Mickey Mantle, The Kid From Spavinaw: You Could Have Done Better

By Ryan Hilligoss, December 2012

(We are all Newtown.This piece is dedicated to all those affected by recent events. My thoughts are with those families directly impacted including the children and their parents and the educators. For that could just have easily have been my kids or your kids, or that could have been us when we were in school. This is a story of parents and the hopes and dreams they hold for their children.)

The kid from Spavinaw

The kid from Spavinaw

Oh, but love is fleeting/ It’s sad but true

When your heart is beating/ You don’t want to hear the news

Life is just heaven in the sun

From small things mama/ Big things one day come

Bruce Springsteen

Field in Spavinaw, Oklahoma where Mickey Mantle's first boyhood home once stood

Field in Spavinaw, Oklahoma where Mickey Mantle‘s first boyhood home once stood

In August of 1995, baseball and New York Yankee great Mickey Mantle died after battling through first, a liver transplant, and then liver cancer. During the eulogy at his funeral, broadcaster Bob Costas spoke for many when he stated,  “I guess I’m here, not so much to speak for myself as to simply represent the millions of baseball-loving kids who grew up in the ’50s and ’60s and for whom Mickey Mantle was baseball. And more than that, he was a presence in our lives — a fragile hero to whom we had an emotional attachment so strong and lasting that it defied logic. Maybe Mick was uncomfortable with it, not just because of his basic shyness, but because he was always too honest to regard himself as some kind of deity. But that was never really the point. In a very different time than today, the first baseball commissioner, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, said every boy builds a shrine to some baseball hero, and before that shrine, a candle always burns. ”

Robert Hilligoss at Mickey Mantle Field, Commerce, Oklahoma 2012

Robert Hilligoss at Mickey Mantle Field, Commerce, Oklahoma 2012

Just as I grew up in the 80’s and 90’s loving the St.Louis Cardinals and players like Ozzie Smith and Willie McGee, my dad was one of those who grew up in the 50’s looking up at Mickey Mantle as a role model. So it was with great emotional impact and meaning when my dad I went on a road trip this year through Oklahoma and stopped in the towns Mantle was born in and raised in……but I’ll get to that later.

Mickey Mantle was born October 20, 1931 in the town of Spavinaw, Oklahoma to Mutt and Lovell Mantle. He was named in honor of Hall of Fame catcher Mickey Cochrane, Mutt Mantle’s favorite player. Later in his life, Mantle expressed relief that his father had not known Cochrane’s true first name, as he would have hated to be named Gordon. The picture above is of the area in Spavinaw where the house Mantle first lived in used to be but is now just an empty field with a small house and garage in the neighboring lot. In 1935, the family moved to Commerce, Ok so Mutt could work in the zinc mines that used to populate the area in the northeast part of the state. Mutt Mantle lived a hard,difficult life as a miner and didn’t want his kids to follow in his footsteps and wanted his kids to have a better life, as most parents do. Father also had a deep love of baseball and chose to pass it on at an early age to his first-born.

Mutt and Mickey Mantle, Commerce, Oklahoma

Mutt and Mickey Mantle, Commerce, Oklahoma

Starting at the age of six, Mickey started practicing a swing that would take him to the heights of baseball stardom. According to his brother, Ray Mantle in the fine documentary, Mantle from HBO Sports, “Dad would get off work everyday at 3:45pm and it was Mickey’s job to be at home for practice by 4:00pm. He’d always be there as soon as dad got home. And it would be trouble, big trouble if he wasn’t there on time. They’d practice ’til you couldn’t see. Dad would pitch to Mickey right-handed, and then granddad would pitch to him left-handed. He was teaching him to switch hit. They would play for hours and hours. They were obsessed.”

Mickey Mantle boyhood home, Commerce, Oklahoma

Mickey Mantle boyhood home, Commerce, Oklahoma

A few months ago, after hitting some dead ends and after having to ask a Commerce police officer for directions, my dad and I visited the house Mantle lived in until he left for the lights of Broadway. There are no markers in town to notify tourists and the house is not any type of historical site and stands with heavy paint chips around it, but does have a well maintained yard. The house is as it was when the Mantles lived there along with a heavily rusted steel shed to the side that was used as the backstop during practice by father and son. You can still see dents on the side made from their batting practice sessions.

The Natural, Ryan Hilligoss stands in where the Mick stood, Commerce, Ok

The Natural, Ryan Hilligoss stands in where the Mick stood, Commerce, Ok

They made up games to make the batting practices more enjoyable. The house and shed are set in a way that a batted ball would either hit the house or go over it. In the picture below, you can see the location of the windows on the side of the house. A ball hit below the window was a single, above the windows was a double, on the roof was a triple and over the roof was a home run. Mantle often said, “I was the only kid in town who didn’t get in trouble for breaking a window.”

