Mutt’s Dream: Making the Mick
The publishing info:
Released June 16, 2020
The review in 90 feet or less
We had a dream the other night about Mickey Mantle.
It was more a flashback, to a trip that a friend of mine and I took a few years back. We did a start-to-finish, Chicago-to-L.A. trek on what is still left of Route 66. Not quite halfway through, after starting the day in Carthage, Mo., we hit the part of the journey that sliced through Kansas and dipped into Oklahoma. Not far into the Sooner State did we hit a bend and come upon the water tower of Commerce.
It’s the hometown of Mickey Mantle, aka The Commerce Comet.
His high school was just off the main road. A statue of him, right behind Mickey Mantle Baseball Field.
With a Google search, we went just a few blocks away to the home — a sign posted on the front of it looked no worse for wear and confirmed we hit pay dirt in this unexpected discovery.
It also confirmed the story of “Mutt’s dream.”
Across the yard was a tin-covered shed.
Anyone home? Didn’t seem so. A wasp’s nest was formed in one of the window sills.
After paying our respects, it was time to move on. But we felt the need to have a piece of this to take home with us. We found a small branch of a tree on the property. That was enough.
Our own Wonderboy.
To have been on the property on a quiet summer day allows one to listen to the wind blow, the leaves rustle, the ghosts swirl. It provides something of a surreal context when we now come to an immersion of this book by Howard Burman.
Burman notes in his acknowledgements that there are “quite a number of books about Mickey. Most concentrate on his Major League Baseball career. Some delve into his public life after he left the game. Not a great deal has been written about the years before he became a professional. There are snippets here and there in various books, including some written (or ghosted) by Mickey himself, including “The Education of A Baseball Player: The Mickey Mantle Story,” as told to Ben Epstein (in 1967, a year before Mantle’s retirement), and “Mickey Mantle: The American Dream Comes to Life,” co-authored by Lewis Early (in 1996, shortly after Mantle’s death at 63). John G. Hall’s “Mickey Mantle Before the Glory” was a valuable resource for this book.”
All those may provide a foundation here for Burman, a Brooklyn native who eventually would get into theater production and chair the department at Cal State University Long Beach. But the sincere beauty of how this book is constructed as a theatrical production feels so real that Burman also has to clarify in here that the dialogue is “word-for-word accurate as recorded” in most parts, and other parts “invented but it is always consistent with the reality of the situation.”
That adds a deeper humanity far richer than simply reproducing facts and newspaper accounts that and gives clarity to more than just a “based on a true story” attempt.
In the first two chapters, Burman establishes the life and struggles of Elven “Mutt” Mantle in the dustbowl of Oklahoma, at the dawn of The Great Depression. A fan of the somewhat nearby St. Louis Cardinals that he can reach through radio broadcasts, Mutt is a bigger fan of Philadelphia Athletics’ hard-nosed catcher Mickey Cochran.
The 18-year-old Mutt is courting Lovell, eight years older than him and the sister of a girl he’d been dating. She’s also divorced and with two kids.
“She is a hellcat; he is invariably polite,” writes Burman.
They marry in 1929. By the late fall of ’31, Mickey Charles Mantle arrives in Spawinaw, Okla., about 35 miles southwest of Commerce.
It’s Mickey, for Cochran. And Charles, for Mutt’s father, a semi-pro baseball player in his own right and who taught the game to his own son.
When Mutt drops a baseball in Mickey’s crib, the nurturing process begins. Baseball has been the great escape of Mutt’s far-and-few between jobs, from street repairing to dangerous mining as he’s trying to survive in the challenging employment conditions.
As Burman writes at the end of Chapter 2:
“It never occurs to Mutt that Mickey might resent his father forcing the game on him. Mutt is a most uncomplicated man. As he learned to love the game from Charlie, so will Mickey learn to love the game from Mutt. Isn’t that the way it’s supposed to be? … Mutt doesn’t have a lot he can teach his son. He’s not well-educated, not a musician, not a scientist. He’s not good with figures. He can’t draw. What he can do is work hard. And he can play baseball. That is what he can pass on. That and being a good man, fair and honest. Those things he will pass on.”
The character development is important as the story pushes forward to the Mantle family’s move to Commerce, a town of almost 2,000 with a seven-block main street, once part of Indian land. It’s the lure of work at the zinc mines. Mickey, at age 4, is now at this “small sand-scarred dwelling … barely more than a shack, really. … The Mantle house is some 100 yards off the main road at the end of a gravel track. It has two small bedrooms, a basic kitchen, a postage-sized front porch. … unpainted and unheated … a wooden garage held together by rusty sheet metal panels stands away from the house. But Mutt, as soon as he spots it, doesn’t see a garage. He sees a baseball backstop.”
