clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

MANTLE, FORMER YANKEE GREAT, DIES OF CANCER

He possessed a sweet swing and a tortured soul. He sparkled as the centerpiece of the most famous team in sports and as the life of too many parties. He excelled at every element of his game and still left his potential unfilled.

Mickey Mantle, a former switch-hitting slugger for the New York Yankees and one of baseball's all-time greats, died in Dallas Sunday from an aggressive form of cancer. He was 63.Only two months ago, he had undergone surgery to replace a liver ravaged by cancer, infection and four decades of heavy drinking. He lived 20 years longer than he expected, but still he died too young and too soon and with regrets for what might have been.

"Don't be like me," said Mantle, gaunt after his operation, addressing America's youth. "God gave me a body and the ability to play baseball. He gave me everything. I just wasted it."

He uttered a sigh of futility as his eyes moistened. "They talk about a role model. Now, I'm a role model."

The liver transplant was a success, but the cancer soon returned and rapidly overwhelmed him, spreading to most of his major organs. Mantle was readmitted to the hospital 10 days ago. His wife held his hand at the end.

"I think Mickey was ready to go," said Dr. Daniel DeMarco, one of Mantle's specialists at Baylor University Medical Center. "At one point, he said, `What are we waiting for?"'

Despite Mantle's professional regrets, as a New York Yankee from 1951 to 1968 he capitalized on most of his prodigious ability, and his death left many people - those frequently rejuvenated by baseball but old enough to remember his exploits and grit - suddenly feeling their age.

"It takes a piece of baseball history right out of you," said Vince Gizzi, 39, manager of Fort Lauderdale Stadium, once the spring training home of Mantle and the Yankees.

"Not only was he a great player, but he had a perfect baseball name. Mickey Mantle. He represented a lot of the magic of baseball. It's very sad."

In South Florida, in New York, everywhere that Mantle played or was seen, that sorrow was shared. A generation of baseball fans who may have hated the Yankees still admired - or at least respected - No. 7, Yankee center fielder Mickey Mantle.

Before Sunday evening's Florida Marlins-Cincinnati Reds game at Joe Robbie Stadium, fans observed a moment of silence as Mantle's picture gleamed on the scoreboard. At Yankee Stadium, flags

flew at half-staff, fans watched a filmed tribute, and the Yankees wore black armbands.

For most of his 18 seasons, Mantle played through chronic pain and on wobbly knees. He once hobbled around the bases with blood oozing through his uniform, and youngsters who watched thislearned an important lesson about tenacity and spirit.

During Mantle's illness, many thousands of fans sent letters to the hospital. One was addressed to "Mickey Mantle - patient," another to "Nu 7/Baylor Hospital/Dallas." All found their destination.

Sports writers called him The Mick and everyone knew who they meant. Each time Mantle uncorked that compact, powerful swing, Yankee fans expected to hear announcer Mel Allen bellow that the ball was "going ... going ... GONE!"

Mantle hit 536 home runs, knocked in 1,509 runs, finished with a .298 career batting average. He was dangerous from both sides of the plate - virtually ambidextrous or, in the fractured syntax of teammate Yogi Berra, "naturally amphibious." Three times, he was voted the American League's Most Valuable Player.

Mantle propelled his team to the World Series in all but two of his first 14 seasons. It was the most successful team in baseball history, but Mantle transcended the Yankees and the sport itself.

"He was the best player I ever saw," said Phil Linz, a former teammate. "He was magnificent - head and shoulders above everybody else."

But he was haunted by fear of an early death. His father and many other family members died young from various forms of cancer. One of his sons, Billy, suffered from Hodgkin's disease and died last year of a heart attack at age 36.

"Hell, I only figured I'd live 'til 40," Mantle once said. "That's why I had as much fun as I could while I was young."

In addition, Mantle reached the big leagues after a sheltered life in rural Oklahoma, rendering him easy prey for the temptations of fame in New York City.

He indulged in many years of heavy drinking, often with teammates like Ford and Billy Martin, who died in an alcohol-related truck accident on Christmas Day, 1989.

"If I hadn't met those two at the start of my career," Mantle once said, "I would have lasted another five years."

He spoke of habitually consuming several post-game beers in the locker room, then partying long into the night. He said he sometimes played with hangovers and, after his retirement, consumed brandy in the morning and as many as four bottles of wine in the afternoon.

Finally, at the urging of friends and doctors, Mantle checked into the Betty Ford Clinic in January 1994.

By all accounts, he remained sober after his treatment, but the damage to his body was irreversible.

But to dwell only on his alcoholism would be a disservice. Mantle was a genuine sports legend and that is how he should be remembered.

Some of his home runs were among the longest and most memorable in baseball history. He came closer than anyone to hitting a fair ball out of Yankee Stadium. He played in 65 World Series games, belting a record 18 home runs, driving in 40 runs.

His best season came in 1956, when he captured the Triple Crown with league-leading totals of 52 homers, 130 runs batted in and a .353 average. But his most famous season came in 1961, when he and teammate Roger Maris assaulted Babe Ruth's single-season home run record.

In the end, Maris slammed 61 homers, exceeding Ruth's record by one. Mantle hit 54, but many observers believe he was essential to success of Maris, who died in 1985.

There is a circularity of events often at play in this sport. Mantle received his new liver on the 26th anniversary of the day his No. 7 jersey was retired at Yankee Stadium.

He stood that day on the same ground as Lou Gehrig many years before.

"I always wondered how a man who was dying could stand here and say he was the luckiest man in the world," Mickey Mantle told a cheering crowd of 60,000 fans. "Now I know how Lou Gehrig felt."