A Conversation with Author Tony Castro

New York Times bestselling author Tony Castro talks about his new book Maris & Mantle: Two Yankees, Immortality and the Age of Camelot, and the role of teammates Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle in defining the 1960s in America. Publisher Triumph Books calls Maris & Mantle, “the never before told story of the profound and compelling friendship between the two New York legends.” Tony was interviewed by Ashley Chase and the blog Start Spreading the News.

What brought you to this subject? And what compelled you to write a book on it?

Roger Maris, pure and simple. And the chance coincidence that I happened to sit in on a Harvard symposium on the Age of John F. Kennedy when Presidential historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. remarked that the early 1960s in America were possibly defined as much by Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle as they were by President Kennedy himself. And, of course I had written extensively about Mantle, and this seemed like the perfect place to write a book harkening back to a golden age in baseball and in America and what Schlesinger had said about Maris, Mantle, and JFK being a pop cultural troika defining that era.

What is this book about?

On one level it’s about America’s obsession with the home run not only in baseball but also in politics, entertainment, and pop culture. Sportswriter and author Richard Hoffer once suggested about Mantle and perhaps heroes altogether, 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, yes, the world will always belong to those who swing from the heels. And maybe that’s why Mantle once said, “I guess you could say I’m what this country’s all about.”

You’re known for your Mickey Mantle Trilogy. What do you call it now with this new book?

First, you must know this: I never intended to write a trilogy. If you’ve read the books, you know that I met Mickey in 1970 when I was a young reporter just out of college. I was working at the Dallas Times Herald, and Mantle was in his third year in retirement in Dallas, playing golf almost every day. I was a scratch golfer myself working on an afternoon newspaper where my hours —  6 a.m. to 2 p.m. —  allowed me to get in a full 18 holes in the afternoon. One day we hooked up over hamburgers and beer at some Turtle Creek restaurant. It was a hoot, and I was often driving Mickey home to North Dallas and then driving Merlyn back to pick up Mickey’s El Dorado at whatever golf course where he had left it.

Why would you have to drive Mickey Mantle home? Did he drink a lot?

Did he ever! He had been drinking heavily since his rookie season in 1951, and  by 1970 Mantle had become a broken down drunk who was out of the news picture in Dallas. He had pretty much trashed his name there. He was unfriendly, obnoxious and unkind in dealing with the local sportswriters who were not as forgiving as New York writers had been. Dallas was also a football town, and Mantle was old news. It was six or seven years since his last big season, and he was still a couple of years away from his Hall of Fame induction that would put him back in the news cycle. Mickey said it best. “No one gives a damn about me anymore,” he often whined. Mind you, I wasn’t a sportswriter in Dallas I had quickly moved into a beat reporting on civil rights, minorities and politics, and this Is what I did in my reporting career. So, while I was keeping a notebook on my time with Mantle, it wasn’t with the intention of writing a book.

And they knew you were a reporter?

Mickey didn’t care. Merlyn, though, was often asking if I planned to write about them and finally just asked that, if I write about this time in their lives, that I do so after they were no longer around. But, honestly, at the time my professional interest was politics. It was on politics that I won a fellowship in Washington in 1971, and I wrote a civil rights history in 1974, and then was awarded a Nieman Fellowship to Harvard in 1976. But baseball did provide an entrée, much as it did with writers like my late friend David Halberstam who specialized in politics and public policy but also wrote about sports. And over the years I kept touching base with Mantle. At his Hall of Fame induction, at Yankee Stadium, then on the memorabilia circuit in Los Angeles. By coincidence when I came to work in L.A., the literary agent I signed with — Mike Hamilburg — was the son of Mitchell Hamilburg, a big name agent and baseball fan who had produced Safe at Home! That was the 1962 baseball comedy that capitalized on Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris’ fame after their chase of Babe Ruth’s home run record in 1961. Mike knew of my Mantle connection, so when Mickey died in 1995, he suggested that I take a shot at writing a new biography of Mantle.

All that material, and you hadn’t thought about writing a book about Mickey Mantle before this?

