One great thing about my job of 42 years at The Daily Independent was the chance encounters with the celebrity world.
For me, it was the sports celebrity world.
The list goes on and on of sports heroes that I’ve been able to interview – Muhammad Ali, Pete Rose, and Michael Jordan, to name a few.
And, oh yes, Mickey Mantle.
The story of my five-minute interview with The Mick is much better than the interview itself.
Mantle, the baseball idol of the 1950s and 1960s, is a name that everybody knows.
It was back in 1989, long after Mantle had retired from baseball as one of its all-time home run leaders. The Mick didn’t just hit home runs, he hit them out of sight. His legend was unprecedented.
While browsing through a magazine at work one day, I began reading an article about the Mickey Mantle-Whitey Ford Fantasy Camp in Fort Lauderdale. At the bottom of the article, there was a number to call. It had a 606 area code and a 474 exchange. That said one thing to me — Grayson, Ky.
The curious reporter in me made the call to the number and on the other line was Wanda Greer, who was the camp director. Dave Carter, who produced the “Ashland’s Field of Dreams” documentary and many outstanding others, was the one who started the fantasy camp many years ago before anyone else was doing it. Dave has always been ahead of the curve. Now about all of them do it. But for several years, it was only the Yankees.
I set up an interview with Wanda and she asked if I’d like to speak with Whitey and Mickey.
Well, uh, absolutely, I told her.
So the wheels were put in motion. She actually gave me Ford’s number and I called him about a day later. We spoke for 15 of 20 minutes about the camp, about Mickey and about Wanda. It was a good interview but The Mick would be what could turn the article from good to great, at least in my estimation.
Wanda said Mickey would be a little harder. She wasn’t going to share his number, which was understandable. And, besides that, Mickey was always on the go, flying here and there, doing autograph signings or whatever. He was Mickey Mantle and that was job enough.
Wanda took my home phone number – these were the days before cell phones — and told me when Mickey was available she’d give me a call.
That was good enough for me. So I waited.
One Sunday night, my wife, then 5-year-old son, 2-year-old daughter and I were at church. My wife wasn’t feeling well, so she told me she was taking the kids and going home. We’d driven separately, so that would be fine.
On the way home from church, my wife drove by the Oakview Elementary playground and Stephen, being an energetic 5-year-old, begged her to stop.
“No,” she said, “if we were anywhere right now, it would be in church. The only reason we’re going home is because Mommy doesn’t feel good.”
So that was that. Stephen wasn’t happy about it but understood as much as 5-year-olds understand these things.
Well, lo and behold, when Beth arrived home she got a phone call and Wanda Greer was on the other end. She asked for me and Beth told her I was at church. She told Beth that if there was any way possible, could she have me at the phone in 15 minutes because Mickey Mantle was going to be calling.
My wife knew I was working on the story and didn’t want me to miss the opportunity. She hurried back to church, with Stephen and Sally in tow, and told someone in the back of the church, in our sound room, to let me know.
He came down the side aisle – I was sitting near the front – and told me. I jumped up and walked out of church and headed for home, excited about the opportunity that awaited.
In the other car, Beth was posed with an interesting question by our 5-year-old: “Mom,” he asked, “is Mickey Mantle bigger than God?”
Wow! What a zinger. Always quick on her feet, Beth said, “Well, no, but this is different. It’s Daddy’s job. That’s why we got him out of church.”
It turned out, that wouldn’t be when the interview with The Mick happened, just a sobering and hilarious sidenote. Mantle was at an airport and didn’t have time to make the call. Wanda called me and apologized and promised that Mantle would call me at work on Saturday.
That was fine with me. I was working on a Saturday morning – the paper was afternoon back then – with the late Tony Curnutte.
Nobody was a bigger baseball fan than Tony. When I told him The Mick was calling today, he was giddy.
I told him that we needed to make sure one of us was always near the phone because I didn’t know when the call would happen. Well, naturally, The Mick called when we were both away from the desk.
Our switchboard operator at the time didn’t look for me because she thought it was a bogus call.
“Somebody saying he was Mickey Mantle called but I knew it couldn’t be him,” she said. “So I hung up on him.”
“What?” I screamed. “That was Mickey Mantle!”
I quickly called Wanda back and told her what had happened. She didn’t know if The Mick would call back but told me to sit right by my desk. I’m sure she had to do some explaining but whatever she said worked.
I told Tony what was happening. He begged me to let him answer the phone so he could say he talked to Mickey Mantle. I agreed.
Tony, in his most proper and professional voice, cleared his throat and then answered: “Sports, Tony Curnutte.”
The countenance on his face dropped immediately. In subdued tones he said “Yes, uh, I guess. Hang on a minute.”
“It’s not The Mick, it’s The Rick,” he said. Rick Greene, a sportswriter for us at the time, wanted to know if I wanted him to cover an American Legion game in the park that afternoon.
“Get him off the phone!” I said.
We both sat quietly. Tony stared at the phone, poised like a cat getting ready to pounce on a mouse.
Tony answered again in professional voice. “Just a minute,” he said firm and proper. This time it was The Mick. He successfully transferred the call to me and on the other line was none other than Mickey Mantle.
The first thing he said to me, in his thick Oklahoma drawl, was:
“You sure are a hard guy to get a hold of.”
We both laughed. I was as professional as I could be and we had a brief interview that was cut off when I asked him about Pete Rose and gambling.
“I’m not here to talk about that,” he said.
Good enough. I mean, it was Mickey Mantle.
I hung up the phone and the journey had ended. After plugging in Mantle’s quotes in the story, the job was done. The feature ran the following day and Wanda, being so classy, was kind enough to get me an autographed Mickey Mantle baseball. It had “To Mark, best wishes, Mickey Mantle” on it and it still sits today in my memorabilia case at home.
Autographed baseballs that are personalized are worth less on the open market than those that just have the name. But I liked that it was personalized and wouldn’t sell it anyway.
To me, it serves as a reminder of a story worth telling.