‘Mantle’: The man behind the myth

Times Staff Writer

When a man of a certain age says he dreamed of playing centerfield for the New York Yankees, what he really means is that he wanted to be Mickey Mantle.

For boys growing up in the 1950s and ‘60s, Mantle was a mythic, Bunyanesque figure who swatted monumental homers from both sides of the plate with seeming ease and chased down fly balls with the tenacity of a bounty hunter. The boys would incessantly mimic their idol, from the switch-hitter’s powerful stance and forceful swing down to the cautious home-run trot he enacted on injury-ravaged knees later in his career.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. July 14, 2005 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday July 14, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 38 words Type of Material: Correction
“Mantle” -- A review of the HBO documentary “Mantle” in Wednesday’s Calendar section referred to a time when retired baseball star Mickey Mantle was undergoing a kidney transplant and fighting cancer. In fact, he’d had a liver transplant.

Those dichotomous images of the great athlete brought to earthbound levels capture the decline of the on-field Mantle but only hint at what was happening off. HBO’s “Mantle” is the Brothers Grimm version of the fable, equal parts hero-building nostalgia and darker, dancing-with-demons myth-busting. The hourlong documentary casts Mantle as a tragic hero through interviews with his family; former teammates such as Whitey Ford, Johnny Blanchard, Moose Skowron, Joe Pepitone and Yogi Berra; and the media that lionized him, along with clips of Mickey on and off the field.


A towheaded phenom born and raised in Dust Bowl-era Oklahoma, Mantle was named after Hall of Fame catcher Mickey Cochrane and had all the physical tools to be a major leaguer. He arrived in New York in 1951 at the age of 19 and was handed a pin-striped jersey with the number 6 -- the clear insinuation being that he was expected to follow in the footsteps of numbers 3, 4 and 5, Yankee legends Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Joe DiMaggio.

After returning from a stint in the minors and donning the now familiar number 7, Mantle roamed Yankee Stadium with speed and power, earning three American League Most Valuable Player Awards while leading the Bronx Bombers to seven World Series victories. If his predecessor DiMaggio (hero of an earlier generation) moved with the loping grace of a gazelle, the Mick resembled a streamlined locomotive.

The public Mantle, however, was very different from his image and he struggled with being in the limelight. An introvert, he often drank to deal with public appearances, but paradoxically didn’t shy away from doing endorsements. He ran with a fast group of hell-raising teammates including Ford and Billy Martin, and late nights hanging out with Frank Sinatra at Toots Shor’s restaurant or brawls at the Copacabana were not uncommon. Their exploits were often splashed across the next day’s newspapers, sometimes eclipsing the result of the game.

When Mantle finally retired in 1969, he told the crowd at Yankee Stadium, “I often wondered how a man who knew that he was going to die could stand here and say he was the luckiest man in the world. But now I think I know how Lou Gehrig felt.”

It tore Mantle up that during his final seasons, when he was a .250 hitter who never again hit more than 23 homers in a season, his career average dipped below .300. Despite Mantle’s baseball accomplishments, there is a sense of unfulfilled promise, that not only did he not remain healthy long enough to post Ruthian career numbers but that it was his shortcomings as a husband and father that ultimately weighed most heavily on him.

Sentimental, but to the point, “Mantle” features the measured solemnity of HBO Sports’ house narrator, Liev Schreiber; ardent commentator Bob Costas, who delivered Mantle’s eulogy in 1995; and the usual celebrity interviews with the likes of Billy Crystal (who directed the HBO movie, “61*,” about Mantle and Roger Maris’ pursuit of Babe Ruth’s single-season home run record), Richard Lewis and Ed Harris. In a longer show it would have been worthwhile to hear more from Bobby Murcer, the player who was asked to fill Mantle’s shoes much as Mickey had been expected to fill Joe D’s.

Mantle’s friends and family say that it was at the end of his life, when he was undergoing a kidney transplant and fighting cancer, that the Mick was at his best. It was probably only at that time, or through the challenges in their own lives, that all those little boys from long ago realized that being Mickey Mantle was a lot tougher than it looked.



Where: HBO

When: 9-10 p.m. tonight

Ratings: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)

Narrator...Liev Schreiber

Executive producers Ross Greenburg and Rick Bernstein. Writer Steven Stern.