Mickey Mantle: 'The Last Boy'

BY foxsports • October 14, 2010

Atlantic City, April 1983

I met Mickey Mantle in the Atlantic City hotel where my mother lost her virginity, three weeks after Pearl Harbor. It was the spring of 1983, the year Mantle’s hometown of Commerce, Oklahoma, was named one of the most toxic waste sites in America. I was a reporter for The Washington Post and a devoted second, who had taken up the gauntlet in the endless verbal duels of protracted childhood: “Who’s better? Mickey Mantle or Willie Mays?” He was the newly appointed Director of Sports Promotions at the Claridge Hotel and newly banished from baseball because of his affiliation with its casino.

My parents’ honeymoon had been brief, one winter night by the Jersey shore — Christmas Day 1941, the only day they could find a rabbi in the prenuptial rush to commitment prior to his shipping out. After my father received his orders — he was stationed in the Aleutian Islands for four long, bitter years — my mother moved back in with her parents at 751 Walton Avenue, one very long, very loud foul ball from Yankee Stadium.

The building was called the Yankee Arms and featured a leaded stainedglass window in the lobby with bats crossed over a heraldic shield; the colors were home white and pinstripe blue and yellow-gold to evoke the blondness of ash.

Groundbreaking was in the fall of 1927, just after The Babe swatted his 60th home run. Such was his clout that a whole new subdivision of luxury buildings — the Neighborhood That Ruth Built — sprang up in his shadow. Bordered on the east by the Beaux Arts mansions of the Grand Concourse and on the west by the Harlem River, the Stadium area embodied upward mobility. For a time, The Babe himself lived on Walton Avenue, 10 blocks north of my grandmother’s kitchen.

The apartment had all the latest amenities of 1920s construction: windows that swiveled on a pivot for washing; a dumbwaiter that brought groceries up from the basement and took trash away; a refrigeration system that circulated cold water through pipes to keep the groceries cold. The halls smelled of butter and borscht, chicken schmaltz and stuffed cabbage. I could smell my grandmother’s sweet-and-sour salmon two floors away.

The lobby attempted dark Tudor elegance: heavy, brocaded furniture and ocher-colored shellacked stucco walls. Shafts of blue and gold light poured through the stained-glass window, pooling on the hard stone floor. I hopscotched from blue to gold, my party shoes clicking like baseball spikes against a concrete runway.
It was there that I fell in love with Mickey Mantle.

My grandmother’s apartment, 2A, faced east toward the Concourse, away from the Stadium. During home stands, the roar of the crowd threatened the kibitzing in her parlor, ricocheting off the buildings on 157th Street, past the candy store and the greengrocer on the corner of Gerard Avenue, past Nick, the shoemaker, and Mr. Kerlan, the kosher butcher, and through her double-hung windows. Crouched beneath the grand piano — with a damaged right leg as precarious as The Mick’s — I listened to Mel Allen’s honeysuckle baritone, punctuated by the crack of the bat. And then the roar came again as the sound waves vibrated up the street. It was my own primitive version of surround sound, and it rattled the glass. I turned up the volume when Mickey was on deck.

In my worldview, Celia Zelda Fellenbaum and Mickey Charles Mantle were linked by something far deeper than mere proximity. Both were stoic in the face of pain and selfless in pursuit of pleasing others. My diabetic grandmother injected her thigh daily with the insulin she kept in the icebox along with the sweets she stocked for me and my cousins: six-packs of Pepsi, platters piled high with homemade rugelach, and her own seven-layer chocolate cake. How different was it, really — Mantle’s insistence upon being in the lineup no matter how much he hurt and her risky determination to fast on Yom Kippur? Weren’t they both team players? “Who’s better, Dad? Mickey or Willie?”

My father grew up on the other side of the Harlem River in a tenement hovering above Coogan’s Bluff. In the winter of 1927, he patrolled the Polo Grounds as a water boy for the New York football Giants. “Willie,” he replied firmly, citing the latest box score.

Mickey was my guy. Or: I was a Mickey guy. Either way you put it, the relationship was proprietary and somehow essential. Like Mick, who had to be sent down to the minors three months after his major league debut, I had arrived prematurely. Conceived the week — perhaps the day — he hit his first home run at the Stadium, I was born two months too soon in a Bronx hospital twenty city blocks from where that ball landed. Like Mick, I had a sense of being physically flawed. Other kids practiced his swing; I practiced his limp and aped his grimace.

