It has become obvious in recent days that bestowing “hero” status on athletes is a misplaced priority.
The revelations that Lance Armstrong, Tiger Woods and Joe Paterno, among others, are not the icons we thought should make us rethink the idea of putting sports figures on pedestals. Nowadays, with the constant barrage of information coming out about athletes being connected to performance-enhancing drugs we have to wonder if we can look up to anybody in the sports world.
The question of athletes as heroes was on my mind recently as I read a biography of Mickey Mantle. Growing up, I witnessed many future Hall of Famers on the diamond, but two clearly stood out among the rest. Mantle and Willie Mays were simply the best players of their generation.
I was fortunate enough to grow up in the Bay Area and watch Mays play the last half of his career. In my mind he is still the best all-around player in the history of the game, and many baseball insiders agree. I never got to see Mantle play in-person but it was a given he was in Mays’ class as a player.
Both were “heroes” to kids growing up. Who wouldn’t want to be like them? Mays had a “good guy” image that was never tarnished by any off-the-field scandal. He may have grown surly in retirement (with good reason), but he is still a baseball icon everyone respects.
Mantle is another story. He fit the image of the “boy next door.” He hailed from Oklahoma, married his high school sweetheart, had four sons, and made it to the majors at the age of 19. He had a combination of speed and power that any ballplayer would envy. He hit 536 home runs, captured three Most Valuable Player awards, and played on seven World Series winners in 18 seasons. He purportedly hit the longest home run in major league history when he blasted one an estimated but likely exaggerated 565 feet out of Griffith Stadium in Washington, D.C., in 1953.
In reality Mickey Mantle was a tragic figure. In pure baseball terms he was one of the greatest players of all-time but could have been even greater. He was plagued by injuries his entire career. He may have been the fastest player in the majors but suffered a debilitating knee injury when he caught his spikes on a rubber drain in the Yankee Stadium outfield during the 1951 World Series (ironically on a fly ball hit by Willie Mays). He lost his blazing speed and was tortured by constant physical ailments throughout his playing days. The fact that he had a Hall of Fame career is a testimony to his fortitude and high pain threshold.
Off the field Mantle was the complete anti-hero. He was a drunk and a womanizer. He used crude language around women, was often rude to fans and people in general, and was hardly ever home with his wife and kids. More likely he was off partying with teammates Billy Martin and Whitey Ford or spending the night with one of his mistresses.
There were times when Mantle could be quite generous and thoughtful, but there was never any consistency to him. His drinking escapades undid him. His infidelity didn’t help matters, either. He was haunted by his father’s early death to cancer and his father’s cold-blooded attitude towards him. He was also sexually abused as a child. All four of his sons ended up with substance-abuse problems and two died of cancer.
All these revelations are detailed in a 2010 biography of Mantle by Jane Leavy, “The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America’s Childhood.” Leavy worshiped Mantle growing up but was brought back to earth by his inappropriate behavior toward her during an interview in 1983. Her research for this book was exhaustive, as she spoke with Mantle’s family, teammates, friends and many associates. She covers the good and bad in Mantle’s life. It’s safe to say it’s the definitive biography of the man.
Toward the end of Mantle’s life he finally faced up to his alcoholism and checked himself into the Betty Ford Clinic. After he stopped drinking, he tried to make amends for his past behavior. He apologized to his family for his neglect and proclaimed himself to be the perfect non-role-model by telling kids not to be like him. He received a new liver, but it was too late. Doctors discovered he had terminal cancer and he died soon thereafter.
Mickey Mantle had some wonderful qualities and could have been an exemplary figure in another reality. His demons just got the better of him and he lived a life of deceit most of his adulthood. The lesson for sports fans is to appreciate what our “heroes” do on the field but to refrain from putting them on a pedestal. We’re likely to be disappointed when we make them into something they’re not.
David Kent is the director of the Village Library of Cooperstown. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.