I feel like I'm the reason that Danny went to Betty Ford last fall. For all those years I'd make him go to lunch and dinner with me. I'd get Mickey Jr. and my next oldest son, David, to go too. I'd say, "Hey, what are you guys doing tonight? Let's go eat." Which would mean, "Let's go drink." They all drank too much because of me. We don't have normal father-son relationships. When they were growing up, I was playing baseball, and after I retired I was too busy traveling around being Mickey Mantle. We never played catch in the backyard. But when they were old enough to drink, we became drinking buddies. When we were together, it kind of felt like the old days with Billy and Whitey. I had no idea that I was making my kids drink like that.
Late last September, Danny flew with me to Los Angeles for an autograph signing, for Upper Deck Authenticated—I have an exclusive contract with them—and after we landed, I didn't see him for an entire week. He had come along to help me, and he just disappeared. It turned out he met up with a friend, and they went on a bender. But instead of going back home to Dallas, he ended up checking into Betty Ford without telling me. I didn't realize how bad he was—he used to drink with me all the time—but if I didn't think I had a problem, how could I know my own son was that bad? I didn't call or write Danny while he was at Betty Ford, and I didn't go out for the third week of the program—Family Week—because I was afraid the people there would say, "Well, why ain't you here? You put him here."
My biggest disappointment in life was not being able to help my third son, Billy, who was named after Billy Martin. When he was only 19, Billy came down with Hodgkin's—the disease that killed my father, my father's father and Dad's two brothers—and I've always wished I'd been the one to get cancer, not Billy. Watching your kids suffer is unbearable. When Billy was 25, Merlyn and I took him to MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston for a yearlong experimental chemotherapy treatment, but the drugs were so hard on his body that he ended up getting hooked on a heavy-duty painkiller, Dilaudid. I begged and pleaded with Billy to stop taking it, and he'd promise me he was going to, but the next thing I knew, he'd be doing Dilaudid again.
Over the past 17 years, Billy's Hodgkin's went into remission several times, but he led an unhappy life. Starting in 1990, he was in and out of drug and alcohol treatment centers four times in four years, and in 1993, he had heart bypass surgery and had two valves put into his heart. He would write me notes: "Dad, get me out of this, and I'll be O.K." I felt so helpless. Within weeks after I got out of Betty Ford—and only two days after his mother had checked him into a rehab center in Wilmer, Texas—Billy had a heart attack and died. He was only 36. Danny came to Preston Trail to tell me. I was in the locker room playing backgammon, and the minute I looked at Danny's face, saw his tears, I knew. I'd always felt like something bad would happen to Billy. Then I did the toughest thing I've ever had to do—tell Merlyn that Billy was dead. She had taken him to all the halfway houses, bailed him out of jail for DWI. Her life for the past several years had been taking care of Billy. If only I'd gone to Betty Ford sooner, Billy might still be here. If I hadn't been drinking, I might have been able to get him to stop doing drugs.
The most important breakthrough I had at Betty Ford happened in grief therapy groups, and I think it's going to change the way I deal with my kids in the future. During my preadmission interview, I told the counselor that I drank because of depression that came from feeling I'd never fulfilled my father's dreams. I had to write my father a letter and tell him how I felt about him. You talk about sad. It only took me 10 minutes to write the letter, and I cried the whole time, but after it was over, I felt better. I said that I missed him, and I wished he could've lived to see that I did a lot better after my rookie season with the Yankees. I told him I had four boys—he died before my first son, Mickey Jr., was born—and I told him that I loved him. I would have been better off if I could have told him that a long time ago.
Dad would be proud of me today, knowing that I've completed treatment at Betty Ford and have been sober for three months. But he would've been mad that I had to go there in the first place. He would have forgiven me, but it would have been hard to look him in the eye and say, "Dad, I'm an alcoholic." I don't think I could have done it. I would feel like I'd let him down. I don't know how you get over that; I can't hit a home run for him anymore.
And you know, Billy Martin and I used to kid each other about whose liver would give out first. I was a pallbearer at Billy's funeral after he died in a pickup truck accident [on Christmas Day, 1989]. But if he were still alive, after he got through teasing me about the Betty Ford Center, he might have said, "Hey, maybe I should go too."
At Betty Ford they teach you to go back home and hug your kids, no matter how old they are. I'm very proud of my sons. Despite my shortcomings, Merlyn instilled in my boys many admirable traits. Mickey Jr. is 40, David is 38, and Danny's 34. Now, whenever I ask my sons to go out and eat with me, I mean, Let's eat. I don't mean, Let's go get drunk. I'm just going to try to be a friend, a partner. Mickey Jr. has a five-year-old daughter, Mallery, and David has a five-month-old baby girl, Marilyn. I'm going to try to be a good father and a good grandfather. I'm going to spend more time with all of them—show them and tell them I love them.
My immediate plans are to keep slowing down. I'm 62 now, and I've lived too much life already. I've told Joe Garagiola that I'd work with him in BAT, the Baseball Assistance Team, which helps old ballplayers who are having troubles, and I'd like to talk to kids about drug and alcohol abuse. It used to be said that I was a role model, and kids, even older guys, looked up to me. Maybe I can truly be a role model now—because I admitted I had a problem, got treatment and am staying sober—and maybe I can help more people than I ever helped when I was a famous ballplayer. I feel more important as Mickey Mantle now than I did when I was playing for the Yankees. I was told that I got more letters at Betty Ford than anybody else in its history, and 80% of them said things like, "You're in the biggest game of your life, and we want to see you win again." If I can stick with it, I'll get their respect again, instead of being remembered as, "Well, there he is again, and he's drunk."
I'm going to start the Mickey Mantle Foundation, in memory of my son Billy. People won't believe this, but I haven't had the urge to drink. If Billy's death didn't make me drink, then nothing will. A couple of weeks ago Danny got married to Kay Kollars, and it was another highly emotional day for the family. I can't even begin to describe the roller coaster of emotions I've been on these past four months. I've buried one son and married off another, and I went through Betty Ford. There are days this all seems like a haze. But I can tell you, I haven't needed alcohol to help me face reality. At Betty Ford, I saw people who'd been in there four or five times. I don't want to be weak. I'd rather put a gun to my head than have another drink.