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April 15, 2016 | BASEBALL, Nonfiction

Meeting Mickey

Theresa Corigliano

Meeting Mickey photo

It is 5:30 in the morning. I am standing in the lobby of a midtown Manhattan hotel, judging the distance between me and a planter because I am pretty sure I am going to throw up.  My stomach is in my throat, and I am shivering. I am here to meet Mickey Mantle. It is the first day of the tour for his autobiography THE MICK, and I am his publicist.

I wait for the ornate clock on the wall to hit the precise half hour, then I pick up the house phone to call Mantle’s room. He answers after several rings. I introduce myself, and tell him the car is downstairs. He growls that he’ll be right down. Did I wake him? I hope not, because he’ll hate me. But he should have been up, so how could he hate me? I pace back and forth in front of the revolving doors.

We create our icons out of scrapbooks and headlines and post-game interviews, but the Mickey Mantle who is coming toward me this morning is three-dimensional and real and looking tired. His eyes are puffy and hooded. We shake hands, but he barely looks at me as he heads outside and slides into the back of the limousine. I follow.

He stares out the window as we pull away from the curb. He doesn’t want to be awake, and he doesn’t want to be talking to me. I read this in the stiff way he holds himself, and how he angles his stocky body toward the door. I do not try to fill the silence with chatter. I throw him sidelong glances as we roll through the pre-dawn emptiness of Manhattan, registering the very expensive bluish gray suit, impeccably cut, pro ballplayer expensive. His thick blonde hair, streaked with grey, curls over the back of his collar.  I am sitting less than six inches away from Mantle, and everything I know about him starts spooling through my head. Mickey Charles Mantle, born October 22, 1931, in Spavinaw, Oklahoma, the Commerce Comet, the Sultan of Switch. When he finally speaks, it is in a gravelly Oklahoma twang that, to date, I have heard only on the TV or the radio and I am not sure I am really hearing now.

But yes, he is talking, telling me how it’s going to be. There is not an ounce of charm in his voice; it’s cold and flat. He will be keeping the limo that night so he and Billy can go out to dinner. He doesn’t need to say Billy Martin. Martin and Mantle are baseball’s Frank and Dean, and I know all about their bad boy exploits at Toots Shore’s or the Copa or every major league city’s equivalent to those clubs and bars, I know their stories about hunting deer and hunting women, exploding all the Merlyn myths about Mickey and his childhood sweetheart wife. Billy and Mickey, together again, racking up hourly charges that are not in Doubleday’s budget, planning a long night of drinking and whatever drinking leads to, which will not work when we have interviews to do early the following morning.  I had anticipated this, had been savvy enough to ask my boss how I should handle it, and she’d drilled it into my head: No can do, Mick. We don’t have a line item for carousing and sorry for the bad news, but there’s no crying in baseball.

Mickey Mantle registers the no, and his eyes go flat and colder still. He proceeds to call me every four-letter name he can muster, and some he creates in my honor. The limo driver eyes me nervously in the rearview. Luckily, I spent three years working in pro hockey, so I am more than familiar with athlete-speak. I have heard every creative connotation of the word fuck before. I concentrate on not flinching as he stares me down. This is not the way the dream is supposed to go.  This is not the story I hoped to tell.

* * *

It is 1968 and I’m having one of the best weekends of my life. I have shown up with my friend Meredith on 161st Street and River Avenue in the Bronx, holding an oak tag poster on a stick and a plastic baggie in my pocket.  We are at Yankee Stadium with hundreds of others for Mickey Mantle Banner Day. Kids—and adults too—mill in front of the entrance next to the bleachers. At the appointed time ushers with embroidered NYs on their navy jackets lead us through cement tunnels that open, suddenly, glaringly, into right field behind the foul line, a place I never thought I would be standing. I hear the crunch of the warning track under my feet. I lean over and quickly scoop up some dirt.

As we head toward center field – territory that Mantle patrolled before he tripped over a drain and shredded his knee, the injury that eventually turned him into a first baseman – I realize that the distance from where I am standing and home plate looks like the difference between earth and outer space. I have heard the Stadium described as a cavern, but it is not something you register when the field has only existed on the small television screen in your family room. I stand next to the auxiliary scoreboard and look at the upper deck grandstands where I usually sit. A buck fifty for a view that forces you to bend around enormous foul poles if you wanted to follow the play. If my father can be persuaded to bribe an usher with a couple of bucks, maybe we’ll score better seats a few levels down. But never, never so near the field that you can tell that the grass is really grass, that the chalk lines aren’t perfectly straight, that the players are humans instead of pin-striped stick figures. We are usually so high up that even with my dad’s World War II era-binoculars they are unrecognizable save for the numbers on their backs.

