Mickey Mantle found himself in golf

Monday November 3rd, 2008
Mantle hamming it up in '93.
Courtesy Marshall Smith

It's a few weeks after his last truly great season, and the most famous baseball player alive, New York Yankee center fielder Mickey Mantle, pulls into the Southern Hills Golf Club parking lot like he owns it. He pops the trunk on his shiny-new '65 Cadillac, tosses a bag of Wilson blades over his right shoulder and strides toward the clubhouse. His friend, Marshall Smith, is waiting.

"Well hey, Mickey. How's your head?"

"Got in early last night. I'm fine. What's our time?"

"We have time to hit some warm-ups."

It's hot — Indian-summer-in-Oklahoma hot — so it doesn't take long for the pair and the other members of their foursome, Tulsa physician E.M. Stokes and former Yankee pitcher Ralph Terry, to get loose. The format for the Southern Hills Invitational this day is two-man better ball. Mantle and Smith's strategy is already well rehearsed: The slugger with the 19 1/2-inch neck hits crunching drives and plays for birdies, and the golf pro with the 29-inch waist piles up the pars. Their ham-and-egg enterprise had dominated games like this for the better part of a decade.

The first hole is a sweeping dogleg left that plays longer than the 454 yards on the card. Mantle soles his Louisville Grand Slam driver — it's the size of a boy's fist — firmly behind the ball and shifts every ounce of his 203 pounds to his back foot. His hands are turned so far to the right on the grip that he can watch the seconds tick by on his wristwatch, the band stretched tight by his piston-like forearms. The seconds tick, tick, tick. Suddenly, Mantle tenses, as if a chest-high fastball has entered his vision. Every muscle in his body begins to twitch. The club swings back. The great Mickey Mantle erupts.

IT SEEMED a lot farther than 358 yards," remembers Smith about Mantle's blast from the first tee that day, a distance not reached on the hole even by Tiger Woods and the other big hitters on Tour during last year's PGA Championship. "He hit sand wedge for his second shot. It was the most impressive thing I ever saw Mickey do on a golf course, until he unloaded on No. 17 later that round and drove the green."

Check the Southern Hills scorecard: No. 17, par 4,354 yards.

Mantle's monster drives were nothing new to Smith, who played more rounds with America's hero than anyone can remember. The blonde-haired, blue-eyed slugger had long established a Paul Bunyan-like reputation for power — he led the American League in home runs four times, the first in 1955, just his fourth full season in the bigs. The swing that fueled one of the greatest offensive onslaughts on major league pitching in history (Mantle's Triple Crown season of 1956, where he hit 52 homers, batted .353 and drove in 130 runs) had made him a living legend. Fans went slack-jawed and wide-eyed with every at bat. Mantle was the corn-fed, Oklahoma-born embodiment of a time, as Tony Castro wrote in Mickey Mantle: America's Prodigal Son, "when we last thought might did right." His tape-measure blasts became a symbol of America's post-WW II swagger. He was Elvis in cleats, Marilyn Monroe with a cannon right arm.

"Mickey was a lot of things to a lot of people," says Smith with an Oklahoma drawl that spoon-feeds his words into your ears. "But he hated the attention. Golf rejuvenated him. It's crazy to hear this, but he got as much satisfaction hitting a big drive as he did hitting a home run."

Mantle's beloved teammate Whitey Ford, who with second baseman Billy Martin and Mickey (a Rat Pack in pin-stripes) turned the austere Yankee dugout of the Joe DiMaggio era into a keg-strewn frat-house basement, also saw a change.

"Mickey enjoyed playing golf more than he enjoyed playing baseball," says Ford, who, at 80, still plays two times a week. "He loved baseball, but in the end it was just a way for him to make money."

Mantle's salary the year after he won the Triple Crown was $60,000 (about what current Yankee slugger Alex Rodriguez makes every three innings). He deserved more — and everyone knew it. He asked for more — but he didn't get it.

Mantle often confided in Smith: "I wish I had become a pro golfer instead of a pro baseball player." Why? "I'd still be cashing paychecks," said Mantle, "and my knees wouldn't hurt so goddamn bad."

