Mickey Mantle: The Man, the Myth, and the Writers

The great Yankee icon, Mickey Mantle. A man who was both very real and truly mythical.

Through the first half of the twentieth century, America’s sportswriters played the roles of Thucydides and Homer by inking the history of baseball under bold headlines on the morning papers and celebrating athletes’ warrior-like exploits for all to enjoy early in the day.  Since antiquity, Greece has followed Odysseus, one of Western civilization’s greatest heroes.  In a similar tradition, from the 1900s to 1940s, American sportswriters traveled and shared experiences with the baseball giants of yore and created a mythical greatness around our country’s titans of sport.  The 1950s saw a gradual change in how these and other popular columnists, led by Walter Winchell, represented their subjects and the way in which fans learned about the mythical champions who battled with wooden bats and leather armor on fields of clay and windswept grass.  Mickey Mantle’s picture did not bear the bright halo of exemplary behavior that always graced Stan Musial’s iconic portraits both in magazines and popular memory, but it reminds Americans of how baseball was once covered by the media and viewed by the public.  Today’s baseball, laced with the tight sinews of scandals involving performance-enhancing drugs, is not Musial or even Mantle’s game.  Yet, the greater days of “America’s pastime” were chronicled by legions of American sportswriters playing the roles of Thucydides and Homer; though obviously not as celebrated as the great recorders of ancient history and legend, American sportswriters served a similar role in preserving the aura of a world – and sport – that modern society recently lost.

In the 11 October 2010 issue of Sports Illustrated, readers find a sample of Jane Leavy’s new biography, The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America’s Childhood.  Mickey Mantle’s sort-of deification in 1950s American popular media, as represented in Sports Illustrated, speaks volumes not just of how writers covered athletes and their exploits, but how opponents, teammates, and fans remember individuals (athletes in this case) who evoke emotion like few others ever could.  One anecdote that makes Mickey Mantle more of a man and less of a myth involves a brawl at the Copacabana Club in New York City.  Imbibed spirits encouraged Mantle and a naturally rough-and-tumble pack consisting of Hank Bauer, Yogi Berra, and Billy Martin to take a moral stand and thrash a group of patrons who yelled a racial slur at that night’s headlining performer, Sammy Davis Jr.  One of the Yankees’ vanquished foes stumbled into a local emergency room with a broken nose and several other injuries.  The papers were all over the story and Mantle’s involvement demystified his up-to-then clean image.  It must be noted that it was all for a good cause, though, since they defended a friend’s honor.

Sportswriters who followed a specific team often enjoyed certain privileges by association, such as having their tabs paid by the organization.  Doubtless, this certainly helped teams avoid negative coverage in the media.  The article recounts a story of how Babe Ruth, long before the days of Mickey Mantle, ran naked through a train as a woman carrying a knife was chasing him.  According to the article, the sportswriters who witnessed this spectacle – that would shock even today’s more cynical fans – said, “Well, that’s another story we won’t cover!”

The father of sensational journalism and gossip columns, Walter Winchell: the antithesis of Edward R. Murrow.

Nevertheless, Mantle hardly survived that transitional phase in the history of American journalism.  He is remembered as “a guy’s guy who called everyone ‘bud’ or ‘pard’” and “was unafraid to show tears,” according to Sports Illustrated.  He is remembered for bringing his teammates along with a bouquet of flowers to visit an acquaintance’s mother at the hospital.  He is remembered by the public as a “tongue-tied, country-fed and shy” young man regardless of age, but by former team owner George Weiss as someone with a record of transgressions that were bad enough to be sufficient for blackmail.   Weiss once threatened possible disclosure to Mantle’s wife, Merlyn, when negotiating new terms with the ballplayer for a contract extension.  Some of the finest baseball the world has ever known, along with infidelity and booze, were the fact of the matter with Mantle.  He was no Stan Musial, baseball’s very own Odysseus, but Mantle still bears a mystique all his own – boyish charm and good looks that accompanied one of the most effective and graceful swings in baseball history.  The article also reveals that Miss Marjorie Bolding, a lady with whom he was rumored to have an affair, said of Mantle, “He was the most fun.  Nobody could play ball like Mickey, and nobody could play like Mickey.”  Though teammates, opponents, and fans remember him as “The Mick,” his wife recalls, “… [Mickey] was married in a very small geographic area of his mind… [to Mickey, marriage was] a party with added attractions,” according to author Jane Leavy.  We, the public, know the myth and those close to him truly knew the man.

Cam Suarez-Bitar.

Mickey Mantle swung a bat with an artist's precision.

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