Who Could Forget the Mick?

FOXsports.com  |  August 13, 2010

In the fifteen years since Mickey Mantle’s death, 746 electronic condolence notes and bouquets of e-flowers have been left at his plot in the virtual cemetery maintained by Findagrave.com: tulips and sunflowers, red, yellow, and white roses, sprigs of St. John’s Wort (an herbal treatment for depression) and Forget-Me-Nots. Who could forget The Mick?

Mantle was the Last Boy in the last decade ruled by boys. He was Li’l Abner in pinstripes, a dreamboat reprobate with a coast-to-coast grin and a pain threshold as big as the Great Plains. No digital pansies for The Mick. Women wanted to have him or mother him. Young men aped him. Elders tried and failed to tame him. “Don’t be like me,” he said, in his last public appearance. His face was as grim and as dry as a riverbed.

Mantle was 63 years old when he died a month later at 1:10 a.m. Central Time on August 13, 1995, the day America began to grow up.

“It was an hour he knew so well,” his son, David, wrote later. The liver transplant he had received two months earlier arrived too late to save him from the pernicious cancer caused by alcoholism and Hepatitis C.

But Mantle lives on in the American imagination. In the cyber after-life of fame “Mickey Mantle RULES.” He gets birthday cards every October 20; apologies arrive with belated balloon bouquets. He receives holiday wishes — “Happy Thanksgiving!” — and news from back home. When his wife, Merlyn, died in July 2010, a regular online pen pal offered consolation: “Mick, yesterday it was my sad duty to add your dear Merlyn to this site.”

What’s most striking is not how many people write to him or how often they do so (in the present tense) or even the conversational tone, it is the degree to which he suffused and defined America’s childhood. “I would give anything to have been a child in the late ‘50s,” Mark Nelson wrote in 2008. “To have had the honor to watch you play and grew up with you.”

“What a great childhood you gave me,” Bobby Jones wrote in 2009.

His funeral was held at Lovers Lane church in Dallas. Kathleen Hampton, who managed the office for Mantle’s attorney Roy True made the arrangements and got up at 4 a.m. to make fried chicken for the “dry” gathering held after the service. “People started camping out at the church the night before,” she said. “Every TV station on the face of earth was there.”

Mantle was the Last Boy in the last decade ruled by boys. He was Li’l Abner in pinstripes, a dreamboat reprobate with a coast-to-coast grin and a pain threshold as big as the Great Plains.

Every TV at Mickey Mantle’s restaurant on Central Park South in Manhattan was tuned to the live feed. The windows were swathed in black crepe. Staff members wore black armbands. “It was like being in a funeral parlor,” said the late chef Randy Pietro. “People were coming in off the street, crying and hugging each other like they were all related to him. Some people just came in just to sit and run the hand on the bar, a way of saying goodbye to him. People felt it was like his house and they were part of him. People just loved the guy. When Mickey Mantle died, a part of New York died.”

Bob Costas gave the eulogy, speaking for the child he once was, the children we all were before Mickey Mantle forced us to see the world as it is, not as we wished it to be. Costas brought Bill Deore’s cartoon from the Dallas Morning News to the podium. In the drawing, St. Peter ushers The Repentant Mick into heaven: “Kid, that was the most courageous 9th inning I’ve ever seen…”

Later, the original art was sold at auction to help raise funds for organ donation. Merlyn got into a bidding war with one of Mantle’s old running buddies. “I said, ‘Merlyn, I’ll give you one,’” Deore recalled. “She said, ‘No, I want to outbid these guys.’” Seems she didn’t want it to go to someone who contributed to that way of life.”

The coordinates for Mantle’s actual grave in the Saint Matthew Mausoleum at Dallas’ Sparkman Hillcrest Memorial Park (N 32° 52.064 W 096° 46.857) are posted in his virtual obituary. He was laid to rest in an august, austere climate-controlled precinct of death where the footsteps of the living resound like the trumpets of angels. Fans leave notes, and trinkets. “Living in Dallas I never miss the opportunity to pay my respects at your grave site,” Ron Menton wrote in the Find A Grave guestbook in January 2006. “I say a little prayer and end it with ‘Thanks, Mick.’ You were my childhood friend even though we never met. Say hello to Johnny Unitas for me.”

On the morning of the fifteenth anniversary of Mantle’s death, the Perseid meteor shower rained light across the sky. On the Find a Grave scale of fame, Mantle rated 4.8 out of 5 stars.