A Conversation With Tony Castro on ‘DiMag & Mick’

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Tony Castro is the author of the new book DiMag & Mick: Sibling Rivals, Yankee Blood Brothers. He also has written Mickey Mantle: America’s Prodigal SonThe Prince of South Waco, and Chicano Power. He is a former staff writer for Sports Illustrated, and his work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times.  

Q: Why did you decide to write a book looking at both Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle?

A: Dating back to my childhood, I’ve long had an undying interest in both Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle.

My father was a New York Yankee fan and returned home from World War II with a huge poster — off an old New York market calendar, I believe – of DiMaggio in that classic swing of his. A few years later, the DiMaggio poster in my bedroom was joined by one of Mantle finishing off his own powerful swing.

Those two posters covered most of an entire wall in my bedroom, and it used to upset my mom because they dwarfed the crucifix that hung between them.

Our parish priest used to come over for dinner once a month or so, and my mom once tried to shame me by showing him the signs of what she saw as my sacrilege.

I don’t think she realized that our parish priest was the coach of our CYO baseball team because he looked at the juxtaposition of the posters and the crucifix, and he said, “Señora Castro, I think these are all just innocent representations of the role models close to Tony’s heart, each with their symbolic pieces of wood on which their great stories have lived and died.”

b10411_e2281795fe9e4f0ebcbba977693c73f2My mom never brought this up again. I suppose there’s Roman Catholicism and then there’s Baseball Catholicism.

Years later, I had the good fortune to meet and befriend Mickey Mantle. It was 1970. I was a young newspaper reporter, a few months out of college, working in Dallas; and Mickey was a couple of years into his retirement, virtually an exile in Dallas, a retired baseball legend in what was then and still is a big pro football city.

He was also a pariah among sportswriters because of his horrendous behavior among them, which had worsened toward the end of his career.

As I go into in the book, Mickey and I hit it off that first afternoon getting drunk over hamburgers and golf. Perhaps he was longing for the attention he’d had at the top of his career, and I was someone who could play golf any afternoon and could drive him home because he was usually too drunk to drive and then help [his wife] Merlyn retrieve his car. I was a decent golfer and, working on an afternoon newspaper, I could usually sneak off to play 18 holes early in the day.

And DiMaggio I met in 1978 in San Francisco through his longtime friend Reno Barsocchini.

But I never thought about writing a book about either of them or any book, for that matter. I’d written a book early in my career, a civil rights history about Cesar Chavez and Chicano movement of the 1960s and 1970s – Chicano Power: The Emergence of Mexican America (Dutton, 1974) – that basically killed my first marriage, and I’d sworn not to do that again.

But when Mantle was dying in 1995, I wanted to read my sons a book about Mickey — and that’s when I discovered that all those books I’d read about him years ago were not very good.

That’s when I decided to write my Mantle biography, Mickey Mantle: America’s Prodigal Son (Brassey’s, 2002).  I had hoped to follow that with a biography of Joe DiMaggio, but the Richard Ben Cramer book of 2000 pretty much saturated the market and with its brutal one-sidedness killed for the time what was left of the DiMaggio image.

What led to this book, DiMag & Mick, was an e-mail I received a few years ago from a man thanking me for having written so favorably in my Mantle biography about his aunt, an actress named Holly Brooke, who has been described in most books about Mickey as a showgirl who had been his girlfriend in 1951.

Mickey Mantle with actress Holly Brooke, his girlfriend in New York during his 1951 season.

Mickey Mantle with actress Holly Brooke, his girlfriend in New York during his 1951 season.

However, no biographer had been able to interview her or even locate her. I think most of us had assumed she was dead. Holly’s nephew, though, said not only was she still alive and well but that she was also willing to talk to me.

That began a series of almost daily visits and conversations that proved to be incredible. She convinced me with her stories and some strong documentation that her love affair with Mickey lasted beyond his marriage in 1951 and carried on well into the 1960s.

She had lived with Mantle much of his rookie year, even when he was sent down to the minors to play in Kansas City, which had a Yankees’ minor league team at that time. She was also the reason Mickey asked to have his uniform number changed from 6 to 7 when he returned to the majors, a number that was her date of birth.

Holly was older than Mickey, had a toddler son that he wanted to adopt as his own, and Mickey proposed to her and likely would have married her if it hadn’t been for his father.

In 1951, Mickey’s father learned he was dying, and he demanded that Mickey marry his hometown sweetheart as his dying wish. Of course, it was just part of the unusual hold that Mickey’s father held over him.

