By Kevin Begos
A Wounded Hero
Facing cancer in the public eye may have been Mickey Mantle’s greatest achievement
By Kevin Begos
In 1951 a country kid from a tiny, dusty town in Oklahoma came to New York City—and ultimately won over the toughest baseball fans in the world. His name was Mickey Mantle. And his natural and overwhelming talent would transform him into an all-American legend who combined the qualities of a superstar with those of a regular guy.
Mantle’s life was one of contradictions. On the field, he reveled in his fans’ adoration, but outside the stadium walls, he was a drunk who was serially unfaithful to his loving wife and an often-absent father to his children. And although he had a seemingly clear-cut path to glory, he was tormented by a fear of cancer, which had sent many of the men in his family to an early grave.
Yet, ultimately, it was this disease that he so feared that would help elevate Mantle’s legend beyond the world of sports, and force him to confront some bitter truths. At the end of his life, terminally ill with liver cancer, Mantle admitted his flaws to the media and the public, and blamed only himself for the mistakes. His brutal honesty won back not only fans, but also the hearts of many people who were never interested in his athletic accomplishments. For better and worse, cancer was another of Mantle’s struggles that took place in the spotlight.
From the beginning of his professional career as a Yankee, Mantle faced impossibly high expectations. He was a shy 19-year-old when he entered the big leagues. But almost immediately it was rumored that he would be taking over the centerfield position from the legendary Joe DiMaggio, whose career was winding down.
Mantle rose to the challenge. In many ways, it was what he was used to. His father, a poor mine worker, had obsessively groomed him for baseball. “Dad insisted on my being taught the positions on the baseball field before the ABCs,” Mantle recalls in Tony Castro’s biography Mickey Mantle: America’s prodigal son. “I was probably the only baby in history whose first lullaby was the radio broadcast of a ball game.”
Mantle had natural gifts, but his father pushed him to develop other strengths, like being able to bat right- or left-handed. The hard work of his childhood paid off. By the mid-1950s, Mantle was a national phenomenon, leading the Yankees to multiple World Series wins and achieving some of the greatest statistics in the history of baseball. But his father was not there to celebrate alongside him, having died in 1952—when Mantle was just 20 years old—of Hodgkin’s disease.