For the man who played in 12 World Series in 18 big-league seasons, golf was a world far removed from the burden of carrying a Yankee franchise that would not — could not — tolerate losing, and doing it on the cheap. It became his release, a way to toss the pressure-packed globe off his Atlas shoulders. It was an escape from a rocky, 43-year marriage rife with deceit and a litany of one-night stands. (Merlyn Mantle was a baseball widow and a golf widow.) Golf pulled the shade on what Mantle admitted was a failed attempt at fatherhood (he missed the births of three sons).

"My boys are good fathers," Merlyn Mantle says of her grown children. "Maybe it's because they didn't have that companionship when they were boys."

Most of Mantle's friends agree that his love affair with golf was the healthiest of his life, the only relationship powerful enough to stop, if only for 18 holes, a family-wide Mantle penchant for the consumption of alcohol in mass quantities.

"One of the few times Mickey wasn't balancing a drink in his hands was when they were wrapped around a golf club," says Smith. "Without golf, Mickey would have died much earlier, or at the very least, been forced to seek help much sooner."

There's truth in Smith's words, but golf didn't save Mickey Mantle from alcohol. (Mantle wouldn't beat booze until his well-publicized stay at the Betty Ford Clinic, just 19 months shy of his death.) Golf saved him from himself for fleeting moments in time. He was self-destructive, and he knew it, but golf gave him self-identity. On the course, Mantle wasn't trying to prove something to the other team on the field, or to the fans who wanted a piece of him, or to his drinking buddies who knew him as the beginning and the long end of a good night. With a golf club in his hands, Mantle was proving himself only to himself.

"Baseball was Mickey's first love, and then he fell in love with golf," says his old teammate and frequent golf buddy Yogi Berra. "He never felt pressure like the way he did as a Yankee."

The telephone operator says it's a Mr. Mantle for a Mr. Smith.

It's 1954. The Independence Golf Club clubhouse in Independence, Kan., is empty, typical for a cold December morning.

"Marshall Smith, this is Mickey Mantle. Remember me?"

Smith doesn't have to think long. He grew up in Miami, Okla., three miles to the south of Mantle's boyhood home in Commerce. After returning from a tour in the Pacific during WW II, Smith re-enrolled in high school and played sports against Mantle in the late 1940s, though he was four years his senior. Even then, Mickey kicked everybody's ass, no matter the game.

"Hell yes, I remember. Are you in New York City?"

"No, Hawaii. You still teaching golf?"

"Yes. I'm up here in Independence and, well, I guess you knew that."

"Yogi and Whitey just laughed me off a golf course. I want to beat those sons of bitches. I'm gonna come see you when I get home next week."

Marshall Smith hangs up the phone. Shit me — I'm giving lessons to Mickey Mantle.

DURING the first 23 years of Mantle's life his hands never touched anything but footballs, basketballs and baseballs. That changed the day Yankee teammates and fellow future Hall of Famers Yogi Berra and Whitey Ford invited him to join them for golf on Oahu during a Yankee exhibition trip to Hawaii and Japan in 1954.

"Mickey was horrendous," remembers Ford. "He was an absolute hack that day — surely the first time he had failed at sport. He hit the ball a country mile, but most of the time we couldn't find it."

Mantle stuck to his word and made the 70-mile drive up Route 166 from Commerce to Independence that December with his two twin brothers to get help from the best golf instructor he knew. Smith, never one to overanalyze his students, found the home-run hitter a challenge. When Mantle gripped the club the veins in his forearms and neck throbbed like hissing snakes. He's got no chance, Smith thought.

Mantle, indeed, possessed superhuman strength and speed, all without ever lifting a single weight. His was muscle built of necessity, by swinging sledgehammers in the same lead and zinc mines that his father, Mutt, toiled in; a summer job that spilled over to his first two winters as a Yankee. Money in the Mantle (and every other) household in post-Depression northeast Oklahoma was tight.

"I wasn't about to mess with his natural swing," says Smith. "So I asked him to set up to the ball like he was going to hit a baseball. He was a natural lefty, but I made him switch to the right side — most golf courses are set up for right-handers."

