There is little as sad and as beautiful as the early death of an exceptional talent. No matter if it’s a musician, an actor or a sportsman. When the big crowd gets emotional and concludes ‘you went too soon’, the talented gets the status of an unfortunate genius and a legend is born. Sportsmen destroying themselves are even more beautiful. Because of the irony since they were once physically on top of the world. Because their downfall seems to prove the reputation of a misunderstood artist. And because we will never remember them as dementing elderly who wet their pants, but always as young and full of (wasted) potential. All of this makes the tragic life of American baseball legend Mickey Mantle (1931-1995) also a beautiful one. This icon of the New York Yankees is considered one of the greatest in his sport ever, even though he was known to show up for games with a hangover.
Mickey Mantle grew up in the state Oklahoma, where his father Elvin worked in the lead and zinc mines. A family tradition since Mickey’s grandfather and uncle were also miners. All three also died an early death. Father Elvin died at only age 40 of Hodgkin’s disease and also other kinds of cancer struck the family. The lead and zinc dust clearly took their toll through the years. Because of his talent in sports Mickey Mantle could avoid the hard life of a miner, however he still drunk like one. Playing in New York for the Yankees from 1951 and 1968 he gained fame as a ‘switch hitter’, a player who can bat both right- and left-handed, but also as a heavy drinker that owned the New York nightlife. The star that lead the Yankees to 7 World Series titles (the American national championships) also made it a habbit to show up at the ballpark hungover or tipsy from the night before.
Growing up between miners Mantle had been drinking from an early age. In an interview with Sports Illustrated in 1994, a year before his death, the former baseball player said he started each day with a drink he called “The Breakfast of Champions”. He’d put one or more shots of brandy in a big glass and mix it with kahlua and cream. His active drinking career lasted quite a lot longer than his baseball career: 42 years. After he gave up the booze in 1994 he just lived one more year. A liver transplant turned out to be useless when doctors found out that next to liver cirrhosis and hepatitis C he had developed cancer in the liver.
It is the common assumption in America that Mickey Mantle was an alcoholic. However the same is being said of the men on his mother’s side of the family, as well as his wife Merlyn Johnson and three of their sons. Basically it’s not that hard in the United States to be labeled as an alcoholic. Mantle just came from an environment where heavy drinking was as common as an early death. No wonder the good people of New York were shocked when the miner son showed off his drinking skills. Fact is that Mickey Mantle outlived his father by 23 years and his grandpa by 3, while all men in his family died an early death. Mantle expected nothing less for himself and lived life to the fullest with lots of booze and extramarital affairs, or as he simply put it: “I’m not gonna be cheated.”
Although in the last year of his life Mantle showed remorse for his wild lifestyle, we respect him for it. He chose a short life that had it all above the boring extended version. And therefor we salute him, cheers!