Mickey Mantle’s Regrets
In 1994, a year before his death from alcohol-induced cirrhosis, hepatitis C and inoperable liver cancer, Mickey Mantle gave a remorseful interview to Sports Illustrated. The New York Yankees superstar center fielder and first-ballot Hall of Fame inductee recounted his life as an alcoholic with brutal candor. Mantle admitted that because of alcohol abuse, he ended up “killing himself.”
Except to other alcoholics, Mantle’s confession about how drinking kept him from living a more fulfilling life and ruptured his relationships with friends and family doesn’t square with baseball diamond fame. Mantle began some of his mornings with what he called the “breakfast of champions,” a big glass filled with a shot or more of brandy, some Kahlúa and cream. Yankees’ second baseman Billy Martin, a regular drinking partner, and Mantle would stop at Mickey’s Central Park South restaurant where the bartender blended the ingredients and served them up. As Mickey remembered, the frozen drinks “tasted real good.”
Mantle’s “breakfast of champions” was the first of many drinks he threw back each day. Inevitably, Mickey’s heavy drinking led to long blackout periods. By his own admission, Mantle would forget what day it was, what city he was in and about his commitments to appear at baseball card signing shows, although he eventually showed up. The best man at Martin’s 1988 wedding, Mantle “hardly remember(ed) being there.” One year later, Mantle served as a pallbearer at Martin’s funeral. Billy had been killed in a single vehicle automobile accident on Christmas Day. Although there is some dispute about whether Martin or his friend Bill Reedy drove, no one questions that the pair had been drinking heavily in the hours before the fatal crash.
After Mantle retired, his drinking became, in his words, “really bad.” He went through a deep depression. Teammates Billy, Whitey Ford, Hank Bauer and Moose Skowron were part of his past life, and leaving those guys “left a hole in me.” Mantle tried to fill up his baseball emptiness with nonstop alcohol intake.
The older Mantle got, the more he drank. Family and friends begged Mantle to get help. But Mantle stubbornly refused. Like too many alcoholics, Mantle foolishly convinced himself that he could stop whenever he wanted. But at a charity golf outing for the Harbor Club Children’s Christmas Fund near Atlanta, Mantle hit bottom. He drank Bloody Marys in the morning, and then downed two bottles of wine in the afternoon. At the card show that evening, Mantle embarrassed himself with his obnoxious, drunken behavior. In his alcohol-fueled stupors, Mantle often berated autograph seekers, a shock to his fans who cherished his image as a homey, blond-hair, crewcut Oklahoma kid.
Atlanta was an overdue awakening for Mantle. Finally seeking guidance, Mantle approached his son Danny who had been treated at the Betty Ford Center. Three of Mantle’s four sons and his wife Merlyn were also alcoholics. While Mantle deliberated about checking into the Betty Ford Center, his doctor gave him his MRI results: Mickey needed a liver transplant.
Once at Betty Ford, Mantle confronted his uncomfortable truth. Mantle admitted that, as he told Sports Illustrated, “he really screwed up,” was a lousy family man, and preferred running around with his baseball buddies. Envisioning his life as a sober, responsible Mantle, Mickey had big plans, but did not live long enough to realize them to the fullest. His goal was to stay sober, be strong and make amends. At his final press conference, Mantle said to an audience aghast at his wasted-away body: “This is a role model: Don’t be like me.”
Today, Mantle is remembered mostly for his brilliant baseball achievements: 20 All-Star games, three AL MVP awards including one in his 1956 Triple Crown season, seven World Series championship rings, four AL Home Run crowns, and a first ballot Hall of Fame inductee.
But for the millions of Americans suffering from alcoholism, Mantle’s ability to overcome — although too late to save his life — is a bigger triumph than any of his baseball feats. For more information, go to the National Alcohol Awareness Month website here.
Joe Guzzardi is a Society for American Baseball Research and Internet Baseball Writers Association member. Contact him at email@example.com.