The years young Mickey spent obliging his father's demands to practice hitting from both sides of the plate — which Mantle later described as some of the most enjoyable and rewarding of his life — had paid off once again. Mantle spread his feet, leaned his upper body over his right foot and set his head way behind the ball.

"Why are you setting up on your right side like that?" asked Smith.

"You would, too, if you faced 100-mph fastballs all day," said Mantle.

For the young instructor, Mantle's unorthodox address was an inspiration. It's the same one Smith has taught every one of his students since that December day 54 years ago.

The lesson ended with Mantle catching a few on the screws and a firm handshake between beaming, brand-new friends. Mantle returned to New York that spring for the start of the 1955 season, one in which he'd slug 37 homers, drive in 99 runs and bat .306. During a particularly bad hitless streak in July and August that year, Yankee Manager Casey Stengel ordered Mantle to see Bill Dickey, the Yankee hitting coach.

"Screw that," yelled Mantle. "You need to bring in Marshall Smith."

"Mott, did you know that Ben Hogan lives in Fort Worth?"

"Of course, Mick, he's an old friend. Shady Oaks is about a half-hour from your house in Dallas."

"You know Ben Hogan?"

The golf pro with a bucket hat and, now, a house filled with five teenage children, grinned on the other end of the line as the memory of shagging balls for Ben Hogan as a boy passed across his eyes. Hogan was a regular guest at Miami Country Club in the early 1940s, spending summers under the tutelage of the club's pro, Ky Laffoon, the 10-time Tour winner who taught Smith how to play golf.

"Ky introduced me to Ben 40 years ago, and we still stay in touch. Do you want to meet him?"

MICKEY Mantle, Hall-of-Fame Yankee hero, wetting his pants at the thought of shaking hands with Ben Hogan. He had become just another golf nut, quivering in the presence of golfing elite, a type of admiration, ironically, he came to abhor from his own fans.

"I see it all the time," explains 1977 PGA Champion and Ryder Cup legend Lanny Wadkins, a fellow member of Mantle's at the elite Preston Trail Golf Club in Dallas. "Golf gives high-caliber athletes in team sports — hockey, baseball, whatever — a sense of individual satisfaction. Suddenly, it's your score, not the team score. They thrive on the challenge. It gives them a sense of competitive satisfaction outside the team."

Whatever the reason behind Mantle's moth-to-a-light interest in golf, it conspicuously transcended the need to satisfy an athletic machismo. "Mickey was a completely different person on the course than he was on the field," says Berra. "He was a red-ass in the dugout, in the batter's box, on the base paths. He was intense and took losing personally. When he failed in baseball, he would get visibly upset — let's just say water coolers and Mickey didn't get along. On the course, he was carefree, relaxed, funny. He'd hit a bad shot and say, 'Thank God I don't do this for a living!'"

"I think Mickey's life at Preston Trail (he was a charter member when it opened in 1965) was much easier than his real one," confides Bob Goetz, Preston's head professional from 1975 to 1995. "When Mickey was in Dallas, he was at the club. It was about the only time he didn't have to worry about being Mickey Mantle. There, he was just one of the boys."

Mantle bared himself without fear at Preston, even going as far as logging shirtless rounds on hot summer days.

"I'd play Preston almost every morning during my early days as a pro," recalls Wadkins. "On more than one occasion, I'd walk into the clubhouse for an early breakfast, and Mickey would already be lounging in the sauna, loosening up for that day's round. He was retired from baseball at that point, but, man, he was there every day!"

Preston Trail was the home Mantle could walk into without having to first crawl through the guilt-ridden haze that comes with cheating on your wife. It became a haven where a round with your sons could erase the sting of a somewhat loveless past, even if only for a few hours.

"Mickey loved Preston," says Goetz. "He loved the members, and they loved him."

Goetz didn't realize how much until the night of the 1980 All-Star Game in Los Angeles. He and other Preston regulars took in the game at the club and watched Mantle and other old-timers soak up a sustained ovation from the Dodger Stadium crowd during pre-game ceremonies. Every head turned when, as the game headed into the seventh inning, Mickey walked through the clubhouse door.

"I thought you said they were carrying the game live," Goetz yelled.

