Tuesday, August 14, 2012


ME AND THE MICK BY KEITH TAYLOR To the surprise of nobody, Mickey Mantle made it to the majors before I did. I hated him for that! When I was twenty-one and he twenty, The Mick was in "the show," and I was still trying to look nonchalant while hoping to be chosen as a right fielder in any pickup softball game. Now, an octogenarian, my chances of making it to the bigs are waning. Of course my rancor against the kid from Commerce was woefully misplaced. He, as they say, had the tools of greatness. My greatest athletic achievement was finishing a marathon the same day it started. I was reminded of all this when I read The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America's Childhood by Jane Leavy. It was easy to hate Mantle. He was a Yankee, and Cub fans always hated Yankees, even those of us who lived in Indiana. Ivan Kern, the sage of my hometown of Sevastopol, allowed as to how, " If the Babe had called his shot, Charlie Root (Cub's pitcher) would'a knocked him on his fat ass." You had to believe Ivan. He remembered Tinkers to Evers to Chance. But, except for Cub fans, The Mick was a hero, albeit a tarnished one. Despite his angelic looks he was a very bad boy. Leavy's story is a starkly honest one, and certainly a discomfort to many of Mantle's teammates, friends, and, probably, Leavy herself. Take the story most often repeated in reviews of her book. When The Mick was in his fifties and working for a New Jersey casino, Leavy was trying to interview him one evening. He was, of course, dead drunk, but, of course, still on the make. While she was asking questions he decided to feel her up. His hand crept up the inside of her thighs. She wrote "I suppose I could look on the bright side: at least he passed out before he hit the jackpot." For years it was de rigueur in sports writing to protect athletes. Their foibles or even outrageous acts were ignored. A famous, possibly apocryphal, story dates back to the Babe himself. Lore has it that on a road trip, Ruth came running pell-mell and stark naked through the railroad car. He was closely pursued by a naked woman wielding a knife. One reporter turned to another and announced, "There goes another story we won't cover." And of course it was Mantle who broke the spell of discreet silence. He, along with many of his usual cohorts were at Manhattan's Copacabana night club when a fight broke out between the baseballers and some bowlers. It isn't clear who started it but it was a donnybrook. This time, luck wasn't on the side of the baseball guys. The press was there, but they weren't sports reporters. When the likes of Dorothy Kilgallen or Ed Sullivan got hold of a juicy tidbit the cat leaped out of the bag. I was a lifelong baseball fan, and had to appreciate his tremendous ability. On April 17, 1953 The Mick belted one out of Griffith Stadium in Washington. As it left the park, it nearly took the mustache off Mr. Boh in on the Bohemian Beer sign in left field. A publicist for the Yanks, Arthur Patterson, knew publicity, if not veracity. He tracked the ball down. It was in the custody of a kid. Patterson paid a dime, or maybe ten dollars, for the ball. He found where it landed and measured the distance It was 565 feet from home plate, or something like that. From this sprang the term "tape measure home run." Leavy spent twenty pages writing about it, every word interesting. Leavy can write. This lifelong baseball fan hit the jackpot in 1961. The Navy sent me to Brooklyn to be part of a pre-commissioning crew for a new communications ship being outfitted in the Navy Yard. It was subway ride from Flushing Avenue to the Taj Mahal of baseball up in the Bronx. Best of all, in those days before Steinbrenner, the Yanks admitted servicemen free. The season-long race between Mantle and Maris to break the Bambino's 60 home run mark was the stuff of high drama. Watching history up close was a heady experience, and I was watching someone I could relate to as a friend. But number seven didn't hit the sixty-first homer. He teammate, number nine, did. Mantle's body failed him again and he sat out the last of the season and most of the series. As The Mick suffered, a zillion of us fans followed his travails. On August 13, 1995 he died. By this time I had graduated from embellishing press releases to freelance writing. I belonged to a "read and critique" group. I decided to write a eulogy to my old friend and see if someone wanted to publish it. I had no idea it would happen, but when I read it to the group I started crying. Hell, I blubbered so much one of the women the group offered to finish reading it for me. As my old friend might have said, I felt like a fucking fool. Wrap...

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