You know, it occurs to me as we’re all sitting here thinking of Mickey, he’s probably somewhere getting an earful from Casey Stengel, and no doubt quite confused by now.
One of Mickey’s fondest wishes was that he be remembered as a great teammate, to know that the men he played with thought well of him. But it was more than that. Moose and Whitey and Tony and Yogi and Bobby and Hank, what a remarkable team you were. And the stories of the visits you guys made to Mickey’s bedside the last few days were heartbreakingly tender. It meant everything to Mickey, as would the presence of so many baseball figures past and present here today.
I was honored to be asked to speak by the Mantle family today. I am not standing here as a broadcaster. Mel Allen is the eternal voice of the Yankees and that would be his place. And there are others here with a longer and deeper association with Mickey than mine.
But I guess I’m here, not so much to speak for myself as to simply represent the millions of baseball-loving kids who grew up in the ’50s and ’60s and for whom Mickey Mantle was baseball.
And more than that, he was a presence in our lives-a fragile hero to whom we had an emotional attachment so strong and lasting that it defied logic. Mickey often said he didn’t understand it, this enduring connection and affection-the men now in their 40s and 50s, otherwise perfectly sensible, who went dry in the mouth and stammered like schoolboys in the presence of Mickey Mantle.
Maybe Mick was uncomfortable with it, not just because of his basic shyness, but because he was always too honest to regard himself as some kind of deity. But that was never really the point. In a very different time than today, the first baseball commissioner, Kenesaw Mountain Landis said, “Every boy builds a shrine to some baseball hero, and before that shrine, a candle always burns.”
For a huge portion of my generation, Mickey Mantle was that baseball hero. And for reasons that no statistics, no dry recitation of the facts can possibly capture, he was the most compelling baseball hero of our lifetime. And he was our symbol of baseball at a time when the game meant something to us that perhaps it no longer does.
Mickey Mantle had those dual qualities so seldom seen-exuding dynamism and excitement, but at the same time touching your heart-flawed, wounded. We knew there was something poignant about Mickey Mantle before we know what Poignant meant. We didn’t just root for him, we felt for him.
Long before many of us ever cracked a serious book, we knew something about mythology as we watched Mickey Mantle run out a home run through the lengthening shadows of a late Sunday afternoon at Yankee Stadium.
There was a greatness about him, but vulnerability too. He was our guy. When he was hot, we felt great. When he slumped or got hurt, we sagged a bit too. We tried to crease our caps like him; keel in an imaginary on-deck circle like him; run like him, heads down, elbows up.
Billy Crystal is here today. Billy says that at his bar mitzvah he spoke in an Oklahoma drawl. Billy’s here today because he loved Mickey Mantle, and millions like him are here today in spirit as well. It’s been said that the truth is never pure and rarely simple.
Mickey Mantle was too humble and honest to believe that the whole truth about him could be found on a Wheaties box or a baseball card. But the emotional truths about childhood have a power that transcends objective fact. They stay with us through all the years, withstanding the ambivalence that so often accompanies the experience of adults.
That’s why we can still recall the immediate tingle in that instant of recognition when a Mickey Mantle popped up in a pack of Topps bubble gum cards-a treasure lodged between an Eli Grba and a Pumpsie Green.
That’s why we smile today, recalling those October afternoons when we’d sneak a transistor radio into school to follow Mickey Mantle and the Yankees in the World Series.
Or when I think of Mr. Tomasee, a very wise sixth-grade teacher who understood that the World Series was more important, at least for one day, than any school lesson could be. So he brought his black and white TV from home, plugged it in and let us watch it right there in school through the flicker and static. It was richer and more compelling than anything I’ve seen on a high-resolution, big-screen TV.
Of course, the bad part, Bobby, was that Koufax struck 15 of you guys out that day.
My phone’s been ringing the past few weeks as Mickey fought for his life. I’ve heard from people I hadn’t seen or talked to in years, guys I played stickball with, even some guys who took Willie’s side in those endless Mantle, Mays arguments. They’re grown up now. They have their families. They’re not even necessarily big baseball fans anymore. But they felt something hearing about Mickey, and they figured I did too.
In the last year, Mickey Mantle, always so hard on himself, finally came to accept and appreciate the distinction between a role model and a hero. The fist he often was not, the second he always will be.
And, in the end, people got it. And Mickey Mantle got from something other than misplaced and mindless celebrity worship. He got something far more meaningful. He got love. Love for what he had been, love for what he made us feel, love for the humanity and sweetness that was always there mixed in the flaws and all the pain that racked his body and his soul.
We wanted to tell him that it was OK, that what he had been was enough. We hoped he felt that Mutt Mantle would have understood that Merlyn and the boys loved him. And then in the end, something remarkable happened, the way it does for champions. Mickey Mantle rallied. His heart took over, and he had some innings as fine as any in 1956 or with his buddy, Roger, in 1961.
But this time he did it in the harsh and trying summer of ’95. And what he did was stunning. The sheer grace of that ninth inning, the total absence of self-pity, the simple eloquence and honesty of his pleas to others to take heed of his mistakes.
All of America watched in admiration. His doctors said he was, in many ways, the most remarkable patient they’d ever seen. His bravery so stark and real, that even those used to seeing people in dire circumstances where moved by his example.
Because of that example, organ donations are up drastically all across America. A cautionary tale has been honestly told and perhaps will affect some lives for the better.
And our last memories of Mickey Mantle are as heroic as the first. None of us, Mickey included, would want to be held to account for every moment of our lives. But how many of us could say that our best moments were as magnificent as his?
In a cartoon from this morning’s The Dallas Morning News. Maybe some of you saw it. It got torn a little bit on the way from the hotel to here. There’s a figure here, St. Peter I take it to be, with his arm around Mickey, that broad back and the number 7. We know some of what went on. Sorry, we can’t let you in, but before you go, God wants to know if you’d sign these six dozen baseballs.”
Well, there were days when Mickey Mantle was so darn good that we kids bet that even God would want his autograph. But like the cartoon says, I don’t think Mick needed to worry much about the other part.
I just hope God has a place for him where he can run again. Where he can play practical jokes on his teammates and smile that boyish smile, ’cause God knows, no one’s perfect. And God knows there’s something special about heroes.
So long, Mick. Thanks.