I saw Mickey Mantle for the last time a couple of years ago in his New York restaurant. It was after lunch, the place wasn't crowded, and I joined him at a table in the back. He was pleasant and talked easily. He told some very funny stories. He was nursing a drink, but he didn't seem at all drunk. The only time I ever saw him drunk was 30 years earlier in Los Angeles, after the Yankees lost the 1963 World Series in four games to the Dodgers. It was late at night, and he was standing in the downstairs lobby of a hotel with a drink in his hand, talking with a small group of baseball people. He wasn't loud or belligerent, just a little sodden and a little wistful about the defeat.
I had often written about Mantle in SPORTS ILLUSTRATED'S early days, which isn't surprising considering Mantle and the Yankees won the American League pennant nine times in the magazine's first 11 years. But the only time he and I were particularly close was in 1964, when I ghost-wrote a book with him called The Quality of Courage. It was designed to be a sports version of John F. Kennedy's Profiles in Courage. I was apprehensive about doing the book because Mantle was difficult to talk to. As a young player he had resented the daily barrage of reporters' questions and had reacted with a mixture of boredom, contempt and exasperation. Often when a writer approached, he turned away.
Mantle changed quite a bit in 1961, when Roger Maris hit 61 home runs to break Babe Ruth's single-season record. Mantle hit 54 home runs himself, but now it was Maris who was hounded by reporters. As Roger bore the brunt of the media pressure, Mickey became almost genial and was much more responsive to questions from reporters he knew.
But he continued to be chary of strangers, and although I had been in and out of the Yankee clubhouse for years, I was still a stranger to Mantle, not one of the regular guys covering the club. Our book deal had been put together by a publisher and a lawyer friend of Mantle's, and when I first spoke to Mantle about it in Yankee Stadium, he was polite enough but didn't seem much interested in helping me. It took persistence to get him to agree to meet and talk at length about the book.
As I went to Mantle's room in the St. Moritz hotel in New York, I remembered an article Gerald Holland of SI had written about him a few years earlier. Holland had run into the same wall of indifference that Mantle habitually erected against writers. But Holland had understood that Mantle was a country boy and country people tend to dislike pushy strangers. So he visited Mantle at home in Oklahoma, but he stopped asking questions, stopped talking to him almost entirely, except for perfunctory remarks like "Yup" and "Nope" and "Pass the sugar." He was getting Mantle used to him. Finally one day Mickey said, "Well, are you going to ask me questions or what?" Holland's story was a gem.
So when Mantle opened the door and said he was ordering room service and did I want coffee, I said, "Yup." Then "Yup" to sugar and "Nope" to cream. I agreed with him about the weather. We drank our coffee. At last he said, "What about this book?"
It was about courage, I said, and Mantle began talking about his father. He described his strength in holding his family together during the Depression and his courage in the last year of his life, when he knew he was dying of Hodgkin's disease but did not tell Mickey, who was in his precarious rookie season with the Yankees. "My father was the bravest man I ever knew," he said.
I learned that Mantle was more sensitive than I had imagined from the surly image he had been projecting, and I found he had a subtle sense of humor. After our book was published, I took a copy to Yankee Stadium and asked him to autograph it for my children. When he handed it back, he had a little grin. In his strong, clear hand he had written, "To Jim, Tom, John, Ellen and Bobby, my best wishes—from the man who taught your father a few lessons in journalism—Your friend, Mickey Mantle." That was a nice little zinger, and I got a kick out of it.
He handled himself well through his sad last weeks, behaving with grace and poise while at the same time warning that he was not a proper role model. He retained his quick sense of humor, at one point wondering if memorabilia collector Barry Halper (SI, May 22) might want his old liver.
He approached his own death with such serene courage that I know, in those last weeks, he was thinking of his father.