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Baseball Great Mickey Mantle Dies of Cancer

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Mickey Mantle, an almost mythical baseball star who feared he failed to fulfill career expectations because of alcohol abuse and whose recent years were haunted by self-recrimination, died of cancer early Sunday morning. He was 63.

The former New York Yankee center fielder and a member of baseball’s Hall of Fame had undergone transplant surgery June 8 to replace a liver ravaged by cancer, hepatitis and cirrhosis, but after being discharged from Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas on June 28, he soon developed anemia as the result of chemotherapy treatments and the cancer was found to have spread throughout his body.

“It was everywhere--all vital organs were affected,” Dr. Daniel DeMarco, a gastroenterologist at Baylor, said Sunday.

Dr. Goran Klintmalm, director of transplant surgery at Baylor, said Mantle would not have received the donor liver--even though his life was at stake--if there had been evidence that the cancer had spread, but “we had no reason--not even in retrospect--to see any evidence of that. This was the most aggressive cancer that anyone on the medical team has ever seen.”

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Klintmalm said there was no way of knowing whether the chemotherapy that was meant to fight the cancer assisted the spread instead.

“We can only speculate,” Klintmalm said. “I think his tumor would have taken this course no matter what.”

Appearing gaunt and frail, Mantle said at a July 28 news conference that he had squandered a gifted life and warned admirers that he was no role model.

“God gave me the ability to play baseball. God gave me everything,” he said. “For the kids out there . . . don’t be like me.”

How many wished they could, however.

Signed as a teen-age shortstop off the Oklahoma sandlots for $1,100, Mickey Charles Mantle ultimately perpetuated that royal lineage of Yankee immortals.

He succeeded Joe DiMaggio in center field and blazed a Hall of Fame career built on power and speed, a career remembered by many, including Mantle, in a context of what might have been.

Five operations on his right knee, the first as a 19-year-old rookie in 1951, eroded much of his speed and power. Alcohol and late nights cut into what was left.

He was haunted by the genetic specter of Hodgkin’s disease--"If I had known I was going to live past 50, I’d have taken better care of myself,” he often said--and the pressure of fulfilling the expectations of his father and others.

Former Brooklyn and Los Angeles Dodger General Manager Buzzie Bavasi said of Mantle:

“If he had been healthy, he would have reached the same stratosphere as Babe Ruth.”

Wrote Mantle, in a first-person article for Sports Illustrated last year:

“When I retired in the spring of ’69 I was 37. Casey [Stengel, the Yankee manager] had said when I came up, ‘This guy’s going to be better than Joe DiMaggio and Babe Ruth.’ It didn’t happen. I never fulfilled what my dad had wanted, and I should have. God gave me a great body to play with, and I didn’t take care of it. And I blame a lot of it on alcohol.

“My last four or five years with the Yankees, I didn’t realize I was ruining myself with all the drinking. I just thought, this is fun. Hell, I used to see guys come into Yankee Stadium from Detroit or Chicago; they’d be out taking batting practice, all of them with hangovers. But today I can admit that all the drinking shortened my career.

“I mean, everybody tries to make the excuse that injuries shortened my career. Truth is, after I’d had a knee operation, the doctors would give me rehab work to do, but I wouldn’t do it. I’d be out drinking. The first time I hurt my knee, in the ’51 World Series, I was only 19. I thought, hey, I’ll be all right. I hurt my knees again through the years, and I just thought they’d naturally come back. Everything had always come natural to me. I didn’t work hard at it. I did nothing to strengthen my knees. I never followed the rehab. I never lifted weights.

“When the last World Series game was over, I didn’t think about baseball until the spring. I blame that on stupidity.”

Mantle, however, would also blame his knee problems, in part, on DiMaggio. The two Yankee center fielders never became close. Mantle long harbored a resentment over his first knee injury in Game 2 of the 1951 World Series against the New York Giants when he had to stop short to avoid a collision with DiMaggio in pursuit of a fly ball hit by Willie Mays, slipped on a sprinkler head and damaged the knee.

“DiMaggio always wanted to look good out there,” Mantle told Roger Kahn in his book, “The Era, 1947-1957.”

“That was very important to him. So he waited to call Willie’s fly until he was damn sure he could reach it in stride. That’s why I had to stop so short. If DiMaggio called for it earlier--or if DiMaggio backed off and let me take it--I don’t believe I woulda hurt my knee.”

