Mickey Mantle, Billy Martin, Casey Stengel, and the Battle of the Bottle

Today is the anniversary of Mickey Mantle's death. I am too young to have seen Mantle play, but like all fans I know the story, his disappointment, our shared pain. Thinking of him recalled to mind this piece I wrote on another anniversary, that of Billy Martin's death, more than ten years ago, on the subject of Mantle, Martin, Casey Stengel, and how all of them were deeply involved with alcoholism.

It's Christmas Eve, and despite the tinsel and cheerful holiday atmosphere around the office, I'm obsessed with melancholy thoughts. Tomorrow it is not just Christmas day, but also the tenth anniversary of Billy Martin's death. On December 25, 1989, a car accident claimed the life of the five-time Yankee manager.

Initially I had planned to talk about Martin's abilities as a manger, but remembering him also brings to mind two other Yankees to whom he was close, Mickey Mantle and Casey Stengel. The three will always be connected in Yankees history. Stengel, the manager, and Martin and Mantle, best friends and the players who considered themselves Stengel's spiritual sons.

Longtime readers will know that Casey Stengel is my favorite Yankee and the subject of my first book. The story of Stengel's life has always attracted me. Stengel was a great comedian and a baseball genius. Unfortunately, he was so good at the former that it took until he was 60 years old to convince people that he was also the latter. This dichotomy, the Stengel who wanted to make people laugh vs. the Stengel who wanted to be respected for his brains, runs through his entire life's story. Stengel's life was no tragedy - Casey Stengel enjoyed being Casey Stengel too much for that - but if there is any sadness to be found in him, it is that although he was successful, wealthy, famous, and beloved by millions, he never felt that he was appreciated in the way the he should have been.

Beyond that, Casey Stengel was just a fascinating character. He was a brilliant manager, using his roster to a greater extent than any manager of his day. His platooning not only improved his ballclub's offense, depth, and versatility, but motivated his players - they would try to hit their way out of being platooned. There is the quotable Stengel. Entire books have been devoted to his arcane utterances. Finally, there is the comic Stengel, the man who razzed a hostile Brooklyn crowd by letting a bird fly out from under his cap, thumbed his nose at Babe Ruth after hitting a home run in the 1922 World Series, and tried to convince an umpire that a game should be called on account of darkness by signaling for a relief pitcher with a railroad lantern. Every day of Stengel's life was jam packed - usually with laughter. That's why I was moved to write a book about him: it wasn't just that I admired him, but that he was so much fun to spend time with.

Billy Martin and Mickey Mantle more than admired Stengel. They looked upon him as a surrogate father. Martin grew up without a father, his parents having split up before he was born. Martin was introduced to Stengel when the former was a teenager and the latter was managing the Oakland Oaks of the Pacific Coast League. Stengel was immediately charmed by Martin's brashness. He also recognized his difficult background. Stengel later remembered Martin as, "a young man that came out of a neighborhood, which we have in every city, which they try to watch. He'd had a stepfather." Stengel took it upon himself to turn the youngster into a ballplayer, hitting him endless grounders on the Oak's infield. When Martin was old enough, Stengel signed him for the Oaks and had the Yankees purchase his contract in 1950. Martin loved Stengel, putting the words "Casey's boy" on his Monument Park plaque.

In contrast, Mantle's father, Mutt, had a prominent, positive role in his son's life, encouraging his son to be a ballplayer, and helping to train and motivate him. However, Mantle left home to become a professional ballplayer while still a teenager. He later admitted that he was not ready to be separated from his family. Just a few years later, when Mantle was only 21, his father died. Used to having a strong father figure in his life, Mantle looked to Stengel.

I have always wondered if Stengel, who never had any children of his own and was well past the age of parenthood when he met both Martin and Mantle, ever really understood what he meant to these two young men. Despite the "lovable old guy" act he put on for the press, Stengel was not always warm with his players. A disciple of iron-fisted manger John McGraw, Stengel generously doled out harsh criticism to his Yankees. This might have been taken in stride by players who simply saw Stengel as the boss, but must have meant something altogether stronger to those who looked upon him as a father. Even so, Stengel was no less critical of Mantle and Martin than any other players. In fact, he was probably harder on them.

