To be sure, there were memorable times with Mick that didn't involve a driver: when, with his young boys clumped like bananas around him, he'd pull out the projector and cackle at home movies of Junior and David as toddlers; and those epic football games out back, in which the kids tackled the kids, the adults clobbered Mickey, and play continued till the sun went down or someone broke a leg. But for Mantle, home was a nice place to visit; life – and liberty – were elsewhere. After a relaxed dinner, there'd be the call from Billy Martin, and the two would race to the honky-tonks, where the girls, like the beer, were heady. Soon enough, Mickey's sons followed him there, too, and were treated like royalty, or at least a retinue.
"To the women, my dad and those guys were rock stars and I was their roadie, catching the overflow," says Danny. "I was 15, getting laid like a rug and pounding mixed drinks with Everclear or a topper of 151. The next morning, I'd sober up and realize, 'Hey, Dad's tagging a lot of trim.' As kids, we'd just assumed he was working when he was gone, doing endorsements and stuff. Now I saw that he wasn't the family man we'd always thought he was."
If that thought roiled him, though, he won't let on; to this day, neither he nor David will utter a word against Mickey. In that, they are every bit their father's boys, taking the weight themselves. Their drinking, for instance, began before Mickey knew about it, when they'd hang out at 12 or 13 with their backyard boys, chugging Mad Dog and Boone's Farm wine. So, too, their forays into harder things – cocaine in the cases of Danny and David, and coke and synthetic heroin in Billy's. As with baseball, Mickey had let his sons alone to make their way and choices, and for better or worse they did. Their refusal now to fault him for it is a kind of valor and a read on their stubborn love.
By 19, Danny was going full tilt, snorting coke and getting plastered at the Filling Station. David had worked there as a cook when he wasn't out front chugging beers. Junior, having walked away from baseball in 1976, made the place his outpost after supper each night and was often met for last call by Mickey and company on their blitzkrieg of Dallas bars. Those were fast times then, getting a load on with Dad and hearing his Ruthian tales of big-league life. In his playing days, Mickey had gone to some lengths to hide his exploits from the kids, coming home more or less sober from golf and sipping a glass of wine at dinner. Now, in retirement, he either let the veil drop or was too far along to care.
His own lamented tour of booze had started his rookie year. A kid of 19 so spooked by New York that he wouldn't leave his room to eat, he was famously coaxed from his hayseed shell by the lubricious Billy Martin. Together with Whitey Ford, himself a rookie, they went on a six-year binge that ended with Martin's exile to the Kansas City Athletics in 1957. Night after night, they steamrolled the town, running tabs at Toots Shor's or the Copa or the Latin Quarter before falling into the sack around dawn. (Often, Mickey had company there; as teammates said of him in 1956, when he was chasing the single-season home run record, "He might not make it to 61, but he has way more homers off the field than Ruth.") Legend, and certainly the Yankees, held Martin responsible for leading Mantle astray, but even a cursory read of his past suggests he was primed to fall. Haunted by Mutt's death, at 39, Mickey survived him in a state of dread that shaded into terror. A presentiment lingered that he'd be dead by 40, and he swore to friends that he wouldn't be cheated before cancer got him, too. Beyond that, he loathed his failure, as he saw it, to live up to his billing. No less an authority than Casey Stengel had announced to the press that here was the rightful heir to Ruth, encumbering Mick with the mother of all loads, as well as the enmity of Joe DiMaggio. His blah first seasons, the strikeouts and tantrums and constant leg problems, disposed Mick to think that he'd spit the bit, let down a nation of fathers.
He hadn't, of course; quite the reverse, he was a national totem of honor, propping up the Yankees with indelible courage after their greatness – and his tendons – gave out. But his stout refusal to confront his drinking was emphatically unheroic and wreaked all sorts of hell back home, where the family took his cues. His boys were full-blown alcoholics by their teens or 20s, and Merlyn, in a doomed bid to keep Mick close, matched him drink for drink. Billy, the third born, was the first to crater, developing an addiction to IV drugs after being diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease. He then turned David on to coke during the throes of a bad divorce, and soon the Mantles had another addict, though the drugs were the least of it.
"I was real reclusive when I drank or snorted; I didn't want to be with people," says David. "I had to give away my guns after the bad old days when I was playing Russian roulette with a pistol. I'd do a bunch of blow, chug some beers, and put on 'The Deer Hunter' and play along with the movie. I also cut myself with razor blades, and almost OD'd once doing so much [coke] that I basically couldn't breathe."
Amazingly, his father never caught on, though the signs were as big as billboards. "Once, on the golf course, I was in the cart with Dad when my nose started bleeding something fierce. It went on and on, and I was praying for it to stop, but Dad didn't even ask about it. Another time, we were watching some show to do with drugs, and he said to me, 'Ever do cocaine, David?' and I said, 'No, I would never,' and he said, 'Good, I'm glad you haven't.' Years later, we told him we had done drugs, and it really hurt him bad. Of course, we'd actually told him about it well before that, but he was too drunk to get it."