Mantle's passing hits just as hard as he did


Willie Mays covered more ground in center field. Hank Aaron cranked more homers. Ted Williams hit for a higher average and struck out less. Stan Musial had a sweeter swing and Roberto Clemente a better arm.

But none of them belonged to America like The Mick.

While the nation slept, Mickey Mantle died early yesterday morning in a Dallas hospital. He was 63. Gifted with more power and speed than any ballplayer of his generation, Mantle's body in recent months was ravaged by self-inflicted liver disease and cancer.

And so another in the Yankees' procession of legends is gone and those gray New York road uniforms will look particularly bland and sad when the Yanks play the Red Sox tonight in Fenway Park.

Baby boomers grew up watching Mickey Mantle play baseball. He was part of a Gotham City where all men wore hats and the stylish women smoked cigarettes. It was the 1950s New York of Toots Shor's, "The Honeymooners" and Ed Sullivan. People ate red meat and drank brown liquor. It was the golden age of New York hardball and the beginning of baseball on television. This is why Mantle was such a star.

Commenting on rock 'n' roll, John Lennon said, "Before Elvis, there was nothing." For many Americans, the same could be said of major league baseball: "Before The Mick, there was nothing."

It was Mantle's good fortune to be the best player on the best team at a time when the big-league game was introduced to young people in Dubuque, Duluth and Groton, Mass. When black-and-white Philcos finally brought major-league baseball to small-town America, it seemed that the Yankees were the only team in either league. And Mantle was the star of stars. We loved Lucy, and we loved Mickey Mantle.

The Yankees were in the World Series 12 times in 14 Octobers between 1951 and 1964. The original Mr. October (he was born Oct. 20, 1931), Mantle swatted 18 World Series homers. Ted Williams says: "I think that's the single record that can never be broken."

He seemed to be something out of a cartoon. He was blond, strong, fast and he could hit the ball a mile from either side of the plate. He was an "aw shucks" kid from Oklahoma, raised to be a big-league ballplayer and nothing else. Even his name sounded like it had been invented by baseball bard John R. Tunis. Mickey Mantle. What else could he have been but center fielder for the New York Yankees?

Lionized in an era when heroes were preserved like Renaissance paintings, Mantle had demons and flaws. By his own admission, he wasn't much of a husband or father. He became an alcoholic, which took years off his career, and possibly, his life. Sometimes he wasn't a very nice guy when his public came after him. A lot of time was wasted on the way.

But from listening to his teammates, one quickly becomes aware that Mantle's special gift was his ability to be "one of the guys," in spite of his extraordinary talent. Like Larry Bird after him, Mantle was able to be the best player in his sport without distancing himself from his teammates. Unlike the aloof Joe DiMaggio, the legend he replaced in center field for the Yankees, The Mick was in the back row with the rest of his classmates, firing erasers at the blackboard. This is rare superstar behavior.

Last year he said, "If I could have one thing on my tombstone, I wouldn't want 536 home runs. I'd rather have, 'He was a great friend and teammate.' "

Mantle genuinely never understood all the fuss that surrounded him. A legend for 40 years, he still talked about getting goosebumps when Musial called to invite him to breakfast during a card show appearance. "I couldn't believe it," he said. "Stan Musial."

If you grew up in Commerce, Okla., in the 1940s, no doubt Stan was The Man, but in the '50s and '60s across America, the name was Mickey Mantle. If a kid on the playground was showing off, somebody could humble him by hollering, "Who do you think you are? Mickey Mantle?"

The name was magic. The name was baseball. And with Mantle's passing comes another reminder of our own lost youth.

Woe is the fan who scoffed at the outpouring of affection inspired by the death of Grateful Dead guru Jerry Garcia last week. Now the sorrow has shifted to the folks whose lives are marked by baseball events. The Mick's Greatest Hits album is a timeline of our own lives.

There was The Mick's Triple Crown in '56 . . . the year a baby brother was born; The Mick's chase with Maris in '61 . . . when a sister graduated from high school; and the time Dick Radatz fanned The Mick with the bases loaded at Fenway in '62 . . . when a parent was recovering from a heart attack.

Anywhere in this country, Mickey Mantle was part of growing in the 1950s and '60s. Now we're all grown up. And The Mick is gone.

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