One night in Detroit after quite a few drinks, we went back to our hotel room, and Billy said, "Let's climb out on the ledge and see what's going on in the other rooms." We happened to be staying on the 22nd floor. He climbed out the window, and I was right behind him. Well, the stunt got old pretty fast because nobody's lights were on—and I'm afraid of heights. But the ledge was so narrow that we couldn't turn around, so we had to crawl all the way around the building to get back to our room.
My last four or five years with the Yankees, I didn't realize I was ruining myself with all the drinking. I just thought, This is fun. Hell, I used to see guys come into Yankee Stadium from Detroit or Chicago; they'd be out taking batting practice, all of them with hangovers. But today I can admit that all the drinking shortened my career. When I retired in the spring of '69, I was 37. Casey 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.
Everybody tries to make the excuse that injuries shortened my career. Truth is, after I'd had a knee operation, the doctors would give me rehab work to do, but I wouldn't do it. I'd be out drinking. The first time I hurt my knee, in the '51 World Series, I was only 19. I thought, Hey, I'll be all right. I hurt my knees again through the years, and I just thought they'd naturally come back. Everything had always come natural to me. I didn't work hard at it. When the last World Series game was over, I didn't think about baseball until the spring. I blame that on stupidity.
After I retired, my drinking got really bad. I went through a deep depression. Billy, Whitey, Hank Bauer, Moose Skowron—I left all those guys, and I think it left a hole in me. I tried to fill it up by drinking. I still don't feel like I have much in common with a lot of people. But with those guys, I shared life. We were as close as brothers. I haven't met anybody else I've felt as close to.
In the last 10 years, thanks to the sports-memorabilia business, the expectations of being Mickey Mantle became overwhelming lots of times. When I used to do card shows, guys would come up to me all the time, tears in their eyes, and they'd say, "Mickey Mantle. I've been waiting all my life to meet you." This one guy said to his little boy, "Son, that's the greatest ballplayer that ever lived." And the little boy looked up and said, "Daddy, that's an old man."
Everywhere I went people wanted to hear all the old stories about Billy and Whitey and our wild times. That was part of the legend of Mickey Mantle. Everybody just expected me to start drinking. They'd buy me drinks. I think they expected me to get drunk. It was like this: Mickey Mantle couldn't hit it out of the park anymore, but he could still drink 'em under the table.
I'd never thought about anything serious in my life for a continuous period of days and weeks until I checked into the Betty Ford Center for my 32-day stay. I've always tried to avoid anything emotional—anything controversial, anything serious—and I did it through the use of alcohol. Alcohol always protected me from reality. But at Betty Ford, I could be myself. I wasn't Mickey Mantle there. I was the guy in room 202.
When you first get to Betty Ford, you have to open up to the members of your dorm unit in group therapy sessions. It took me a couple of times before I could talk without crying. You're supposed to say why you're there, and I said because I had a bad liver and I was depressed. Whenever I tried to talk about my family, I got all choked up. One of the things I really screwed up, besides baseball, was being a father. I wasn't a good family man. I was always out, running around with the guys. Mickey Jr. could have been a helluva athlete. If he'd had my dad, he could have been a major league baseball player. My kids have never blamed me for not being there. They don't have to. I blame myself.
The program at Betty Ford is based on the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. When you go through the First Step, you have to tell your life story to your group. They ask you to tell stories of things you did when you were drunk, how it made you feel and the things that really bothered you later. I told about Billy and me crawling around on the hotel ledge, 22 floors up. I told about how I almost killed Merlyn one night, crashing the car into a telephone pole, banging her head against the windshield. We'd been out to eat with Yogi Berra and his wife, Carmen, in New Jersey, and I'd been drinking straight vodka. Merlyn had wanted to drive, but I wouldn't let her, and the last thing we heard was Yogi yelling, "I wouldn't let him drive if I were you!" For so many years those stories had sounded so funny, but when I was telling them in group therapy at Betty Ford, they sounded stupid.
Every day at Betty Ford I'd go to a movie or a lecture, and I'd be surprised at how much of it hit home. They talked a lot about alcoholism and dysfunctional families. They showed a movie one day about a man and a woman and their three kids. The guy was too busy drinking to come home. Finally, it got to where he'd call his wife and have her meet him, and they'd both drink. Once, as she was going out the door, she told one of the kids to use his paper-route money to take the other kids out for a hamburger. I realized I was like her.