"A balanced portrait of a flawed hero."
Mickey Mantle: America's Prodigal Sonby Tony Castro
In the life of the great cultural icon baseball slugger Mickey Mantle, we see America's romance with boldness, its celebration of muscle, and its comfort in power during a time when might did make right. But if his life symbolized the great expectations of America in the 1950s, it also epitomized the dashed dreams of a troubled generation in the 1960s and its… See more details below
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In the life of the great cultural icon baseball slugger Mickey Mantle, we see America's romance with boldness, its celebration of muscle, and its comfort in power during a time when might did make right. But if his life symbolized the great expectations of America in the 1950s, it also epitomized the dashed dreams of a troubled generation in the 1960s and its unrealistic hopes for achievement. Mickey Mantle: America's Prodigal Son is both an explosive biography of one of the world's most fascinating and enduring sports heroes and a telling look at the American society of his time. During six years of research, former Sports Illustrated writer Tony Castro interviewed more than 250 friends, teammates, lovers, acquaintances, and drinking buddies of one of America's most famous sports heroes.
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MICKEY MANTLEAMERICA'S PRODIGAL SON
By TONY CASTRO
BRASSEY'S, INC.Copyright © 2002 Brassey's, Inc.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThat Mickey Mantle was born at all is a minor miracle, or perhaps just good fortune-fate giving biology a helping hand. Who hasn't wondered at some time how different life might have been if one had been born to a different mother or another father? Years later, after the Hall of Fame career and the New York fast life, and long after he had become accustomed to and up to (or down to) the role of being "Mickey Mantle," Mickey Mantle occasionally would chuckle, with a hint of curiosity, at the thought that he might easily have been his aunt's child. For before his father, Elvin Clark Mantle, had his eye on the woman who would give birth to Mickey, he had had designs on the woman's younger sister, a neighbor in the mining town of Spavinaw in Mayes County, Oklahoma. Elvin, the first of four children, who from his crib days had been known as "Mutt," was in his mid-teens. Lovell Richardson, the woman who would one day be Mickey Mantle's mother, was a grown woman ten years older than Mutt and, at the time, married to her first husband, William Theodore Davis-a farm boy from nearby Craig County with whom she had run off at the age of seventeen. She bore two children by William Davis, Theodore and Anna Bea, before divorcing him. Later, she explained her maritalbreakup to Mickey by simply stating, "We had a bad misunderstanding." Lovell Richardson, a tall, slender woman with gray eyes and reddish-blond hair, returned to her parents' home, where she met Mutt one day when he came to court her sister. Months later, at the age of seventeen, Mutt Mantle married Lovell in a civil ceremony.
Mickey Mantle was born October 20, 1931, in an unpainted two-room house on a dirt road outside Spavinaw, Oklahoma, a town of a few hundred people about thirty-five miles southwest of Commerce in the flatland northeast corner of the state, which was also the hub of the Oklahoma mining district. Spavinaw, in the heart of Cherokee Indian country, was part of the legendary Dust Bowl, the Oklahoma plains, where red dirt blanketed everything when the wind blew. The Missouri state line is just ten miles east, and Kansas is five miles to the north. Decades later, on the day the last section of Route 66 reached the Kansas-Oklahoma state line, Cherokees would come down from their reservation to watch, squatting along the highway, wrapped in blankets, witnessing glumly the passing of an era.
The world in which Mickey Mantle was born and experienced his childhood is so closely linked in our minds with America's worst economic depression that it has become almost impossible to view it as anything other than cheerless. A period of drab and desperate existence, spiritually void and mired in hopelessness, the thirties for most people evoke the stolid and stunned faces of tenant farmers immortalized by James Agee and Walker Evans in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. In the country as a whole, however, except for the hordes of forgotten poor, this era of economic debacle was marked by more major political, social, and intellectual developments than the nation had ever known. Baseball, already ingrained as the national pastime, was both a diversion and a summertime remedy. To raise funds to help the unemployed in the Depression, in September 1931 the three New York teams-the Yankees, Giants, and Dodgers-played a series of benefit games that raised more than a hundred thousand dollars. In a pregame fungo-hitting contest, Babe Ruth, normally a left-handed hitter, batted right and drove a ball 421 feet into the center-field stands.
The 1930s were hard times in the Oklahoma plains, characterized by the uprooted, impoverished existence of a Steinbeck novel. In Spavinaw, many of the Mantles' neighbors who were unable to make a living moved out to California, far away from what would become an ecological and human disaster in the southwestern Great Plains region. It would be caused by misuse of land and years of sustained drought. During the years when there was adequate rainfall, the land had produced bountiful crops. But as the droughts of the early 1930s deepened, the farmers kept plowing and planting, and nothing would grow. The ground cover that held the soil in place was gone. The plains winds whipped across the fields, raising billowing clouds of dust. The skies could darken for days, and even the best-sealed homes could have thick layers of dust on furniture. In some places the dust would drift like snow, covering farmsteads.
