desperate weeks in 1963 I was the acting, extremely temporary sports editor of
magazine. I was not one of those friendly, inside sports editors who
fished with Ted Williams, wenched with Jim Brown and dieted with Billy Casper.
Nor was I the narrow-eyed, no-nonsense type who told it like it was. Like it
was? I didn't even know what it was. You name the sport, and I was unqualified
to write about it.
What I really
happened to be was a novelist, the author of a series of worst-sellers whose
wide public unacceptance finally sent me looking for a steady job. Somehow the
magazine gave me a try-out; somehow I survived the first month on
general-interest stories. Then I was called into the office of an editor of
middle rank and major responsibility, an overworked young man, old beyond his
years and tireder than any human being ought ever to be. Flu had felled his
sports editor, he told me, and two writers who would normally fill in were on
vacation. Two more were on other stories and a fifth was having a tantrum.
"I don't feel so good myself," he said.
Then he pulled his
tired face together. "Somebody's got to fill in. It's either you or
Emily," he said, referring to the gentle, middle-aged lady music critic.
"That's all there is, all there is," he added, like a 7-year-old
withdrawing his hand empty from a cookie jar.
Up to this point I
could have gotten out of it very simply by admitting that I had misled him
during my hiring interview, that my claims of wide-ranging expertise were
vastly exaggerated. And, for a few moments, honesty slugged it out with
pride—only to get its pious face bashed in. I had read enough novels about
Madison Avenue to know that the hero never admits he can't do a job.
Later, all alone
by the telephone, waiting for the New York Yankee public-relations man to
return my call, I tried to think positively. After all, I liked sports, even if
I'd lost touch in the past few years. I still skimmed the sports pages
occasionally. Hardly a year went by that I didn't watch part of the World
Series on television. I knew a tennis player. I knew a bookie. What's more, I'd
played most of the games at school—and been as mediocre at them as any
sportswriter. I also looked the part—balding on top, paunching out at the
middle, flattening at the feet. And I smoked too much. Maybe, just maybe, I
might get away with it.
like a petty thief casing Fort Knox, I walked through the press gate at Yankee
Stadium. The cop outside the door to the players' dressing room asked to see my
credentials. So did the cop inside the door. Bobby Richardson looked up from a
religious pamphlet and gave me a suspicious glance.
The room was
everything I had expected, spacious, bright, carpeted. The Yankees were
themselves in those days, impressive even in their underwear; their muscles
looked expensive. The first major face I recognized was Yogi Berra's. He was
talking about the stock market. The others, too, were doing exactly what they
were supposed to be doing. Houk chewed a cigar, Pepitone combed his hair, Maris
sat in front of his locker, glaring at a shoe. And there—swathed in white
bandages and golden legend—was Mantle.
Only a few days
before, while I was still doing features, I had been granted a private
interview with Dwight Eisenhower. The former president and commander of the
greatest land invasion in history had not awed me. I had, after all. been in
the Army, and every American knows that anybody can become President. But
nobody except Mickey Mantle can ever become Mickey Mantle. I gazed at him—and
turned to jelly.
Still, Mantle was
the assignment. He was returning to the lineup today after being out with his
recurring knee trouble. I had to get him to say something to me. I
approached—and the undersized blue eyes that had terrorized a thousand pitchers
now terrorized me. I dropped my gaze and saw a neck that seemed somehow wider
than the head above. I looked up again, and he was grinning. Not what I would
call a friendly grin—more like a lumber baron surveying a stand of virgin
I gave him my
name, the name of my magazine, asked how the knees were, conquering an
inclination—one that would have humiliatingly revealed my amateur standing—to
address him as Mr. Mantle.