengel, our manager, had a two-drink limit on the trips, although he didn't really enforce it. On the road Billy Martin and I were wild men. We drank up a storm and didn't go to bed until we were ready to fall into bed. The drinking escalated after the '53 season, when Billy came to live with me and my wife, Merlyn, in Commerce. Billy and I were bad for each other. We were always on the go—rushing out the door, telling Merlyn we were going fishing but, instead, heading straight to a bar.

Back then I could quit drinking when I went to spring training. I got myself into shape. Then when the season started I went back to drinking again—Billy, Whitey Ford and me. Hell, we played mostly night games. We'd be home by 1 a.m. and sleep until 9 or 10. I never used to have hangovers. I had an incredible tolerance for alcohol, and I'd always look and feel great in the morning. I don't think I ever blew a game because I was drunk or hung over. Maybe I hurt the team once or twice, but if I wasn't feeling right, I got myself out of the game early. When my dad died, Casey became like a father to me. He'd call me in sometimes and say, "Look, I know we don't have a curfew, but you're overdoing it a bit. Besides, it's not helping you any." I couldn't fool Casey.

With Billy and me, drinking was a competitive thing. We'd see who could drink the other under the table. I'd get a kick out of seeing him get loaded before me. Alcohol made him so aggressive. He's the only person I knew who could hear a guy give him the finger from the back of a barroom. We had some wild times.

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