I knew that someday I would. But then Mike said, “Write it now. Write it all.” In 2000 I showed him a manuscript of over 2,500 type-written pages. He laughed so hard I thought he was going to choke to death. He said that was around 800,000 words, and that no publisher would buy a baseball biography of much more than 100,000 words, something between 300 and 400 typewritten pages. So we began editing it down. It seemed impossible and like cutting off a leg or testicle. Mike finally auctioned a manuscript of 600 pages, which we still had to cut down to 400 pages for publication. The reason I tell you this story is that there was a lot of material — like on the Mantle-DiMaggio, Mantle-Maris and Mantle-Stengel relationships — that was left out of that first book. There was also new material that kept coming in. And, that’s how the books DiMag & Mick and The Best There Ever Was — came to be, as well at this new book, Maris & Mantle: Two Yankees, Immortality and the Age of Camelot. Don’t get me wrong. There was more that went into those subsequent books than just picking up what was left out of Mickey Mantle: America’s Prodigal SonThe game’s new analytics and sabermetrics, for instance. They change the way you look at Mantle’s 1957 season, which had long been under-appreciated. There were also new interviews with Bob Cerv, Ted Williams, Roger Maris and numerous others that I didn’t have access to until after the first Mantle book was out. Not to mention Holly Brooke (seen in the photo with Mantle in 1951), Mickey’s New York girlfriend with whom I spoke to almost every day from 2006 until her death in 2017. I also had a couple of long conversations with Merlyn that led me to reconsider things like Mickey’s place among baseball’s greats.

You must have a lot of material on Holly Brooke and Mickey. Enough for a book?

Wow. That’s something Mike Hamilburg would have asked. He died in 2016, and I miss him.

Tell us a little about how you became a writer and why you are drawn to baseball for so many of your books.

I’ve been writing since my childhood. When I was eight I wrote a 40-page “book” about Davy Crockett. It wasn’t much until my third-grade teacher published copies on a mimeograph machine and distributed them through her teacher friends and the public library. It led to a story in my hometown daily, and it got me the reputation as a precocious, upstart smarty-pants, as well as a place on the local college children’s theater group, not to mention more expectations than I ever imagined.

A local weekly asked to me write a column about kids which I did for years and in junior high led to me writing about anything I wanted to –- Elvis, rock ‘n’ roll, movies, politics sports, you name it. I covered the Beatles concert in Dallas in 1964. That same year I interviewed Lyndon Johnson during his presidential campaign, as well as Hubert Humphrey, his running mate. By the time I was a senior in high school, I was a full-time reporter at my hometown newspaper, the Waco Tribune-Herald, working along with an older police reporter named Thomas Harris who would go on to write the Hannibal Lecter books.

Baseball was also a big part of my life. My dad, who was an exceptional ballplayer, had played on an armed services team during World War II and then played two seasons in the Mexican Leagues. An uncle was part of a group that owned a Pittsburgh Pirates’ Class B minor league team, the Waco Pirates, and later, after the team left Waco, owned and managed a semi-pro team made up of players who had just washed out at spring training in Florida and college players trying to get noticed by birddog scouts who were always around. I was the bat boy and was always interested in the baseball stories these guys were always telling.

My dad was a big Joe DiMaggio fan who saw him play a number of times in the late 1930s when the Yankees would make swings through Texas and the South after spring training. Dad was also a big memorabilia collector before it was even in fashion, so I grew up with large poster-size photos of DiMaggio and Mantle on my bedroom walls. The photos had come from large calendars that my dad collected.

But how I became a writer… well, my friends say it’s amazing considering my humble beginnings. I am an accomplished Latino journalist and writer who was born in a brothel in post-World War ll Texas. As a child, the only English words I spoke were “Joe DiMaggio” and the lyrics from a Hank Williams tune — “I got a feelin’ called the blues, oh, Lord/ Since my baby said goodbye” — that my pachuco uncle Pancho wickedly taught me to croon as a prayer to Jesucristo. In the second grade I was diagnosed as intellectually slow and cast off to a special education classroom for children labeled at the time as being “mentally retarded.” So my childhood was the hilariously heart-rending story of growing up a poor, out-of-luck barrio boy who might have been written off if a student teacher hadn’t smartly spotted that the shy child spoke only Spanish, some of it pachuco caló slang thanks to my zoot-suited uncle Pancho, but who also showed sparks of brilliance.

