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At 9 p.m. Saturday night, July 13, the first knots of Mickey Mantle fans began to form in the lobby of the Kansas City airport. Word was buzzing that the New York Yankees' plane would not arrive from Los Angeles until just before midnight. Most of the well-wishers were kids from 9 to 12 years old, but some clutched the hands of younger brothers and sisters less than 3. As the crowd grew, I noticed that most of the kids had pens and pieces of ruled paper clutched in their hands. I began setting up my flash equipment. A girl asked me if I was going to take pictures of Mickey Mantle. "Yes," I said.
Had I ever met him personally, she asked? I guessed her age at 10. "Yes," I said. "But only once."
Could she have my autograph? I thought she was kidding, but she was not. A small boy wanted me to sign on the same folded piece of paper where he already had " Jerry Lumpe," " Ed Charles," and " Norm Siebern," all Kansas City players. I told him I'd spoil the page. "But you've met Mickey Mantle," he said. "What's he really like?"
"A very nice fellow," I answered. But secretly I was not sure. I had only met him for a few minutes to get his permission to follow him for one full 24-hour period. But it was a disturbing few minutes.
For one thing, I was ready to like him because I am a Mickey Mantle fan. In fact, I am such a fan that when I wrote to the Yankee office—outlining my idea for a story—I didn't care if I sold it or not. Not that I told that to the Yankees. My secret ambition to meet the Yankees personally had started at just about the same age as that of the fans now clustered in the airport. For 24 years I waited for it to go away, but it never did. So I looked up the name of the public relations director for the Yankees and sent him a letter suggesting I do a story on "A Day in the Life of Mickey Mantle." I was stunned when, two months later, I got a phone call saying the idea had been discussed with Mickey, and now Mickey himself wanted to discuss it further with me. If I never got any farther than a talk with Mickey Mantle—so what? What more did life have to offer anyway?
The meeting was set for a day in late June. It was the day that Mantle flew to New York to have the cast removed from his broken foot. I sat waiting in his dressing cubicle at Yankee Stadium and stared at the famous pinstriped shirt hanging above me with an actual number 7 on the back. It really existed! And there hung his mitt with M-A-N-T-L-E scribbled in indelible ink on the back. I wondered why some younger player like Phil Linz didn't steal it and take it home and keep it in his drawer. Then Mantle himself limped in on aluminum crutches, with reporters, photographers and radio interviewers all around him. I overheard one reporter ask Mickey if he'd heard the big news. For the first time in history Baseball Commissioner Ford Frick was going to name an "honorary" member to the All-Star team. Although Mantle couldn't play, he'd still be an official member of the 1963 American League team. I was glad for Mantle, and I expected him to let out a whoop of excitement. But instead he drooped. "Does that mean I have to go?" he asked.
I was silently outraged. To think that only moments before I had idolized this travesty of an American hero! What I did not realize was why Mantle drooped. Now I do. Watching what he goes through during one 24-hour period on the road made me realize that playing ball is the easiest part of it.
But back to my "fallen idol" stage. When I asked Mantle if I could follow him for 24 hours, eat with him, travel with him, take pictures of him and perhaps see if I could get a story based on a typical day in his life, he drooped at that, too. He didn't say no point-blank—perhaps because the Yankee office might have asked him not to. But I had the definite feeling he wished I'd go away.
"Maybe Kainsas Cihty," he said in the voice I always assumed Li'l Abner spoke with. "We'll be thair for a doublehayder in the middle of July." Kansas City in the middle of July! This must be one of his bucolic jokes—and with a touch of meanness, I thought. Well, if he's going to make it rough on me, I'll show him I can take it. "O.K.," I said, "but no chickening out after I get there." "I won't," he said.
Now a rumor swept the airport lobby that the Yankee plane was about to land at Gate 2. A bus was already out on the field waiting to spirit the players away. Even at midnight in Kansas City, obviously a mob was anticipated.