Growing Up Mantle

Mj 618_348_growing up mantle fix the date july 2003
Getty Images

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.”

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?”’

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.”After high school, the two brothers floated for a while, dropping out of college for armpit jobs that paid just enough to get high. Their father did little better, scrambling to stay solvent when the phone stopped ringing for endorsements. He’d tried his hand at business, opening restaurants and men’s stores, but one after another they all went bust, like his hopes for a manager’s job. (The current restaurant in New York and a steakhouse in Oklahoma are owned by outside parties that lease the Mantle name.) Around baseball, the word on his drinking was out, rendering the first-ballot Hall of Famer unemployable.

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.

For access to exclusive gear videos, celebrity interviews, and more, subscribe on YouTube!