My concluding review of baseball books by the late Joseph Durso explores his hydra-headed look at the heart and soul of the 1950s Yankee dynasty, slugger Mickey Mantle and ace lefthander Whitey Ford. The city boy from the upper west side of Manhattan, Ford, and Mantle, the country boy from the flatlands of Oklahoma couldn’t have been more different, except, perhaps, for the poverty they shared growing up during the Great Depression. Nevertheless, they forged a deep and enduring friendship that lasted for the rest of their lives. Unlike his books on John J. McGraw and Casey Stengel about which I have already written here, this one features a bit of a palimpsest format. As editor and sometimes deus-ex-machina, Durso has redacted the recollections of Whitey and Mickey while, fine writer that he is, scrupulously preserving their unique voices, alternating them period-by-period to present their views of their years in pinstripes.
At the same time, Durso adds guest voices from other members of the Yankees during their glory days of the 1950s and 1960s. You’ll also hear from horse breeder Del Miller, as well as Jerry Coleman, Billy Martin, Casey Stengel and Willie Mays. The veteran sportswriter adds section of his own to set the stages and contexts of his two stars and the periods of Yankee dominance as well as the few years they fell behind the league. After a fashion it’s like a sports version of Rashomon, with the author presenting alternate views of the two stars as they come of age, establish the core of their dynasty, and both spend their entire careers with the Bronx Bombers. At the same time Durso describes them, along with Billy Martin, their regular partner in hijinks until team president George Weiss traded Billy into exile in Kansas City, as “we happy few, we band of brothers,” following a subtly understated allegory of Shakespeare’s Henry V.
Both ballplayers remember their childhoods and adolescences for us. Whitey grew up in the Astoria section of Queens, New York and began dreaming of his career as a ballplayer in the sandlots and the municipal school diamonds of his neighborhood but had to put in his two years in the Army before he developed the traction to get his career underway. Mickey, on the other hand, had to work in the zinc mines of Commerce, Oklahoma with his father to help support his impoverished family. Mutt Mantle had been a semi-pro ballplayer who couldn’t make enough money on the diamond to take care of his wife and children. Nevertheless he was dedicated to seeing his obviously talented, very powerful son get out of the mines and play the game at which he excelled from an early age. His father taught him to hit from both sides, stressing the importance of versatility in finding a real job in the game. He also taught him to run, helping the Mick earn the nickname “the Commerce Comet.” During one of his high school games he was hit in the ankle by a line drive and developed osteomyelitis which both slowed him down but also earned him a 4F rating from the Army. He never served, but openly wished he could have. Mickey also relates with poignant honesty how he revered his dad, and how the old man left him feeling adrift, dying when Mick was barely 21 years old.
Apropos Mickey’s early struggles to adapt to the crushing media hype as successor to Joe DiMaggio, here’s a telling story about the pressures of those years. By way of introduction to it, Whitey Ford does a good job of describing the painfully shy young outfielder and also recalls his occasional slumps, when his confidence and resolve were so sorely tested he would call his father in Oklahoma in tears—until Mutt, the patriarch, came storming up to Kansas City where the team was playing at the time to rip his son a new one over his unmanly behavior. Mickey’s love of his father compelled him to stiffen his back an promise to live up to his father’s expectations. But the Mick, however close to imploding his ego might have been back then, endured other difficult periods, including the unexpected terminal diagnosis of Hodgkin’s Disease with which Mutt struggled for a year while his son was in his early twenties. Convinced that cancer just ran in his family and would catch up to him too, he subsequently learned to deaden his depression with alcohol.
Casey Stengel, whom they both called “the old man” or “the old perfesser,” became an enthusiastic father figure to both of his young stars, which was especially important to Mickey after the death of his father. Himself a onetime hellraiser, Casey had to work pretty hard to keep his hard drinking wards from going off the rails, and he talks here about what a challenge it was. The affections of both men for Casey is palpable in their comments.
