From Chicken Soup for the Baseball Fan's Soul

Memories of My Hero

We can’t all be heroes because someone has to sit on the curb and clap as they go by.

Will Rogers

During the endless summers of our youth, we would slide our baseball gloves onto the handlebars of our bikes and head to the neighborhood park, where we would play ball from sunrise to sunset.

We would arrange our bikes in the outfield to conform to the strange configuration of Yankee Stadium. We would make it ridiculously short in right, impossibly deep in center.

And then we would draw straws to see who got to be Mickey Mantle that day.

It was the early 1960s, a time when the Beatles invaded our shores and record stores, JFK inspired a nation to explore a New Frontier and baseball served as our national pastime instead of our national passé-time.

In those days, millions of us baby boomers wanted to be like Mick. He gripped our souls the way his powerful hands once gripped a Louisville Slugger.

We wanted to wear the regal New York Yankee pinstripes with the No. 7 on the broad back, and roam the expansive, lush green outfield of the world’s most famous ballpark. In our sandlot games, we would swing so hard from both sides of the plate in hopes of making baseballs get small in a hurry, just like the Mick. Some of us were so into Mantle we even imitated his gimpy-kneed home-run trot. Head down. Arms up.

One of the highlights of our youthful springs was ripping open a pack of baseball cards and finding a Mantle nestled between a Bill Tuttle and a Daddy Wags Wagner. We didn’t need a price guide to tell us his card was valuable. Our hearts told us so.

We kept scrapbooks of his heroics, pored over box scores in search of his name in the morning paper and sneaked transistor radios into classrooms to listen to the World Series exploits of the original Mr. October.

These eyes have had the privilege of seeing many sports icons perform up close and personal. We have watched Michael Jordan defy the laws of gravity, Joe Montana turn a pressure-packed Super Bowl into a leisurely backyard game of pitch and catch, and the Golden Bear drain a 60-foot birdie putt during a U.S. Open.

But none of those athletes, none of those moments, ever thrilled us the way Mickey taking batting practice did during the summer of ’66. We were only eleven at the time, but the impression is indelible. It was our first trip to the House That Ruth Built and Mantle Renovated. And as we watched in awed amazement while the blond-haired, blue-eyed, biceps-bulging Mantle muscled batting practice offerings into the clouds, we couldn’t help but notice a different sound to the balls he hit. It was an explosion rather than a crack of the bat. White ash against horsehide never sounded so good.

All these memories came rushing back recently when the idol of our youth fought a courageous but losing battle against liver cancer. Mantle’s life, by his own admission, was flawed. He had endured considerable tragedy—some of it beyond his control, some of it self-induced. But he never sought pity, never blamed anyone but himself. And those of us who worshipped him unconditionally in our youth came to admire him even more during the final eighteen months of his life.

As the most gifted natural athlete ever to play the game, Mantle had often saved his best for the late innings. And so it was with his life.

He talked with amazing candor and poignancy about his forty-two-year struggle with alcoholism in hopes that others wouldn’t follow the same path. He attempted to reconcile differences with his family, to be the father he rarely was when his boys were young.

And in a gesture more powerful than any of the 536 home runs he blasted during his eighteen-year Hall of Fame career, he threw his name and energies behind a national organ and tissue donor campaign. The liver transplant that prolonged his life so moved Mantle that he insisted on doing all he could to raise public awareness about the importance of organ and tissue donations.

Heming way described courage as “grace under pressure,” and in the final weeks of Mantle’s life he embodied that definition. His doctors said he was, in many ways, the most remarkable patient they had ever seen. His bravery was so stark and real that even those used to seeing people in dire circumstances were touched by his example. Organ donations rose dramatically all across America. The Mick had homered again.

Scott Pitoniak

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