Mickey Mantle: America’s Prodigal Son

 Prologue

“I guess you could say I’m what this country’s all about.”

 — Mickey Mantle

 

Mickey Mantle, 1956, at Boston’s Fenway Park

IF MICKEY MANTLE HADN’T lived, broadcaster Mel Allen once said, he would have been invented. In a sense, then, Mickey Mantle, like most heroes, was a construction; he was not real. He was all that America wanted itself to be, and he was also all that America feared it could never be. The post-war America of the mid-twentieth century was like all societies with the need for heroes not because they coincidentally made them up on their own but because heroes like Mantle express a deep psychological aspect of human existence. They can be seen as a metaphor for the human search of self-knowledge. In his time, Mickey Mantle showed us the path to our own consciousness through the power and spectacle of his baseball heroics, particularly his prodigal home runs often backlit by the cathedral solemnity of Yankee Stadium. In the atomic age of the 1950s, the tape-measure blasts in our national pastime took on the form of peace-time symbols of America’s newly established military dominance. After all, Hank Greenberg, the first Jewish slugger in the game, said that when he had hit his home runs from the mid-1930s into the 1940s, he was hitting them against Hitler. In the 1950s, Mickey Mantle came to reflect the appearance and values of the dominant society in the world. He was the hero of America’s romance with boldness, its celebration of power, a nation’s Arthurian self-confidence in strength during a time when we last thought might did make right.

For most of history, religion has been the main force of reproducing the dominant society’s traits by using mythical figures to illustrate moral and societal principles that help form a common social conception of such things as death and gender roles. In the 1950s, as sport itself took on the role in our culture that religion had often played in the past, Mickey Mantle as the contemporary cultural hero contributed to American society’s necessary business of reproducing itself and its values. Amid the threat of Russian satellites and the unsettling dawn of the computer age, Mantle helped affirm our belief in the power of mankind over technology’s invasion of our world.  Mickey Mantle gave America hope for such things as life beyond the nuclear threat, reprieve from the Cold War and a sense that order ruled our lives.

Mickey Mantle was a figure through which an America profoundly affected by nuclear fear, by a dizzying plethora of atomic panaceas and proposals, and by endless speculation on the social and ethical implications of the new reality, reconciled the conscious and unconscious aspects of the national psyche. People feared the bomb itself, yes, and such fears were probably overstated by authorities who wanted every new home to be built with fall-out shelters. The bomb made mid-century Americans fear more acutely what they already had feared: that things that had been whole in their lives would now split, and that such splitting could not be controlled. The evolution, or maybe revolution, in technology, race relations and the very fabric of national culture that Americans could whimsically reassure themselves every time they looked at a Norman Rockwell painting on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post — all of that was changing; and it affected a nation that naively had believed its world had been made safe when Hitler had been defeated. But as the poet Rolf Humphries noted, in the profession of anxiousness, there is an element of fashion. In the 1950s, that fashion was also a last vestige of stability: pinstripes, the New York Yankees and baseball. Thus, when Mantle hit a home run, he was not only slugging a tape-measure dinger in the real world, but also facing an aspect of the unconscious.

“When I was playing,” Mantle said looking back from retirement, “I used to feel like everything was happening to some other guy named Mickey Mantle, like I was just me and this guy called Mickey Mantle was another person.”

Or as Mantle’s close personal friend George Lois put it:

“Mickey Mantle was the last American hero.  He was a walking shrine to an age of innocence and a symbol of a time when all was right with the world.”

Even had he not reflected the times, Mantle would have been walking Americana. He failed at what he set out to do, at what his father groomed him for: to be the greatest player who ever played the game. Still, his career was storybook stuff, hewing more to our ideas of myth than any player since Babe Ruth. Mantle himself came to realize that Ruth and Joe DiMaggio represented a state of mind that never existed beyond the abstract. They were a mirage, just as he, too, would become an icon. A lesson to be reaffirmed, sportswriter Richard Hoffer once suggested about Mantle and perhaps heroes altogether, is that we don’t mind our heroes flawed, or even doomed.  In America, failure is forgiven of the big swingers, in whom even foolishness is flamboyant — and that the world will always belong to those who swing from the heels.

“Ted Williams was a real hitter,” Mantle himself once observed. “Me, I just got up there and swung for the roof ever’ time and waited to see what would happen.”

