August is a tough month. As a kid, August always represented the summer dying - vacation dwindling down, school supplies creeping into stores, the grass burning from green to brown, maybe even the first leaves falling from the trees.
As a fan of both baseball and music, August seems to be a tough month as well. We talked about the anniversaries of the deaths of Thurman Munson and Jerry Garcia earlier this month. Today came the news that guitar legend Les Paul passed away. Later this month the anniversaries of Allen Woody and Stevie Ray Vaughan's deaths will pass as well.
Today marks the 14th anniversary of Mickey Mantle's death. Maybe it was because he had high profile celebrities like Billy Crystal and Bob Costas who worshipped the ground he walked on and romanticized every bit of his legend, but Mantle's death struck me as being just as much as the end of a cultural phenomenon as it was the passing of a baseball legend.
For a generation of American males, Mickey Mantle was an icon. I suppose his death in 1995, as that generation moved into middle age, was not only the passing of their boyhood idol, but also the severing of one of the last remaining connections to their youth. I guess each generation of fans faces this at some stage, but that's not something I even want to consider right now.
Like many of that generation, my father's favorite player from his childhood years was Mantle. The Mick was winding down his career as my father began following the game, but he still had some of his former magic. A yellowed cover of The Daily News from when Mantle hit his 500th homerun still hangs in my parents' basement.
I grew up down the street from a golf course that used to host celebrity tournaments. When I was an infant, Mantle was playing in a tournament there. Mom convinced Dad to take a ride up the hill, and sure enough, there was The Mick. Awestruck, my father was rendered speechless for the entirety of the encounter. My mother was unimpressed enough to get a picture.
Though seperated for a number of years, Mickey and his wife Merlyn never divorced, and she was at his side at the time of his passing. Eerily, she passed away Monday.
Today is also the second anniversary of Phil Rizzuto's passing. Phil Rizzuto Day was the first Major League game I ever attended. It didn't dawn on me until today that Rizzuto and Mantle died on the same date. Oddly, Mantle's death in some way contributed to Rizzuto finally leaving the broadcast booth. WPIX decided that Bobby Murcer, another close friend of Mantle's, would represent the network at Mantle's funeral, forcing the Scooter to stay in Boston to call the Yanks game. The decision upset Rizzuto greatly, causing him to leave the booth mid-game, and announce his retirement shortly thereafter. He was persuaded to return for one final season in 1996. After I mentioned Jerry Remy's return to the Sox booth last night, I guess it's in some way appropriate that today we also remember a beloved Yankee announcer.