IMG_0096

Baseball was a shared bond between the two. Brother Ray Mantle again, “The biggest thing in his life was when dad took him to St.Louis to see the Cardinals play. It was 300 miles to St.Louis and dad wouldn’t drive more than 35 miles per hour. Took us more than a day to get there. Mickey would say ‘Dad, I can run faster than you’re goin’ and dad would say ‘Okay get out.'” As far as Mutt was concerned, the endless practices at home were only the beginning for young Mickey, and he pushed his son to excel as the years passed. According to Mickey Mantle’s wife Merlyn, “Mutt was pretty hard on him. Mickey told me, ‘I could do really good in a ballgame and dad would never say you did well, all he would ever say was “You could do better.’ And that really made Mickey try even harder to please him.”

After graduating from Commerce High School in 1948 where he had starred in baseball, football and basketball, Mantle signed a minor league contract with the Yankees by scout Tom Greenwade who just happened to be driving through the country on Route 66 and stopped to watch a game in which Mantle hit three home runs. He was called up to the Yankees team in 1951 and started the season on a hitting tear. But later in the year he struggled and was sent to play in the minors again in Kansas City where he struggled even more. His dad came to see him one night and Mickey, in a moment of weariness and low confidence, said, “I might as well quit and give up the game.” According to Merlyn, “His dad said, ‘Is that all the guts you have? Then get your things together and we’ll go home. I’ll put you to work in the mines and you can do that the rest of your life like I’m doing.’ He wanted his dad to sympathize with him and he did not. Mickey replied, ‘Well dad I want to stay and make a try of it.’ To which his dad said ‘Then quit acting like a baby and get out there and play ball like I know you can.'” Mickey always relied on his father as a friend, mentor and confidant and took his father’s rough edged advice to heart. Mantle took to the field again, went on a hot batting  streak, and was called up in August of 1951 by the Yankees for good.

The Yankee Clipper and #7, Joe Dimaggio and Mickey Mantle, 1951

The Yankee Clipper and #7, Joe Dimaggio and Mickey Mantle, 1951

I have often been reminded of this during the past two summers as my wife and I have coached our son Graham’s youth baseball teams. As coaches, we have tried to instill in our players an understanding of baseball fundamentals and skills while also teaching them the value of teamwork and discipline. Before each practice and game we ask the players to listen to your coaches, to try your best and to have some fun. We have been fortunate to have a lot of good kids; not good players necessarily but good, decent kids who listened, tried to the best of their abilities, and developed their skills as the season progressed. But part of being a coach is identifying areas that need improvement, communicating with the player and then implementing a plan to enhance their skills. If they did something well, we would heap praise on them accordingly, but if they made a mistake, we would pull them aside later and ask what they were thinking and then let them how they could have done it better and then worked with them on it at the next practice.

However, some players and parents did not agree with this philosophy, and the parents would tell their children that they were fine and not to worry about making an error. Fearful of being critical or providing constructive feedback, some parents choose to massage their kid’s self-confidence instead of building character, responsibility and self-respect. Yes these are young children, but when does it end and when do the kids figure out that everything they do is not perfect and they might need to be responsible for their own actions instead of relying on mom and dad to fix it for them. Are these the same parents who demand to know why little Johnny or Susie got a C on their report instead of an A? These are called helicopter parents, ones who hover and swoop in at the slightest sign of distress to make it all better. Somehow, there has to be a middle ground between Mutt Mantle never telling Mickey that he did a good job and parents soothing their child’s fragile egos.

During his stellar 18 year career, Mantle piled up the results and awards. Mantle was noted for his hitting ability, both for average and for power. Mantle once said that he put everything into his swing including his teeth. He remains the last player to win the Major League Triple Crown in 1956, leading both leagues in batting average, home runs, and runs batted in (RBI). He currently is 16th on the all time home run record list with 536. He received three American League (AL) Most Valuable Player (MVP) Awards and played in twenty All-Star games. Mantle appeared in 12 World Series, winning 7 of them. He holds the records for most World Series home runs (18), RBIs (40), runs (42), walks (43), extra-base hits (26), and total bases (123). Mantle is regarded by many to be the greatest switch hitter of all time, and one of the greatest players in baseball history. Mantle was inducted into theNational Baseball Hall of Fame in 1974  and was elected to the Major League Baseball All-Century Team in 1999. .

Mickey Mantle and Robert Kennedy, Mickey Mantle day at Yankee Stadium, 1968

Mickey Mantle and Robert Kennedy, Mickey Mantle day at Yankee Stadium, 1968

I’m Gonna Live Forever

Retired from baseball left Mantle to his own devices, many of them negative, as he struggled with alcohol abuse starting in his playing days and on through the 90s when he checked himself into rehab and started life anew. His drinking caused untold hardships on his wife and kids and his career. But part of his drinking was trying to run from what he thought was an inevitable early death given his family history. Mutt Mantle, the man who had taught Mickey so much about baseball and life and was his best friend, died in 1952 at the age of 39 of Hodgkins Lymphoma. His fraternal grandfather, the one who had helped him learn to switch hit, died when Mantle was 13 of Hodgkins. And he had two uncles who died early deaths of the same cause. Mantle thought it was just hereditary but what he didn’t know at the time was the disease was exacerbated by the zinc dust in the mines that all those men had worked in back in Oklahoma. Upon leaving rehab clean and sober, Mantle was often quoted as saying, “If I had known I was going to live this long I would have taken better care of myself.”

