In some ways, it is an embarrassing admission made here, embarrassing that after watching thousands of games and tens of thousands of players and after developing a strong sense of objectivity demanded by my job, that myopic hero worship still pulses through my brain. Not that embarrassing, though.
Mickey Mantle shaped my life as much as any person did and more than most. Reading was necessary to learn of his exploits, long division was needed to know his batting average at all hours of the day. Use of scissors, rubber cement and/or mucilage was essential for filling scrapbooks. Positioning photographs for optimum effect on scrapbook pages at age 9 probably helped me lay out newspaper pages 20 years later.
I was a hands-on devotee. Thanks, Mick.
Whitey Ford and Vada Pinson were my favorite players; Mick was something well beyond that. And I hardly was alone in that regard. Even the Willie Mays advocates in the neighborhood had to acknowledge Mick, especially in October when Mickey was the participating idol and Willie was merely idle.
Of course, I learned to recognize Willie's grandeur. And I acknowledge that his regular-season career accomplishments exceed those of my hero. When Mick, Willie and Duke Snider, the other third of the center-field triumvirate, attended the 1995 dinner staged by the New York chapter of the Baseball Writers' Association of America, Mick said, "Willie was the best of us."
I scolded him that night. "Willie had a better career," I told him. "You had better seasons."
* * * * *
A favorite anecdote about Mick comes from a favorite source for anecdotes, Tim McCarver. His Cardinals and the Yankees were playing in the 1964 World Series. Game 1 was in St. Louis. Ray Sadecki retired the first two Yankees hitters, then walked Roger Maris.
"I'd played against Willie and Henry Aaron. Stan Musial was my teammate," McCarver said years ago. "I'd faced Warren Spahn. I'd been in the big leagues for five years so I had a sense that I belonged. After Maris walked, I threw the ball back to Sadecki and squatted behind the plate. Then I looked up.
"Mickey Mantle was right there. Mickey Mantle. I could have touched him."
Then McCarver's voice jumped a few octaves as it still does when he's excited. "Mickey Mantle." Most kids in the Bronx shared that feeling.
* * * * *
My lasting gratitude to Claire Smith, then of the New York Times, chairman of the chapter and emcee at the dinner. She asked that I introduce the three center fielders who had prompted so many passionate debates on street corners in the five boroughs 40 years earlier.
I presented Duke without a hitch -- "Brooklyn loved the Dodgers the way Green Bay loves the Packers, Montreal loves the Canadiens and as mothers love their children." -- and went on from there.
The words for Willie were these: "I never wanted to see Willie hit one out and jog around the bases. I wanted to see a triple with that distinctive running style and with his cap flying off." And so on.
I had saved Mick for last; my rationalization was that it was a Yankees crowd. Mick later scolded me for that -- though with gratitude. I spoke of how my father had brought each of the seven New York dailies home each night -- they were secondhand acquisitions -- to feed my No. 7 habit. I said Mick had been my Superman, truth, justice and the American League, and that I wouldn't have been attracted to journalism if not for him. I went on and on.
The three of them never had shared a dais previously, they said. That night, they shared thunderous applause and appreciation. And swallowing normally became a challenge for me.
After the dinner ended, the writers moved to Mick's restaurant on Central Park South. Mick was on the wagon then, having finally heeded the advice of his doctors. With a glass of club soda in his hand, he approached, and began his modest, everyman spiel. "I still don't understand why people think I'm so important," he said. "Hell, I haven't had a hit 30 years."
Phil Pepe had covered Mick's last eight seasons and knew him well; he said Mick never was comfortable with his coast-to-coast celebrity. But how could he defend against it? Until some people began judging how he had lived his life, with baseball and a bar so prominent, almost anything he did or said was met with approval and belly laughs. The power of his celebrity had exceeded the extraordinary power of his swing.
Too often, he was in a haze and not fully responsible for what came out of his mouth. I heard tales of deplorable behavior and didn't doubt them. I never witnessed him berating or insulting anyone, though. I'm proud to say my hero treated me well, shared stories and wonderful jokes -- he had great timing, filled my mental notebooks and made No. 7 the digit of unending distinction for me.
Mick and I spoke for 10 minutes at his restaurant that night, seven months before cancer took him. His last words to me were, "You always write such nice things about me, and hell, you never even covered me."
Mine to him were: "Ya know, if I had, I would have thought you were an S.O.B."
We shook hands, laughing.