I began some of my mornings the past 10 years with the "breakfast of champions"—a big glass filled with a shot or more of brandy, some Kahlúa and cream. Billy Martin and I used to drink them all the time, and I named the drink after us. Sometimes when I was in New York with nothing to do, and Billy and I were together, we would stop into my restaurant on Central Park South at around 10 in the morning, and the bartender would dump all the ingredients into a blender and stir it right up. It tasted real good.
Unfortunately for everybody else around me, one "breakfast of champions" and they could kiss the day goodbye. After one drink, I was off and running. And unless I had a business engagement, I'd often keep on drinking until I couldn't drink anymore.
Drinking had become an all-too-frequent routine for me. If I had a drink to start the day, I'd go out for lunch and go through three or four bottles of wine in the course of the afternoon. White wine. Red wine. It didn't matter, and I didn't care about the quality, either. In fact, I thought if I was drinking wine, it wasn't really drinking. To me, wine wasn't liquor.
At one time I prided myself on being knowledgeable about good wine. But over the years I just drank so much of it that I didn't care anymore. Late one afternoon, after I'd finished a round of golf, a guy sent over an expensive glass of port. I was drinking Absolut vodka on the rocks, and as the guy watched, I poured the port right into my Absolut. He came over to me in shock and said, "Man, that was a $15-a-shot port I sent over here." And I said, "Oh, I'm sorry. We drink these all the time. We call them Aborts."
April 17, 1994
I always took pride in my dependability when I was doing public-relations work, endorsements and personal appearances. I always wanted to do my best. It was when I had no commitments, nothing to do or nowhere to be that I lapsed into those long drinking sessions. It was the loneliness and emptiness. I found "friends" at bars, and I filled my emptiness with alcohol. In those instances I was almost totally out of it by early evening. I could hardly talk. I'd try to get somebody to go to dinner with me, and I'd start drinking vodka martinis. I'd order a meal, but I wouldn't eat. I'd just sit there and drink.
In the past five years I used alcohol as a crutch. To help me overcome my shyness and make me feel more comfortable before all those personal appearances, I'd warm up with three or four vodkas before leaving the hotel, go straight to the cocktail party and have three or four more drinks, and then I'd start feeling, Whew, all right. Let's go.
When I was drinking, I thought I was funny—the life of the party. But as it turned out, nobody could stand to be around me. I was loud, and I guess everything that came out of my mouth was rude and crude. After one or two drinks, I was real happy. People could ask me for several autographs, and I'd sign them. Then after several drinks, I could be downright nasty. Ask for one autograph, and if I'd been drinking too much, I'd bite your head off—even in my own restaurant, where on a few occasions I told people to "——off!" or to "Get the——out of here!" My partners in the restaurant and the people who cared about me would start saying, "Why don't you go on back to the hotel?" And there were many nights when they had to sneak me out the back door.
Most of the things I said and did while I was drinking, I couldn't remember the next day. The last 10 years I did stuff that really shocked me. I was so embarrassed. People would tell me, "Last night, boy, you can't believe what you said." And I'm going, "Did I say that?" The stories bugged the hell out of me. That wasn't like me. I wasn't that guy they were talking about.
What bugged me even more was the way I started forgetting simple, everyday things. I could be talking to you and just completely forget my train of thought. I'd go out to dinner, and the next day I couldn't tell you where I went, what I ate or who I was with. One afternoon in New York a few years ago, I went to a chiropractor. When I got back to the hotel, his office phoned to see how I was doing, and I didn't even remember having been there.
I never cared about business matters. I didn't have to handle my finances because my attorney, Roy True, took care of all that. Even though I didn't like it, over the years Roy would go over business matters with me, and I'd half listen for about 20 or 30 minutes at the most. During the past seven or eight years our discussions were very infrequent. I would break appointments because I was hung over. If I met with him, I couldn't remember what he told me. I would get frustrated and mad.
I'd forget what day it was. What month it was. What city I was in. There were dozens of personal appearances and card shows that I had agreed to be at, but when the time came to go, I'd argue that I had never agreed to the commitment in the first place. But I always made the appearance. I'm still proud of that.
