Mickey Mantle, as he made quite clear at the end of his life, was no saint. And he is scarcely canonized in A Hero All His Life (HarperCollins, $25), written (with Mickey Herskowitz) by his widow, Merlyn, and his three surviving sons, Mickey Jr., David and Danny. The Mantles spare us none of the boozing, womanizing and thoughtlessness that characterized much of the life of the former New York Yankees slugger. And yet, in this revealing and affecting book, Mickey emerges as a most sympathetic human being, a good man tormented by self-loathing. That at the end he had risen above his faults and was courageously looking forward to a life of "giving something back," as he put it, only to have it all taken away, is the stuff of Greek tragedy.
Mickey himself composed the opening chapter of this memoir, and, typically, he is unsparing. "From the time I joined the Yankees in 1951, my view of the world was not much wider than the strike zone," he wrote shortly before his death from cancer in August 1995. Still, after treatment for alcoholism at the Betty Ford Center, he was able to write, "I love my family and they love me. I just have to learn to love myself." Sadly, he never had the chance.
The Mantles seem to fit the definition of a dysfunctional family. And Mickey, according to the book, was not the only drunk in the household. In order, Danny and his wife, Kay; Merlyn; David; and Mickey Jr. were all treated (successfully, thus far) for alcoholism. Mickey's other son, Billy, who was found when he was 19 to have Hodgkin's disease—the affliction that killed Mickey's father, Mutt, at age 39—was both an alcoholic and a drug abuser before he died of a heart attack in 1994. He was just 36. That Billy lived that long was considered by his family to be almost a miracle.
In truth, Mickey's emotional repression may have caused as many problems in the family as his excessive drinking. Away playing ball for much of the time while his sons were growing up, he was always something of a stranger in the house. "When he came home, the last thing he wanted to do was play ball in the backyard, the way his father had," writes Mickey Jr. "It wasn't as if he ignored us. He called nearly every day, from wherever he was. He was always a good listener.... But when we were old enough to need advice, he felt his own mistakes disqualified him from volunteering any.... No, he wasn't what you would call a regular dad. But then, he didn't lead what you would call a regular life."
Danny writes that when his father was preparing to commit himself to the Ford clinic, his "greatest fear was probably having to expose his true feelings." Those feelings were unusually complex. Merlyn writes that Mickey once told her that when he was either four or five years old, he was sexually molested by a teenage half sister for the amusement of her friends. "The shame and confusion stayed deep inside him," writes Merlyn. "He could not abide anyone making fun of him." Mickey was also under immense pressure to please a father who had trained him almost from the time he was in diapers to become a big league ballplayer. He was a bed wetter until the age of 16, overcoming that problem barely in time for the start of his pro baseball career. But the pressure Mickey imposed on himself, writes Merlyn, "never ended."
Plagued by guilt and chronic depression, Mickey contemplated suicide before entering the Betty Ford Center in January 1994. And after his treatment he was scarcely able to enjoy his newfound sobriety, for cancer had developed in his liver. He underwent a transplant in June 1995 and then organized the Mickey Mantle Foundation to encourage organ donations. Always generous with his time and money, he was looking forward to a life of good works when the cancer was found to have spread to his lungs and pancreas. He died at 1:10 a.m. on Aug. 13, holding hands with Merlyn and David.
"I have thought about trying to define what a hero is," writes David. "Dad was one throughout his baseball career, and a different kind at the end of his life."