Kahn wrote that Mantle then looked into a glass of Jack Daniels and said, “Damn.”

For many of those years, during and after his playing days, which lasted from 1951-68, Mantle once said he was something of a cartoon character, and it was not until he entered the Betty Ford Center and found sobriety that he became a real person.

Mantle’s regret-laced reminiscences may have been too harsh.

Seldom has there been a more popular or storied performer. He hit 536 home runs to rank eighth on the all-time list. A prodigious homer in old Griffith Stadium in Washington gave birth to the tape-measure home run when the late Red Patterson, then Yankee publicist, measured it at 565 feet.

He launched a legendary rocket at the pre-renovated Yankee Stadium that nearly cleared the upper deck in right field, caroming off the facade. He was Mr. October long before that sobriquet was applied to Reggie Jackson.

Mantle, as the centerpiece of the last Yankee dynasty, played in 12 of 14 World Series between 1951 and 1964, setting a series record with 18 homers.

He holds four other World Series records, for most runs, runs batted in, total bases and strikeouts.

He won the American League’s most valuable player award three times and the triple crown in 1956 with a .353 average, 52 home runs and 130 RBIs. When teammate Roger Maris broke Ruth’s record by hitting 61 home runs in 1961, Mantle hit 54, his own pursuit of Ruth’s record curtailed by an infection late in the season.

He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1974.

Former Yankee star Tommy Heinrich once said that watching a young Mantle hit baseballs was like watching him hit golf balls off a tee.

It was a different era when Mantle made his debut at 19. The electronic media were just starting to plug in. A celebrity could still live something of a private life. A periodic binge did not carry the stigma it now does. Mantle and teammate Billy Martin and friends could engage in a brawl at the legendary Copacabana nightclub in Manhattan without it dominating the headlines for more than a few days.

Mantle, who was born Oct. 20, 1931, left small-town Oklahoma for the biggest of the big cities as something of a hayseed, longtime teammate Whitey Ford once said. Friends and teammates, people he didn’t know, put drinks in front of him, and Mantle quickly adapted to the new lifestyle. Play hard. Live hard.

The drinking turned serious when his father, Mutt, a tough and demanding miner who had enough energy after long days underground to pitch back-yard batting practice to his son as dinner turned cold, died of Hodgkin’s disease at 39, soon after Mantle’s rookie season. “I was devastated, and that’s when I started drinking,” Mantle wrote in the Sports Illustrated article. “I guess alcohol helped me escape the pain of losing him.”

And coping with the genetic time bomb. A grandfather died of Hodgkin’s disease at 40. Two uncles died of the same lymphatic cancer before they were 40.

Billy Mantle, one of Mickey’s three sons, battled the disease, became addicted to a painkiller and died of a heart attack at 36 in 1994.

Danny, another son, also went through Betty Ford and prodded his father to take the treatment.

“One of my biggest regrets is that I wasn’t more of a father to the boys,” Mantle once said. “I don’t ever remember playing catch with them in the back yard. I’d invite them to lunch, which meant we shared drinks. If I hadn’t always been drinking, I might have helped Billy get off the drugs, and Danny might never have had to go through Betty Ford.”

Instead, the years after his retirement became a blur, events of the preceding night forgotten the next morning.

Mantle found new reasons to drink. To steady his nerves at public appearances. To cope with the “emptiness and loneliness” when there wasn’t an appearance.

At his restaurant in Manhattan, Mantle and his best drinking buddy, Martin, started many mornings with what they called the breakfast of champions--a shot or more of brandy mixed with Kahlua and cream. They joked about whose liver would go first. Martin was killed in an alcohol-related car accident in 1989.

For Mantle, the sobriety he found at Betty Ford came with regret and recrimination, but also the hope that his final years would generate new and clearer memories to be remembered and savored. Unfortunately, he did not have much time to enjoy that sobriety, but Klintmalm, the Baylor surgeon, said Mantle’s “ultimate home run” may be the impact his illness has had already and will continue to have on organ donations.

Mantle is survived by his wife, Merlyn, and three sons, Danny, David and Mickey Jr.

The funeral is scheduled for Tuesday in Dallas.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

* RELATED STORIES: C1, C12


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