Although it's cocktail hour at Mickey Mantle's, the Manhattan restaurant named for their father, the hardest thing either of his surviving sons drink now is the ice cubes in their Cokes. But they're among old friends here, and with stories this barbed and funny, who needs booze?
"Y'all remember the gecko we slipped on Rizzuto when he was lyin' out by the pool?" says David.
"It was an iguana," says Ed Ford, who, in his gray-haired 40s, is a ringer for Whitey, his father. "Your dad and mine gave us the goddamn thing, then hid in the bushes and watched. We were maybe nine at the time, and here's this three-foot dragon, but Mickey said, 'No, it'll be great.' And when we dumped it on Phil, he jumped 10 feet, and the lizard dug its claws in his skin. I remember him running around with this thing on his chest, screaming, 'Help, get it off me – I'm dying!'"
"Wait, I got a better one," says Billy Martin Jr., a 38-year-old player's agent. "One time, Phil falls asleep on the plane while it's going through a hailstorm. Of course, he's terrified of planes – hell, of everything, really – so my dad puts an air mask and life jacket on and waits till the plane's really rocking. He throws some ice chips on Phil and starts screaming, 'We're going down, man, we're going down!' The poor guy almost coded."
Martin, who lives in Texas, and Ford, whose home is in New York, are in town for the annual Sportswriters' dinner. So are the Mantles, though they have next to no use for the backslapping and rubber veal. They're on hand mainly to see these two, whom they've thought of as adjunct brothers since they met in spring training as children. As their real brothers are dead – Mickey Jr. of cancer at the age of 47, and Billy of chemotherapy-induced heart failure at 36 – and their own health fails them in ominous ways, it is less and less clear how many chances they'll have to relive those lambent times. Danny, 43, has had his gallbladder removed and suffers from bouts of bile-duct blockage and agonizing liver pain. David, 47, has advanced hypertension and had a strokelike episode last summer. "You'd best hurry up and write fast," Danny cackles to me. "You might have to do a séance to reach us next year."
A waitress stops by, ostensibly to take their order for drinks but really to flirt with David. Although he's plumped up some in the past several years, he still looks astoundingly like his father and elicits stares and requests for autographs when out in public. "'Course, my favorite one of all's the hunting story," he resumes when the waitress leaves. "Our dads had drove down to Kerrville, Texas, like they did each year, to hunt in this guy's woods. So Mick goes inside to ask permission, and the guy says, 'Sure, I'd be honored, but could you do me a favor? I've got this old mule out back that needs putting down, and I'm too attached to do it.' Well, Dad decides he's gonna play a trick on Billy [Martin]. He says, 'Man, that sumbitch said no – I'm gonna go shoot his mule!' So he does, but when he gets back to the truck, Billy isn't in it. All of a sudden, Billy runs around the barn, laughing like a hyena. 'Start the fuckin' truck!' he yells. 'I showed that little prick – I shot two of his cows!'"
And so on and so forth, a glory-days hymn in four-part harmony. The sweetest stories hark back to the grapefruit years in Florida, when the Mantles and Fords and Martins and Berras connected every spring. Those six weeks in Fort Lauderdale (and before the team relocated, in St. Petersburg) were the one time of year these sons of famous men were assured of seeing their fathers, and they look back on those springs as the best months of their lives.
"Weeks in advance, I'd feel the juices pump – I'm gonna be with friends again," says David. "The Fords, the Berras, you didn't have to say nothing – they just understood. There was none of that 'Do they like me for who I am, or what I could have Dad sign' shit, which was always my thought with kids. It was, 'Well, what do you wanna do today?' 'Let's throw oranges off the balcony, and try to see Cindy [Rizzuto] with her top off.' And it was seeing Mom relax by the pool with her friends, after all those months of being alone. At night, she and Dad would get dressed and go dancing with Whitey and Billy and their wives, and we'd ditch whoever they had left to watch us and grease all the doorknobs with lotion."