On the field, I think I can smell the yellow wood of the bats mixed with the infield grass, where we are warned not to step. We move closer to the home plate area, and as we approach the dugout, we hold our banners high, so Mantle will know how we feel about him this summer before he retires. I am too nervous to notice whether or not Mantle is actually sitting there. I don’t recognize any of the Yankees. I see only a blur of security guards, and policemen, and Yankees grounds crew personnel who are hurrying us along, telling us to keep it moving, no stopping, but we can’t help ourselves. I don’t hear the crowd who has come early for batting practice, only a handful of bored photographers who order us to “look over here, over here.” We are in love with the Yankees, and the game, and #7, and on this one day, we are closer to where he lives, in this House that Ruth Built and he maintained, than we have hoped to be.

Meredith and I don’t win any prizes that day but all that matters is that we are there. When I get the new Yankee yearbook the following season, I am thrilled to spot the top of my poster in a commemorative photograph from that day: “Snoopy Says We’re In the Doghouse Without the Mick.”

My love affair with the Yankees began the year before, long after the glory years. People were always telling me what I had missed, that I was too late, but I felt I had awakened just in time. The Mantle I idolized was broken down, more likely to strike out than hit a home run, long past being the comet that blazed across that centerfield, but he was a legend, and I had caught him before he disappeared.  

I kept a scrapbook dedicated to news of him, game recaps, the back pages of the Daily News if he had a moment worth photographing. My disappointment was sharp when he was scratched from the lineup because of the pain, or what I didn’t know then, the hangovers. I settled for a pinch-hit appearance if it was all he could muster, and if he managed to hit a home run, I still remember what it looked like. I can see him on the top steps of the dugout, walking to home plate as Yankee P.A. announcer Bob Sheppard intoned: “Now batting for the Yankees, first baseman,  #7, Mickey Mantle, #7.” The muscles straining on his pinstriped back as he swung, the thwack of bat, tracking the ball until it blurred against the white façade that separated the Stadium from the ruins of the South Bronx, the crowd shaking off doubt that he’d do it, to cheer that he still could. And me, trying to freeze the moment as he hobbled home, in case this was the last one.

* * *

It is two decades later, and I am sharing a suddenly too-small backseat with that same #7, and the tirade over who’s going to pay for the limousine has not stopped. He lobs a succession of verbal hand grenades at me that are exploding all those little girl memories. I have to figure out a way to salvage this, because if I don’t, the rest of the week will be shot. I have learned enough from my sportswriter days, and those locker room interviews with players who want to see if I would fold when things got dicey—and they made sure things got dicey—that this is my moment with Mantle. He is testing me; me, with the carefully combed hair, the business suit I bought at Bloomingdale’s and which I couldn’t afford, the me Mickey is supposed to love. So I say the only thing I can think of when he pauses long enough for me to talk: “Just let me know when you’re done.” 

I say it in a calm and measured voice that belies the sweat I can feel trickling from under my arms and down my back because this wool suit suddenly feels too small and hot and sticky. I look directly into those angry blue eyes, and it’s a challenge that surprises him, so he actually stops. Then I say, parroting: “I’m sorry that it’s not the fucking answer you wanted but it’s a no and you can fucking yell at me all you want but you’re not going to get a different answer by shooting the fucking messenger.”

I have his attention and in that moment, Mantle sees me for the first time. I don’t say anything else, and at first he doesn’t either. Then he grumbles: “Okay, fine.”  That’s it. “Now where we going first?” he asks. I take a deep breath, pull out two copies of his itinerary from a folder, and we start to go over his schedule. Okay, fine...and from that moment, it is.

* * *

During our week together, we go from TV interview to print interview to radio interview, local to national, book signing to book signing. (Michael Kay, the current Yankees broadcaster, is a sportswriter for the NY Post, and he declines the chance for a sit down: “What would I ask Mickey Mantle?”)  Despite the wall-to-wall itinerary, in between appointments, we talk. I tell Mantle about Banner Day, and he smiles, looking at me like he can’t quite believe I was such a dork. This is me, playing the fool to charm him, and it seems to work. I tell him that I laboriously copied his book The Quality of Courage, by hand, in its 200-page entirety, into a Marble Composition notebook. (It wasn’t until much later that someone explained to me what a ghostwriter was, that these were not Mantle’s words) In what was conceived as a companion piece to John F. Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage, Mantle identified his personal heroes – among them, Fred Hutchinson, Roy Campanella, Jimmy Piersall, Lou Gehrig, his dad Mutt. I cherished this book and its message: “Courage is grace under pressure.” I promised my sister my allowance if she would take the pen from my cramped fingers to help. “Why would you do something like that?” he asks. I say, “Well, I wanted to have it forever and I was too Catholic to steal it from the library.” He roars with laughter. At me, not with me, but I can see he’s tickled by how much I love him. “You’re crazy,” he says.

