The life of a sports icon is a fairly predictable progression: ever-increasing states of Adoration, followed by Vilification, Purgatory and Redemption.
Brett Favre, being investigated by the NFL for sending lewd texts to a buxom media personality, is in the vilification stage.
Tiger Woods, serial adulterer, has been there since Thanksgiving.
Michael Jordan, I would argue, remains in purgatory.
But only the rarest of these great stars can consider his fall with anything that approximates detachment, much less humor. This brings me to Mickey Mantle, and the story once told to me by the great ad man, George Lois. It was a snowy day, circa 1970, when Lois -- who made breakfast porridge cool by casting Mantle in a famous spot -- got a call to immediately remove Mickey from the bar of the Pierre Hotel on Fifth Avenue in New York.
On their way out, a blonde hostess asked The Mick for his autograph. For her son, she explained.
Mantle responded by grabbing her breasts.
Lois apologized profusely on his friend’s behalf, hustled him through the revolving door, and gave the hostess $100 for her troubles.
Then he found Mickey at the curb, his face just inches from the gray slush, but grinning.
“Fine place for America’s hero,” said Mantle.
The same story, with minor variations, appears on page 325 in the galleys of Jane Leavy’s incandescent new biography, "The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle." As the eve of its publication date coincided with Brett Favre’s first appearance as -- how shall I put it, an investigatee? -- on Monday Night Football, one wonders about the nature of Favre’s alleged transgressions.
I don’t know if they rose to the level of criminal harassment. But they were nothing if not Mantle-esque.
Still, as noted by Dino Costa in his intelligently profane commentary Tuesday on Mad Dog Radio, Favre isn’t alone. Woods and Ben Roethlisberger were busted for Mantle-esque behavior as well. Their vilification has been richly earned (though the bully quarterback, it seems to me, even more so than the cheating golfer).
So these guys feel entitled. So stardom is not conducive to heroism, at least not in domestic life. So what else is new? Roethlisberger’s rap was apparently based on shots of alcohol. Sound familiar? As for Favre and Woods, give them a few more decades of cheating and they still wouldn’t have caught up to The Mick.
You think Mickey Mantle would’ve “sexted” Jenn Sterger? In fact, there’s reason to believe he’d have dispatched with the cyber phase, and gone straight to the groping. Yet Mantle remains loved and revered while Favre and Woods have become punchlines.
It’s worth mentioning that until he started his serial retirements, Favre was a bona fide American hero -- much like Mantle. Not only did he deal stoically with pain, like Mantle, his manner of play evoked a sense of youth -- even as he aged.
By now you’ve heard that Favre was a victim of these high-tech times. In other words, it’s a good thing Mantle didn’t have a cell phone.
Then there’s the voracious, 24-hour news cycle. Unlike Favre, Mantle didn’t have to deal with TMZ or Deadspin. His misbehavior wasn’t merely tolerated; it was journalistically disappeared.
Finally, there’s this curious contradiction between now and then. Whatever Favre is accused of, it sure isn’t worse than what Presidents Kennedy or Clinton did while in the Oval Office. As other segments of popular culture have become more permissive in terms of profanity, violence and nudity, sports have become more puritanical. Consider, for example, the Oakland Raiders of the 1970s and early 80s, (and here I recommend Peter Richmond’s excellent and recently published Badasses). If Favre warrants an investigation -- and I’m not arguing he doesn’t -- then what would Roger Goodell have done with those old Raiders teams? He’d have to outsource a probe. That’s how massive a job it would be.
And here, in an admittedly roundabout fashion, is the point. Not only can’t you apply today’s standards to yesteryear’s heroes, you can’t apply today’s standards to today’s heroes. Not if you want heroes. The evolution of technology, journalism and popular expectations have all conspired to ensure there will be no more Mantles.
Nor will there be any Favres or Tigers or Jordans (remember, by the end, he, too, was being taken to court by one of his goumares). And you can forget about any Babes or DiMaggios.
A DUI, an STD, a B&E? Sooner or later, by today’s standards, they will all be found in that same gutter where Lois found Mickey.
Jane Leavy has written some sparkling sentences, informed by 500 or so interviews. The level of the work allows her to rise above the presumption against the industry of Mantle Lit. Still, her real accomplishment is holding Mantle to the strictest scrutiny -- while managing to keep the notion of his heroism intact. "The Last Boy" is an ideal companion to read with your usual diet of knee-jerk, breast-laden and highly entertaining sports sites. Leavy's journalism is rich in context and cause, but never alibi.
As a man, there’s nothing Favre, Woods or Jordan did that Mantle didn’t do worse -- way worse. He was a faithless husband, and an epically bad father, who only got to know his sons as drinking buddies. His taste in performance-enhancing drugs ran to amphetamines and penicillin. He once bragged to Leavy that he led “the league in the clap six straight years. A major league record. It’ll never be broken.”
That same night, in April 1983, Mantle placed his hand on the inside of Leavy’s thigh. His paw, she writes, “was thick, sure, and entitled, casually asserting its prerogative the way it would over a coffee mug.”
Now you want to talk about ‘sexting’?
Brett Favre should pray for a biographer of Leavy’s compassion and intelligence, someone who can render a hero with the iconography of real-life.