McCartney versus Lennon. Nixon versus Kennedy. Coke versus Pepsi. The Dallas Cowboys versus anybody.
For generations, Americans have stood up and taken sides when it comes to personalities, politics and carbonated sodas--in the process, helping define themselves and their value systems.
The concurrent deaths of Jerry Garcia and Mickey Mantle, two beloved but all-too-often tipsy American icons of the latter 20th Century, give the public yet another--totally coincidental--chance to take a stand.
On the surface, the unlikely competition may seem no contest.
Mantle, after all, was associated with the traditional all-American pursuits. Baseball, hot dogs, apple pie, hard liquor.
Garcia, on the other hand, was irrevocably linked to sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll.
The Yankee center fielder’s on-field exploits were also undeniable.
When it came to crunch time--the World Series--The Mick holds the career records for most home runs, runs scored, runs batted in, walks and, ah yes, strikeouts.
Garcia and the Grateful Dead, meanwhile, performed poorly at Woodstock, not even making the filmed highlight reel. As for Woodstock II, they didn’t return.
But look just a little bit further.
Baseball superstars come and go. Music, to paraphrase Buddy Holly, does not fade away. And so it is that in an era of shifting values and cultural imperatives, the Grateful Dead guitarist will likely prove the more lasting and important figure.
Sure, Garcia and his band had only one Top 10 hit in their three-decade career. But for all of Mantle’s 2,415 career hits, no one will hum any of them for generations to come.
Garcia, for that matter, had more records over the course of his career, nearly three dozen, including such classics as “Workingman’s Dead” and “American Beauty.”
Mantle swung with a rare grace but needed a massive hunk of lumber to club the ball. Garcia, despite his teddy bear girth, could waft a panoply of heart-stirring notes across the width and breadth of a stadium using a plastic pick the size of a Frito.
During their time in the limelight, Mantle was not a match for Garcia popularity-wise either. When the New York Yankees played in Boston, Chicago or Detroit, Mick and the gang were often booed. People didn’t boo at Grateful Dead concerts (although the music may have been too loud to provide scientific proof). Mantle played in pain in a good share of his 2,401 games, but unlike Lou Gehrig, he did sit out occasionally. Garcia, on the other hand, never missed a Grateful Dead concert, more than 2,000 of them.
Talk about a valuable player. If Mantle was hung over and couldn’t play, no one called off the ballgame. When Garcia was in a coma, the San Francisco Dead’s rhythm guitarist, bassist, organist and dual drummers all stayed home. (Indeed, with Garcia’s demise, the franchise itself is in mortal peril.)
And talk about a streak. Almost 30 years of touring and recording. Yet at the time of his death, Garcia was the leader of a band that remained--in terms of cold, hard ticket sales--the most popular live entertaining group in the world.
Did Mantle’s career last 30 years? Did the Yankees dynasty last 30 years? What at all in this fast-food culture known as America lasts 30 years, besides home mortgages and the Dead?
As for the hereafter, the evidence is swiftly accumulating.
Mantle may have owned a bar, but he never had a popular treat named after him. Cherry Garcia ice cream--with a butterfat content that jumps off the charts--is titled in Garcia’s honor.
After Mantle died, the Yankees wore black armbands. When Garcia died, the Republican governor of Massachusetts donned a black armband.
There were no tearful candlelight vigils for The Mick, just his face on DiamondVision as baseball fans swilled beer and downed dogs. With Garcia, computer networks nationwide nearly crashed due to an overload of grief-stricken messages.
Flags flew at half-staff for the baseball and rock hall of famers. But in the guitarist’s case, it was a tie-dyed flag, symbolic--as were he and the Dead--of the counterculture of the ‘60s, an era when people truly believed in a kindler, gentler nation.
It’s this simple:
Sports, by and large, stir the competitive juices. But music can stir souls.
In the end, Mantle’s closed casket was covered with yellow roses and nearby arrangements featured the number of his jersey--7.
Garcia wore his uniform beyond the end. At his open-casket funeral, with Bob Dylan, Ken Kesey and Bill Walton looking on, the roly-poly guitarist’s body was garbed in his signature game outfit, one that never had, and never needed, a number: a simple black T-shirt.