It wasn't only recent events that had disappeared from my memory because of all my drinking. I was the best man at Billy Martin's wedding in 1988, and I hardly remember being there.
The loss of memory really scared me. I told a couple of the doctors I play golf with at Preston Trail Golf Club, near my home in Dallas, that I thought I might have Alzheimer's disease, and they said, "Well, you're probably not there yet, but you better start watching your drinking. You'd better cool it a bit." I was scared that the alcohol had changed my brain.
You know, I was watching somebody take infield practice the other day, and I saw him catch a ball and throw it, and I was trying to think. What did I look like throwing a ball? Did I take a hop or a skip or a jump or something? I can't even remember. And then someone's always asking, "What was your favorite pitch to hit?" But I can't remember what my favorite pitch was or where I liked to hit it.
The older I got, and the more alcohol I drank, the more I had these weird hangovers—bad anxiety attacks. From what I can recall, I had the first anxiety attack in April 1987. I'd been at the Mickey Mantle-Whitey Ford Fantasy Camp in Florida, drinking with the guys for two weeks, and then I had to go to upstate New York for a weekend card show. That was another two days of drinking. By the time I got on the plane to fly back home to Dallas, I was really dehydrated. And I'm thinking, What if I have a heart attack? The more I thought about it, the more I started flaking out. I tapped the stewardess on the shoulder and said, "Do you have a doctor in here?" She turned around, looked at my face and said, "Oh, my god, sir, go sit down!" I began hyperventilating. And she said, "I'll give you some oxygen." When the plane landed, there were emergency paramedics to bring me off on a stretcher. My oldest son, Mickey Jr., who had come to pick me up, thought I was dying, and so did I.
There were more anxiety attacks, but they didn't become frequent until the last two years. If I'd go out and get really loaded, the next day I'd wake up hyperventilating. I'd stay at home, drink water and say to myself, "Boy, I'm not going to drink like that anymore." Or I'd call one of the doctors I play golf with, and he'd put me in the hospital for about three days. The doctor would say, "Mick, you've got to quit this. You don't know what you're doing to yourself." And I'd sit there and say, "I know it. Yeah, I know it." As soon as I left the hospital, I'd go straight to a bar.
It got to the point where I was worrying so much about everything—what was happening to my memory, how awful my body felt, how I hadn't been a good husband or a good father—that I was even afraid to be alone in the house. I'd ask my youngest son, Danny, to please stay at home with me. And there were times when I locked myself in my bedroom to feel safe.
It took an embarrassing incident last December at a charity golf outing for the Harbor Club Children's Christmas Fund near Atlanta to finally make me face up to my alcoholism. I had a Bloody Mary in the morning, and then I drank a couple of bottles of wine in the afternoon as I stood out at the 12th hole, encouraging donations by "betting" people who came through that I could hit the ball closer to the pin than they could. Later on we had a sports-memorabilia auction, and I was so drunk that I bought a ball signed by Jim Lonborg—and I don't even save stuff. I told somebody that I thought I'd hit my last home run off Lonborg. After that, I made a real fool of myself at dinner. When I couldn't remember the name of a minister, I loudly blurted out, "The——preacher...."
The next day, when I found out what I had said, I was absolutely horrified. I'm sure that over the years, people have put up with a lot from me because I was Mickey Mantle; but after this episode, I couldn't believe I'd been so disrespectful. When I got back to Dallas, I approached Danny about the Betty Ford Center. Several times in recent years my friends and family had discussed intervention, but knowing how stubborn and hardheaded I was, they knew it wouldn't have worked. I needed to think that an alcohol-treatment program was my idea. Danny had checked himself into Betty Ford last October because he felt he was drinking too much. I asked Danny about the kinds of things that happen there. I don't talk much, and I wasn't sure I wanted to get into a situation at Betty Ford where I'd have to talk about my feelings. I was afraid I was going to cry in front of strangers, and I thought people would think less of me. Mickey Mantle shouldn't cry.
