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Inheriting Mickey's Mantle: Baseball on Strike

by Deuce of Clubs

(First published in Planet Magazine, 28mar1995)

 

My mother likes to tell how, at the end of any playing of "The Star- Spangled Banner," a preschool-aged DoC never failed to howl, "PLAY BALL!" By the end of an obsessive pre-teen career I had managed to accumulate over 20,000 baseball cards. I loved baseball.

I still love baseball. Like lots of people, I taped Ken Burns' Baseball documentary. Unlike lots of people, I actually watched it—all eighteen hours of it. And one thing I learned was that baseball isn't what it once was. Not that the game itself has changed much; it hasn't. But today's major leaguers are unworthy caretakers of the game—which is really saying something, considering that the caretakers of baseball's past include such heroically-flawed individuals as Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, and the John the Baptist of today's prima donna big leaguers, Mickey Mantle.

An especially toasty place in Deuce of Clubs Purgatory is reserved for Mickey Mantle, for as any parochial school kid will tell you, it's a mortal sin to steal baseball cards from a grade-schooler. Especially if you're an adult.

You see, I used to send cards to players for their autographs—always being sure to include a stamped return envelope so that all the guy had to do was sign his name, seal an envelope, and drop it in the mail. I wasn't trying to make a buck—this was before the days of evil, backstabbing, kid-cheating adult card dealers. I was just a guileless little baseball worshipper. Besides, most of the players I wrote to were retired, and glad of any attention they got. One particularly lonely ex-player even put me on his Christmas card list.

One day I sent Mickey Mantle about a dozen or so cards to sign. Weeks, then months, went by. Nothing. Some time later I read somewhere that Mantle routinely ignored autograph requests and simply kept for himself any cards, photos, or other mementos people sent him.

I was crushed.

Now, if I were a lyrical baseball memoirist like Roger Kahn or Thomas Boswell, I'd poeticize over Mantle's theft of my childhood innocence and my belief in the Hero. But since I am only base and jaded DoC, you know you can trust me not to get all weepy on you. Make no mistake, I'm still crushed, but mainly because one of the cards I sent the bum—a 1952 Topps Mantle, to be exact—now sells at auction for upwards of $40,000. Mantle certainly doesn't need the money. I just got laid off.

Even years after the theft, Mantle just couldn't stop celebrating.

Mantle's attitude set the tone for the generations of ballplayers who came after him. Now, thanks to a strike pitting greedy, too-rich players against greedy, too-rich owners, baseball's reputation is at its lowest point since the Black Sox scandal three-quarters of a century ago, when it was discovered that some Chicago White Sox players had conspired to lose the 1919 World Series. To avoid Congressional intervention, the team owners created the office of Commissioner of Baseball and hired stern Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis to clean things up and restore baseball's good name.

God didn't make many like Kenesaw Mountain Landis, and they seem in especially short supply now. So who's going to keep Congress's noses out of it this time? The game is currently without a commissioner, and only President Clinchpoop seems to want the job. But the guy can't even do the job he already has, and, besides, I don't recall any constitutional amendment giving the President of the United States the power, much less the duty, of ensuring that grown men in knee-high knickers and sanitary socks continue to take up ball and bat for the betterment of the general welfare.

Monte Irvin advises DoC: "Quitcher whinin'—it coulda been SEVENTY. Errr, eighty!"

Therefore, being out of a job myself, I'd like to offer my services. As your new Commissioner of Baseball, I'd really clean house. I'd make Judge Landis look like Barney Fife. Landis banned a few players from baseball for life; I'd ban the lot of them. And the owners. In fact, I'd disband the major leagues altogether. Oh, we'd still have baseball. But it would be baseball with a small b. Local baseball. Real baseball.

Minor league play would undoubtedly improve, augmented by those (probably few) former major leaguers willing to play baseball for a working man's salary and sheer love of the game. I love the image of Rickey Henderson taking five- hundred-mile bus rides to games that wouldn't even be televised. But can you imagine him actually doing it? Neither can I. So I say to the big leaguers: go ahead and stay on strike. Go work in a factory, Henderson, you piker— you and every other showboating, money-grubbing, self-worshipping little whineyboy. [Oops. See below...]

Maybe we've been reaping a whirlwind. Maybe we created the New Athlete by offering them too much of our admiration—or adoration. Maybe we should learn a lesson from the Catholics, who never canonize anyone who isn't safely deceased and therefore unable to do anything that would embarrass their devotion. Or maybe, instead of individual players, we should canonize the game itself, keeping it safely frozen in memory. Maybe baseball is a thing best loved in hindsight. As Bogie and Bergman would always have Paris, so we'll always have Maris—and Koufax and Gehrig and Robinson and all the rest of baseball's rich past.

I didn't get my cards back from Mickey Mantle, but I got something better: I got a little wiser. I learned the difference between a game and life. Sure, the big, rich ballplayer got my cards. But he also ended up with the complexion of Teddy Kennedy, the knees of Joe Namath, and the conscience of Oscar Levant. And you know what, Mickey? I don't care any more, and I wish everyone else would stop caring, too.


Postscript—1996

I know, I know. What can I say, it wasn't the most temperate article I ever wrote. That last bit was especially uncalled for. But how was I to know that immediately after my article was published, it would be announced that Mickey Mantle was dying? What a lousy time for him to die! I thought. (Mickey probably thought so, too.)

And boy, did I hear from people. One letter, from a friend of Mantle's, was especially interesting. This person told me that it was Mantle's sons who used to help themselves to baseball cards and any other items that caught their eye from among the things sent to Mantle by fans. That began a change in my opinion of Mantle that continued when he began to speak publicly and candidly about himself, honestly appraising his life and appearing genuinely regretful about how he had misspent his talent and mistreated his family—he'd been a Big Leaguer when it came to booze, too.

Growing up, I was a Dodger fan. I hated the Yankees. Damn Yankees was one of my favorite old movies when I was a kid. Though I was too young to have ever experienced the old Dodgers-Yankees rivalry, I read about it and absorbed it. I had never liked Mantle and his kind.

But seeing this dying man publicly humbling himself, apologizing for his wrongs, and exhorting others not to follow in his footsteps, softened my attitude towards him.

Not that what I wrote would have been right even if Mantle had died unrepentant, but now I regret, even more than I would have, writing such harsh words about the man. I hope he somehow finds the peace that eluded him in this life. R.I.P., #7.


Update, 31may2003: OH-FOR-TOO!

Good god, do I suck. I was wrong about Henderson, too, according to this 24apr2003 news story: NEW YORK - Rickey Henderson wants another chance to reach the major leagues - even if it means starting over on the lowest rung of the minors, playing with guys half his age and making only $3,000 a month. The 44-year-old Henderson signed with the Newark Bears of the independent Atlantic League on Wednesday, hoping it will help him attract interest from the majors sometime during the season.

During today's game between the Pirates and the Cardinals, the announcer said, "He's making $3,000 a month, riding the buses..." Ouch. Had to mention the buses. My sincere apologies to Mr. Henderson. Respect.

© Deuce of Clubs


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