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He arrived in the springtime of the American Dream, a golden teenager from Oklahoma with milker's forearms and a country-fresh grin. He was going to replace Joe DiMaggio as the beau ideal of our national pastime. He was going to be better than Babe Ruth.
He even had a name that made us smile.
He represented the raw energy and seemingly limitless potential of America after the Second World War. No wonder that today Mickey Mantle bubble-gum trading cards bring top dollar and that an Atlantic City gambling casino hired him to hang out with its high rollers. For most middle-aged men with stiffening joints and fading hopes, memories of Mickey Mantle provide a warm, nostalgic glow.
But Mantle represented something else to me. For most of my professional life, when I thought of him I thought of the hype and the "fakelore" that imbues celebrity athletes, and it wasn't until very recently that I caught a glimpse of the man inside the legend. But I'm getting ahead of my story.
Because I was 13 years old and a Yankee fan when Mantle joined the team in 1951, I grew up on the legend: how his father, Mutt, drove him relentlessly to refine his talent; how Mickey played ball despite the constant pain in his legs; and how his constant pursuit of night life was his way of dulling the dread of an early death—his father died at 40 of Hodgkin's disease and his two uncles died of the same disease in their 30s.
And so, I was more than professionally interested on that afternoon in 1960 when I was assigned by the sports editor of The New York Times to go up to Yankee Stadium and ask Mantle how his jaw felt. Several nights earlier, excited fans had rushed from the stands onto the field and mobbed Mantle after a game, and during a scuffle one of them had inadvertently socked the centerfielder.
Afterward, Mantle was observed eating lasagna instead of his usual steak. Since it was thought he might be sensitive on the subject, it was decided to send an expendable cub reporter to get the story.
I was shaved to the bone, and my rep tie was snug at my Adam's apple as I approached Mantle. He was standing in front of the Yankee dugout, playing catch with Yogi Berra. I think I may have called him "Mr. Mantle" as I introduced myself and politely asked how he was feeling.
Casually, over his shoulder, Mantle made an obscene and virtually impossible suggestion.