The Time Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays Did a Dual Interview for Esquire

"I've seen ballplayers do the job on just guts, but I've never known a guy do it over so long a time. Mantle can still swing, but when he does, his legs almost seem to collapse. The man is in pain and hitting is tough enough when you're feeling good. They tell me he bandages his legs from top to bottom before every game and that he's been doing it for a long time. Everybody's got an idea on how to help him. Even I've made a suggestion; I've got a machine that I think helped me, and I sent one to Mickey." (According to Charlie Einstein, this was a kind of small whirlpool for the feet and knees. Mantle was hugely appreciative and sent Mays a case of wine in return—when Roger Kahn reminded Mickey that Willie didn't drink, Mickey sent him a note of apology and a basket with some fine Russian caviar.)

"Two years ago, the Yankees decided to play him at first-base. Some guys wouldn't have moved after all those years, but Mickey went to spring training and made himself learn the job. I watched him on television the other day. He's never going to be a Gil Hodges, but he won't embarrass himself, either. I don't know when he's going to quit, and I don't think he does." (Willie did not know it, but Mickey had already made his decision.)

" . . . Nothing's worse than being the big man on a losing ballclub. They lose, and I know he's thinking to himself, 'They were expecting me to do something.' "

In perhaps his most perceptive insight, Willie said, "I'd have to guess that he was always the biggest guy in his crowd." And who would have known better than the biggest guy in his crowd?

"More was always expected of him. A lot of the men in Mickey's family, it seems, died at an early age. A man can't help feeling some pressure from a thing like that."

According to Einstein, Mickey and Willie had a good time cutting up at the photo shoot. Willie made rabbit ears behind Mantle's head; Mickey reciprocated with his middle finger. "Hey, man," Mays said when they arrived at the studio, "I want to see what you wrote about me. What did you write about me?"

Mickey replied, "I bet it's better than what you wrote about me."

Mickey and Willie had a good time cutting up at the photo shoot. Willie made rabbit ears behind Mantle's head; Mickey reciprocated with his middle finger.

[...]

The 1968 All-Star Game marked the last time Mantle and Mays would shake hands in uniform. Forty-two years later, Hall of Famer Harmon Killebrew recalled that looking at Mickey and Willie that day was "heartbreaking. It seemed that just a few years before these guys were, for me, a symbol of eternal youth—always smiling. Now they looked as if it took a big effort of energy just to crack a smile." Mantle, a reserve on the AL roster, struck out in his only at-bat; Willie singled in the first inning off Luis Tiant, went to second on an errant pickoff throw, scooted to third on a wild pitch, and came home on a ground-ball double play by McCovey. It wasn't much, but in a 1—0 victory it was enough to earn Mays his second All-Star MVP Award. (But that total is deceiving: the award wasn't presented until 1962, by which time Mays by rights should have already had three All-Star MVP plaques.)

By July 27, Mickey had dipped below his career batting average, .300, never to rise above it again. On July 29, he struck out four times in one game; on the way back to the dugout, teammates heard him mutter, "This is my last year."


This post is adapted from Mickey and Willie: Mantle and Mays, the Parallel Lives of Baseball's Golden Age by Allen Barra.

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Allen Barra writes about sports for the Wall Street Journal and TheAtlantic.com. His next book is Mickey and Willie--The Parallel Lives of Baseball's Golden Age.

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