Mickey Mantle's Battle

June 09, 1995

There's a classic photograph from the late 1950s of Mickey Mantle on a cabin cruiser with a few other New York Yankee buddies off the coast of Florida during spring training. The players wore crew cuts as severe as a Marine's and the kind of tank top undershirts that men wore when all men wore undershirts. Cigarettes dangled from lips. Meaty hands gripped

long-neck beers. And every subject in that shot wore something else on his face: a macho swagger.

This was post-war America. They were the Yankees. They played in New York City. And all were invincible.

America now seems to understand better than it did that invincibility is fleeting. The U.S. lost its way in Vietnam. The Bronx Bombers, except in the Reggie Jackson years, have hardly seen the World Series since that era when Mr. Mantle's Yanks played in a dozen of 'em. The Big Apple went bankrupt. And we seem more aware that cigarettes and liquor exact a terrible human toll.

Mickey Mantle yesterday received a new liver. His old one had been ravaged by hepatitis, cancer and decades of alcohol abuse. Mr. Mantle poured out his heart in a self-searching interview in Sports Illustrated last year, revealing how booze had impeded his ability to be a husband and father, even if it couldn't arrest his prowess at slamming a baseball. He was Joe DiMaggio's heir-apparent in centerfield at the House that Ruth Built and the most prolific switch-hitter of all time.

Perhaps his very public tribulations will convince more Americans of how alcohol can transform a Hall of Famer at age 41 into a broken, wan-faced man at 63. The diseases and pathologies of the famous -- Betty Ford's drug and alcohol

addictions, Magic Johnson's HIV, Kurt Cobain's depression, Ronald Reagan's Alzheimer's disease -- often raise the collective consciousness about the need to seek treatment, to change behaviors, to fund medical research.

Back to that magazine photograph: Among Mr. Mantle's friends, also wearing a world-beater smirk, was a feisty player and later manager named Billy Martin. He died in a drunken driving accident six years ago.

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