By my early teens I was a gifted student, reading works by Dante and Virgil in the original Latin, performing Hamlet monologues with a Welsh accent and the prelude to The Odyssey in a poetic dialect of ancient Greek. My best friend there in Waco, Texas, was the son of the president of Baylor University. I was president of my National Honor Society chapter, editor of my student newspaper, the only Latino making straight A’s in school, and unbeatable in speech declamation tournaments because of six words that would always glue judges to their seats: “I was born in a whorehouse…”

I am third generation Tejano on one side of my family — my paternal grandfather fought with Pancho Villa in the Mexican Revolution — and fifth generation on the other. I was the first in my family to finish high school. My father, a decorated World War II army veteran, played professional baseball in the Mexican leagues; my mother, a dressmaker of wedding and prom gowns, insisted that her rail-thin son wear the creations of organza, tulle, and satin adorned with sequins, rhinestones and embroidered appliqués while she made alterations. Years later, I performed a comedy act in drag on the Los Angeles Sunset Strip, opening with the line: “My life as a woman began in a quinceañera dress.” It is among the contradictions of my existence. “I was bilingual, bi-cultural, and religiously bi-polar — I was both Southern Baptist and Roman Catholic whose great-great-great grandfather was a Sephardic Jew who fled Spain in the 1700s… I quoted too much Protestant scripture for a good Catholic, and I knew too many saints and too much Latin for an acceptable Baptist. I was also Hispanic at a time in segregated Texas when there were still three restroom facilities in public places — one for whites, one for blacks, and one for Mexicans. Perhaps it was an omen of my future that I could use the public toilets reserved for whites. I could pass.”

So, with that kind of background, you’re likely going to become a writer or someone who boosts Ferraris in Hollywood, which sadly might have been more financially rewarding.

As you know, I am an elementary school principal. If I were to talk to the students of my school about how to become a professional writer, what advice would you offer to me to share?

Urge them to read. Mark Twain, Mark Twain. And more Mark Twain. And then go from there. Read everything you can. And master English and English grammar. Their usage should become so good that when someone reads their raw, unedited copy, they should come away suspicious that it hasn’t been cleaned up by a professional editor. This is one thing I’m extremely serious about. When someone asks me to read their work, I tell them I don’t want to read their published clippings. I want to read their raw, unedited copy. That will tell me if they’re any good.

What was the most amazing thing you learned about Mickey Mantle in your research?

That deep down he was a romantic. Who knows what would have happened in his career if he had married the woman with whom he fell in love in New York in 1951, Holly Brooke, and with whom he carried on through the 1960s?

I think I was also amazed by the depth of how flawed Mickey was. But I suspect that adds to the mystique. We love our heroes who swing from their heels but who are also so flawed as to underscore how human they are.

In looking at the history of the Yankees, or baseball in general, what person or event would you like to see a book written about?

Pete Sheehey, the legendary clubhouse man

In the book and the movie The Natural, the main character wants nothing more than to walk down the street and have people say, “There goes Roy Hobbs, the best there ever was.” Who was the best baseball player you ever saw (at any level)?

Mantle on TV. I didn’t see him play in person until 1965 when he was over the hill, though he did homer that night at the Astrodome in Houston.

The best player I saw in person?

MLB – Reggie Jackson. I saw him several times when he was with Oakland and in 1977-78 with the Yankees. I was living back East and attending Yankees games regularly, including his three homers on three swings in the ’77 World Series.

High School – Burt Hooten, pitching for Corpus Christi King High in Texas. Unhittable.

Our final question is really just a collection of short answers…

What was your favorite baseball team growing up?

The Yankees

Who was your favorite player?


What is your most prized collectible?

Four Mantle rookie cards, two in mint condition

Who is your favorite musical group or artist?

The Beatles

What is your favorite food (if it is pizza, what is your favorite pizza restaurant)?