The Mickey Mantle Beat

This is about my greatest day on a golf course, and I never even touched a club.

Back in the 20th century I was the sports editor for a newspaper group in Madison, Georgia, an idyllic few years for me and my wife, Jane, who was the news editor, our daughter Sam, and various critters. We lived two blocks from the newspaper office on the picture postcard town square in a classic old Southern town.

The company published two papers each week: the old, reliable flagship in Madison, which had been published steadily since Grant was president, and an ambitious (for the time) paper covering the communities ringing Lake Oconee, which was experiencing an explosion of growth and investment as golf communities sprang up along the previously sleepy two-lane road that links Eatonton and Greensboro, small towns which also had old, reliable flagship newspapers.

Our owner/publisher, who was fond of seersucker suits, had thrown down the gauntlet, triggering a little newspaper turf war in what was becoming known as the ‘lake region.’ As the sports editor (and weekend delivery guy around the lake because it paid me a whopping extra 25 bucks a week), my priorities revolved around local high school sports. Fall Friday nights were always eaten up by high school football games, and the rest of the time there was basketball, baseball, University of Georgia sporting events up the road about 30 miles, even some pro sports coverage. A little bit of everything, really.

Including Mickey Mantle.

In 1991, he bought a home in one of those golf communities and spent a good portion of the last few years of life there. For several years he hosted a charity golf tournament, bringing in a lineup of Hall of Fame athletes, including Yogi Berra, Johnny Unitas, Whitey Ford, Harmon Killebrew, Enos Slaughter. One year I drove around in a golf cart with Earl Morrall, quarterback of my beloved 1972 Miami Dolphins. Part of the job description: Spend a pretty spring day on a golf course snapping photos and hanging around with a bunch of your childhood heroes. Someone had to do it.

Actually, several people had to do it. The newspapers from Eatonton and Greensboro were also on the Mick beat, this being the heart of the aforementioned ‘lake region.’ Greensboro probably ran more Mickey photos than our paper and the Eatonton paper combined. For one thing, Greensboro was the town closest to Mickey’s golf community. For another thing, the newspaper’s photographer/distributor guy never saw a free meal that he could pass up, and in those days the country clubs were giving away a lot of free food and booze and rounds of golf.

This dude sparingly lifted to his eye the ‘instamatic’ type camera that hung from his colossal neck and there was speculation that he wore the thing mainly as jewelry. I’m pretty sure he never took more than an exposure or two at any event. On Saturdays in Athens when the UGA Bulldogs were playing football, he’d be on the sidelines with the rest of the actual photographers, jostling for position, the last to arrive but first in line at the pre-game and halftime meals.

At one of the Mantle tournaments, I arrived after the pre-tourney cookout, and was pretty steamed about it. Play was about to start. I sped across the golf course toward the action, loading my camera with Kodachrome while steering the cart with my knee. Here came my photographer buddy from the other direction. I asked him, “Where you headed?” He said, “I’m leaving. Too bad you were late, sucker. And thanks! I got two steaks — mine and yours!” Then he was gone.

Meanwhile, I picked up Earl Morrall and enjoyed seeing Mantle clown around with Moose Skowron and Whitey Ford, and cringed when Johnny Unitas bent over on ruined knees to fetch his golf ball, but ultimately laughed a lot with these old legends, took a bunch of photos that I would have to develop back at the office, took a bunch of notes that I would spin into a story.

But there are two Mickey Mantle episodes related to the photos accompanying this essay, or memoir, or lurch down memory lane, or whatever. Look at the pictures. One is a photo that I took of the Mick signing autographs during a press function at his golf club in 1991. The other is a picture of his autograph, which he gave me on a different occasion, which will get us back to my best day on a golf course.

Regarding the black and white photo. It was taken under a tent. Following the press conference (which was either about a new golf course, or the club’s plans for a polo facility, I can’t remember which), Mickey said he’d sign autographs for those in attendance, which included some club members and their families, maybe six or seven reporters from Augusta, Athens, and Atlanta. And us local yokels. It’s not the sort of thing that you normally see, reporters getting autographs from the person they are covering. It’s not the sort of thing that you should see.

But there they were, my fourth estate brethren lining up to get Mickey Mantle’s cherished signature on a photo or a baseball card or an old magazine. I was embarrassed for them, standing aside on my high horse, which provided me a great vantage point for snapping photos. But also, in the back of my mind I was thinking “it’s the Mick, after all, and they didn’t ask him, he offered, so …” I still couldn’t talk myself into getting in line.

At this stage of his life signing autographs is what Mickey Mantle did for a living. Yet here he was patiently signing each one for free, and personalizing them (which reduces their resale value). He was in a good mood. But then the Greensboro photographer stepped up to the table and lay a briefcase down in front of the Mick. Popping the lid, he exposed two dozen baseballs and with an ‘aw shucks’ grin said, “Hey, Mickey, would ya mind?”

Mickey Mantle gave the guy his withering Mickey Mantle stare, threw his pen up in the air and said, “fuck this,” got up and left. Which is exactly what he should have done. End of press conference.

The autographed postcard is an interesting piece because Mickey’s artistically rendered head looks more like the guy who played The White Shadow on TV than it does Mantle. Here’s how that came into my possession.

It was the honorary first round of golf on the new course at Mickey’s lakeside community. The foursome consisted of the Mick, former pro and UGA football star Jimmy Orr, and a couple of sporting goods executives. I was the only local photographer/writer following the foursome, and I was in heaven. Mickey Mantle was the first ballplayer I was ever aware of, before I even knew what baseball was. He’d always been one of my top five. This was an emotional moment for me, people. And even though I was told to be unobtrusive and not grill the Mick, it was a rare pleasure just to be there. I mean, I’d seen him in an old-timer’s game many years earlier, saw him hit a tape-measure foul ball. I’d met him here around the lake a few times. He swung at a golfball like it was a baseball, with the same kind of follow through, and the ball flew for miles. Somewhere I have the photos, buried. I must find them.

Anyway, there was at least one other photographer there, from Atlanta I think. And Mickey thought it was funny that we’d want to just hang around and get pictures of four guys playing golf and drinking, but he also understood that he was Mickey Mantle (which still seemed to amuse him). At one point on the back nine, Mickey hiked off into the woods above the green to find a proper tree for privacy, then shouted back at us, “hey, you guys wanna get a picture of this?” Then he laughed. We all laughed.

These four were well stocked with spirits and feeling no pain by the time they finished playing their round. As they gathered to look over the final scorecards, Mickey quietly reached into his golf bag and pulled out a stack of postcards (like the one in the picture). He said to me, “Jerry, right?” What was I supposed to say? No thanks, Mick? I said, “uh, yessir.” He smiled and handed me the card. I smiled back, suddenly eight-years old, mumbled, “thanks, Mick.” He did the same for everyone else there. Personalized and signed a postcard. So that’s how I broke a sacred law of journalism and got Mickey Mantle’s autograph while on the job.

Much cooler than that, though, is what happened next. One of the executives – I think he was from Mizuno – passed around his scorecard. He wanted everyone there to sign it, as a personal memento. When it came around to me, my hand shook as I added my own quivering scrawl beneath Mickey Mantle’s autograph, and my favorite day on a golf course had come to a surreal end.

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