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Liguori: Mickey Mantle — The Tragic Hero

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By Ann Liguori
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Jane Leavy’s new biography ‘The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America’s Childhood’ is a most enjoyable read and certainly deserving of all the praise and accolades. Leavy captured the true essence of one of the most beloved sports figures of our time.  As she described: “Mantle fit the classical definition of a tragic hero – he was so gifted, so flawed, so damaged, so beautiful.”

Mickey Mantle was indeed a tragic hero. I can’t think of a legend in sports who had more charisma and charm on the outside yet seemed so tortured on the inside.

I first met Mickey Mantle when his restaurant opened on Central Park South in Manhattan in the mid-eighties. Most of the time when he was at his restaurant, he was huddled in the back in a roped-off section, talking with businessmen. But anytime I had a question for him or wanted to introduce family or friends to him, Mickey always made himself available and could not have been nicer.   When my Sports Innerview with Ann Liguori cable series was set to launch in the fall of 1989 on MSG Network, there was no question that if I could get Mickey Mantle to agree to be my very first guest, my new weekly cable series would get off to an incredible start. I knew he would be an outstanding storyteller, honest and endearing. I was thrilled when he agreed to do the interview. But at the time, I had no idea how honest and generous he would be with his answers as we covered a variety of areas in his life. We discussed his personal health fears and his father’s passing. He teared up when he spoke about his son Billy struggling with non-Hodgkins lymphoma. (Billy Mantle died of heart problems in 1994 at the age of 36, brought on by years of substance abuse). Mickey also got sentimental when he talked about his friendship with Roger Maris and the public misperception that they were enemies. We discussed how the game had changed since he had played and what changes he did not like, his thoughts on George Steinbrenner and on the issues of the day. I left that interview thinking I had hit a home run!

Years later, it was sad to watch his health decline and to hear the press conference toward the end of his life where he told his fans not to be like him. It broke the hearts of thousands of his fans.

Mickey was the first sports personality in my lifetime who deeply disappointed me when I discovered his flaws.  As much as I adore sports, I was not one to place sports stars on high pedestals. Yes, I admire their talent and skills in their particular sport but I usually learned too much about many of them that were anything but admirable to ‘hero worship.’  And maybe that notion does not even exist anymore as more and more sports stars reveal just how human and flawed they really are. Do kids really worship these athletes today or can they quickly distinguish the good, the bad and the ugly and not be overly influenced by the bad and the ugly? Can kids compartmentalize their admiration of these stars? Can they solely focus on their performances on the field or do they idolize them so much, that they want to emulate their every move, good or bad?

Mantle was a true American hero.  His successes on the field were equaled by his charm and good ol’ boy personality. Many guys growing up watching him wanted to be Mickey Mantle. And many girls wanted to marry him. He could do no wrong.

A week after I did the interview with him in 1989, I received a phone call and to my surprise, a familiar voice was on the line. ‘Hi Ann. It’s The Mick. Let’s have dinner.” Wow, I thought. What an invitation! Who wouldn’t drop everything and go to dinner with Mickey Mantle?  But I knew his wife Merlyn and his sons and I had met Greer Johnson at various events in New York, his mistress and agent, and I figured that it was better to decline. “No thank you Mick,” I said.  “I have to cover a Knicks game…” But Mick was true to form and issued a comeback line that still makes me laugh when I think about it. He did not waste a beat before he asked, “Well if you can’t go out with me, how about your friend Janice?”

That was The Mick.  Good behavior or bad, as the back of Jane Leavy’s book jacket describes, Mickey had a “mystifying hold on a generation of baseball fans, who were seduced by that lopsided, gap-toothed grin.”

At the end, he felt he let his father down. He felt he let his wife and kids down. He felt he let his fans down. What a pity. He had every reason to be high on life but instead, allowed alcohol to destroy it.

If you would like to order the interview Ann did with Mickey Mantle, available on DVD, email her at innerview@aol.com.