From what I've been reading, Mickey Mantle's grave illness has aroused far more in the way of tedious moralizing than the heartfelt concern such a sad state of affairs should have occasioned. In their apparent zeal to wag (figuratively) the puritanical finger in the poor man's face for his years of self-indulgence, the tut-tutting pundits of the sporting press seem to have lost sight of Mickey Mantle the Hall of Fame player and supplanted him with Mickey Mantle the town drunk.
Not since the heyday of Frances Willard and her gang at the Woman's Christian Temperance Union has there been such an outpouring—if that's the word—of sermonizing on the evils of demon rum. As I read it, the gloomy message conveyed was that Mantle, who had a successful liver transplant last week, was merely getting exactly what he deserved. One columnist, pulling out all stops, variously described the ailing Mick as a "despondent, self-lacerating alcoholic" and a "middle-aged, self-pitying melancholic." This for a man who had just undergone life-or-death surgery.
Every journalist seemed to get into this tasteless and ghoulish act, from those who had actually seen Mantle play and might even have known him, to others who were in swaddling clothes or not even extant when he was giving another generation the thrills of a lifetime with his prodigious homers to the far reaches of old Yankee Stadium.
Oh, how we Americans adore deploring the weaknesses of our heroes. Oh, how we rejoice at the sight of clay feet. Oh, how we revel at the spectacle of the mighty toppling from the very pedestals on which we have placed them for our own enjoyment. I only wish H.L. Mencken, that merciless critic of the "booboisie," were at his post today to witness these heartless bluenoses in the full flower of their righteous indignation.
Of course Mantle may well have brought down on himself this orgy of preachifying. During his playing days he was almost equally churlish with his interviewers from the press, the majority of whom avoided any mention of his off-field exploits and scrupulously protected his country-boy image, and with his fans, who adored him as another Ruth or DiMaggio. Mantle had that odd mixture of shyness and arrogance back then that was, and still is, an unattractive component of the athletic personality. In his later years, though, he mellowed considerably, and much of the good humor to which only his confreres in the clubhouse had been privy came shining through to the public. And, I should add, not only when he was in his cups. But there was the boozing, to be sure. In these pages a year ago he laid bare his sorry tale of alcoholic ruin, thereby leaving himself vulnerable to the detractors who, while pretending to be sympathetic, were having a field day berating his excesses.
Self-destructivcncss, we must remember, is a common thread running through American success stories, particularly in the arts and entertainment. Think of F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Barrymore, John Belushi, Jimi Hendrix and countless others. Still we remember them now for their artistry and only incidentally for their debauchery. And Mantle was, in a cruder sort of way, an American artist, although he would be the last to consider himself in that company. He never even thought of himself as an artist with a baseball bat. I was with him once when someone rashly compared his hitting prowess with that of Ted Williams. Mantle was quick to respond: "Oh, no, Ted wasn't like me at all. He was a real hitter. Me, I just got up there and swung for the roof every time." But there was artistry in those mighty swings. And with art the dark side.
Mantle never expected to live long. His father and two of his uncles died from Hodgkin's disease before they were 45. "Hell," Mantle once said, "I only figured to live till 40. That's why I had as much fun as I could when I was young."
Many among us made similar decisions in our careless youth without nearly the provocation. But fate played one of its sneaky tricks on Mantle: He lived into his 60's, spouting, whenever prompted, the ancient conceit: "If I'd known I was going to live this long, I'd have taken better care of myself." Alas, having lived long and not taken care of himself, he was obliged, as one moralizing columnist put it, to "pay the piper." And pay him a most heavy penalty.
But isn't it time we paid this man, at a most critical time in his life, his due? Why look upon him now as some sort of pathetic failure, as one who nearly drank himself—with the help of hepatitis and cancer—to death? I know I cannot see Mantle as an American tragedy. He accomplished near miracles on the field. He had, for at least part of his life, the good times he sought. Let's hope he's remembered for what he was: one of the most exciting athletes in the history of American sport. And, in at least my own limited personal experience, a pretty good guy in the bargain.