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THE MOOD WAS SURPRISINGLY BUOYANT AT MICKEY Mantle's funeral—fitting perhaps for an irrepressible man's man who used to slip snakes into his teammates' pants. The 2,000 mourners at Lovers Lane United Methodist Church in Dallas on Aug. 15—Billy Crystal, Reggie Jackson and George Steinbrenner among them—alternated between laughter and tears. Eulogizing Mantle, NBC broadcaster Bob Costas recalled how millions of boys who grew up in the '50s and '60s slavishly imitated everything Mickey did, from his explosive head-down run to his languid Oklahoma drawl, and how Mantle had never really been fooled by the flattery. "Always so hard on himself, he finally came to accept and appreciate that distinction between a role model and a hero," Costas, 42, said of Mantle, whose baseball card he has carried in his wallet since he was 12. "The first, he often was not, the second he will always be. He was...a fragile hero."

Indeed, Mantle was shot through with human frailty. Driven to alcoholism, he said, by a fear of early death—his father and grandfather died of Hodgkin's disease before the age of 41—Mantle could be surly, crude and downright obscene to his adoring public. By his own admission, he was also a wayward husband and father, too often ignoring his wife, Merlyn, and sons Mickey Jr., David, Billy and Danny. "I wasn't a good family man," he said last year. And despite his stardom, he was paralyzed by self-doubt. Even his fabled self-deprecating sense of humor may not have been as simple as it seemed. "He just never felt he mattered," says his friend, ESPN interviewer Roy Firestone. "As long as I've known him he's always made fun of himself."

But after years of abusing himself and shortchanging those who loved him, in 1994 he entered the Betty Ford Center for treatment of alcoholism, and something remarkable happened. "He was a really changed person when he came back from Betty Ford's," Mickey Jr., 42, told PEOPLE. Sober, Mantle revealed himself to be truly the warm, self-effacing character who had so often inspired loyalty and love in friends and teammates. In a series of frank interviews, he spoke of his battles with booze and cautioned youngsters, "Don't be like me." He even reconciled with the wife and family he had once seemed to ignore. "He was so much more attractive as a person in his last couple of years than in his whole baseball career," says ex-Yankee pitcher Jim Bouton, whose 1970 book Ball Four exposed Mantle's warts in what was then sensational detail. Estranged for many years, the two men achieved a rapprochement near the end.

"For all those years I lived the life of somebody I didn't know. A cartoon character," Mantle said in April 1994. "From now on, Mickey Mantle is going to be a real person. I still can't remember much of the last 10 years...but I'm looking forward to the memories I'll have in the next 10." As it turned out, he had 16 months left; but despite continuing debate over the propriety of Mantle's June 8 liver transplant, his last days were perhaps his finest of all.

The raw crew-cut kid emerged from poverty in Commerce, Okla., where his father, Elvin "Mutt" Mantle, worked 8 hours a day in a zinc mine. A semipro pitcher, Mutt named his eldest son after Hall of Fame catcher Gordon "Mickey" Cochrane, the sparkplug of the Depression-era Philadelphia Athletics and Detroit Tigers. The elder Mantle drilled his son hours a day, teaching him to hit both right-and left-handed. Signed by the New York Yankees in 1949, just after he had graduated from high school, Mantle was called up to the majors in 1951. The shortstop turned outfielder was an astonishing blend of power and speed who was given a daunting buildup by manager Casey Stengel: "This guy is going to be better than Babe Ruth and Joe DiMaggio." Mantle never quite measured up to those standards, but he came close, and he was always electrifying to watch. In his 18-year career he hit 536 home runs, though constantly hobbled by injuries and chronic bone disease in his left leg, and led the Yanks to seven world championships.