In 1995, after receiving a liver transplant, necessitated by years of heavy drinking, Mantle decided to address his fans at a press conference. In doing so, he publicly acknowledged the costs of drinking, especially on his family and was willing to expose his faults and frailties to a public he often shunned earlier in life. He decide to take a stand and let people know that he could have done better, not in baseball, but in trying to live a good, decent life. With cameras and microphones rolling, Mantle gave a heartfelt, honest appraisal of what a hero really looks like, “I would like to say to all the kids out there, you talk about a role model: this is a role model. Don’t be like me. God gave me a body and an ability to play baseball and that’s what I wanted to do. And I blew it. I want to give something back, seems like all I ever done was take.” With his dad’s words of ‘you could have done better’ echoing in his mind, he acknowledged his dad was right and admitted it to himself and for all those to hear and take heed in their own lives and families. So, the kid born in the small town of Spavinaw and the kid raised in Commerce, and whose dad demanded an extremely high level of effort, perseverance and mastery, rose from total obscurity and the hard life in a dusty corner of Oklahoma to the highest level of skill and gave boys and girls around the country and world a hero to hold onto. From small things momma, big things one day come. (Below you can listen to The Highwaymen sing Billy Jo Shaver’s Live Forever)

In giving his eulogy at Mantle’s funeral, Bob Costas stated, “The emotional truths about childhood have a power that transcends objective fact. They stay with us through all the years, withstanding the ambivalence that so often accompanies the experience of adults. I just hope God has a place for him where he can run again. Where he can play practical jokes on his teammates and smile that boyish smile. Because God knows, no one’s perfect. And God knows there’s something special about heroes.”

Well, for me, the truth is this: the memories and emotions in childhood of playing baseball and softball with my brothers and father will stay with me through the years and are the same truths that I will pass on to my kids. Everyday all over the world, with the their parents, siblings, aunts and uncles, some kids play sports, some play musical instruments, some go fishing or hiking, some work out in the garage messing around with tools, and so on and so on. As the friends and family we once knew leave over time, the memories and shared experiences are the things that stay with us as we go through life. As time passes, those are the things that sustain us and bring us good health  and make us feel young again,if only for a brief time.

The Hilligoss Boys: Robert Lee, Kevin Lee, Ryan Barr and Graham Ronald

The Boys(Hilligoss) of Summer: Robert Lee, Kevin Lee, Ryan Barr and Graham Ronald

Epilogue

Back in Commerce, the house and shed still stand even though they are a little weatherbeaten, the house paint is peeling and falling, and the shed is rusty and leaning to one side. But, they still stand nevertheless. They stand as a testament to the love and devotion and shared time and pleasure between a parent and a child. They stand as a testament to the power of love and to the hopes and dreams that we pass on to those that follow. They stand as a symbol of the hope for a better life, for a good life, for a decent life, for a meaningful life that parents pass to their kids. For those that chose not to have kids, or want to but can’t for various reasons, they stand as a testament to just wanting a better world for all of us to live in and pass on the goods things from their lives to those around them.

Someday that house and shed will fall away to time and nature and will be turned into soil and rust and blown down that ‘old dusty road.’ At some point in time, that house and shed will long be gone. And years from now, people may not know who Mickey Mantle was or what he meant for so many, but the power of the love forged, so long ago, between a little gap-toothed, blond-headed  boy and his dad playing catch in the yard will never fade away.

Now when all this steel and these stories/ Drift away to rust

And all our youth and beauty/ Has been given to the dust

When the game has been decided/ And we’re burning down the clock

And all our little victories and glories have turned into parking lots

When your best hopes and desires are scattered to the wind

And hard times come and hard times go

Hard times come and hard times go

Hard times come and hard times go

Yeah just to come again/ Bring on your wrecking ball

C’mon and take your best shot/ Let me see what you got

Bring on your Wrecking Ball

Springsteen

Take your best shot, let me see what you got, bring on your wrecking ball

Take your best shot, let me see what you got, bring on your wrecking ball

The Kid from Spavinaw Video, video of Costas interview with Mickey in 1995 and eulogy and more road trip pictures

Robert Hilligoss at Mantle Field, Commerce High School

Robert Hilligoss at Mantle Field, Commerce High School

Below you can hear an exquisite song by the fine songwriter and singer Tom Russell that gets to the heart of the matter of the relationship between father and son.

Store front window in Spavinaw, Oklahoma. The only visible indicator that mantle was born there

Store front window in Spavinaw, Oklahoma. The only visible indicator that mantle was born there

Mickey Mantle and Vic Dimaggio listen to Satchel Paige school them on throwing the stinky cheese

Mickey Mantle and Vic Dimaggio listen to Satchel Paige school them on throwing the stinky cheese

One thought on “Mickey Mantle, The Kid From Spavinaw: You Could Have Done Better

  1. You are the king of long-form blog posts, my friend. Very well, said.
    Keep on keeping on with your style of coaching. It’s the right way, and you know it. Let those who can’t take it walk away. They’ll be happier someplace else.
    Love that you recognized those that choose not to have children – and by extension those who cannot.

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