October 20th, 2011
Mickey Mantle was my idol growing up as a kid in the west end of Amsterdam, NY. I can still remember the feeling of euphoria that would come over my entire body on those very rare moments when I would tear open a pack of Topps baseball cards and there hiding in the gum-smelling stack of five pieces of glossy cardboard would be a Mickey Mantle. He was the very best player on the very best baseball team in the world and during my first five years as a Yankee fan, he led New York to five consecutive World Series appearances.
I had a poster of Mantle on my bedroom wall until I was about sixteen years old. I memorized his hitting statistics for each of his 18 regular season and 12 World Series performances. Watching him hit a home run in a televised Yankee contest was as enjoyable for me as seeing the Beatles for the first time on Ed Sullivan, watching the last episode of MASH and the first episode of the Sopranos all in one.
The first time I saw Mantle in person was a Sunday morning outside Yankee Stadium. Me and my brothers were altar boys when we were kids and we never skipped church on Sunday except for the two or three times each summer when our Uncle would take us to Yankee games. I may have been brought up to love Jesus but Mantle was a better hitter.
In any event, on this particular Sunday we were standing behind the police barricades outside the Yankee Stadium player entrance watching the Yankees arrive for that day’s game. All of a sudden, someone much taller than me screamed, “It’s him! It’s him! Here comes Mickey!”
He walked by just five feet in front of me wearing a short-sleeved golf shirt and kaki pants and the first thing I noticed were the muscle lines in his arms. The guy was ripped. People all around me were screaming his name but I was speechless and in total awe. My stupor didn’t matter because Mickey ignored us all. Most of the other Yankee players would wave as they walked by these barricades and some would even stop to shake a fan’s hand or sign an autograph. Not Mantle. He kept his head down and a frown on his face and walked straight inside the Stadium.
I was shocked when just about two hours later, listening to Bob Sheppard announce the Yankee’s starting lineup for that day’s game, I discovered Mickey would not be playing. In fact, Mantle not playing was a pretty common occurrence for me after many of those long drives my Uncle made to Yankee Stadium during the sixties. Instead we’d watch Hector Lopez, Bob Cerv or Jack Reed take the oft-injured Commerce Comet’s spot in the lineup. In fact, not once during the seven seasons we traveled to the Stadium during Mantle’s playing career did I see Mickey hit a home run. I began to think that my being at Yankee Stadium was somehow jinxing Mantle.
I was speechless and in awe the second time I saw Mantle, as well. The span between encounters was about twenty years. I had just landed at the airport in West Palm Beach, Florida with my wife Rosemary and two young children and we were walking to the baggage claim area. Unlike today, the West Palm Beach airport was not very crowded and I was pushing my youngest son in a stroller when I saw a pilot, two stewardesses, and a guy dressed up in a suit carrying a garment bag walking toward us. The guy turned out to be Mickey.
I mumbled to my wife “That’s Mickey Mantle!” and then froze as they continued to walk toward us. Rosemary kept telling me to ask him for an autograph but I couldn’t move or talk. I just stood there with my hands frozen on the stroller handles watching Mantle get closer and closer. That’s when my bolder better half sprang into action. She walked right up to him and said very nicely, “Mr. Mantle, that’s my husband standing over there and you were his idol growing up as a kid. Could you do me a huge favor and sign this for him?” With that she handed him the US Air Ticket Envelope and a blue Flair marker.
Mantle’s response went something like this. “Did they announce I was in this f _ _ _ _ _ g airport! I hate this God d _ _ _ _ _ d s_ _ t! Give me that pen lady.”
My wife and I just stood there speechless, she holding the signed ticket envelope. We realized Mantle’s life must have been filled with these annoying requests but the bitterness and anger in his reaction indicated the man was either deeply disturbed or he lacked even an ounce of humanity, compassion, or plain and simple class. At that moment, Mantle was no longer a hero of mine. When we left the airport I tossed the signed envelope into the garbage container just before I got inside my father-in-law’s Lincoln.
It wasn’t until another fifteen years passed and I watched a news report showing a dying Mantle apologizing to his fans for being such a selfish uncaring jerk all those years, that he became my hero again. I remember after Mantle finished speaking from the hospital press room that day, getting up from my chair in the living room of our house, going to my bedroom and pulling out my metal storage box from the top shelf of my clothes closet. I pulled out that US Air ticket envelope and just stared at that patented Mickey Mantle signature. I finally knew why I had made my Father-in-Law return to the arrival loop of the West Palm Beach Airport that day and why I scrimmaged through that filthy trash can to find the discarded, begrudgingly signed envelope.