In telling Mickey Mantle’s story, it’s easy to get wrapped up in his tremendous home runs, the World Series championships he won and the anecdotes about his boozy carousing.
So while putting together a documentary subtitled “the definitive story of Mickey Mantle,” filmmakers decided to scale back the focus on the New York Yankee superstar’s career (1951 to ’68) and dig deeper into the key elements that shaped his life, emphasizing his childhood and his dramatic final two years, when he sent out the cautionary message, “If you want a role model ... don’t be like me.”
“His legacy on a superficial level will always be as one of the most heroic, dynamic baseball players ever to live,” co-executive producer Ross Greenburg said. “But his real legacy is his manhood and what he overcame, and the message he wanted to deliver at the end of his life.”
The hourlong “Mantle” debuts 9 p.m. ET Wednesday on HBO.
Much of the movie is still about baseball, but it’s no highlight reel. His power and speed are conveyed through a few stories, with more time spent examining how Mantle’s aw-shucks country charm and a name seemingly destined for headlines made him an icon.
Why Mantle mattersThe film covers Mantle’s life in a way that director George Roy hopes will give viewers a better understanding of Mantle’s rise to stardom and the demons that tormented him — striving to please his father and battling alcoholism.
“It’s really a human drama about a compelling person more than it is about a baseball hero,” Roy said. “It’s about what it was like to be him and why Mickey Mantle to this day still matters and will always matter.”
Roy pitched the idea for this documentary after HBO made “61,” the Billy Crystal-directed movie about the 1961 home run race between Mantle and Roger Maris. Considering that the cable network already had done films about Babe Ruth and Joe DiMaggio, it was an easy sell. The Mantle family, thrilled with “61,” also was happy to oblige.
They let Roy dig up photos from their collection that hadn’t been released before, and he plucked forgotten film clips such as a late-’60s chat with kids at Yankee Stadium in which Mantle says he hopes to play long enough to hit 600 homers. He retired with 536.
The story is pushed along by interviews with dozens of relatives, former teammates and other friends. Keeping with the tell-all aim, there also are segments featuring Mantle’s longtime mistress and his rapid rise on the liver transplant waiting list.
Some of the most charming moments are the most offbeat, including comedian Richard Lewis’ one-liners and Ed Harris reciting a poem he wrote about Mantle when he was about 10.
While hardcore Mantle fans know about the influence of father Mutt Mantle, this movie uncovers details about their relationship that Mantle’s sons Danny and David said even they didn’t know.
Mutt is portrayed as a tough, take-no-guff man of his era. As overbearing as he might’ve been, his intention was pure: He wanted to keep Mickey out of the Oklahoma zinc mines where he worked.
Mutt never had the pleasure of watching his son win the Triple Crown or three MVP awards; he died following Mickey’s rookie season. Beyond the usual suffering over losing a parent, Mutt’s death also forced 20-year-old Mickey to become the main provider for his four siblings and mother, along with his own wife and growing family, and it reinforced his expectation of dying young.
Combine those emotional struggles, the physical problems that dogged Mantle and his celebrity lifestyle in New York, it’s easy to understand why he became a heavy drinker.
He also was an absent husband-father who admittedly didn’t connect with his kids until they were old enough to become his drinking buddies. Wife Merlyn raised their four boys pretty much by herself in Dallas. Two are dead now, Billy in the year before Mickey — who died in 1995 at age 63 — and Mickey Jr. five years ago.
“I think perhaps the most poignant points of the film, and the most surprising points, show how dysfunctional of a character he was at times,” Roy said. “There’s no getting around the fact that a large part of his life was sad.”
The final chapter of Mantle’s life began when he decided to sober up. While at the Betty Ford Center, he wrote a letter to his long-deceased father and never stopped pouring out his emotions. Danny and David Mantle, who joined their father in sobriety about the same time, proudly recall that every conversation with their dad after that ended with him saying, “I love you.”
The serenity was ruined about 16 months later when Mantle’s alcohol-wrenched liver gave out. He was in such bad shape that he zoomed to the top the list of those needing a transplant — anonymously, though some still suspect otherwise — and died weeks later of cancer.
Although Mantle never understood the fuss made over him, he realized how many people he could help after being overwhelmed by mail during his stay at Betty Ford. He responded by encouraging others to dry out too, then promoted organ donation and, in his dying days, made his memorable plea for others not to follow his lead.
With such heart-tugging stories surrounding Mantle’s death, the last five minutes of the film are “as impactful as any ending we’ve ever put in any documentary,” Greenburg said.