It’s summertime. Time for major league baseball. Coca Cola. And apple pie. To celebrate America’s pastime (and purge my system of all things soccer), I settled in recently to watch the 1994 film biopic about Ty Cobb starring Tommy Lee Jones.
Panned by both critics and baseball historians, the film follows the exploits of Cobb and sports writer Al Stump, who penned Cobb’s autobiography, "My Life in Baseball – the True Record."
Despite being considered by many as one of the greatest baseball players in history, Cobb had a well-known and undisputed reputation of being a terror – both on the field and off.
His temper got the best of him more than once and it ultimately cost him his marriage, the relationship with his children, and severed many of his ties with former league mates and friends.
Cobb’s callous indifference to those around him ramped up in the years leading up to his death in 1961. Years of booze and hard living finally caught up to him and he died at the age of 75.
In the early 1990’s, I met up with another baseball legend – Mickey Mantle – who was born and raised not far from where I grew up in northeast Oklahoma.
At the time, I was in college and trying to make ends meet by delivering pizzas at a small pizza parlor in Miami, Oklahoma.
The owner was an honest-to-goodness small-time bookie and we used to take bets over the phone in between pizza orders.
One Saturday afternoon, Mantle and his entourage stumbled into the restaurant, as he was known to do from time to time. I was the new kid, so they let me wait on his group of tables.
Mantle was already drunk. Very drunk. And he was mean.
He had lost money on the golf course that morning and he was bound and determined to take it out on anyone who would put up with his nonsense.
For the next several hours, I suffered through a barrage of insults and spent the afternoon running back and forth to the table with pitcher after pitcher of beer.
When they were finally done, I mustered up enough courage to ask him for an autograph.
“Mr. Mantle, it would mean an awful lot to me if you would sign this menu for me,” I said. “I’m a big fan and I grew up not far from here.”
He looked me square in the eye and for a moment, I imagined what it would have been like to be a big league pitcher staring back at him from the mound.
I shuddered at the thought.
“Son, don’t bother me,” he said. “Don’t you know that people pay me to sign things? Besides, I guarantee I charge them a whole lot more than you’re going to make today. Save up your money and come see me sometime.”
And just like that, he stumbled out the door.
As I watched the Cobb biopic last weekend, I couldn’t help but think about Mickey Mantle and compared the two baseball greats, both of whom battled demons for much of their adult lives.
Booze was part of the ego-fueled sports culture in which they immersed themselves.
They didn’t stand a chance.
After all, major league baseball was different in the first half of the 20th century. It was almost like the Wild West.
Cobb played from 1905 to 1928 and in those days, professional baseball players were entertainers more than athletes.
Games were like vaudeville sideshows with players dancing and clowning around in between innings.
Cobb fought the urge to participate in the shenanigans and let his playing do the talking for him. He ended up with a .367 lifetime battling average, a record that still stands today.
By the time Mantle made his major league debut some 25 years later, the game had evolved and Mickey was a warhorse – famously battling Roger Maris in 1961 to break Babe Ruth’s longtime home run record.
Along with his Yankee teammates, Mantle made 12 World Series appearances and won seven of them.
To this day, he holds a number of World Series batting records.
Both men were superstars on the field and train wrecks in real life.
But despite their many faults, Mantle, Cobb, and countless others like them remain American heroes. And for some reason, that suits me just fine.
After all, sometimes we forget that heroes don’t always have to be role models. In fact, they rarely are.
In the weeks and months leading up to their deaths, it has been reported that both men had a change of heart. Regret overcame them both.
Mortality has a way of doing that to folks. Even famous ones.
Mickey got sober. Cobb donated millions to charity. Both made public apologies for their many transgressions.
In the end, maybe that’s the real legacy of Mickey Mantle and Ty Cobb.
Despite their own delusions of grandeur, the relationships they had with those they loved ultimately mattered more than World Series rings and batting titles.
That’s a lesson we can all stand to hear from time to time.
In baseball, you get three strikes and then you’re out.
Fortunately for the rest of us, the good Lord is a lot more forgiving.
Sure, swinging for the fence will get you the glory.
But sometimes laying down a sacrifice bunt wins the game.
Gustafson is the not-so-mild-mannered editor/publisher of The PineBelt NEWS. He spent eight summers playing youth baseball in the Mom and Dad’s Little League organization back in his hometown of Pryor, Oklahoma.