"They are," answered Mantle. "I waved and came back home."

Mantle had had a helicopter waiting to whisk him back to his refuge as soon as he fulfilled his All-Star duties.

"Around the club, Mickey was almost a father figure for me," says Wadkins. "If I ever wanted to talk baseball, he turned the conversation almost immediately back to my career."

Mickey Mantle the golfer, like his baseball persona, was safe at home. There just weren't any family pictures on the wall.

"It breaks left-to-right," thinks an aging Mickey Mantle, 10 years removed from his Hall of Fame induction in 1974. The once powerful hands, swollen to the size of baseball mitts, take hold on the grip of his putter and start the club back. Contact is good, like hitting a clean single to left. The ball rolls true, catches the right edge and drops in. Mantle ambles back to the cart on his surgically repaired knees. They hurt — they really hurt. And so do his hands, which makes removing the pencil from the clasp on the steering wheel difficult. He eventually snaps it free, grips it between his right thumb and forefinger, and cleanly and meticulously marks "4" in the last column. He totals the score, signs his name, and hands the card to the Preston Trail head pro.

"Damn, Mickey, that's the most beautiful scorecard I've ever seen."

Every number is as legible as if he had marked it with a stencil — not a single stroke of lead touching the score lines. His signature is a series of flowing arcs, like "M" notes on a music scale.

"Hell yes it is, Bob. It's my score."

MICKEY always kept the card," remembers Smith. "To him, how you wrote the number was just as important as the way you got it."

As if writing "85" neatly somehow made it feel like a "77." As if paying mind-numbing attention to detail reminded you that you did have control. As if creating a perfect world over the span of 18 ruled columns allowed you to banish the imperfect one you called your own.

The imperfections came early, at the end of Mantle's first full season in 1952. He had found a new friend in booze. For 42 years, life off the wagon and off the diamond was a parade of cocktail parties, pre-game Bloody Marys and emptied bottles of Johnny Walker Black. He stayed out late. He played hungover. In nearly the blink of an eye, Mantle guzzled away the innocence of his Oklahoma youth, and continued to drink, drink, drink until his liver cramped, curled up and finally cried "uncle."

"I know he was a drinker," confides Goetz. "But he never drank on the course. The game meant too much to him."

There was more at stake, as it turns out, than his health: Mantle loved to gamble.

"Sure, there were times we'd drink when we'd play," admits Smith. "But those were usually friendly rounds with Mickey's teammates. Once the betting started, the cap stayed on the bottle."

The betting began in 1960, about the time when, by Smith's account, Mantle started breaking 80. "When he could shoot in the 70s consistently," remembers Smith, "Mickey felt he was good enough to get into money games."

The games occurred year-round, until the golf bug became so widespread in the Yankee dugout that manager Casey Stengel banned players from teeing it up starting in 1962. (Such was Mantle's desire to play that even after the ban, he would meet Smith for stealth rounds at Mission Hills C.C. in Shawnee, Kan., when the Yanks were on the road to play the A's in Kansas City.)

When Mantle played baseball, he played with Yankee money. When he played golf, he played with his own. Booze didn't figure into the math.

Golf — and a billfold full of hundreds — gave Mantle a round-by-round shot at sobriety. For four hours, he was clean, whether he won money or lost it. Played out over thousands of rounds, this scenario spared Mantle at least five years of abuse.

"The best thing," adds Smith, "was that he wouldn't have to be told not to drink when he had a game. It was his decision."

A telephone rings.

"Mott, I gotta game. Can you be in Reno tomorrow?"

CALLS like this were part of a 15-year stretch in which Mantle dialed up corporate jets to fly his partner to courses around the country to take on anyone willing to throw down the green, and for a guy like Mickey, action was everywhere you looked.

His superstar status and rugged good looks made him a target of oil tycoons, Wall Street barons, baseball-infatuated man-children and muni-track hustlers — everyone jumped at the chance to take money from the great Mickey Mantle's wallet.

Mantle's approach to gambling was not unlike his approach to hitting fastballs: Reckless on the surface, for sure, but supported deep down by a carefully calculated system for exposing his opponents and breaking them down.

