Mantle hurt himself, but never the Yankees

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Before America gets carried away with creating its own distorted perception of Mickey Mantle, now that he's in his grave, an effort should be made to correct false impressions. It's terribly unfair -- also inaccurate -- to say he was a drunk. A %J drinker, yes. But there is a difference.

Mickey Mantle never lost personal dignity or his status. And he always insisted, when asked if he played under the influence or with a hangover from the night before, that he never hurt the team. If you believe otherwise you've been misled, misinformed.

Mantle began having "a few drinks" as a teen-age phenom, in 1951, in the world's capital for hero worship -- New York -- and as he matured the drinking habit gained momentum and helped him self-destruct.

For Mantle, baseball was easier than reciting the ABCs. He performed at a level above that of his contemporaries without even exerting himself. Just a natural player who could do it all, reaching the fences as either a right- or left-handed hitter.

In coming out of the batter's box, from the left side, he was timed to first base in the eye-blinking speed of 3.1 seconds.

Drinking became a regular after-game routine, which accelerated but didn't become a serious problem until much later in life. Was he a staggering drunk? No.

His first roommate, living above the Stage Delicatessen in New York, was the tough ex-Marine and member of the pipefitter's union, Hank Bauer, who was known on occasion to take a sociable drink or two.

Bauer, as a New York Yankee outfielder and then a coach and manager of the Baltimore Orioles, always offered a simple suggestion to others around him, players, coaches and sportswriters. He would tell them all, ad infinitum, "If you can't handle it, don't drink it."

From the hard lessons of experience, Bauer could cope with the demons inside the bottle; Mantle couldn't. Don't take this to mean that Mantle wound up on the seat of his pants or began sleeping in storefront doorways. He just had an affinity for popping another top or partaking of another round.

Often when closing time approached, the manager of the establishment locked the doors and made special provisions for Mickey and his gathering to continue drinking. After all, he was Mickey Mantle. In his era with the Yankees, as twisted as the idea might seem, it was a badge of clubhouse honor to be looked upon as a man who could hold his liquor. Pour another round, bartender, and make this one a double.

The trio of Yankees who traveled together, usually in sync, were Mantle, Whitey Ford and Billy Martin. They were more than teammates, a friendly threesome virtually moving in lock-step.

Their production on the field was at a high level of effectiveness, especially that of Mantle and Ford. When the nine-inning workday, or night, was behind them they found joyous ways to relax -- attending parties, staging pranks, entertaining each other with not always conventional conduct and even leading private detectives, assigned by the Yankees to find out what they were doing, on hilarious chases that went in circles.

They often behaved as overgrown children, like the time they missed the team bus from Baltimore to Washington. Ford and Mantle, with a bottle of Scotch to make the trip taste better, rode a taxi between the two cities. Along U.S. 1, they noticed a fireworks stand and had the cab stop so they could buy a supply of roman candles.

Inside the car, they set one off, startling the driver. Then, upon arriving in Washington, they exploded the others in Mantle's room at the Shoreham Hotel, causing an uproar among guests and even other Yankees players who had no idea what was causing the noise and why the hallway reeked of smoke. Just another day of play for Mickey and Whitey.

In the mid-1950s, the Yankees, returning from spring training, played an exhibition in Cincinnati. Mantle and Ford decided to go to nearby Covington, Ky., where the bars stayed open all night. They were having such a good time they decided to pass up the train trip to Pittsburgh and, instead, take a plane in the morning to catch up with the rest of the Yankees for the next afternoon's game with the Pirates.

But nature didn't cooperate. An early-spring blizzard piled up snow at the Cincinnati airport and planes were grounded. They couldn't get out. The next train didn't leave until the afternoon and that wouldn't get them there until well after the game started. So, again, they hired a cab at a cost of $500 for the trip to Pittsburgh.

They got to Forbes Field and Mantle, on his first trip to the plate, became only the third player in history to hit a ball completely over the right-field roof.

The question about Mantle that's asked with frustrating regularity because there is no answer to it is how much better would he have been if he led a more conventional lifestyle, didn't drink and was in bed at midnight? That's impossible to assess. But, in all sobering reality, it's difficult to believe he could have been any better.

Drinking was a comfortable experience, a way to relax but ill-advised. Too bad Mickey got trapped in this kind of a run-down, between sobriety and the temptations of the saloon. He paid a price and left this world sorry he put his wife and children through the hell of turmoil drinking can cause.

But don't ever let anyone suggest now or in the future that he was a career drunk. He consumed more than his share and, as Bauer preached, don't taste it if you can't control it. Mickey couldn't. What evolved should serve as a stop sign to others with the same weakness. Such a legacy is going to be more important than the richest of Mantle's baseball deeds.

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