Say you somehow became friends with your childhood idol. Could you ever see him or her as just a buddy, or would you spend most of your time together pinching yourself?
For Tom Molito, the answer is somewhere in-between. He grew up in Yonkers idolizing Mickey Mantle, the iconic New York Yankees center fielder (1931-95), then spent the later years of Mantle’s life as a collaborator and friend.
Molito, who now lives in Pound Ridge, tells stories of his time with Mantle in a new book, “Mickey Mantle: Inside and Outside the Lines” (Black Rose Writing, $15.95, 165 pages).
Professional circumstances brought Molito and Mantle together when Molito’s company, Cabin Fever Video, was making a documentary in the mid-1980s about “The 500 Home Run Club” (major leaguers who hit 500 or more home runs in a career). He pitched Mantle on co-hosting the film, along with NBC sportscaster Bob Costas.
Mantle agreed to the documentary and, through their work together, Molito befriended him. He took Mantle to events and on double dates with his wife and Mantle’s longtime business partner, Greer Johnson.
But it never felt quite real, Molito says, having an American icon at the table with him.
“How many people get to sit across from their childhood hero?” Molito asks. “He never ceased being Mickey Mantle. I never transformed into ‘Oh, he’s just my friend.’”
Another friend, former Westchester County prosecutor Geoffrey Orlando, talked him into turning his numerous Mantle stories into a book, in which it’s clear that Molito is still a bit shocked that his life intertwined with The Mick’s. At times he sounds as though he is observing a complex relationship. At others, like he still can’t believe he is hanging with Mickey friggin’ Mantle.
The book dives into Mantle’s playing days, analyzing statistics to put his Hall of Fame career in a modern context, and provides an intimate portrait of a perennial boy of autumn, claimed by cancer. Still, that Molito went from fan to confidant of Mantle’s is what allows the book to stand out.
“There’s been over 50 books on Mantle, and who wants be 51?” Molito says. “But my book is unique in that it’s written from a fan’s perspective.”
That’s not to say, however, that the book skips over the “demons” in Mantle’s life, as Molito describes them. Haunted by the early deaths of his grandfather and his father, Mutt — a gritty Oklahoma miner who would die of Hodgkin’s disease and who exhorted his son to be courageous — Mantle became an alcoholic. Molito writes that it was rare for him to be around Mantle without drinks present. In one account, an intoxicated Mantle gave a rambling speech to a group of Fortune 500 CEOs at a charity dinner.
But Molito says his goal was never to write a book that would sensationalize the slugger.
“My guiding light was that Mickey could read the book and not get mad at me,” he says.
Besides, he believes Mantle’s final message to fans — Mickey sought treatment in 1994 and spent the final year of his life sober — better represents the ballplayer’s legacy.
“There was a redemptive quality to his life,” Molito says. “He told kids, ‘Don’t be like me.’ He increased awareness of organ donations. Otherwise, he would have died a great baseball player who became an alcoholic, and that would have been the end of the story.”
As for his legacy on the field, Molito insists that Mantle, considered to be one of the greatest players of all time, was even better than people realize.
He found in his research that Mantle actually hit the facade at the original Yankee Stadium three times, not just the two times commonly attributed to him. Either way, he’s one of the few ballplayers to do it all — run, catch and hit from both sides of the plate for power and batting average; holding World Series records for the most home runs (18), RBIs (40), extra-base hits (26), runs (42), walks (43), and total bases (123).
Baseball statistics have come a long way since Mantle played, and Molito makes the argument in the book that modern measurements (such as Wins Above Replacement, comparing a player to what his successor might do) prove Mantle is one of the best players of all time. Certainly, many consider him the greatest offensive center fielder in the game. Molito also attempts to gauge just how good Mantle could have been if he had not been hobbled by injuries throughout his career.
“The real drama with Mickey Mantle has always been ‘What might have been if… ” Molito says. “If he had taken care of himself, if he had stayed healthy. Most baseball experts would say he could have been the best that ever lived.”
The book is available through Amazon and most local booksellers. For more, visit facebook.com/MickeyMantleInsideAndOutsideTheLines.