With this material, especially since Holly had also known DiMaggio, it just seemed tailor-made for a book centered around Mickey and Joe, set around 1951, the only season they played together and using all that as a backdrop to destroy that longstanding myth that DiMaggio and Mantle had been bitter enemies. It just wasn’t true.

Q: Why were they portrayed as bitter enemies, and how would you characterize the dynamic between them?

A: In spring training of 1951 – Mantle’s rookie year and DiMaggio’s final season – sportswriters made Mickey out to be the next coming of Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Joe DiMaggio rolled into one.

The Yankees’ manager, Casey Stengel, largely championed this, talking openly to writers about it in a way that was ridiculous because of the pressure that talk like this can place on an unproven rookie – a 19-year-old rookie, at that. Still, Mantle had a spring training performance for the ages.

DiMaggio, who had already announced he was retiring at the end of the season, was preparing to play with tremendous daily pain from heel spurs that continued to bother him even after a couple of operations.

DiMaggio also wasn’t a very open person or teammate. Sometimes people forget or don’t know that he was the son of Italian immigrants who didn’t speak English and didn’t become citizens until after World War II.

Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle as rookies on the 1951 New York Yankees team.

Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle as rookies on the 1951 New York Yankees team.

Joe was also a high school dropout who, until his death, was insecure about his education and his background. When he came up to the Yankees in the mid-1930s and being Italian, about the only way he might have otherwise gotten into Yankee Stadium was as a hot dog vendor, if he hadn’t been able to hit incredibly well. We sometimes forget about the anti-Italian discrimination that was rampant in America in the first half of the 20th century.

There was tragedy from that for DiMaggio even after his crowning moment. In 1941, he hit safely in 56 consecutive games, perhaps the most remarkable record in baseball. He was the prince of New York and a hero in America.

But in December, Pearl Harbor was bombed, and soon America was at war with Japan, Germany AND Italy. And what does the country do? It sends Japanese Americans into internment camps, and there were even plans to do the same with Italians.

Fortunately, for DiMaggio’s immigrant parents, the U.S. does not do this, but it does place strict restrictions on their mobility. His parents have a fishing boat and a restaurant in Northern California that they’re not allowed to travel to, and they eventually wind up losing their means of income.

This is all happening just months after Joe DiMaggio’s greatest season. Lesser men might have begun rioting. Even in 1951, the bias and discrimination was there. Consider how Casey Stengel referred to DiMaggio behind his back: He regularly called him “Dago.”

A big deal has been made about the racial slurs some ballplayers and managers used against Jackie Robinson, and some lost their livelihoods because of that. But Stengel calling DiMaggio “Dago” was hardly a term of endearment, and little has ever been made about the discrimination that DiMaggio had to endure. And Joe, like Jackie, was just too classy and turned the other cheek.

But it was part of the climate in 1951, as was just the resentment among some of the Yankee teammates as well as some in the press.

DiMaggio was the highest paid Yankee of the era before free agency. He made more money as a rookie in 1935 than Mantle did in his rookie season in 1951.

And unlike Mickey, who was known as a “great teammate” – which is even written on his Yankee Memorial Park plaque at the Stadium – DiMaggio was a loner whose close friends were non-Yankees. In fact, none of his teammates from that 1951 team had been around when he broke into baseball or even in 1941, DiMaggio’s greatest year.

That spring training of 1951 sportswriters were extolling the virtues and talent of Mickey Mantle and how he was being groomed to succeed Joe in center field and as the star of the Yankees, especially since DiMaggio had been slowed by his injuries and age.

And there was intense competition among those writers covering the Yankees. Remember that at the time there were about a dozen daily newspapers in New York, and you’ll find in old newspaper clippings the seeds of a feud between DiMaggio and Mantle in 1951, making it seem that Joe’s usual aloofness was caused by some kind of resentment of Mantle for being there to replace him in center field and stealing his thunder in what was to be his farewell season.

After 1951, after DiMaggio’s retirement and absence from the Yankee clubhouse, this imaginary feud took on a life of its own, fueled in part by some of Mickey’s Yankee teammates and their loyalty to Mantle.

And there was no one to challenge this, except, of course, for DiMaggio and Mantle who went to their graves denying there was any animosity between them, as well as the two women most prominent in Mickey’s life –his wife Merlyn, and Greer Johnson, who was Mickey’s companion the last 10 years of his life.

Their denials were always reported, but I suspect no one took them seriously. Especially after Billy Crystal’s 2001 HBO film 61, about Mickey and Roger Maris’ chase in 1961 of Babe Ruth’s home run record.

