There’s no denying that baseball has lost some of its luster in recent decades, surpassed first by football and later by basketball. It’s still a great game but the idiots did a lot to ruin it, notably canceling the World Series in 1994. A lot of people wandered away and never bothered to come back.
There was a long stretch though where baseball was the unquestioned king of American sport and for postwar kids, the most adored player, with the arguable exception of Jackie Robinson, who was a bit early for many of them, was Mickey Mantle.
Mantle was a rookie in 1951 and soon became a sensation. He was one of history’s great power hitters and perhaps the best switch-hitter of all time.
In 1961, Mantle and teammate Roger Maris were both closing in on Babe Ruth’s iconic single-season home run record. Maris broke it with 61, but Mantle had injuries down the stretch, a problem that hampered his career.
Mantle’s father had died young and he was haunted by the idea that he would as well, which led him to lead something of a wastrel’s life when he wasn’t playing. If you don’t think you’ll be here long, you might do the same.
As it turned out, he made it to 63, but had to get a liver transplant at least partly due to his heavy drinking earlier in life.
Not that most people knew.
In the 1960s, the media was not willing to report on people’s private lives the way it happens now so most of his riotous living was kept out of the news. It was known by the time he got his transplant though and a lot of people were unhappy with a perception that he got to jump up in the line ahead of more deserving candidates.
But on the other hand, it was probably inevitable. By the end of his life, though Mantle looked years older than he actually was, there was an immense reservoir of love and affection for the man and the baby boomers who grew up idolizing him would do anything for their hero. As an adult he was a fallen hero, but for the kids who grew up watching him play in the long, golden afternoons of summer and fall, he was, and ever will be, The Mick.