"We had a long-standing game with Art Wall, the head professional at Twin Hills in Joplin, Mo., and the town's local Cadillac dealer, Marvin Porter," remembers Smith. "Marvin and Art were both scratch; I was a two and Mickey a seven. We'd set a date each winter when Mickey came home from New York, and each winter they'd bitch about how many strokes they had to give us. We'd barter back and forth for an hour. Meanwhile, below the surface of the table, Mickey would transcribe the debate on the back of a scorecard."

Late into this series of annual matches, Wall started in. "We'll give you two a side. That's all. Hell, you're Mickey Mantle and Marshall is a ..."

"Don't give us that speech again, Art!" Mantle's outburst stopped Wall in mid-sentence. He pulled the old scorecard from his back pocket, complete with several years' worth of negotiations, and threw it across the table. "We've got your goddamn speech right here!"

"He was incredible on the course if he had some action," remembers Ford. "He'd hit 4-wood off the tee, since he hooked his driver a lot — anything to keep him in the hole. He never thought like that in baseball. He'd take the longest bat he could find and try to hit the ball out of the park."

Word quickly spread about the danger of betting Mantle and Smith. Mantle was good for at least five birdies a round. If he hit the fairway, he was long enough to leave a wedge or short iron into the green. When he missed, however, he didn't have the trouble or long-iron game to save par. That's when Smith took over. "I didn't make a lot of birdies, but I made a shitload of pars," says Smith.

A two-day match against former Chicago White Sox general manager Paul Richards and his postman ("A big boy and a big hitter," remembers Marshall) netted the Oklahoma duo close to five grand. By this time in Mantle's life, money was of little consequence. He had plenty of it.

"Mickey didn't gamble to win money, he gambled to amp up the pressure," says Smith. "But he'd always take it from you."

He once drove a tee shot during a round at Preston Trail into the tee marker on the next box up. The ball caromed straight back and struck his opponent square in the jaw. The poor man was too woozy to take a swing and bowed out of the match.

"That's OK," Goetz remembers Mickey yelling after the hobbled golfer. "You can leave the money in my locker!"

On the day of his mammoth drive at Southern Hills during the club's Invitational, Mickey and Marshall cruised to first place. Their reward: matching black-and-white golf bags. An envious Southern Hills member offered Mantle $5,000 on the spot for his leather-clad prize. Mickey declined, but the member wouldn't take no for an answer. A tug-of-war ensued, one that ended abruptly when Mantle ignited his powerful upper body and violently yanked the bag from the member's grip.

"Get your goddamn hands off my bag," roared Mickey. "It's mine!"

Walking to their cars following the argument, Marshall queried his friend, "Why didn't you take the five grand? That's a load."

"Marshall," he said, "I can make money any time. This piece-of-shit bag is the first thing I ever won in a tournament."

The bright Vegas sunshine beat down hard on the Desert Inn Golf Club. The fans lining the first fairway picked spots under the shade of artfully dotted palm trees. The contestants in the Hughes Invitational pro-am had no such cover; Mickey could feel the sweat running down the top of his head to the small of his back. He checks the card: 442 yards. Mickey grabs his 3-iron.

"Mick, what are you doing? That club isn't long enough here," advises Marshall.

"Mott, if I hit driver here and I hook it, I'm going to kill one of those people."

FROM reports, it's safe to say that the Mantle men were natural-born athletes. Mickey's father, Mutt, played semi-pro baseball, and, according to Mickey, had a good shot to play in the majors had it not been his lot to raise seven children in the Dust Bowl. His twin brothers, Roy and Ray, were offered Yankee minor-league contracts, as was his oldest son, Mickey Jr. The Mantle men were also natural selections for Hodgkins disease, the lymphoma-based cancer that took the lives of two of Mantle's uncles, his father and one of his brothers. The alarming occurrence of this disease played a big part in the lifestyle Mickey led. "I'm probably not going to live past 40, so I'm not going to get cheated."

In an ironic twist, the Hodgkins skipped a generation and took Mickey Jr. in 2000.