At the same time, the Great Depression, the worst economic slump in U.S. history, was spreading to the entire industrialized world. The Depression began in late 1929 and lasted for about a decade. Many factors brought about the Depression; however, the main cause of the Great Depression was the combination of sharply unequal distribution of wealth throughout the 1920s and extensive stock market speculation during the latter part of that decade. The maldistribution of wealth in the 1920s existed on many levels. Money was distributed disparately between the rich and the middle class, between industry and agriculture within the country, and between the United States and Europe. This imbalance of wealth created an unstable economy. The excessive speculation in the late 1920s kept the stock market artificially high but eventually led to large market crashes. These market crashes, combined with the maldistribution of wealth, caused the American economy to capsize.
It was into this America, scandalously troubled economically but holding on to a moral purpose marked by unwavering optimism, that Mickey Mantle was born. As for every man, the intricacies of his nature can be traced back to where he came from and those who shaped him. For Mickey Mantle, it all started and ended with his father, a teenager when Mickey was born but ultimately the most influential person in his life. Mutt Mantle held the same dreams for his first son that other fathers have had for their children since the beginning of time. With Mutt, however, it is fair to say his dreams for Mickey were obsessive. "The feeling between Mutt Mantle and his son," Merlyn Mantle was to later recall, "was more than love. Mick was his work of art, just as much as if his father had created him out of clay. He spent every minute he could with him, coaching, teaching, shaping him, and pointing him toward the destiny he knew was out there. Baseball consumed Mickey. He talked, when he talked, of little else. It was the number one priority in his life and, in a way, always would be."
Mutt Mantle found the 1931 baseball season a fortuitous one. Months before Mickey was born, Mutt had decided that his son would be named after one of the princes of his beloved game. "If my child is a boy," Mutt told his friends, "he's going to be a baseball player. I'm naming him Mickey-after Mickey Cochrane." The catcher and sparkplug of the championship Philadelphia Athletics teams of 1929, 1930, and 1931, Mickey Cochrane had a .346 batting average for those three years. He later would lead the Detroit Tigers to two pennants and in 1935 to a World Series championship. In 1947, he and A's battery mate Lefty Grove would be elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. But in 1931, in which he helped the Athletics win the American League title, Cochrane also caught Grove's historic thirty-one-win season. On October 10, ten days before Mickey was born, Mutt Mantle got the best of both worlds. His favorite player, who had hit .349 that season, made it to the World Series, but his favorite team, the St. Louis Cardinals, won the championship, defeating the A's in the seventh game of the series. On the day Mickey was born, Cochrane was still playing baseball, a member of an all-star squad on a barnstorming trip to Hawaii and Japan. On that day too, Frankie Frisch, the Cardinals' fiery leader, was named Most Valuable Player of the National League after hitting .313 and stealing a league-leading twenty-eight bases.
"Mama says dad showed me a baseball before I was twelve hours old and it almost broke his heart when I paid more attention to the bottle," Mickey would say years later. "Baseball, that's all he lived for. He used to say that it seemed to him like he just died in the winter, until the time when baseball came around again. Dad insisted on my being taught the positions on the baseball field before the ABCs. He was that crazy about baseball.... I was probably the only baby in history whose first lullaby was the radio broadcast of a ball game. One night, mama says, I woke up during the seventh-inning stretch. She pleaded with dad to please cut off that contraption and let me sleep. `You got Mickey wrong, hon',' dad said. `I don't blame him for screaming. He knew the situation called for a bunt instead of hitting away.'"
Mutt named his son Mickey Charles Mantle, after both Cochrane and his own father. Mutt apparently was unaware that Cochrane's given name was actually Gordon Stanley; "Mickey" was a nickname derived from "Black Mike," which Cochrane had been given at Boston University for his competitiveness on the football team. Mutt, though, was not one to be too concerned about the exactness of names. Mickey spelled his father's name "Elvin"-which was also the way Mickey's middle name was spelled. But Mutt Mantle's Oklahoma driver's license spelled his first name "Elvan," and it was spelled "Elven" on his headstone at the Grand Army of the Republic Cemetery between Miami and Commerce, where he was buried after his death in 1952. It was also spelled "Elven" on the birth certificate of Mickey's youngest brother, Larry. "I'm not sure how he spelled his name," daughter Barbara said years later. "The only way I ever saw him sign anything was `E. C. Mantle.'"
From Mutt himself Mickey inherited something far more important than a name-an incredible, almost mythic physical strength that one day would produce his prodigious home-run power. Mutt Mantle was a lead and zinc miner who had played semiprofessional baseball, and his father Charles Mantle had played baseball on a mining company team. Mickey was later to look back on his father's baseball talents with a son's wishful memory, saying he believed Mutt could have been a fine major league baseball player if he had been given the chance. But it turned out to be the mines that were in Mutt Mantle's blood. Mutt worked in the lead and zinc mines of the area and had also been a tenant farmer both before Mickey was born and later, when Mickey was in his teens. For his entire life, Mickey was to lament the life that fate had imposed on his father. "I always wished my dad could be somebody other than a miner," a regretful Mickey would reminisce. "I knew it was killing him. He was underground eight hours a day. Every time he took a breath, the dust and dampness went into his lungs. Coughed up gobs of phlegm and never saw a doctor. What for? He'd only be told it was `miner's disease.' He realized that if he didn't get cancer, he'd die of tuberculosis. Many did before the age of forty. `So what the hell. Live while you can,' he'd say and light another cigarette. A confirmed chain-smoker, I hardly remember him without one stuck in the corner of his mouth."