One late afternoon, we are sitting in the green room before his appearance on the local news with Sue Simmons and Chuck Scarborough, WNBC’s odd couple anchors. We are early, and we have time to kill. I want to ask Mantle about Ball Four, the scandalous book written by former Yankees pitcher, iconoclast and upon publication, baseball social leper, Jim Bouton.

The book broke every “what happens in the clubhouse, stays in the clubhouse” commandment, recounting tales of sex, and greenies, and an irreverence toward our national pastime which included an alcoholic, moody Mantle, who slept off drunks in the trainer’s room and still managed to bang out pinch-hit home runs when he was called into the game (When Bouton asked how he could do it when he could barely see straight, Mantle said: “I hit the middle one,” the only ball that came into focus), who joined teammates in a favorite pastime of  “shooting beaver,” looking up the skirts of female fans in the stands. This was a book that Mantle allegedly hated so much that he refused to appear at the Yankees’ Old Timers Day if Bouton attended, although he later insisted to Bouton that was not true. (This was a book I devoured, but that I also hated, and when I worked with Bouton at Channel 2 in New York, I thanked him for ruining baseball for me. This seemed to upset Bouton. He took a newsroom chair, rolled over to me, and asked why I felt that way. “I don’t need to know all that crap,” I said. “Isn’t it better to know the truth about these ballplayers you admire, so you can see them as people?” he asked. “No,” I scowled. Then: “You mean I should grow up?”)

I feel comfortable enough now to ask if we can talk about what Bouton said in the book. “Sure, “ Mantle says. “You can ask me anything.”

“Bouton said you were mean to little kids. Did you really slam the team bus windows on the fingers of children begging for autographs?”

Mantle looks hurt. “How can you ask me this after we have spent so much time getting to know each other?” He seems so genuinely affronted that I wonder if I’ve crossed the line. “Do you actually think I could do something like that,” he asks…then a beat. “But it was fun watching all those little kids being dragged alongside the bus,” and he pantomimes them holding on for dear life as the bus drives away.

“Oh fuck you,” I say, and I don’t know which of us laughs harder. I think he enjoys tweaking me, and in these moments, the charming Mantle takes over. He is the relaxed raconteur now, and as he slips into that role, the Oklahoma boy supplants the jaded been-around-the-block ballplayer. Bouton was right. He is two men: the moody Mantle who thinks his family is cursed, who can be sullen and self-pitying, and the goofy guy with a collection of off-color tall tales he wants you to love. In this week, I meet both.

At his bookstore signings, the lines wind through multiple city blocks.  There are hundreds of kids, too young to have seen Mantle play except through their fathers’ memories. But mostly there are grown men in three-piece suits, reduced to the trembling inarticulation of children as they offer their books for his signature. “I saw you hit #535.” “I was there when they retired your number.” “You’re my number one fan. I mean, I’m your…oh you know what I mean.” At most stops, he is scheduled to sign for an hour, but when I ask if he will sign longer, he agrees. Even when the lines are closed, the people don’t leave.  As we drive away, I look through the rear window of the limousine to see fans chase after us across Fifth Avenue. I am thrilled by the crowds; in my world, that’s how I measure success, books sold, stories told to reporters, coverage in the paper tomorrow. “Is it always like this?” I’m giddy. He’s quiet. Maybe there’s a little irritation in his voice. “Always,” he says. “Same thing, every time. How many more of these do we have to do?”             

I am taken aback. Most of those fans will remember this day forever and that should count for something, I tell him. “It does,” he says, but his voice is empty, and he looks drained. Suddenly, I get it: each moment that he is Mickey Mantle chips away at him. I can only see it from my perspective, because I am one of those fans, waiting for hours for that “quick, step up, no pictures, he’s only signing this book, no memorabilia” moment. I will cherish my signed book, I will open it again and again to look at the signature, to trace it, to show it to people, a signature so beautifully rendered that even the nuns who taught me longhand would be impressed. I will tell people I met Mickey Mantle, and they will ask, “Yeah? What was he like?” and even though the moment will be as undefined and impersonal as a book signing can be, just a twinkling really, I will tell a different story. I am the person on that line.

That is why I see it as a gift only he can give and he sees it as a burden that comes with his kind of fame. Years later, at his funeral, Bob Costas will tell a story Mantle used to tell on himself: He pictured himself at the pearly gates, met by St. Peter who shook his head and said, "Mick, we checked the record. We know some of what went on. Sorry, we can't let you in. But before you go, God wants to know if you'd sign these six dozen baseballs."

