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"Unless you're leading the Dog, the view never changes." - sign just outside the Yankees spring training clubhouse, Legends Field, Tampa, Florida
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Mantle was the star of stars when America's baby-boom generation first watched baseball. It was a time when John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson were Washington Senators, when people were laughing at Jerry Lewis movies.
We were a country of Chevrolets, apple pie and baseball, and just about every 9-year-old kid thought Mickey Mantle was a god. Mantle's death brought America's middle-aged masses face-to-face with mortality. If it could happen to The Mick, it could happen to anybody.
When he played baseball, Mantle could do everything. He was the game's ultimate combination of speed and power. And he came along at a time when postwar-generation folks were warming up their black-and-white Zeniths to watch baseball games.
Because the New York Yankees were so dominant during this era (they were in 12-of-14 World Series from 1951-64), at times it seemed like they were the only team in baseball.
Mantle was the centerpiece player on the best team. John Lennon once said of rock 'n' roll, "Before Elvis, there was nothing." For many Americans, the same could be said of Major League Baseball. "Before The Mick, there was nothing."
He was the first American television sports hero. Willie Mays might have been a better, more durable all-around player, but Mays only spent six years in New York. The bulk of Mays' career, 15 seasons, was played out in windy Candlestick Park, while Mantle was in pinstripes, in Yankee Stadium, heir to Joe DiMaggio's throne, and on television every October.
The Yankees' lack of black players was a drawback for young black athletes across America.
Chicago Cubs manager Don Baylor, who was MVP of the American League with the California Angels in 1979 and grew up in Austin, Texas, wrote, "Jackie Robinson played baseball. Frank Robinson played baseball. I knew about Willie Mays and Henry Aaron. Sometimes I wondered if black kids growing up in Austin knew about them. Looking back, though, I guess I can understand their thinking. We mostly got Yankee games on TV on Saturdays. There were not a lot of black faces on the team."
It took Mantle a long time to understand his popularity, but a year before he died, he'd finally figured it out. He said, "The guys who were kids when I was playing are now the dads. That's why I think I'm so popular now, because the guys who grew up with me bring their sons and grandsons."
Stan Musial was The Mick's hero. Mantle in his career surpassed many of Musial's accomplishments, but that didn't matter. Musial was big when The Mick was small. For a young man growing up in Commerce, Okla., in the 1940s, Stan was the Man.
In 1994, when Mantle was healthy, he said, "I still feel funny around Stan Musial. I was in St. Louis for Upper Deck Heroes of Baseball. And Stan Musial came up and had breakfast with me, and I couldn't believe it. I got goose bumps. Stan Musial!"
Mantle had Stan Musial. America's baby boomers had Mickey Mantle. They were certified heroes, guys who played with one team throughout their careers. We never read any trash about them when they were playing. They never disillusioned us, never bolted town for more money, never disgraced themselves or their uniforms.
There are no more Mantles. Times change. Our country has changed. Heroes don't fall into place as neatly today as they once did.
Sports is now corrupted by money, overexposure, disloyalty and greed. We know too much about our "heroes," and few of them can live up to the scrutiny.
Babe Ruth and Mickey Mantle certainly would be viewed differently if they played today. Ruth would be skewered for his over-indulgences. The Bambino's boozing and skirt-chasing would get him in trouble. Mantle was drinking himself to death when he played, but only insiders were aware of his failings.
Movie stars and politicians today face the same invasive media. In all likelihood, John F. Kennedy could not be elected president today. Ditto for Franklin D. Roosevelt. Extra-marital affairs, which were covered up during their eras, would sandbag their political chances in this age of discovery and disclosure.
Similarly, sports heroes too often disappoint their young fans. Fans don't get as attached to individual players because free agency puts a limit on how long their hero will remain in town.
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Mar 25 2002, 17:49:30
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