Over the years, I came to admire his courage as I watched him, after ball games, inching upstairs because his legs gave him such pain. Traveling with the Yankees, I came to believe the stories of his drunken roistering. I thought he was a jerk to waste his talents, but that was his business. He certainly wasn't urging the youth of America to drink along with him. He started becoming easier to interview after the 1961 season when his teammate, Roger Maris, broke Babe Ruth's record of 60 home runs in a single season—a record that should have been Mantle's. The pressure was off—it was clear that Mantle would never be the new Joe DiMaggio, much less the Babe reborn.
Over the years, I interviewed him from time to time without incident, without particular warmth. I never mentioned his earlier suggestion; in fact, I doubt that he remembered having made it. He retired in 1968 after 18 major league seasons, a good run, and 12 World Series appearances, a bonanza. His lifetime batting average was .298. In 1974 he was inducted into the Hall of Fame. True, his "potential"—as viewed by others—hadn't been fulfilled. But then, by the end of his career, the nature and potential of the American Dream was being questioned, too.
In 1983, when Mantle joined the Claridge Casino Hotel's special-events department as Director of Sports Promotions, he was banned from all further contact with baseball. The ruling, handed down by commissioner Bowie Kuhn, seemed unduly harsh, but he accepted it philosophically—after all, nobody in baseball was offering him $100,000 a year to hang out and smile. His middle-aged fans thought it was sad that baseball couldn't find more than a token place for him, and some thought there was something poignant in the golden boy of their youth scrabbling for chips among the big spenders in Atlantic City. I was unmoved.
And then one afternoon, in Atlantic City on an assignment, I followed him around a windswept golf course. Ostensibly, he was participating in a tournament sponsored by the hotel, but it was really a stunt staged to get publicity for the casino. Mantle appeared to be having a good time. He was laughing and drinking and playing golf, all of which he surely would have done for free.
That evening we sat down to talk. His face was still chapped from the afternoon, but now it was also flushed from a hot shower and a shave and a few more quick drinks. He nursed a tall one as we talked about his playing days. He seemed determined to knock down some of the old myths: He said his legs were never as bad as the sportswriters had made them out to be, nor had he lived in such fear of an early death. In fact, he said, slipping me a needle, he rarely ever thought of it unless someone brought it up. "Now, I'll probably have a hard time sleeping tonight," he said.
I slipped a needle right back. "Well, I'll just buy you another drink so you can sleep." I was surprised at my flinty tone. Mantle's cool blue eyes flicked over my face, but he let it pass.
I asked him if he had any regrets.
"My only regret is that I didn't take better care of myself," he said, "like Willie Mays and Stan Musial and Hank Aaron and Pete Rose, the guys who really made the records. If I had it to do all again, I would take better care of myself and I think I could have played a lot longer."
I asked, "Specifically, what would you have done?"
He shrugged his big shoulders, shook his head. He mumbled something about more rest and more muscle exercises for his bad legs.