Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Mantle, the recent HBO documentary on the life of Mickey Mantle, was how many full-grown men, well into middle-age, they were able to find who could be brought to the edge of tears in their reminiscences of the Mick. I became a baseball fan as a youth in the ’70s, when there was no EA Sports and baseball was still played on the sandlots with the neighborhood kids, but I can think of no figure from that time who would incite such emotion in me now, nor can I imagine today’s young fans weeping over the memory of Derek Jeter thirty years hence. Of course, there are two possible reasons for that: either there hasn’t since been anyone like Mantle, or the game, and more likely the world, has changed.
Mantle was one of those perfect man for the perfect time in the perfect place stories. The place was New York City, before the rot of the sixties and seventies set in. The time was the fifties, when the post-war media blanketing was new and exciting, not a source jaded by derision.
How deep were the bonds of culture to the idols of the time? — think Elvis and Marilyn. You could manufacture a hero then. You could place a famous face on every product and every street corner and people were impressed. Now we’ve learned to tune out the PR. Now we’re all too cynical to imagine heroes in public life. Instead we manufacture shameless, superficial exhibitionists and congratulate ourselves on our prescient cynicism even as we reap the voyeuristic thrills.
But even with the perfect combination of time and place you still need the man, and Mantle was certainly that. He was an enormously skilled ballplayer with a combination of speed and power that only his cross-town rival Willie Mays could match. He, along with Mays, brought a previously unknown level of athleticism to a game that had been populated by merely average athletes with sets of unique and well-developed skills.
It would be interesting to examine his career using some of the modern statistical analytical tools, perhaps even draw some comparisons to modern steroid monsters, but HBO gives us no insight into Mantle as a ballplayer beyond a few recited stats and journalists fawning over his “explosiveness,” and his ability to “run like a deer,” and how when he hit the ball he used his entire body “including his teeth”. I can see the guys at Baseball Prospectus just shaking their heads.
We do get a good look at Mantle the personality, though, and it’s hard to imagine anyone more ingratiating than the big, shy, son-of-a-miner with enough boyish charm and good looks to cover every girl at the county fair twice over. And so follows the standard plotline: see the bumpkin superstar in the city as he zooms to the top then tumbles to the bottom, and watch him heroically dig himself out the hole he’s made and find peace. All true, no doubt.
Mantle was born into the twin star-crossing of alcoholism and Hodgkin’s that loomed over him and his family for his whole life. If you are at all familiar with baseball lore, there is no new information here; from the worship of his unappreciative father, to the carousing with Billy Martin, to the injuries and decline in skills, to the tawdry world of memorabilia sales, to the controversial liver transplant, to the final regretful confessions. It’s all the sentimental treacle and behind the headlines hyperventilation that has become de rigueur for fallen idols.
Despite all that, it’s easy to see there was something exceptional about Mantle. The simple, affable country boy role was not a mere pose for him. To the very end he seemed a naive child in a cold world. Even ravaged by his life and in his final days, he was still able to smile that boyish, aw-shucks smile that made you feel a touch of his innocent regret, and perhaps a bit of shame at your own cynicism.