clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Greatest Hits Vol. IV: From the Monument Park Project

Concurrent with the Pinstriped Bible, I started up a Yankees history column called the Monument Park Project. It ran 52 weekly installments and went away when the original folded. The feedback I got at the time was tremendous, but I never have had the opportunity to revive it.

In introducing the MPP, I made a mistake: I tried to go for a little old "Twilight Zone"-style melodrama:

There is a room in Yankee Stadium that rarely gets any mention in the press but exists nonetheless. It’s only accessible from certain corridors on certain floors, and even those that have worked in the Stadium for decades insist that you have a better chance of finding it by accident than on purpose.

This room, which has no number, is identified by double-doors of fogged glass. Breaking across both doors in large, round letters are these words:


…Even if you found the room, you would have a hard time getting in; no one is known to have a key. They say that Pete Sheehy, the legendary clubhouse man, had one, but he’s been gone for nearly fifteen years. Rumor has it that Joe DiMaggio had a key, or knew where one was, but if he did, he guarded the secret with the same intense privacy that he applied to the rest of his life. George Steinbrenner might have a key, but he isn’t talking.

For a month after that introduction ran (and it went on for a painful while longer), I received emails asking me if the room was real, and if so how a visit could be arranged.

That Christmas, I marked by the 10th anniversary of Billy Martin’s death by discussing the drinking problems of Martin and Mickey Mantle and Stengel’s own tolerance of drinking, concluding:

"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."

Shortly thereafter, I was forced to defend the piece as not having somehow been immoral.

The Christmas edition of The Monument Park Project, which was concerned, in part, with Casey Stengel, Mickey Mantle, Billy Martin, and their relationship with demon rum, generated the most email this column has received in quite awhile. The notes were 99% complimentary. The exception was the following, from one Jenny Ames. I think it's worth discussing.  Ms. Ames wrote:

I usually enjoy your commentaries on the Yankee Forum.  But your one one Casey/Billy Martin/Mickey Mantle was not one of my favorites. The Yankees Website is not the right place to speak of drinking habits, etc.  How about dwelling on Billy Martin interupted his career in the majors to serve in the Korean War, or how his timely hiting was key in many yankee poostseason victories.  Leave the smut to the Message Board [sic].

And all that garbage around the holidays when kids are home surfing the net?

Sincerely, Jenny

I don't agree that a mature discussion of alcoholism is equivalent to "garbage" or "smut." My intention in bringing up this issue in connection with Stengel, Mantle, and Martin was not to deny their heroic qualities, or indulge in idle gossip about the honored dead, but to add something to the group portrait: depth. I could have restricted myself to matters like Billy Martin's World Series performances, but then I would have been talking about what they did, not who they were.

I'm not surprised by Jenny’s negative reaction. In America we like our heroes bland and faultless. Take the most iconic American of all, George Washington. As kids we are told the old myth about the cherry tree,  that he lead a ragtag army to victory over the British, and that he was the first president and everybody loved him. He was first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen. That's all we know. Washington is so perfect that he is bloodless and boring, more a portrait than a person. Most students can't wait for the bell to ring so they can get to something more interesting.

That's a true shame, because George Washington had a personality. Though famous for his reserve,  his poise would sometimes fracture under stress, allowing his intense inner feelings to show through. Like many of us, he was often insecure about his own abilities. Thomas Jefferson observed that, "In public, when called on for a sudden opinion, he was unready, short and embarrassed." He was also capable of sudden outbursts of emotion. At the battle of Princeton he was so excited by his victory that he charged off after the retreating foe — by himself. He could get very angry. "His temper was naturally high  toned," though most of the time Washington was able to keep it reigned in. "If ever, however, it broke its bonds, he was most tremendous in his wrath." Jefferson witnessed one such incident, when the President was incensed over newspaper stories that falsely accused him of aspiring to monarchy:

"He got into one of those passions when he cannot command himself, ran on much on the personal abuse which had been bestowed on him, defied any man on earth to produce one single act of his since he had been in the government which was not done on the purest motives... that he had never repented but once having slipped the moment of resigning his office, that that was every moment since, and that by God he had rather be in his grave than in the present situation. That he had rather be on his farm than to be made emperor of the world, and yet they were charging him with wanting to be a king."