Durso offers us ringside seats for some of the most historic and, if you’re old enough, memorable games and World Series the two stars played in. Mickey will tell you about his first Series when, trying to avoid a collision with Joe DiMaggio chasing a fly ball, he caught his foot in a drain cover in the outfield and tore ligaments in his knee. That was the next and worst example of an injury proneness that dogged this great ballplayer all his life. Ford lets us know how fast Mickey had been at the outset of his career, even with his ankle injury. On the other hand, he reminds us how fast his friend was, both in the outfield and running the bases despite the pain in which he always was. We also get to sit in the dugout with Whitey while he watches his hard-drinking friend Don Larsen throw a perfect game against the Dodgers in the 1956 World Series, and we watch as Mickey hits a variety of tape measure home runs while brutally hung over from the previous night. Most famous among them was his 1953 mammoth shot out of Griffith Stadium in Washington, a ball that traveled 565 feet from the plate and high enough to clear the stadium entirely.
Towards the end of his career, the great slugger spent as much time on crutches or rehabbing from surgery as he did on the field. He retired in 1968, one year later than Whitey. The great lefthander’s velocity had fallen off and he had become a trick pitcher and spitball artist. He’ll tell you all about how he got away with it.
They’ll also tell you what it was like watching, and feeling, their friend Roger Maris pursuing and breaking Babe Ruth’s 60 home run single season record, and the miserable time he had dealing with sportswriters and radio interviewers who pelted him with one stupid question after another. The actually mild mannered country boy was finally pushed past his limits by obnoxious articles by these journalistic harpies and became hurt and withdrawn—but broke the record anyway.
Writing as frankly as he could in an era when the privacy of ballplayers’ lives was still sacrosanct to journalists, Durso also paints a vivid picture of the “band of brothers’” nights (and wee hours of the mornings) on the town, the shenanigans that got them all fined by their managers—whether Casey or, after 1960, Ralph Houk—what sounds like a record number of times. We know now of Mantle’s repeated adulteries, in response to which his wife Merlyn finally left him in 1980, and the author clearly knew about them too but only brings us to the keyholes and backs away before we can look in.
Mantle, Whitey Ford and Cool Papa Bell were inducted into Cooperstown together. The Mick told Durso he had a speech full of double entendres and flat out vulgar jokes in his pocket, an showed it to Ford who winced and advised Mick not to use it. Mantle finally relented. But at his Hall of Fame induction, Mantle reflected, a bit sheepishly, on his spotty track record of business investments, one of which was a chain of franchise fried chicken restaurants in Oklahoma and bordering states. “I didn’t have much input,” Mantle noted, “but I did come up with a slogan for the company: you won’t find a better piece of chicken unless you’re a rooster.”
Well then, here’s a story to close. The late Eric Blau, a fine author best known for his long running musical Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, was an old friend of my fathers who grew up with him on New York’s lower east side in the 1920s and 30s. On a chilly night back around 1978 or so I had dinner with Eric at New York City’s legendary Bruce Ho’s Four Seas on East 57th Street and he told me what is still my alltime favorite baseball anecdote. One of his early jobs was writing cardback captions and sports instruction booklets for Topps, like “How I Pitch” by Whitey Ford, “How I Catch” by Elston Howard, and “How I Hit” by Mickey Mantle. They were eight pages long and fit in packs of Topps baseball cards with those pink shingles that, when chewed hard enough, became bubblegum. To write the Mantle booklet he joined the Mick at some New York bar and grill to interview him over thick sirloins and copious highballs. They got along well enough. Eric dutifully wrote down Mickey’s tips and incorporated as much of Mantle’s input as he could recall. It was eventually distributed with packets of Topps cards.
Some months later Mantle was mired in a horrific slump, trying everything he could think of to fix whatever was wrong with his swing. One morning at three AM Eric’s phone rang. It was Mantle, well and truly marinated. “Erwic,” the voice on the phone slurred, “this is M-m-mickey.” Our author cleared his head a bit. “Oh, hi. What’s doing?” Mantle replied, “I just wed your brook.” “Okay,” Eric said, “and?” Mantle cried “You’re full of shit!” and hung up.