But after several hours of laughter and grace notes, Ed Ford departs with his girlfriend and son, and then Martin gets up to go chaperon some players on their first trip to New York, and the air they leave behind turns patchy. Left to their memories, the Mantles sag, as if the sadness that followed those magic springs wasn't worth the telling. It is one of many things they share with their father, a gruff mistrust of complex feelings or tales that ring of complaint. Take the pain, said Mickey, who played on knees so mangled that he could twist his lower legs a full circle. Take the pain, he told his love-starved sons, and they have and do. When they speak of their losses, it is without rancor, in the flat-edged cadence of stoics.
"We were sitting in that booth there after Dad got sober and apologized for not being a father," says Danny. "He said, 'I should've been home more, should've been more attentive, given you boys direction. It wasn't right that Mom had to raise you herself. I was selfish, and I regret it.' "
"I think it was also the first time he told us he loved us after writing the letter to Mutt," says David. "One of the hardest things you do at the Betty Ford clinic is write a letter to your father, and when Dad did it, he cried for two days. He apologized for not being a better player, for not taking care of his body. I guess that confession kinda opened him up, 'cause he was never big on expressing himself."
By now, the story of Mickey and his pile-driving father is embedded in national lore. Mutt, a miner and former semipro shortstop, nestled a baseball into Mickey's crib hours after he was born and dragged him out for batting practice before the boy could read. It wasn't enough merely to make the Bigs, to be the first Mantle up from poverty in Tom Joad Oklahoma. No, Mickey had to be the greatest ever, to hit a ball farther than any before him, and from either side of the plate. His obeisance was such that he got married at 20 because his father said bachelorhood would hurt his stats, and before that, he'd declined a full scholarship to be the quarterback at Oklahoma. Long after the death of his father, in 1952, Mick lived in something like holy terror of letting the old man down.
But there's only so much responsibility a man can bear before he becomes a slave, and with his own brood Mantle abdicated duty every chance he got. He was no sooner home after the season ended than he began to resent Merlyn and the four small boys impinging on his freedom. He could be vicious when drunk to his devoted wife, pulling a chair out from under her while dining with teammates or throwing a napkin in her face at a banquet. (He could also be maddeningly tender at times, sitting on the couch after her sumptuous meals and saying, "I love you, Merle; you're my gal.") And with his kids, he seemed bent on being the anti-Mutt – genial, but almost wholly detached.
"He wasn't one for coming out to Pee Wee games or teaching us to throw a curve," says Danny. "He got mobbed wherever he went in public, so, of course, we understood. But I always got the feeling he was afraid to push us, on account of what his dad did. It seemed like he wanted us to have a childhood, like that was the greatest gift he could give us."
"And the hell of it is, we never cared for baseball as much as other sports," says David. "I played football and had a chance to be a walk-on at Baylor. Billy was also a football player, and even though Junior got as far as spring training [with the Yankees in '76], his real ambition was to be a golfer – he could drive a ball farther than Dad even. But he had no chance, being Mickey Mantle Jr. The pressure just ate him alive."
Although his injuries were as prolific as his power to dead center, Mantle lasted 18 years in the Bigs – from 1951 through 1968 – setting a team record for games played. For much of that time, the Yanks had a run on pennants, effectively stretching the season to eight months. That left, in theory at least, four months at home, though as his loved ones learned, the last out of baseball merely launched Mickey's second season: golf. The morning of his return, he'd be up with the roosters, polishing his woods and irons. A member of the toniest golf club in Dallas, he often spent every daylight hour on Preston Trail's greens and barstools. His sons, no idiots, promptly followed him there, figuring that if the Mantle wouldn't come to Mohammed, Mohammed would go to the Mantle.
"From about four or five, I had a club in my hands, trying Dad's crazy grip," says Danny. "It was impossible, of course – only he had the wrists to hit 300 yards, hands apart. But those were great times then, some of the best we had; it seemed like we were always laughing about something."
"Yeah, and most always, it was me," says David. "I tried real hard, but I was the world's worst golfer. One time, I teed off and topped the ball bad, and it bounced up and hit me in the nuts. Another time, I swung through and musta caught it backward, 'cause it rocketed out sideways and near took Dad's head off. He'd been over by the golf cart with Junior and Danny, and all of 'em hit the dirt hard. When he got up, laughing and dusting himself off, he said, 'Well, hell, where do we stand?'''