A few days later I went to lunch with Danny and my close friend Pat Summer-all, who had been to Betty Ford about two years ago. I asked Pat more questions about Betty Ford. What is it like? Do they get into religion?
I also asked my doctor to give me a physical. He ran some tests, and he told me that I had a bad liver. He got me to go to another doctor to have an MRI of my liver. For an hour and 15 minutes, I lay in that MRI tube, and I thought, What am I doing here? This must really be serious. It was hard to keep from crying, thinking about the bad shape I was in, how I had abused myself with alcohol for 42 years, all of the people I'd let down. I was worried that fans would remember Mickey Mantle as a drunk rather than for my baseball accomplishments. I had always thought I could quit drinking by myself, and I'd do it for several days or a couple of weeks, but when I got to feeling good again, I'd go back to getting loaded. I was physically and emotionally worn out from all of the drinking. I'd hit rock bottom.
When the MRI results came back the following day, the doctor called me into his office and said, "Mickey, your liver is still working, but it has healed itself so many times that before long, you're just going to have one big scab for a liver. Eventually you'll need a new liver. Look, I'm not going to lie to you: The next drink you take might be your last."
I was killing myself. I asked for help.
If alcoholism is hereditary, if it's in the genes, then I think mine came from my mother's side of the family. Her brothers were all alcoholics. My mother, Lovell, and my father, Mutt, weren't big drinkers. Dad would buy a pint of whiskey on Saturday night and put it in the icebox. Then every night when he came home from working eight hours at the Eagle-Picher Zinc and Lead Company in Commerce, Okla., he'd head for the icebox and take a swig of whiskey. Dad would get drunk once in a while, like when he went to a barn dance and he might have five or six drinks. Hell, for me five or six drinks wouldn't have been a full cocktail party!
Besides the Lucky Strike cigarettes that constantly dangled from the side of his mouth, I'd have to say that if my father was addicted to anything it was baseball. He loved baseball, played semipro ball on the weekends and was a tremendous St. Louis Cardinal fan. In fact, he named me after Mickey Cochrane, the Hall of Fame catcher for Philadelphia and Detroit who was a great hitter. Dad had high hopes for me. He thought I could be the greatest ballplayer who ever lived, and he did everything he could to help me realize his dream.
Even though he was dog tired after long days in the mines, Dad would still pitch batting practice to me in the backyard when he got home from work, beginning from the time I was four years old. My mother would call us to dinner, but the meal would wait until Dad was finished instructing me from the right and the left sides of the plate. Dad was a tough man. If I'd done something wrong, he could just look at me—he didn't have to say anything—and I'd say, "I won't do it no more, Dad." I loved my father, although I couldn't tell him that, just like he couldn't tell me. He'd put his arm around me and hug me, but he'd be playing a joke at the same time, kicking me in the butt with his foot. But I knew he loved me.
When I came up with the Yankees in 1951, at age 19, I'd hardly ever had a drink. My father wouldn't have stood for me getting drunk. But the following spring, when Dad died of Hodgkin's disease at age 39, I was devastated, and that's when I started drinking. I guess alcohol helped me escape the pain of losing him.
The Yankees traveled to away games by train in those days, and Casey Stengel, our manager, had a two-drink limit on the trips, although he didn't really enforce it. On the road Billy Martin and I were wild men. We drank up a storm and didn't go to bed until we were ready to fall into bed. The drinking escalated after the '53 season, when Billy came to live with me and my wife, Merlyn, in Commerce. Billy and I were bad for each other. We were always on the go—rushing out the door, telling Merlyn we were going fishing but, instead, heading straight to a bar.
Back then I could quit drinking when I went to spring training. I got myself into shape. Then when the season started I went back to drinking again—Billy, Whitey Ford and me. Hell, we played mostly night games. We'd be home by 1 a.m. and sleep until 9 or 10. I never used to have hangovers. I had an incredible tolerance for alcohol, and I'd always look and feel great in the morning. I don't think I ever blew a game because I was drunk or hung over. Maybe I hurt the team once or twice, but if I wasn't feeling right, I got myself out of the game early. When my dad died, Casey became like a father to me. He'd call me in sometimes and say, "Look, I know we don't have a curfew, but you're overdoing it a bit. Besides, it's not helping you any." I couldn't fool Casey.
