Inheriting Mickey's Mantle: Baseball on Strike
(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 itall 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 gamewhich 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
autographsalways 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 buckthis 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
buma 1952 Topps Mantle, to be exactnow 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
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.
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 admirationor
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
Marisand 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
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
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 familyhe'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.
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