Charlie Mantle moves in with them to help — and assist in pitching tennis balls, left-handed, to Mickey against the shed as Mutt pitches to him right-handed. They’re already teaching him how to switch hit.
Life isn’t sugar coated. Many in the area die young from lung cancer. Mickey is sexually abused by a teen-aged half-sister and her friends. In high school, he nearly has to have a leg amputated in a football injury.
From this email Q-and-A with Burman, we extract more about the process:
What was it about Mickey Mantle’s upbringing that inspired you to pursue this story? Had you been able to see him play in the ‘50s and ‘60s and was he your favorite player as he was for many?
Growing up in New York, I did see him play in the ’50s, but no, he was not my favorite player — at least nominally.
I was born in Brooklyn, so naturally I was a Dodger fan and Duke Snider was my guy. However, I secretly really respected and liked him. I just couldn’t admit it out loud. All of my best friends were Dodger fans so, of course, we put down Mickey anytime we talked with the few Yankee fans we knew. (We could never have close friends who were Yankee rooters, or even worse, Giants fans.) I would never have admitted it, but deep down I knew Mickey was the better player and probably the more likeable.
The interesting style you picked for this book must obviously stem from your background in the theater. Was this done as a purposeful way to possibly have someone adapt it to a play or TV/movie script?
I really wasn’t thinking about a film or a play. I wrote it the way I did, because that’s what I know. I’m better at dialogue than descriptive passages, so I emphasized that. In reviews of my other books, I usually get high marks for the dialogue. I guess that’s natural after writing more than 30 plays. As a playwright, I really visualize scenes as I write them. Maybe all writers do, but perhaps I do it to a greater degree.
Coming from this with a Southern California approach, can you tell us more about your time at Long Beach State and the California Repertory Company? Did you pick up on following the Dodgers based on your Brooklyn roots?
It’s interesting to me to note that baseball is somehow ingrained in my being in a way no other sports are. When I left New York, I stopped following the Knicks, the Rangers, and the football Giants and started following the teams wherever I was living. When I was in Long Beach I rooted for the Clippers, Kings, Rams … but I could not lose my love for the Dodgers. Something about baseball (at least to me) is quite different. Maybe because like Mickey, I learned about the game from my father. I’ve always loved Donald Hall’s “Fathers Playing Catch With Sons.” (1984). There’s something quite elemental about the act.
I was fortunate at Cal Rep to have the opportunity to write and have my plays produced there. I did a couple of baseball things there. I did a musical adaption of Roger Kahn’s “The Boys of Summer.” I’m sure you know it’s about the Dodgers of the ’50s. I also did a doo wopp musical, “Willie, Mickey & the Duke,” which was really about three New York stickball players who idolized their eponymous heroes.
When you did “A Man Called Shoeless” in 2016 – was that also while you were at Long Beach? Was there any sort of parallel you saw with Shoeless Joe Jackson and Mickey Mantle?
I wrote “A Man Called Shoeless” while I was at CSULB. It may have come out after I left. I really don’t recall. Parallels? Not a lot other than they both had to deal with incredible public pressure, both struggled trying to do so, and to some degree both failed. They were both exceptionally gifted athletes and both fragile and fundamentally flawed individuals.
Some of your comments about your opinions on Mickey’s upbringing by Mutt and Lovell are included in the book – your thoughts about how Mantle’s reaction to trying to live up to being “The Mick” was shyness turning into rudeness and fueled by alcohol was his own doing. We see stories in sports of dads pushing their sons to excel and having it all unravel into that classic tragedy. But you seem to have a better sense of what Mutt was doing and the dialogue reflects that. Is that ultimately what you wanted to get across in your story, a more accurate portrayal from where Mutt was coming from? Is there anyone else in the history of entertainment or sports you can compare to the Mutt and Mickey Mantle relationship?
As a playwright I see Mickey as a classic Aristotelian tragedy worthy of the great Greek philosopher and polymath. He’s Oedipus. He’s Creon. This is actually what got me started on this project. Aristotle’s tragic hero has to rise to a high position, fall from that position due to his own character flaws, and then must come to understand the cause of his failure and acknowledge it. The great heroes of literature all do this. The key, of course, is in the understanding. To me Mickey fits this to a T. He rose to the top of his profession, loved by millions, but he failed as a man. He became cruel, hurtful to his family, friends, and fans because of alcoholism but then sought to make amends. As I write in the book, he finally came to accept and appreciate the distinction between being a role model and being a hero.