The problem with Stengel as a parental figure was that he had never been one, and did not really see himself as one. Stengel's self-image was that of a teacher, someone who took young players and taught them how to play the game. As such, he was capable of a teacher's frustrations when his pupils-particularly Mantle, who Stengel saw as his legacy to the game, his creation in the same way that Mel Ott had been McGraw's-failed to perform to his level of expectation. This teacher-student relationship superceded any other emotional bond.

In refusing to be like a true father and limiting his parental attentions to the ballpark, Stengel failed to hold up his end of the bargain with these two young men who played their hearts out for him. I think this is particularly true in relation to alcohol, an area where Martin and Mantle emulated Stengel without having Stengel's tolerance. It was a failure that lead to the untimely deaths of both men.

Mantle, who bravely made his alcoholism public, died of liver disease, and Martin's drinking heavily figured in his professional problems and ultimately his accidental death. Alcohol is a troubling part of the legacy that Casey Stengel left them. Stengel was a heavy drinker. Johnny Murphy, one of his pitchers, said of him, "When he dies they'll have to send his liver to the Smithsonian." This was not so much because he lived to an advanced age (85) while continuing to drink, but because despite his consumption, he was never seen to have been inebriated (in this he was similar to Winston Churchill). Either Stengel nursed one drink for hours at a time, too busy talking to actually finish a drink or he had a tremendous tolerance for alcohol. The truth is probably somewhere in between. (Stengel was, in his own way, a tremendous physical specimen. In addition to his resistance to the effects of liquor, he needed very little sleep.)

Stengel had a permissive attitude towards his players' consumption of alcohol. In this, he showed his age. In Stengel's youth, and for a considerable time afterwards, players that did not drink were thought to lack manhood. "They say some of my stars drink whiskey," Stengel said, "but I have found that the ones who drink milkshakes don't win many ballgames." Of clean-cut Bobby Richardson, he said, "Look at him. He doesn't drink, he doesn't smoke, he doesn't stay out late, and he still can't hit .250."

To Stengel, drinking only became a problem when it affected a player on the field. "No ballplayer should ever get into the habit where he drinks before a ball game... When I had one of those boys, I said, ‘Well, this man is limited... if he doesn't want to change-why, disappear him." However, if a player with off-the-field problems was productive for him, as Don Larsen was, Stengel was able to ignore his lapses-up to and including driving his car into a tree, as he did during spring training 1956, the same year in which he would pitch his perfect game. Asked why his pitcher was driving at 5 AM, Stengel said that he went out to mail a letter.

Stengel's ambivalence towards drinking carried over to his team as a whole. Ryne Duren, Stengel's bullpen ace in 1959 and 1960, and a recovering alcoholic, told writer Peter Golenbock, "There were several full-blown alcoholics on that team, and there were three or four more who came pretty close."

In retrospect, it now seems clear that one of those Duren referred to was Mickey Mantle. Stengel's occasional hostility towards his greatest player has been cited as evidence of his selfishness. In his autobiography, Stengel selected All-Star teams for both his Yankee years and his entire career to that point. Although he listed Mantle among the best Yankees he had managed, he did not list Mantle among the best players in the majors during a period of fifty years. At the time, this seemed an intentional slight. Stengel had great expectations for Mantle. Although he never explicitly said this, it is commonly accepted that Stengel wanted Mantle to be his living monument. The greatest ballplayer of all time would be "Casey's Boy." Despite Mantle's tremendous success, Stengel often seemed frustrated with his approach and lack of focus. At the time this seemed unreasonable. With Mantle's liver failure and resultant death in 1995, and the concomitant knowledge that some of Mantle's lapses in performance resulted from his undisciplined lifestyle, Stengel's disappointment becomes more understandable.

Nonetheless, Stengel shares some responsibility for the fate of Mantle and Martin. Both were teenagers when Stengel first came into contact with them, and both adopted him as a father figure. Stengel's casual attitude towards alcoholism, his mixed messages about drinking (if your performance was unaffected, you were okay) undoubtedly influenced the two young men.

I think that heroes and fathers are meant not only to inspire, but to disappoint you. The moment you discover that someone you idolize has faults, weaknesses, you grow a little bit. Realizing that you can't find perfection in another human being is an essential step on the road to maturity and adulthood. That's why every hero has a little something left out -so you can miss it in him (or her) and find it in yourself. I don't know if Mickey Mantle or Billy Martin ever found whatever qualities that absent fathers, and a difficult surrogate, failed to instill in them.
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