Written by Steven Stern
Directed by George Roy
There are a few names in sports that manage to evoke images of an iconic American hero. With his boyish good-looks and amazing talent on the field, Mickey Mantle was one of those names. During the height of his popularity, his image transcended pop culture outside of the world of major league baseball. Even those who didn’t call themselves fans of the game knew who Mickey Mantle was.
Or did they? In later years, much would be said about who Mickey Mantle was off of the playing field. He was a known heavy drinker and womanizer. The trouble was to find a balance between Mickey Mantle the icon and Mickey Mantle the human.
Mantle does a decent job of it. This production from HBO Sports profiles Mickey Mantle the man as well as Mickey Mantle the sports legend. It includes interviews with former teammates, family, and friends as well as with those who admired him.
Mickey Mantle was born to a miner’s family in Oklahoma. He was signed by the Yankees right out of high school for $1,100. He was expected to follow in the footsteps of Ruth, Gehrig, and DiMaggio. At first, he didn’t live up to expectations and was sent down to the minor leagues. However, when he returned, he was dazzling. His rise to stardom coincided with the rise of television and the games being broadcast. His good looks attracted women to the game and his playing inspired a generation of boys that they, too, could pick up a glove and achieve stardom. His career would span 18 years and would include seven World Series championships as well as numerous awards and titles for his own abilities on the field.
However, it was his antics off the field that drew most of the attention in the later years of his life. When Mickey Mantle played ball, the press was still pretty much on the side of the players and generally ignored anything that would cast the players in an unfavorable light. His alcoholism probably interfered with his playing abilities a great deal, which made me wonder just what he could have achieved had he managed to keep it in check during his playing days. The family suffered a number of tragedies as well, with Mickey Mantle’s father and Uncles dying as a result of their work in the coal mines. Perhaps this is what led to Mantle’s callous disregard for taking care of himself. The real tragedy is that this did not just affect Mantle, but ended up taking a toll on his children as well.
Mantle tries to get the feeling of a Ken Burns documentary to it, going back to the area he grew up in and taking old pictures and panning across them while a soundtrack plays in the background to bring them to life. It never quite achieves the same emotional impact those Burns documentaries do. There are interviews with his family including his siblings and wife. Much of the ones with his siblings are set back in the Oklahoma mining town he grew up in. This really helps promote the boy-next-door image that Mickey Mantle and his publicists cultivated.
What was most surprising to me was how much the players of the day were involved in advertising. For anyone who thinks the modern-day players sell-out, it’s worth a look. The players back then marketed themselves much more strongly. Mickey Mantle allowed himself and his image to be used to market a wide variety of products including both cigarettes and smoking cessation products at the same time! I recently finished reading the biography of another player who played during this same era, and the way he allowed himself to be used by advertisers corresponded to Mickey Mantle’s experiences as well.
Although Mantle is billed as being narrated by Live Schreiber, it’s Bob Costas’ voice that really seems to frame the documentary. The soundtrack really isn’t all that great as Mantle also seems to miss what Burns has always managed to achieve with that – finding the perfect score to evoke the emotion he is trying to convey. Instead, this has a story and tells it. There likely is much more that could have been told, but Mickey Mantle’s life and accomplishments are packed into just an hour of viewing time. I have seen movies about just one season in Mickey Mantle’s career that were longer than this documentary and gave the man much more depth.
Mantle doesn’t sugar-coat the man or make him an icon. As soon as the disc began, his foibles and weaknesses are discussed in the same breath as his accomplishments. For that, I give it a great deal of credit. After watching this, all I could think of was that he was great with all of the vices that took their toll on him. Imagine if he hadn’t succumbed to that temptation? It’s quite arguable that he would have been the greatest to ever play the game. It’s a shame the world will never know.