My grandmother gave me permission to be who I was, a little girl who liked to play boys’ games. One fine spring day, opening day of the baseball season, we took the CC train downtown to Saks Fifth Avenue to buy a baseball glove. The cars still had those old straw seats and the bristles caught in my tights and we almost missed the stop while trying to untangle me. I often got tangled up when I tried to be a proper girl.

We bought me a mitt, the only one they had, a Sam Esposito model, which was firmly attached to the glove hand of a mannequin in the Saks Fifth Avenue window. “I’ll have that for my granddaughter,” she told the flummoxed salesman.

No matter how many times he demurred — “Madam, it’s not for sale” —  she would not be deterred. I took Sammy home with me and everywhere else until my mother disposed of the glove in an unhappy spring purge. I told my grandmother that Sam was a Yankee. She had no reason to know better. In the 25 years she lived at 751 Walton Avenue, she never once felt compelled to cross the threshold of the cathedral of baseball.

She celebrated the Jewish High Holy Days in the ballroom of the Concourse Plaza Hotel at the corner of 161st Street, where Mickey and Merlyn Mantle spent their first year as newlyweds. No matter what the temperature, she wore her mink coat to shul. It had a shawl collar and no buttons and was big enough to keep her and several grandchildren warm. In fact, her coat was two sizes too large — marked down, wholesale. She didn’t wear it to temple on sweltering fall afternoons of prayer to show off. That would have required a mere stole. It was to accommodate me, Sammy, and my red, plastic transistor radio with a tinny gold flower-shaped speaker at its center. She greeted the New Year, waiting for me by a bench in front of Franz Siegel Park, arms spread wide, an expanse of mink catching me in a satin embrace.

Services were held in the sumptuous ballroom of the hotel, which opened for business the same year as Yankee Stadium. With its vast onlookers’ balcony, the ballroom was well suited to my grandmother’s Conservative congregation, in which men and women worshiped in sacred isolation. The women sat upstairs in the gallery in ballroom chairs facing toward Jerusalem. I faced the opposite direction, called to prayer by the large, green, looming presence of the outfield wall at the bottom of 161st Street. Just down the hill, past Joyce Kilmer Park, where African-American men sold towers of undulating marbleized balloons, past Addie Vallens, the ice cream parlor where Joe DiMaggio enjoyed an ice cream soda between ends of a doubleheader. Mickey was so close, and so far away.

While my grandmother listened for the sound of the shofar, I listened to Red Barber inside a cocoon of heavy red velvet drapery that concealed his voice and my apostasy. While she prayed for my future, I prayed that no one would ever humiliate Mickey again, the way Sandy Koufax did in the 1963 World Series.

The 1964 World Series was my last opportunity to pray with her and for him. Mickey got old fast, and so did my grandmother. I was sitting in my parents’ maroon-on-black Dodge sedan with the push-button transmission in the parking lot of Montefiore Hospital when she suffered the stroke that precipitated her death at age seventy-four. The night she died, Monday, May 2, 1965, the Yankees did not play.

I didn’t go back to Yankee Stadium until September 1968. This time, it was to pay homage to The Mick. It had been an awful year of abrupt and tragic goodbyes. Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., were assassinated. The cover of Time magazine asked if God was dead too. And Mickey Mantle was playing his last season.

The particulars of the game are hazy. Was it a Sunday? A doubleheader against the Senators, perhaps?
Memory returns in shards: traffic whizzing by the pigeons loitering on the median dividing the Concourse; the rumble of the D train below tar-patched macadam; a steel girder buttoned with bolts, blocking the view from our seats in the lower deck behind and to the left of home plate. The netting cut the batter’s box into tidy rectangles of time and space. I don’t remember what Mickey did that day. But then, my view was obstructed.

Just how little I’d really seen of him became apparent when he agreed to meet me for breakfast in Atlantic City 15 years later. I was sitting at my desk in the sports department at The Washington Post when he called.

“Hi, this is Mickey,” he drawled. “Mickey Lipschitz.”

“I didn’t know you were Jewish.”

“Let me tell you something a guy told me when I first come to New York,” Mickey said. “When you’re going good, you’re Jewish. When you’re going bad, you’re Eye-talian.”

He said he’d meet me at 11 a.m.

Jane Leavy, award-winning former sportswriter and feature writer for The Washington Post, is author of the New York Times bestseller Sandy Koufax: A Lefty’s Legacy and the comic novel Squeeze Play. She lives in Washington, D.C. Her new HarperCollins book, The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America's Childhood, goes on sale Oct. 12.

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