With Billy and me, drinking was a competitive thing. We'd see who could drink the other under the table. I'd get a kick out of seeing him get loaded before me. Alcohol made him so aggressive. He's the only person I knew who could hear a guy give him the finger from the back of a barroom. We had some wild times.
One night in Detroit after quite a few drinks, we went back to our hotel room, and Billy said, "Let's climb out on the ledge and see what's going on in the other rooms." We happened to be staying on the 22nd floor. He climbed out the window, and I was right behind him. Well, the stunt got old pretty fast because nobody's lights were on—and I'm afraid of heights. But the ledge was so narrow that we couldn't turn around, so we had to crawl all the way around the building to get back to our room.
My last four or five years with the Yankees, I didn't realize I was ruining myself with all the drinking. I just thought, This is fun. Hell, I used to see guys come into Yankee Stadium from Detroit or Chicago; they'd be out taking batting practice, all of them with hangovers. But today I can admit that all the drinking shortened my career. When I retired in the spring of '69, I was 37. Casey had said when I came up, "This guy's going to be better than Joe DiMaggio and Babe Ruth." It didn't happen. I never fulfilled what my dad had wanted, and I should have. God gave me a great body to play with, and I didn't take care of it. And I blame a lot of it on alcohol.
Everybody tries to make the excuse that injuries shortened my career. Truth is, after I'd had a knee operation, the doctors would give me rehab work to do, but I wouldn't do it. I'd be out drinking. The first time I hurt my knee, in the '51 World Series, I was only 19. I thought, Hey, I'll be all right. I hurt my knees again through the years, and I just thought they'd naturally come back. Everything had always come natural to me. I didn't work hard at it. When the last World Series game was over, I didn't think about baseball until the spring. I blame that on stupidity.
After I retired, my drinking got really bad. I went through a deep depression. Billy, Whitey, Hank Bauer, Moose Skowron—I left all those guys, and I think it left a hole in me. I tried to fill it up by drinking. I still don't feel like I have much in common with a lot of people. But with those guys, I shared life. We were as close as brothers. I haven't met anybody else I've felt as close to.
In the last 10 years, thanks to the sports-memorabilia business, the expectations of being Mickey Mantle became overwhelming lots of times. When I used to do card shows, guys would come up to me all the time, tears in their eyes, and they'd say, "Mickey Mantle. I've been waiting all my life to meet you." This one guy said to his little boy, "Son, that's the greatest ballplayer that ever lived." And the little boy looked up and said, "Daddy, that's an old man."
Everywhere I went people wanted to hear all the old stories about Billy and Whitey and our wild times. That was part of the legend of Mickey Mantle. Everybody just expected me to start drinking. They'd buy me drinks. I think they expected me to get drunk. It was like this: Mickey Mantle couldn't hit it out of the park anymore, but he could still drink 'em under the table.
I'd never thought about anything serious in my life for a continuous period of days and weeks until I checked into the Betty Ford Center for my 32-day stay. I've always tried to avoid anything emotional—anything controversial, anything serious—and I did it through the use of alcohol. Alcohol always protected me from reality. But at Betty Ford, I could be myself. I wasn't Mickey Mantle there. I was the guy in room 202.
When you first get to Betty Ford, you have to open up to the members of your dorm unit in group therapy sessions. It took me a couple of times before I could talk without crying. You're supposed to say why you're there, and I said because I had a bad liver and I was depressed. Whenever I tried to talk about my family, I got all choked up. One of the things I really screwed up, besides baseball, was being a father. I wasn't a good family man. I was always out, running around with the guys. Mickey Jr. could have been a helluva athlete. If he'd had my dad, he could have been a major league baseball player. My kids have never blamed me for not being there. They don't have to. I blame myself.
