And then, in the mid-eighties, a nostalgia kick sent the sports collector's market through the roof, and Mickey was once more in clover. Generous as ever, he brought on his sons to help with the scut work of signing balls, and for the next eight years they traveled in style, clocking as much as six figures per weekend, more than Mickey had made in his best-paid season. Beyond the money, it was the boys' first chance to be around Mick each day, and they celebrated like lottery winners. Every late lunch was Mardi Gras, every dinner St. Paddy's Day. On the golf course, their cart became a rolling bar, bearing an ice chest with beer and champagne, in the event they passed a ship that needed christening. Their parents split up after 35 years of marriage (Merlyn had finally tired of Mick's womanizing), and both Danny and David were entangled with women who drank as hard as they did. But the cash well kept gushing, the road kept beckoning, and as long as their suite had a minibar, there was no such thing as last call.
Till one crazy trip to California, when Danny went out for a late-morning drink and blacked out for three days. "Dad and I were doing this deal for Upper Deck, having him sign 2,000 baseballs," he says. "Well, a friend of mine drops by, and, boom, I'm gone; we drank till I didn't know what day it was. I stopped eating and sleeping, and even my buddy was looking at me and going, 'Dude, what's the matter with you?' Well, that was it – I had to go in. So I scraped myself up and took a plane to [the Betty Ford Center in] Palm Springs."
Danny wasn't the first of the sons to seek treatment. Billy had been through rehab on four separate occasions, returning each time to a heedless family that greeted him with drinks in hand. That was Danny's fear when he checked himself in, that he'd be disowned or subverted by the people he loved, especially Mickey, to whom he had drawn close. But he was determined to finally stop being a Mantle and become a man. He called his fiancée and asked her to come out; the two of them detoxed side by side, getting, and staying, sober from that day forth.
They returned to Dallas in the fall of 1993 to a household in serial crisis. Billy's cancer was back, his third bout with Hodgkin's; he was 36, three years younger than Mutt was when he had died, and had months, if not weeks, to live. David was holing up with a bottle of brandy, feeling dumped and betrayed by Danny. And Mick, at 62, was in such agony from his cirrhotic liver that he'd double over at the dinner table, looking like a man of 80. He was desperate to stop drinking but couldn't think how. If he had to stand up in front of a roomful of strangers and say, "I'm Mickey Mantle, and I'm an alcoholic," the shame of it alone would bump him off.
He finally relented two months later, in early 1994, after a doctor warned that his next drink could kill him. Those first couple of weeks at Betty Ford, Mick couldn't talk without breaking up, choked by shame and guilt. When he did speak, the leitmotifs of his sorrow were his failures as a son and father. He'd never become the ballplayer Mutt envisioned (it seems not to have occurred to him that no one had), and in pain and solitude he'd walked away from the boys who so adored him. Later, in an extraordinary prime-time interview, he said as much, tearfully, to his friend Bob Costas, sending millions of viewers lunging for the hand towels. In sadness, as in splendor, he was once more hailed as the most humble of tainted kings, and his popularity, which had never flagged, rose to untold heights. Letters by the tens of thousands poured in, many from guys his age who, inspired, went in for treatment. At card shows, long lines of grown men trembled, as if they were waiting for the pontiff's blessing.
From then on, Mick was rarely apart from his boys. Billy died shortly after Mick returned; later, David, then Junior, did a stint in rehab, never to drink again. Suddenly, men who once crawled home at dawn now changed into pajamas after dinner, trading war stories over cookies and milk. "Before, we'd all be in a bar talking at once, no one listening to anyone," says David. "Now we were talking about everything – our plans for the future together, our love for each other, and how stupid we'd been to trash those years getting drunk at 11 a.m."
Flush with energy and big ideas – a national campaign to raise consciousness about drinking, especially among younger kids; a foundation to fight cancer in Billy's memory – the Mantles skipped their tee time for the drawing board, determined to make a dent. But just as the multiple projects got aloft, Mickey collapsed in pain. A battery of tests showed hepatitis and late-stage liver cancer, in addition to the cirrhosis. He'd be dead in a fortnight without a new liver; when he got one, days later, an uproar ensued over the perception of special treatment. His sons had to sneak through a basement door to slip the siege outside; reporters bird-dogged their homes and cars. It had been a year and five months since their father left rehab, and the idyll was officially over; nine weeks later, Mickey would be dead from liver cancer.
But those 17 months were time enough to taste what few families do – the joys of renewed affinity. Sitting around the table after those rib-roast dinners, the Mantle boys saw their own reflection beaming back at them. They didn't just look and talk like Dad; they had his wry knack for self-effacement and blunt mistrust of vanity. (As Mick once said to the boys of the smug Pete Rose, "Shit, if all I wanted was to hit scratch singles, I'd have worn a dress to play.") They also shared his feeling that fame was a lever that, used properly, could move a mountain. After Mick's death, they rose from grief to lead a drive for organ transplants, distributing 8 million donor forms in the shape of baseball cards. Within a year, the number of available organs shot up 200 percent. They traveled exhaustively, taping public-service spots, and drawing media to local foundations. In early 2001, just after non-Hodgkin's lymphoma struck down Junior, they joined with the American Cancer Society to form the Mickey Mantle Family Fund. They continue to tour on its behalf, putting together golf tourneys and celebrity banquets with Yogi and Whitey.
But an odd thing happened to the Mantle boys in fighting the old man's fight. They finally stepped from his giant shadow, finding their place in the light and warmth of hard-won self-distinction. It's been a culmination of things, starting with their entry into sobriety and their dragging Mickey, bodily, with them. Whatever they thought they may have owed the man, that alone settled all accounts, and they have added to their credit ever since. From Mutt on down, the story of this family has been the long arm of the father, a controlling proxy from beyond the grave. With all due respect, the sons will pen their own ending, and in some books, that makes them the heroes.
Paul Solotaroff is a contributing editor at Men's Journal. His last feature, in the April issue, profiled ex-mobster turned elite personal trainer Gino Gioe.