In those days a discreet press still hid the misbehavior of superstar athletes. And with Mantle there was plenty to hide. He had come to New York an awkward rube, but soon fell in with city boys like Whitey Ford and Billy Martin, who schooled him in big-league carousing. "On the road, Billy and I were wild men," Mantle recalled. "I had an incredible tolerance for alcohol." He made little time for his family, once leaving for a hunting trip with Martin just as his wife was about to give birth to third son Billy. "I always felt like I wasn't there for my kids," he said years later. Mickey Jr, however, thinks Mantle exaggerates his paternal shortcomings. "He was gone a lot, and we understood it," he says. "It was his job. He was a great father—although it was kind of like a stranger coming home for four months out of the year."

Later, after he retired from the game in 1969, Mantle tried briefly to run a restaurant franchise, was a batting instructor during spring training for the Yankees, and did PR work for an Atlantic City casino. Eventually, in the late 1980s, he began making hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in the sports memorabilia business. But he was not a happy man. The antiheroic saga of his last decade is one told largely by a chorus of Texas golfing buddies, and most of the stories begin with a long boozing session. According to Harless Wade, a retired Dallas sportswriter and Mantle crony, the slugger typically kept his drinking under control. "But he could embarrass me at times," Wade says. On one occasion, Mantle, about to tee off at a celebrity golf tournament, was slugging a tumblerful of vodka and made a crude sexual suggestion to two female fans.

But B.M. "Mack" Rankin Jr., an oilman who knew Mantle for 35 years, saw another, even sadder side of Mantle. As the memorabilia craze took off, Mantle, making a lucrative living simply by signing his name, often found himself bored and alone in hotel rooms. "He was one of those binge drinkers," says Rankin "Once he had a drink or two, he was going to drink the whole bottle. And it wasn't a he-man kind of thing. He drank alone, which is usually a sign of depression." When he became a partner in a popular Manhattan restaurant bearing his name, his drinking became a public joke. "Drop by Mantle's about 2 any morning," cracked radio personality jock Don Imus, "and try to guess which table Mickey's under."

Plagued with tremors, Mantle finally decided to do something about his drinking. His boyhood friend Pat Summerall, the Fox broadcaster and former New York Giants football star who was treated for alcoholism at the Betty Ford Center, recalls Mantle's first halting attempts to get help. "He started asking me about the clinic," Summerall says, remembering their lunches at Jaxx Cafe in Dallas. "We talked about a lot of things, from the drinking to the importance of religion. We spent a lot of hours sitting there, talking and crying." Later, Mantle called Summerall from the Ford Center. "If I ever take another drink," he said, "I want you to promise you'll kill me."

Mantle never did take that drink. But his recovery was darkened by the death of his third son. Billy Mantle had been stricken with Hodgkin's disease at the age of 19. Though in remission, he became addicted to painkillers, prescribed for the effects of an experimental cancer treatment. He was in and out of drug rehabilitation centers and underwent bypass surgery before his heart gave out in March 1994. "If I'd gone to Betty Ford sooner, Billy might still be here," a guilt-ridden Mantle said. "If I hadn't been drinking, I might have been able to keep him off drugs."

After Mantle came out clean last year, even casual acquaintances could see the transformation. At family dinners, "they'd always ask for a table in the back," says Al Biernat, general manager of the Palm Restaurant, one of Mantle's favorite Dallas haunts. "They kept to themselves, but you could see there just seemed to be more love between them once he sobered up. You could see he was making a real strong effort to make up for things."

Rankin's fondest memory of his old friend was also his last, and it offered proof of the Mick's metamorphosis. At a charity golf tournament last April in Austin, Mantle, with his famously aching knees, wasn't up to walking the course, so he devised a little game of his own. He parked himself at a par 3 hole and challenged all comers to beat his tee shot. If they did, the prize was a free autographed baseball; but if Mantle won, his opponent had to pay $25 for it.

By day's end, Mantle had hustled $13,000 which he donated to families of victims of the Oklahoma City bombing. "Doing something for charity that, he never would have done 10 years ago," Rankin says. "He was a new person with a new attitude. He realized he had friends and people who loved him."