Mickey Mantle's parents, Mutt and Lovell, had been raised in a town of dissimilar personalities and cultures, so it is no surprise that they too were a study in contrasts. Those two personalities were to polarize young Mickey's own self-image and his emotional development.
"My father was a quiet man, but he could freeze you with a look," Mickey later recalled. "He never told me he loved me. But he showed that he did by all the hours he spent with me, all the hopes he invested in me. He saw his role as pushing me, always keeping my mind on getting better. I worked hard at doing that because I wanted to please him. He would drape an arm around me and give me a hug.... I adored my dad and was just like him in many ways-I was shy and found it hard to show my emotions. I couldn't open up to people, and they mistook my shyness for rudeness." Sadly, the way he was molded by two unemotional parents would influence the way Mickey himself would model his relationships with his own sons. "He had been brought up a certain way," son Mickey Jr. would say of his father, "and if he couldn't deal with his feelings, he buried them. He paid a high cost for packing away the affection that was so close to his surface. For most of our lives, when we greeted each other after a separation of weeks or months, we would shake hands. It wasn't just him. Everybody in his family, my uncles, his cousins, kept the same distance."
For Mutt Mantle, that emotional detachment had been a method of self-survival. As a young man Mutt had been forced to grow up quickly, dropping out of school to take a job grading county roads. Not long after marrying Lovell and having Mickey, however, Mutt lost the grading job and thought seriously about taking his young family to California. Instead he became a tenant farmer, working eighty acres of land but seeing little return. Lovell, meanwhile, was busy raising her own two children as well as Mickey, and she was pregnant with the second of the five children she would have by Mutt. Lovell was a devoted wife to her second husband. What bound them together was that both came from long lines of Oklahoma people, five generations of Americans with English, Dutch and German bloodlines. At one point there was unfounded speculation, in part spurred by Mickey's pride in the American Indian heritage of his beloved Oklahoma, that his mother was part Native American.
What is undeniable is that Mutt fell in love with a woman not only significantly older but also more distant personally than even he was, and who had greater difficulty showing her emotions than he did. According to psychologists, men and women learn, in different ways, roles that early on can squelch the ability to express empathy and to connect. While all children start out as emotionally responsive, by age six boys have learned to suppress their emotions, according to research by University of Connecticut psychologist Buck Park. For young Mickey, the impact may have even been greater. Lovell, the daughter of a carpenter, was reticent even with her loved ones; Mickey would later say that his mother "didn't lavish affection on us either.... [W]hen mom wanted to show her love, she fixed a big meal." One of the few times that Lovell did show some emotion, she overdid it. Once a fight broke out when Mickey's twin brothers Ray and Roy were playing high school football; Lovell ended up on the field slapping the opposing players on their helmets with her purse. Still, it was not until later, at her eightieth birthday party in Oklahoma City, that she was to tell Mickey and the family why she had married Mutt: he had been tall, handsome, and a real gentleman under his rough exterior.
Merlyn Mantle's recollection of her mother-in-law, Mickey's mom, seemed to capture her essence best: "Lovell was not a warm or openly affectionate woman, but she was a tireless and protective mother. She had seven children, two by a first marriage, and I never saw anyone do as much laundry. She did it by hand, on a washboard in the back yard, and hung it on row after row of clotheslines to dry. They lived in the country and didn't yet have electricity."
As poor as they were at the time, however, Mickey always looked back with pride at how his parents persevered without reaching out for charity or even credit. "We were about the only family in Commerce that didn't buy groceries on credit," he remembered. "We only bought what we needed, and my dad paid cash. The grocer appreciated it so much that he let us kids pick out a free bag of candy."
The Mantles did not have much of a traditional spiritual life, which is surprising, considering that they lived in a community of God-fearing neighbors in the heart of the Bible Belt. Commerce had four churches. Mickey later said he had been in all of them at one time or another, "yet nobody in my family took religion seriously. I suppose it was my dad's influence. He used to say, `Religion doesn't necessarily make you good. As long as your heart is in the right place and you don't hurt anyone, I think you'll go to heaven-if there is one.' Mom felt the same way. She backed him no matter what he believed."
Excerpted from MICKEY MANTLE by TONY CASTRO Copyright © 2002 by Brassey's, Inc.
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Meet the Author
Tony Castro is a former staff writer for Sports Illustrated who did graduate work on socio-psychology in American studies while a Nieman Fellow at Harvard. His work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, and other publications. Castro lives in Beverly Hills, California.
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