The program at Betty Ford is based on the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. When you go through the First Step, you have to tell your life story to your group. They ask you to tell stories of things you did when you were drunk, how it made you feel and the things that really bothered you later. I told about Billy and me crawling around on the hotel ledge, 22 floors up. I told about how I almost killed Merlyn one night, crashing the car into a telephone pole, banging her head against the windshield. We'd been out to eat with Yogi Berra and his wife, Carmen, in New Jersey, and I'd been drinking straight vodka. Merlyn had wanted to drive, but I wouldn't let her, and the last thing we heard was Yogi yelling, "I wouldn't let him drive if I were you!" For so many years those stories had sounded so funny, but when I was telling them in group therapy at Betty Ford, they sounded stupid.
Every day at Betty Ford I'd go to a movie or a lecture, and I'd be surprised at how much of it hit home. They talked a lot about alcoholism and dysfunctional families. They showed a movie one day about a man and a woman and their three kids. The guy was too busy drinking to come home. Finally, it got to where he'd call his wife and have her meet him, and they'd both drink. Once, as she was going out the door, she told one of the kids to use his paper-route money to take the other kids out for a hamburger. I realized I was like her.
I feel like I'm the reason that Danny went to Betty Ford last fall. For all those years I'd make him go to lunch and dinner with me. I'd get Mickey Jr. and my next oldest son, David, to go too. I'd say, "Hey, what are you guys doing tonight? Let's go eat." Which would mean, "Let's go drink." They all drank too much because of me. We don't have normal father-son relationships. When they were growing up, I was playing baseball, and after I retired I was too busy traveling around being Mickey Mantle. We never played catch in the backyard. But when they were old enough to drink, we became drinking buddies. When we were together, it kind of felt like the old days with Billy and Whitey. I had no idea that I was making my kids drink like that.
Late last September, Danny flew with me to Los Angeles for an autograph signing, for Upper Deck Authenticated—I have an exclusive contract with them—and after we landed, I didn't see him for an entire week. He had come along to help me, and he just disappeared. It turned out he met up with a friend, and they went on a bender. But instead of going back home to Dallas, he ended up checking into Betty Ford without telling me. I didn't realize how bad he was—he used to drink with me all the time—but if I didn't think I had a problem, how could I know my own son was that bad? I didn't call or write Danny while he was at Betty Ford, and I didn't go out for the third week of the program—Family Week—because I was afraid the people there would say, "Well, why ain't you here? You put him here."
My biggest disappointment in life was not being able to help my third son, Billy, who was named after Billy Martin. When he was only 19, Billy came down with Hodgkin's—the disease that killed my father, my father's father and Dad's two brothers—and I've always wished I'd been the one to get cancer, not Billy. Watching your kids suffer is unbearable. When Billy was 25, Merlyn and I took him to MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston for a yearlong experimental chemotherapy treatment, but the drugs were so hard on his body that he ended up getting hooked on a heavy-duty painkiller, Dilaudid. I begged and pleaded with Billy to stop taking it, and he'd promise me he was going to, but the next thing I knew, he'd be doing Dilaudid again.
Over the past 17 years, Billy's Hodgkin's went into remission several times, but he led an unhappy life. Starting in 1990, he was in and out of drug and alcohol treatment centers four times in four years, and in 1993, he had heart bypass surgery and had two valves put into his heart. He would write me notes: "Dad, get me out of this, and I'll be O.K." I felt so helpless. Within weeks after I got out of Betty Ford—and only two days after his mother had checked him into a rehab center in Wilmer, Texas—Billy had a heart attack and died. He was only 36. Danny came to Preston Trail to tell me. I was in the locker room playing backgammon, and the minute I looked at Danny's face, saw his tears, I knew. I'd always felt like something bad would happen to Billy. Then I did the toughest thing I've ever had to do—tell Merlyn that Billy was dead. She had taken him to all the halfway houses, bailed him out of jail for DWI. Her life for the past several years had been taking care of Billy. If only I'd gone to Betty Ford sooner, Billy might still be here. If I hadn't been drinking, I might have been able to get him to stop doing drugs.