And, yes, I wanted to portray Mutt in a more sympathetic light than the one that usually shines on him because I think that is accurate. Mutt pushed his son, but Mickey became The Mick because he wanted didn’t want to let down his father. It was a mutual love affair. But make no mistake about it, Mickey wanted to become The Mick.
I hope I did a reasonable good job of showing where Mutt was coming from. I am sympathetic to him. He was a good, decent man, who wanted to give his son a better life outside the mines. The only way he knew that was through baseball. That’s all he had to give and he gave it with love.
I’m not sure about other similar sports stories. Maybe Tiger and his father, or Todd Marinovich and his father, Marv. I’ve not spent any time looking into this, but as I recall, Marv pushed his son far too hard.
Fathers like Mutt want to live a life they couldn’t through the lives of their sons. This often goes wrong.
How it goes in the scorebook
The Grapes of Wrath meets the wrath of Mutt merges into a Great American Novel.
If this small home in Commerce had a gift shop, this would be the best-selling item.
In a 2011 New York Times piece about Mantle’s connection to Commerce, then-city mayor Michael Hart, who grew up next door to the Mantle home, is quoted: “We have people saying all the time, ‘Hey, is there any place we can buy a Mickey Mantle T-shirt, or a key chain, or a magnet?’ — just some sort of keepsake they can take with them, so they can say, ‘I was in Commerce, Okla., and I got a postcard, and I got this.’ And we always have to say, ‘Sorry, I don’t have anything like that.’ ”
It notes that Commerce remains “ranked among the poorer towns in the state. The lead and zinc mines in Picher, about five miles north, where Mantle’s father — Elvin Charles, known as Mutt — worked, have long since closed. … The mining companies left behind a mess: contaminated water and soil, piles of mining waste that raised lead levels in children who lived nearby. Several towns were evacuated by government order, leaving behind eerie ghost towns where houses were ripped from their foundations after the communities were shut down.”
It is eerie. But to hear the voices that were once there, and what led to the Mantle creation as an American icon, may be even more revealing.
Adding to the tragedy is that Mutt never got to see Mickey’s true success, dying at age 40 in Mickey’s rookie season with the Yankees as a 20-year old. A year earlier, Mutt drove to Kansas City to have a heart-to-heart talk with his son about not quitting, as he was in the minor leagues doubting his ability during a prolonged hitting slump.
Essentially, to understand Mickey Mantle is to also understand his father, and his grandfather — their dreams as well as well as how that fit into their survival, and what they thought they could pass on to make their descendants’ lives better. It is also to understand Commerce, Oklahoma and what it was at that point in time. Burman does that, and more, with this approaches that touches on many of the readers’ senses. Including a sense of hearing the story told with a new perspective.
More baseball-related books from Burman:
==“The Secret Game,” from 2016: “For many years stories circulated about a secret baseball game. One bleak raw night in February 1911 Al Sangree, the well-known columnist for the New York Journal,and a few others were gathered around a table in the grill of the Keystone Hotel in York, Pennsylvania, talking baseball when Sangree explained the game. According to Sangree, in early October, 1909, immediately following the World Series between Pittsburgh and Detroit, a toy manufacturer who was a pole vaulter in his college days conceived the idea of bringing together two all-star teams to be selected by his stable groom and himself for a game to be played on a polo field on Staten Island, New York, for a purse of $60,000, to be divided 60 % to the winner and 40% to the loser. The toy tycoon had but three stipulations: One, he was to supply the purse. Two, there were to be only two spectators–the groom and himself. Three, the managers of the respective teams were to have absolute control of their players in addition to having the right to call any pitches they deemed necessary to an opposing batsman. The players were to include such stars as Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner, Christy Mathewson and Eddie Collins. This is that secret game. The book contains beautiful full-page color illustrations of all the players.
== “Season of Ghosts: The ’86 Mets and the Red Sox,” from 2012
== “Gentlemen at the Bat: A Fictional Oral History of the New York Knickerbockers and the Early Days of Base Ball,” from 2010
== “Willie, Mickey & the Duke,” from 2006: “A coming-of-age story of four friends and a game. A game is arranged between the two greatest stickball teams in New York City with local gamblers supplying the backing. The game becomes a legendary event in the folklore of the city, and in its wake, the boys are never the same. Like the decade itself, they lose whatever remaining innocence they might have possessed.”
== “To Hate Like This Is To Love Forever, The Greatest Dodgers And Me,” from 2006: “What if you had a chance to select and manage a team of the greatest Dodger players from throughout history against a team of the greatest Giants?”