The unique relationship between America and baseball must be understood to fully appreciate Mantle’s place in the equation. This was the age when baseball players were the princes of American sports, along with heavyweight boxers and Derby horses and the odd galloping ghost of a running back from down South or the occasional lanky basketball player in short shorts. Baseball players were the souls of their cities — Stan the Man in St. Louis; The Kid in Boston; Pee Wee, the Duke, Jackie, and Furillo in Brooklyn; and, of course, the incomparable Willie Mays for Giants fans. As 1950s historian Jacques Barzun was to aptly observe: “Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball…”

Long before baseball Ruth and DiMaggio, long before baseball became an industry of multi-national owners and millionaire players, Walt Whitman wrote, “Well, it’s our game. That’s the chief fact in connection with it: America’s game. It has the snap, go, fling of the American atmosphere. It belongs as much to our institutions, fits into them as significantly as our Constitution’s laws, is just as important in the sum total of our historic life.” Baseball is, to be sure, an American cultural declaration of independence. It has come to express the nation’s character  – perhaps never more so than during the intense, anti-Communist, post-World War II period, when a preoccupation with defining the national conscience might be expected, particularly defining the national self in a tradition that is so culturally middle of the road. As American Studies authority Gerald Early put it: “I think there are only three things America will be known for 2,000 years from now when they study this civilization – the Constitution, jazz music, and baseball…”

By the middle of the twentieth century, baseball as an unquestioned symbol and performance-ritual of the best qualities of something called Americanism was an entrenched truism. The fictional literary character Terence Mann perhaps stated it more succinctly in the Hollywood film Field of Dreams when he says to protagonist Ray Kinsella: “The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It’s been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game, is a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good and it could be again.”

America in the 1950s was also not so much a stage as a set piece for television, the new national phenomenon. It was a time when how things looked — and how we looked — mattered, a decade of design. From the painting-by-numbers fad to the public fascination with the First Lady’s apparel to the television sensation of Elvis Presley to the sculptural refinement of the automobile, American life in the 1950s had a distinct style in material culture and in art history at eye level. America in the twentieth century, to be sure, needed a Mickey Mantle to transform from a largely conventional baseball figure into a pop-culture deity of entertainment, which is what the game ultimately became in Mantle’s time and thereafter. Mantle would be the cultural equivalent of Elvis, Marilyn and James Dean. He was young, he was handsome, and he came to be seen on television in millions of homes in ways DiMaggio, for instance, never was. It should be no surprise that popular biography has reflected this conversion, or that the change parallels the way baseball has come to be viewed in the years since Mantle arrived on the American scene. In a sense the image of all popular figures is a reflection of the public that follows them. But with a dead figure that reflective process grows exponentially — like the compounding effect of a series of mirrors. As a cultural symbol whose life can now be made into anything with impunity, Mantle has become, in Elvis biographer Greil Marcus’s words, “an anarchy of possibilities” — a reflection of the public’s mass fears and aspirations and also a constant vehicle for discussing those sentiments. Thus Mantle, Elvis and Marilyn alike have evolved into a collection of cultural deities — modern-day equivalents of the Greek gods, who were immortal while sharing the characteristics of the human beings who worshipped them.

“We knew there was something poignant about Mickey Mantle before we knew what poignant meant,” recalled broadcaster Bob Costas. “We didn’t just root for him. We felt for him. Long before many of us ever cracked a serious book, we knew something about mythology as we watched Mickey Mantle run out a home run through the lengthening shadows of a late Sunday afternoon at Yankee Stadium.”

Perhaps it is all too simple in the modern age of multi-millionaire athletes to dismiss the references to sports greats such as Mantle as “heroes” in the context of our common humanity, with rare figures being held in esteem for what the Greeks would call arete, or special talent, and less in the religious or spiritual context that hero theorists Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung proposed. On the other hand, as great people pass on, our memories tend to mold them into the collective image of the archetypal hero, interpreting their lives in a more spiritual way as a reflection of society’s need for men and women a touch above ordinary, able to live on the plane of existence of basic right and wrong, good and evil, heaven and hell. Sports is an obvious arena from which to draw candidates for this category of immortality, elevating the super athlete’s accomplishments on the field to an almost religious pitch and unwittingly interpreting their lives as expressions of unconscious projections of our own dreams.

“The view of Mantle as a Homeric hero is correct, I think,” Bryan M. Davis, a specialist on heroes in pop culture, said in an interview discussing Mantle as a heroic figure. “He reminds me much more of Achilles or Hector — heroes we revere for their ability to overcome the shortcomings of simply being human but finally having to succumb to those weaknesses — rather than an archetypal hero such as Moses or King Arthur. But the religion of baseball tends to deify its greats. Perhaps, in a thousand years, another civilization will look back and remember the hero Mantle, who slew the demon baseballs with a mere stick and led the people in ritual song every seventh inning.”

Perhaps it is too much to say that, like Arthur, Mickey Mantle was one with his country, unless you believe that the grail Mantle set off to find – greatness in baseball – simply reflected the greatness America believed was its entitlement after World War II. In a sense, though, baseball has been a metaphor for American greatness. Indeed, baseball literature and films historically have been about what America could and should be: Men seeking redemption on the ballfield; baseball spoken of in religious terms, as if it had the power to heal; the nostalgia for lost idealism. In Mickey Mantle, more than any player, we also see that baseball is not only about heroes and rebels but also about fathers and sons. Baseball is about the loving father exposed and vulnerable and about the boy in the father made whole. Mantle is the eternal youth playing catch, forever trying to play with the father.

“The only thing I can do,” Mantle was to ultimately conclude about his reason for being, “is play baseball. I have to play ball. It’s the only thing I know.”

Excerpt from Mickey Mantle: America’s Prodigal Son

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