The irony or paradox in the film is that while it is about the friendship between Mantle and Maris, it also bursts the myth of the alleged rift between them that writers had effectively made up – while it still promotes the equally false myth of a feud between Mantle and DiMaggio.

There’s even a scene of Mantle becoming physically sick and being driven to a drunken binge because of an appearance by DiMaggio in the Yankee clubhouse. It was absolute fiction, perhaps typical juvenile fan behavior believing that you can somehow enhance your childhood hero by tearing down some competitor to his legacy.

Well, Mickey Mantle doesn’t need that kind of help. The newer analytics used in baseball today seem to indicate that Mickey was far the greater ballplayer, as if you can truly compare different eras.

As for the “feud,” Richard Ben Cramer’s biography of DiMaggio, nasty as it was toward Joe, bolstered the idea of its existence, as did one major biography of Mickey Mantle, which claimed that the first time DiMaggio and Mantle ever spoke was Oct. 5, 1951, the second game of that season’s World Series.

That was the game in which Mickey suffered a terrible knee injury when he slipped on a sprinkler cover in right center field as he tried to avoid running into DiMaggio as he caught a fly ball.

Mantle went down “as if he’d been shot,” according to some of his teammates and in horrible pain. DiMaggio, after catching the fly ball, ran over to check on Mickey, supposedly initiating the so-called first conversation between the prize rookie and the old pro.

Of course, that’s pure fiction, too. In researching the book, I found an audio tape recording that proved that claim to be an utter lie.

On the morning of April 16, 1951, DiMaggio and Mantle were with their New York Yankees teammates about to board a train to Washington for the season’s Opening Day against the Senators.

They were being detained for a few minutes for recorded interviews for CBS Radio’s famous news program Hear It Now when a remote microphone picked up DiMaggio and Mantle’s unrehearsed conversation, a conversation that unfortunately would soon be overlooked and forgotten.

On the recording, the veteran DiMaggio — who only weeks earlier had announced he would retire at the end of the 1951 season — sounds enthusiastic and supportive, engaging Mantle in a genuine manner that is both refreshing and surprising. It’s a wonderful exchange, and it may not even have been the first conversation they had.

And they had many more long friendly exchanges during that season, according to Holly Brooke who was present several times when Mickey and Joe spoke at restaurants or had dinner together. So much for that so-called authoritative story that they didn’t speak until Mickey’s injury in the World Series.

Q: How did you research the book, and what surprised you most in the course of your research?

A: In recent years I spent countless hours talking to Holly Brooke, getting her to recall the details and dialog of anecdotes she remembered. I revisited sources from my Mantle biography and rechecked clippings from numerous magazines and newspapers.

I also had folders full of notes from my conversations with Mantle in the early 1970s in Dallas and in the 1980s when we reconnected while he was traveling for memorabilia shows, and my conversations with DiMaggio and his friend Reno Barsocchini in the late 1970s and 1980s.

The most surprising thing that I found had to have been the CBS radio audio tape because it leaves no doubt that right after spring training where their animosity supposedly bloomed they were, in fact, talking like friendly teammates, and Joe was giving Mickey advice and Mickey was talking as if he were awe-struck of Joe DiMaggio.

Q: What do you see as each player’s legacy today?

A: They were if not the greatest players of their era, then certainly among the top two or three during their time.

Of course, they went about it differently. DiMaggio never left anything on the field. He had a passion for always being at his best. Mantle, unfortunately, didn’t always take all his talents on to the field.

DiMaggio retired almost at the right time. He may have wished he had left at the end of 1950. As it was, he still left having been part of a World Series championship team in 1951.

Mickey went to his grave second-guessing his decision to play as long as he did, long past when he could run well and when it hurt his fans just to watch him swing the bat. Not to mention that the Yankee teams near the end of his career were mediocre at best.

At their prime, DiMaggio and Mantle were as good as any ballplayer has ever been, with the possible exception of Babe Ruth. But at their time, DiMaggio and Mantle were the greatest players on the greatest baseball team during arguably the greatest era of the game.

 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I have a biography of Ernest Hemingway scheduled to be published in September by Lyons Press. I’m currently working on books about Joe DiMaggio and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I wouldn’t be surprised if some time in the future — based on the evolution of analytics in baseball, on his incredible statistics during the golden age of the game, his injuries notwithstanding, and because of his ability to do this as a switch-hitter – that Mickey Mantle doesn’t become widely acclaimed as having fulfilled those great expectations once placed of him: being recognized as the greatest player of all-time, greater than Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio and all the rest.