Especially his long-suffering wife, Merlyn, who had been separated from Mantle since 1988. They were married late in 1952, after his second year with the Yankees, when she was working in an Oklahoma bank. Swept up in her husband's glamorous life, Merlyn, too, developed a drinking problem. "I was in there partying and doing the same thing as Mick," she told Al Baker of the New York Daily News on the eve of Mantle's funeral. In this environment it was not surprising that two of their sons, David, 39, and Danny, 35, also became alcoholics. "When they were old enough," Mantle said, "we became drinking buddies...it kind of felt like the old days with Billy and Whitey."

Long before her husband did, Merlyn sought counseling and got sober. Eventually, Danny followed suit, preceding his father by three months as a patient at the Betty Ford Center. "It saved my life," Merlyn said. "And I think I probably made my family aware that there is help out there."

In later years, after they separated, Merlyn maintained an unconventional, but close relationship with Mickey. "Even though we didn't live together, he loved me, I loved him," Merlyn said. "We spent holidays together, anniversaries and birthdays me and Mick and the children," she said. "He could have had a whole new life if it had not been for the cancer."

The extent of his illness wasn't known on May 28, when Mantle was rushed to Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas with severe abdominal pain. Diagnosed with liver cancer, he underwent a transplant on June 8. At first the operation seemed a success. Then came word that the cancer had spread and was swiftly overwhelming his lungs, heart cavity and other vital organs. Said Dr. Goran Klintmalm, director of transplant services at Baylor: "This is the most aggressive cancer that anyone on the medical team has ever seen."

As one of Mantle's last wishes, he wanted to establish a donor awareness program, called Mickey's Team, at Baylor. He had planned to tape a series of public service announcements for the program and even managed to coin a slogan before he died: "Be a hero, be a donor." To date, Mantle's medical travails have inspired a twofold increase in the number of people requesting donor cards. "That program," says Mickey Jr., "will probably be the biggest thing he's going to be known for."

Yet Mantle's gracious endgame was not untouched by controversy. His liver transplant, a mere 48 hours after his name went on a waiting list, fueled a contentious debate about medical ethics. To begin with, skeptics wondered whether Mantle was given preferential treatment, effectively jumping ahead of more than 250 Texans awaiting new livers. His doctors insisted, persuasively, that Mantle received this new liver so quickly because he was the sickest patient on the waiting list.

Afterward, when Mantle was so quickly ravaged by the spreading cancer—which, had it been detected earlier, would have disqualified him as a transplant recipient—some wondered whether a scarce, valuable liver had been wasted. Klintmalm conceded that while performing the transplant, doctors did notice that cancer had spread into Mantle's bile duct. But at that point there was no turning back. "Had we seen it [earlier]," Klintmalm said, "we would have closed Mick up" and aborted the transplant.

Mantle knew of the controversy but tried to ignore it. "His conscience was totally clear," says old friend Robert Watson. "I think the charges bothered him because there was no basis for the accusations. He wanted to be left alone, to go his way."

Numbed by painkillers, Mantle wavered in and out of consciousness during his last 48 hours. Then, at about 12:30 a.m. CDT on Aug. 13, he opened his eyes, held hands with his wife and son David and fell back asleep. Forty minutes later, he died.

Though his epitaph has yet to be written, Mantle may have already provided the wry last word himself. He liked to tell a story about his death and his arrival at the Pearly Gates, where St. Peter shook his head and sent him away. Resigned, Mantle turned to go, only to be summoned back. "Before you go," St. Peter remarked, "God wants to know if you'd sign these six dozen balls."

RICHARD JEROME
JOSEPH HARMES and CARLTON STOWERS in Dallas, KAREN ROEBUCK in Houston, MARY HUZINEC and CYNTHIA WANG in New York City and VICKI SHEFF-CAHAN in Los Angeles

  • Contributors:
  • Joseph Harmes,
  • Carlton Stowers,
  • Karen Roebuck,
  • Mary Huzinec,
  • Cynthia Wang,
  • Vicki Sheff-Cahan.