OBITUARY: Mickey Mantle

For Americans of a certain age, Mickey Mantle was and ever will be, quite simply, "the Mick". The closing stages of his life were scarred with illness, pain and personal sadness. By the end he had become a role model in reverse, a scarcely living advertisement for a way of life to be avoided. But Mantle will be remembered not as an alcoholic who changed his ways too late, but as the greatest baseball player of his time, indeed one of the very greatest of all time.

From the outset he was legend writ large; the country kid from Oklahoma spotted by Yankee scouts, who came to New York and captured the big city by storm. With his broad grin and infectious laugh, Mantle was engaging enough even before he lifted a bat. When he took one in his hands, he was electrifying. The 20-year old slugger who began his career in 1951 became the incarnation of the third successive, all- conquering generations of New York Yankees, after Babe Ruth in the 1920s and early 1930s, and Joe DiMaggio in the following decade. The 17 years he played in the Bronx encompassed the post-war boom in baseball, when television brought the sport to an audience of millions. Mantle was its undisputed mega-star.

Arguably, he was the greatest switch hitter in baseball history. Whether from the left or the right side, his power was breathtaking. No one could hit a ball as hard; indeed he still holds the record for the longest ever measured home run, at 565 feet. On the all-time major league home run list he stands eighth with 536, with 18 coming in 65 World Series games. Three times he was elected Most Valuable Player, in 1956, 1957 and 1962. In the first of those years he achieved the rare feat of the Triple Crown, with a batting average of .353, 52 homers and 130 runs driven in. But no statistics can capture the strength and hand-eye co-ordination that could send a baseball skimming like a one-iron shot into the bleachers.

The power was coupled with a cheetah's speed, both along the basepaths and in the outfield. Mantle not only replaced the peerless DiMaggio in centre field: in athleticism he surpassed him. After chronic leg injuries had forced him to give up the game in 1968, over 70,000 turned out at Yankee Stadium the following year to retire his No 7, an honour reserved for only the greatest practitioners of American sport. Five years later he was elected to baseball's Hall of Fame.

But his private life was anything but exemplary. The excesses were understandable: In Mantle's immediate and recent family, no male had lived beyond 41. Enjoy it while it lasts, became his unofficial motto. "If I'd known I was going to live longer, I'd have taken better care of myself," he told an interviewer a few months before his death. When he was a player, the nights of bar crawling and carousing were overlooked, a "Boys-will-be- Boys" midnight madness that seemed just innocent fun. The "fun", however, wrecked his family and consumed his life. Finally in 1993, his sons, who were first partners and then victims of his alcoholic binges, persuaded him to enrol for treatment at the Betty Ford clinic. Thereafter he never had another drink. But his liver had been irreparably damaged. A transplant in June offered hope, only for cancer to spread to his lungs and beyond.

But the Mantle Americans will remember is not the frail, shrivelled old man of the final months, but the glistening athlete of baseball's golden age. Of him Ted Williams, that immortal hitter of an earlier era, once remarked ungenerously that "Mantle should have been the greatest player who ever played baseball." Perhaps with his God-given gifts, Mantle could have been even better had he worked at the game. But for a generation of Americans, and not only Yankee fans, he was already perfection.

Rupert Cornwell

Mickey Charles Mantle, baseball player: born Spavinaw, Oklahoma 20 October 1931; married 1951 Merlyn Johnson (three sons, and one son deceased); died Dallas, Texas 13 August 1995.