Mickey Mantle’s Last Victory – James Campion’s look at Mantle’s fight with alcoholism.

North County 3/23/94


Mickey MantleMickey Mantle, baseball icon and hero of millions, is an alcoholic. He’s been an alcoholic most of his adult life; a life spent in the public eye. Mantle’s name has been synonymous with long homers and fast living. He recently admitted to being a victim of this very common and deadly disease by entering the Betty Ford Clinic for Substance Abuse. At 63 years of age, The Mick has had enough.

The most celebrated athlete of the Baby Boomer generation, Mantle has made three times the money signing his name, or making appearances than he ever did playing the game. From the spring of 1951, when he was a fresh-faced kid from the wheat fields of Oklahoma, to this day, no athlete has captured the reverence of baseball fans like the Commerce Comet. This humble cry for help has already echoed through the community of his faithful everywhere.

Hopefully someone is listening.

There is always the age-old argument that athletes have a responsibility to be the best role models possible, mainly because most sports fans start so young. This topic has surfaced again with NBA stars now that basketball is the game of choice for today’s kids. But in the 50s’ and 60s’, when Mantle was building his considerable legend, baseball was the nation’s passion. Every kid wanted to be #7. In 1956 he was the Triple Crown winner, the best player on the planet, and fast becoming an addict.

Mickey didn’t do much talking then, his actions on the field spoke louder than words. His actions off the field had a voice as well. Just not as loud. Turning away from his life inside a bottle of booze should be his most vociferous act. Although I do not believe being a world class athlete puts you in charge of the youth of America, or bestows the responsibility of becoming a walking billboard for alcohol intolerance; an icon recovering from harmful vice puts him in a position to help others. Many others.

Alcoholism is a pitch that Mickey Mantle, owner of 536 career home runs, could not handle. He was not a god after all, but a man, a man with a problem. A man with a problem he no longer wishes to endure.

Hopefully someone is listening.

All those kids who grew up with The Mick are now approaching middle age, with kids of their own, facing similar decisions about social behavior. Mantle came from an era when it was expected of a baseball star to frequent the many watering holes of their town. Throwing back a few with the boys was not only accepted as normal manly behavior, it was expected. Mickey, and teammates Whitey Ford and Billy Martin could be seen whooping it up anywhere from Toot Shur’s famous jock lounge to the trendy glitz of the Copacabana. Sometimes it was a few laughs, other times it was brawls, and cops, and ugly headlines.

Five years ago Martin died when a pickup truck he was allegedly driving from a bar ended up in a ditch. Ford is still battling. Mickey just lost his 26 year-old son, Billy, whom he named after his best drinking buddy. He died of an apparent heart attack in a detox center for substance abuse. Mantle did not want to end up in a ditch, or battle with Whitey anymore. He buried his son, but perhaps he can help prevent it from happening to another man’s son.

Hopefully someone is listening.

It is a fact that beer companies are the most powerful influence on professional sports today. Their advertising dollars allow networks to pay billions to carry these sports to the public. The owners turn around and dish a hefty portion of that bundle to their rich superstars. Every ball park, stadium, and arena hawks beer from vendors on up to those monstrous ads that line the walls of these places.

A couple of years ago the networks were preparing to scramble signals so that satellite dish owners around the country would eventually have to go through a pay-per-view process to watch an out-of-town game. About half those dish owners happen to be bars, whose Sunday business during football (gambling) season might fall off. No games, no drinking. The beer companies threatened to pull sponsorship. The games stayed.

It is in the face of that type of power and influence that Mantle must educate his fans on the dangers of alcoholism. Some studies have found that more people each year die from alcohol-related incidents than die of cancer, aids, or illegal drugs. Alcoholism is a pitch that Mickey Mantle, owner of 536 career home runs, could not handle. He was not a god after all, but a man, a man with a problem. A man with a problem he no longer wishes to endure.

Mantle doesn’t suddenly become responsible for the frailties of his fans. Just because he has made his mistakes in public does not mean he must answer for the dangers of alcohol; but by simply being a beloved celebrity of so many sports fans everywhere he should tell his story. He should tell it over and over again. He spent his life telling humorous stories of his exploits on the town. Now that his drinking life has nearly beaten him down, he can rebuild by talking about the other side.

It would be his greatest triumph.

Hopefully someone is listening.

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