Despite this, Jefferson concluded that, "His integrity was most pure, his justice the most inflexible I have ever known... He was indeed, in every sense of the words, a wise, a good, and a great man."

I ask you: which George Washington is a better example to us, the inanimate portrait on the dollar bill, or the Washington who had faults and strove to overcome them? The former is unattainable, a figure of mythology. We can all strive to be the latter, a person with flaws who was nonetheless great. And by the way: a warm-blooded Washington is a lot more interesting to learn about than that other guy. Washington was offered tremendous power and consistently refused it. If you don't assume that he was perfect then it's a fascinating story: how strong he must have been to never give in to temptation!

We sterilize all of our history this way. Our heroes become 100% good, our motives 100% pure. In school we learn a lot about the high ideals of our revolution and how we made "the world safe for democracy" in World Wars I and II, but we hear almost nothing about what we did to the Philippines at the end of the nineteenth century or our dozens of interventions in Latin America. We learn that Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves, but get very little sense that it took him years to figure out that that was what he was supposed to do. In the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858, Lincoln was a politician, playing it safe: "I will say that I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about the social and political equality of the white and black races." In 1862, he wrote Horace Greeley that, "My paramount object... is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery... What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union..." Then  Lincoln changed. The Emancipation Proclamation was issued, and after that the President was animated by a fervency of spirit that you would have to describe as biblical: "If God wills that [the war] continue," Lincoln said in his second inaugural address, "until all the wealth piled by the bond-man's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until very drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said 'the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether.'" Lincoln had had an epiphany and been transformed by it.

To me, a Lincoln who was born with his moral compass screwed on exactly right is much less instructive than a Lincoln who had to get his bearings in the world before his inner goodness finally asserted itself and made him an instrument of destiny. That he paid for that destiny with his life makes his struggle to find it all the more poignant.

Billy Martin was a great manager and a great Yankee. Taken solely on his ability to take a bad team and turn it into a winner, he was the greatest manager of all time. No one, not Connie Mack or Earl Weaver or John McGraw, could turn a team around the way he did. Unfortunately, Martin had a dark side. He was suspicious, paranoid, often violent. Alcohol played a large part in making him that way. If we tell the story of Billy Martin without talking about these qualities, we are telling a lie. We have to make up outlandish excuses for him: Martin was fired nine times in sixteen seasons because every owner he worked for was insane. He stopped getting along with his players nine times in sixteen seasons because all of his players didn't want to win as badly as he did. Denying the truth about this one aspect of Martin's life quickly forces us to alter his story in many other areas. After that, we're not talking about Billy Martin anymore. He's just a character we made up.

The same is true of Mickey Mantle. Sixteen ballplayers have hit 500 or more home runs. If we leave out his personality, then Mantle becomes interchangeable with any one of them. Mel Ott hit 511 homers as an outfielder in New York. He is mostly forgotten today, not because his accomplishments have become less impressive, but because his story lacks the compelling elements that Mantle's does. What Mantle did on the field is impressive, but less so than what he went through to do it. If we deprive The Mick of what he overcame to be great, then he's just another ballplayer. The same is true if we avoid his failings. We can learn from Billy Martin and Mickey Mantle, and knowledge is more valuable than mere awe. Mantle knew that. When, just before he died he said, "Kids, don't be like me," he was asking us to remember him, warts and all, and learn.

In preparing this response, I have avoided touching on alcoholism because my areas of knowledge are baseball and history, not substance abuse. However, I would like to assert that the subject of alcoholism should not be hidden from children. Several studies have shown that children who are well acquainted with alcohol and its destructive powers are much less likely to abuse it in later years.

Unrealistic heroes have little value. Like fairy tales, they exist to socialize our children with dramatized examples of right and wrong. Unfortunately, fairy tales lack the complexity of the real world. They leave us helpless to interpret the contradictions inherent in real people and in our national story. James Baldwin wrote, "American history is longer, larger, more various, more beautiful, and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it."

The same is true of the history of the New York Yankees.