Friday, October 15, 2010

Was Mickey Mantle's behavior better or worse than today's athletes?'s Mark Kriegel has an interesting piece about where Mickey Mantle fits into the pantheon of bad boys in sports. The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America's Childhood, Jane Leavy's new book on Mantle, talks about his drinking and serial womanizing. Make that serial groping, too -- he even once groped Leavy herself. Yikes!

Anyhow, Kriegel's point is that Mantle acted more out of control than Brett Favre or Tiger Woods, "yet Mantle remains loved and revered while Favre and Woods have become punchlines." He also argues that "unlike Favre, Mantle didn’t have to deal with TMZ or Deadspin. His misbehavior wasn’t merely tolerated; it was journalistically disappeared."

I don't think this is a good thing. In fact, I would argue that Mantle might have gotten help for his drinking if he had been held to some sort of journalistic standard. The very same media that lionized him as the golden boy, and took his side in 1961 against Roger Maris, knew what a creep Mantle could be, especially if he were boozing. Yet they didn't let their readers see that. The press even attacked "Ball Four" Jim Bouton for being the only person to dare to write that Mantle wasn't exactly a saint.

And to what end? Mantle didn't get help for his drinking until late in his life. In the meantime, he got to grope countless random women, and make a fool of himself drinking in public, with no fear it would be covered. After going to Betty Ford, he did speak out to tell others not to do what he did. But maybe Mantle would still be alive and serving as a Yankee elder statesman if he had to face some sort of accountability, whether it be through the Yankees or the press, much earlier in his life.

After all, Kriegel, the author of the great book "Namath," ought to remember that Joe Namath finally got help for his own drinking problem after he was seen drunk on national TV, trying to get Suzy Kolber to kiss him. (And how innocent that sounds as compared to Favre's creepy sexting!)

Kriegel continues:

Not only can’t you apply today’s standards to yesteryear’s heroes, you can’t apply today’s standards to today’s heroes. Not if you want heroes. The evolution of technology, journalism and popular expectations have all conspired to ensure there will be no more Mantles.

Nor will there be any Favres or Tigers or Jordans (remember, by the end, he, too, was being taken to court by one of his goumares). And you can forget about any Babes or DiMaggios.
Actually, I would argue the opposite. Even now, unless you're A-Rod, if you're a big enough star, with enough power, and the media needs access to you to do their jobs, you can get away with being a jerk for a long, long time, until 1) somebody has physical evidence on you, and 2) the MSM is willing to write about it.

Look at how long Favre and Tiger and Jordan themselves got away with it. Not forever, but long enough. And the mainstream media will help you protect that image, too. Remember, the MSM was ready to bury the Tiger Thanksgiving story when TMZ did their thing. And look at how many sportswriters (hi, Peter King!) are still trying to protect Favre.

It's hard to know whether Mantle was better or worse than other athletes of his ilk. But I do know that if his bad boy behavior had been exposed by the media at the time, he wouldn't have been able to continue his misdeeds for decades.

What do you think? Tell us about it!


Uncle Mike said...

The medieval poet Dante wrote that the sins of the warm-blooded and the sins of the cold-hearted are measured on different scales. I don't know if that's true, but it does offer insight into the athletes mentioned.

Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle and Joe Namath probably never set out to hurt anyone, or to use their power as celebrities to demean anyone. They weren't so much jerks as slobs. Ruth didn't live long enough to reach the age of confessional interviews, but Mantle and Namath both expressed regret over things they did, people they hurt. (I don't mean to put Namath in the past. I realize he's still alive.) While they were bad boys, I don't get that they were willing to be bad people. It's naughtiness, but not malice.

But there have been athletes who have had a "Don't you know who I am?" mentality. That's Michael Jordan, Brett Favre, Roger Clemens, Francisco Rodriguez, Curt Schilling (though I don't know if his being a horse's patoot extends to his marriage), Randy Johnson (ditto), and, if you want to really, really, really stretch the meaning of "athlete," Tiger Woods. And when you push them too far, their true colors finally show.

Kurt Smith said...

I think the difference today is not so much the ready availability of social media, although that does play a part.

In Mantle's day ballplayers weren't overpaid to the tune of making more in a day than a journalist makes in a year, and journalists had easier access and weren't so removed from the ballplayer, thus willing to overlook his faults.

Just a thought. Good post.

Kurt Smith

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