Mantle's tragic outlook on his own life partly explains why he found it impossible to reach out to his fans and embrace the love they had for him. Stories of Mantle slamming doors in the faces of children and showing up embarrassingly drunk at autograph-signing sessions are well-documented (the first of which appeared in Jim Bouton's groundbreaking Ball Four).

Today, Smith is hard-pressed to defend his best friend's bad side. "I don't think there's a person on the planet who doesn't believe Mickey should have spent more time with his family. I also don't think anyone can fully comprehend the pressure he was under. He was the best player on the best team. Everyone wanted to be with him. Everyone wanted to be him."

"But," continues Smith, "Mickey was 'True Blue.' He didn't fake anything. You always knew where you stood with him, and that doesn't happen very much anymore. If he loved you, you felt it, and, well, it worked the other way around if he didn't."

As the press continued to unearth the extent of his behavior through books and magazine articles, Mickey, like waking up still-drunk and bleary-eyed on an unfamiliar hotel-room floor, began to show remorse. He was in his sixties now. He had beat the Mantle curse, but there would still be an end — just not the one he expected.

"Mickey thought long and hard about how he should have given back more," says Smith. "He wanted to reciprocate in a charitable way, and the first thing that popped into his mind was a golf tournament."

Mickey asked Smith for help and the two friends got one together at Shangri-La Resort on Grand Lake, just south of Miami and Commerce. Mantle got on the horn and rounded up his old teammates and Smith pulled in a few of his more notable Tour students, including Craig Stadler and Chi Chi Rodriguez.

"We sold 700 spots one year, then 400 at double the price the next," says Smith. "Mickey made a point to play a hole with each foursome. He threw everything he had into that tournament."

In the months leading up to each event, Mantle worked the phone desk. As golfers called in to register, Mickey would pick up and say, "Mickey Mantle Celebrity Golf Classic. This is Mickey Mantle, can I help you?" They'd slam the phone down thinking it was a prank.

Mickey Mantle, the golfer-turned-philanthropist, felt good.

From 1991 to 1994, Mantle's tournament hauled in $1.2 million, much of it coming from his and his celebrity friends' memorabilia. Autograph hounds were shown the door. Local Make-A-Wish charities received oversized checks. Plans hatched to develop multiple tournament sites.

Then Mickey fell ill.

Smith remembers it well. "It was so quick, the time between when the doctors discovered the extent of his liver damage to the transplant to the bad news that the cancer had already spread to his lungs."

The 1995 iteration of his Celebrity Classic was held with Stan Musial acting as host. "But you could just feel the whole thing die with Mickey. It was his tournament. The people came out to be with him and to help his cause."

Mickey Mantle has a dream. He dies, and when he reaches the Pearly Gates, St. Peter stops him.

"Sorry, Mick, you know what you've done. I can't let you in."

St. Peter pauses.

"But God wants to know if you can sign a baseball for him."

MICKEY had spun this story more times than Marshall could count. Mott lent it one last chuckle the day Mantle died: August 13, 1995. Then, of course, he cried. The friend he loved was gone.

"When we played at Shangri-La in early July that year, I had no idea it would be our last round," says Smith.

As if Norman Rockwell had painted the tee time himself, that final foursome pitted Marshall and his son, Marshall Jr., against Mickey and Mickey Jr. The younger Mickey was a big hitter just like his dad. Marshall Jr., now 38, is an accomplished amateur and member of the Joplin Golf Hall of Fame (which includes the inaugural Masters champion, Horton Smith, as well as Ky Laffoon and Hale Irwin).

"Marshall Jr. always swings at about 70 percent," according to his father. "But on the par-5 second, after Mickey and Mickey Jr. had already pounded drives way out there, Marshall swung at full speed. He put it 20 yards past Mickey."

Mantle Sr. turned to his best friend's son and smiled. "You've been holding back on me all these years, haven't you, Mott?" He put his strong arm around his neck, gave it a tug, then walked down the fairway.

Mickey Mantle was on the course, clean and sober. He would die soon and leave behind a world who loved him too much and another one he was accused of not loving enough. But that day, there was one final break, one last breath of serenity, like the feeling when you catch a fastball on the fat of the bat and despite the roar from the bleachers, all you are is that compression.

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