Near the end of the tour, we have a chance to eat one real dinner. His editor joins us, and lets Mantle picks the place: The Palm, an upscale New York City steak joint, with hardcore waiters, some who have been there for forty years. Covering the walls of the main room are caricatures of famous people. It’s the jock version of Sardi’s. The place is packed, but it comes to a complete standstill when we walk in.                      

Before the food arrives, Mantle tells the editor and me funny stories. As I sit with him at this prime table in the center of the room, it is hard to shut out the feeling of all those eyes on us. Those eyes are watching as we hold the leather-bound menus and order. Those eyes are making me laugh too loud, hold myself unnaturally. Mantle seems oblivious, or so used to it, it no longer matters. He is the charming Oklahoma boy, smiling and laughing and flirting with us and enjoying our attention. He holds up the long, decidedly phallic dark wood pepper mill. “See this?” Mantle asks.  We nod. “Dave Winfield,” he says with a sly smile. It takes a second to register, and then we burst out in embarrassed laughter. We suspect he has made this joke before.

Mantle manages only a bite or two before the next lawyer, or stockbroker, my age or older, politely interrupts his meal: “I hate to bother you but…” He signs menus and napkins as his steak goes cold. He has lived this every day of his life since he was twenty years old.

He acknowledges the expensive bottle of champagne sent over by two couples who raise their glasses to toast him, but he doesn’t open it, and I know why. Just that afternoon, Mantle, looking exhausted, leaned into the back seat of the limousine and told me he had stopped drinking. It’s not true, but I don’t know that. He told me that right before he came to New York City for the book tour, his doctor had found lumps on his neck. He told me he was afraid to die. I knew that all of the Mantle men had died before the age of fifty, so it is not my place to argue with the Mantle legacy. I let him talk about what a disappointment he has been to so many, until we pulled up in front of the next studio, where it was time to be the icon everyone expected him to be.

The next day, the last of the tour, my friend Phil begs me to let him tag along to meet Mantle. I tell him he can get his book signed, but then he has to go. I don’t let Mantle know he is coming because I am afraid he will say no. I call upstairs and Mantle tells me it’s fine to come up even though I am early. When I knock on his hotel room door, Mantle answers. He is not wearing any pants. I don’t look to see if he is wearing underwear, and then Phil steps into frame, and Mantle looks confused while I quickly explain. Come on in, he says. He has to make a call, so he grabs the phone and then points to the back of the couch: “Throw me my pants.” I do, and he disappears into the bedroom, and when he returns, he is fully dressed. He signs Phil’s book and we head out. I don’t meet Mantle’s eyes in the elevator, and I will do what I always do when I don’t know what to do: I will pretend it didn’t happen.

Nothing did happen, but I am familiar with these doubts that are slamming around in my head. They come in battalions, and they undermine my confidence. Was the confession Mantle made about dying a preamble to this, a ploy? I clearly adore him, so why would I not want to screw him? Or does it mean nothing other than I was early and he wasn’t quite dressed yet? In the length of time it takes the elevator to reach the lobby, I shift from being embarrassed that he’d hit on me, to being relieved that Phil was there to deflect things and anyway, what’s to worry about a pantless moment between friends?

It is the end of my time with Mantle, and another publicist is going to take over the next leg of the tour. Maybe that’s a good thing, but I don’t want to turn over the reins. She will not stop talking about how excited she is, and how much fun they are going to have, and I am thinking I’d like her to get hit by a bus. Of course, I ask Mickey if he will sign a book for me. He holds his hand out for a pen, and then opens a book to the title page, thinks for a minute, and writes something. He tells me not to look at it until I am back in my office, and I manage to resist. When I open it, I see his familiar scrawl on the title page: “I really enjoyed our time together…even though you was cheap about the limousine.”

* * *

 It is May 18, 1989. I am now living in Los Angeles working for CBS Television. The Network has transferred me from New York to launch the Pat Sajak late night talk show. Tonight, Mickey Mantle is a guest. I know he will not remember me – most celebrities, I have found, know you for as long as they need to – but a part of me is hoping that he might. We shake hands. I tell him I was the publicist on the New York leg of THE MICK tour. He squints and says, “Sorry, I meet so many people I can’t remember from when I was drinking.” I blanch, and I recall that my colleague could not wait to tell me Mickey liked her better because she was a willing drinking buddy on the next part of the tour. She considered this a victory, while I remember being puzzled why Mantle chose to be someone else with me. He may have lied to me about drinking but he had never once reached for a drink in the week we were together, although I doubt I would have challenged him if he had.

Now, I slide away to the green room.  As we near the start of the show, Mantle passes from his dressing room to the stage.  A moment later, he is back in the hallway, poking his head in the door to speak with me. “You know,” he says, “I do remember. There was something about a limousine…”

 

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