The game of baseball lends itself readily to poetry. With grace and eloquence, its heroes fire the imaginations of young boys and old men alike. Few ballplayers have stoked dreams more than the subject of Home Box Office’s newest documentary, Mickey Mantle.
Mantle’s story is arguably that of baseball at its most epic: from his rise from small-town obscurity to his tragic, self-destructive downfall. While HBO Sports’ Mantle covers his life, warts and all, it never lets you forget that Mantle was perhaps the quintessential player of the 20th century. As Billy Crystal, a contributor, said: “If you were going to build a baseball player from scratch, you would go, 'Just forget the plans. It’s him. Just make it him.’ ”
Mantle documents the New York Yankees centerfielder’s life from his early days in Commerce, Okla., subjected to his stern and determined father, Mutt, and gifted with the talent that was his ticket to escaping the nearby zinc mines. Many of the photos have never been seen before and come directly from the Mantle family’s private collection.
Mantle doesn’t let viewers forget that the idyllic baseball hero was flawed. His time spent roaming centerfield in Yankee Stadium was plagued by numerous injuries, while his time off the field was marred by alcohol. Unlike the Yankees Entertainment & Sports Network’s Yankeeography on Mantle, which downplayed his drinking and rowdiness to focus on hero worship, the outfielder’s flaws are an integral part of Mantle, including pictures of a clearly drunk Mick in the clubhouse.
Despite addressing the off-the-field activities, the feel of the documentary doesn’t change. The viewer understands that the figure on the screen — hitting the bottle as much to hide from the glare of the spotlight as have a good time with his friends — is still heroic.
Yet, a strong sense of regret still seeps through. The “what could have been” factor is summed up in the phrase he uttered at a press conference near the end of his life: “I blew it.”
That Mantle was one of baseball’s greatest players and an icon comes through in the interviews with celebrities, newsmen and teammates. But they also make clear, with 20/20 hindsight, that the Hall of Famer could have been the greatest ever if he had taken care of himself.
In that tragic light, the documentary is accessible to the casual baseball follower as it is to the most die-hard fan.
Mantle debuts July 13 at 9 p.m. (ET) on HBO.