The most important breakthrough I had at Betty Ford happened in grief therapy groups, and I think it's going to change the way I deal with my kids in the future. During my preadmission interview, I told the counselor that I drank because of depression that came from feeling I'd never fulfilled my father's dreams. I had to write my father a letter and tell him how I felt about him. You talk about sad. It only took me 10 minutes to write the letter, and I cried the whole time, but after it was over, I felt better. I said that I missed him, and I wished he could've lived to see that I did a lot better after my rookie season with the Yankees. I told him I had four boys—he died before my first son, Mickey Jr., was born—and I told him that I loved him. I would have been better off if I could have told him that a long time ago.
Dad would be proud of me today, knowing that I've completed treatment at Betty Ford and have been sober for three months. But he would've been mad that I had to go there in the first place. He would have forgiven me, but it would have been hard to look him in the eye and say, "Dad, I'm an alcoholic." I don't think I could have done it. I would feel like I'd let him down. I don't know how you get over that; I can't hit a home run for him anymore.
And you know, Billy Martin and I used to kid each other about whose liver would give out first. I was a pallbearer at Billy's funeral after he died in a pickup truck accident [on Christmas Day, 1989]. But if he were still alive, after he got through teasing me about the Betty Ford Center, he might have said, "Hey, maybe I should go too."
At Betty Ford they teach you to go back home and hug your kids, no matter how old they are. I'm very proud of my sons. Despite my shortcomings, Merlyn instilled in my boys many admirable traits. Mickey Jr. is 40, David is 38, and Danny's 34. Now, whenever I ask my sons to go out and eat with me, I mean, Let's eat. I don't mean, Let's go get drunk. I'm just going to try to be a friend, a partner. Mickey Jr. has a five-year-old daughter, Mallery, and David has a five-month-old baby girl, Marilyn. I'm going to try to be a good father and a good grandfather. I'm going to spend more time with all of them—show them and tell them I love them.
My immediate plans are to keep slowing down. I'm 62 now, and I've lived too much life already. I've told Joe Garagiola that I'd work with him in BAT, the Baseball Assistance Team, which helps old ballplayers who are having troubles, and I'd like to talk to kids about drug and alcohol abuse. It used to be said that I was a role model, and kids, even older guys, looked up to me. Maybe I can truly be a role model now—because I admitted I had a problem, got treatment and am staying sober—and maybe I can help more people than I ever helped when I was a famous ballplayer. I feel more important as Mickey Mantle now than I did when I was playing for the Yankees. I was told that I got more letters at Betty Ford than anybody else in its history, and 80% of them said things like, "You're in the biggest game of your life, and we want to see you win again." If I can stick with it, I'll get their respect again, instead of being remembered as, "Well, there he is again, and he's drunk."
I'm going to start the Mickey Mantle Foundation, in memory of my son Billy. People won't believe this, but I haven't had the urge to drink. If Billy's death didn't make me drink, then nothing will. A couple of weeks ago Danny got married to Kay Kollars, and it was another highly emotional day for the family. I can't even begin to describe the roller coaster of emotions I've been on these past four months. I've buried one son and married off another, and I went through Betty Ford. There are days this all seems like a haze. But I can tell you, I haven't needed alcohol to help me face reality. At Betty Ford, I saw people who'd been in there four or five times. I don't want to be weak. I'd rather put a gun to my head than have another drink.
I like the idea of having to stay sober in public, knowing that people are watching me. Now they won't be buying me drinks. They'll expect me not to drink. For all those years I lived the life of somebody I didn't know. A cartoon character. From now on, Mickey Mantle is going to be a real person.
I still can't remember much of the last 10 years, but from what I've been told, I really don't want those memories. I'm looking forward to the memories I'll have in the next 10 years.
I'm hitting the golf ball good these days. I don't have the shakes anymore. Whenever my liver comes back and the platelet count in my blood gets better, I'm going to have artificial knees put in. While I was at Betty Ford, I started walking, and I went from 214 pounds to 204. To have those guys at Preston Trail and my family and people I haven't seen in a while say, "Man, I'm glad you went to Betty Ford, you look great"—well, it makes me feel good. I really feel like I won the World Series.
I can't wait to go back to my restaurant in New York and see how they react when I order a Diet Coke instead of the "breakfast of champions."