So try this on for a childhood. You are David and Danny Mantle and, for much of your youth, your father is the most admired man in America. The beautiful, blond basher from Commerce, Oklahoma, who personally invented the tape measure homer while playing on knees so wracked it took three hours to wrap them, Mickey is the avatar of greatness and goodness, power without pride or imposture. His fame, if not fortune (this was before ballplayers were barons), entitles you to all you could reasonably want – a big house in Dallas with an in-ground pool and a yard the size of a small airstrip; six weeks in Florida every February and March for the extended recess called spring training; and eight weeks each summer in a Jersey guesthouse, plus field-level boxes behind home plate to chart Dad's moonshot blasts.
You play flag football on the outfield grass with your brothers, Mickey Jr. and Billy; plant snakes in the luggage of the phobic Phil Rizzuto, and hang with his gorgeous daughters; go hunting with Billy Martin and fishing with Roger Maris and golfing with an endless parade of stars, though one of you – David – is so inept that Dad chides you to wear a cup while putting. As a bonus, you draw none of the jock-sniffing press that plagues Mickey Jr., the oldest. Let him have the gatefold spreads in 'Boys' Life' and film crews at his church-league games. Who needs the hassle of Dad's first name when his last name has been so good to you?
Of course, if we're being honest, there are drawbacks, too. From day one at school, kids you've never even met, all hopped up about your presumptive wealth and angling for an instant rep, want to punch you the minute you get off the bus. (Things are bigger in Texas, including class envy; neighbor kids pump your dad's Caddy with buckshot and vandalize your home when you're up north.) Naturally, you fight, coming from a line of tough Okie zinc miners, but soon it gets old to have to sleep with a 12-gauge and find the cops camped in your drive. In the torrent of fan mail your father receives, there's a cold stream of death threats and kidnapping warnings, and even your mom, Merlyn, keeps a loaded .38 under her pillow while Mick's away. This happens, frankly, a lot, because he's gone so much, and not just during the season. It seems that being Mickey Mantle is a year-round gig, what with beer ads to tape and tourneys to host and a heap of relatives with their hands held out, coasting on his kindness.
Such time as he does spend at home is magic: Dad hitting you over the shoulder with a pinpoint spiral in backyard football games and lavishing you with one yarn after another, like the one about the night he and Billy Martin walked a 22nd-floor ledge to watch a teammate have sex with a woman, only to realize there was no room to turn around, forcing them to circle the entire building to come in. But then a week passes, and he's off again, to the golf course with Whitey Ford or to hunt with Yogi Berra or to the Filling Station, a rowdy country-western bar up the road, to knock back a case with Mickey Jr., because what Dad really likes to do with whoever's around is drink until it's time to play ball. And the hard part of that is you can't join him, since even the saltiest bars in Texas won't serve you till you turn 15.
But still and all, come on, you're the sons of No. 7 – every kid in America wants your problems. To be sure, there's that small matter of lymph node cancer, which has struck down most of the men in your family by the intolerable age of 50, and which will befall Mickey as well as your two brothers, the latter while still in their prime. And, as long as we're being thorough, there's that other despoiler, the gene that seems to render you all helpless before booze and will make a sour mash of your 20s and 30s, leading one of you to try to shoot yourself. But let's not split hairs here – that all happens later, and in the meantime there's your God-given youth, right?
So why, years later, after the divorces and the drug runs and the hard climb back to sobriety, did you say what you said to Billy Crystal? You were on the red carpet at the premiere of '61*,' his bittersweet paean to your father and Maris, and you were thanking him for getting the film made. Jokingly, he pushed you both away, saying that as a boy he'd wished for one thing in life, to have been the son of Mickey Mantle. To which the older of you, David, bit down hard and said, "Hell, we wished we had, too."