Strong family support helped Mickey Mantle go from a poor mining town in Oklahoma to being the superstar center fielder of the New York Yankees in the 1950s and 1960s. He hit 536 home runs, had the highest stolen base percentage and was arguably the greatest switch hitter in the history of baseball. He was voted the American League’s most valuable player three times (1956, 1957 and 1962), led the league four times in home runs, six times in runs, and once in RBIs. He was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1974 and the Major League Baseball All-Century Team in 1999. He died of liver cancer in 1995 at the very young age of 63. He had received a liver transplant after his own liver was destroyed by too much alcohol and by Hepatitis C, a viral infection that is often transmitted through sexual contact.
Sports Saved Him from Working in the Mines
Mantle was brought up in the mining town of Commerce, Oklahoma, where his father was a lead and zinc miner and the family lived on top of a toxic waste dump of mining debris. Before he was old enough to go to school, his father, grandfather and uncle indoctrinated him in the fundamentals of baseball. At age 13, he was playing baseball 12 to 14 hours a day. Whenever he would complain about the pressure put on him by his mentors, they would tell him that he could always go to work in the mines.
In high school, he was the best player on his basketball, football and baseball teams. He was so talented that the University of Oklahoma offered him a full football scholarship, but his father told him that baseball would be his ticket out of the mines. He played professional baseball right out of high school and at age 18, the New York Yankees gave him $1,500 to sign for a salary of $140 per month. By age 19 and after a year of minor league baseball, he was playing right field for the New York Yankees who won the pennant. In the second game of the 1951 World Series, New York Giants rookie Willie Mays hit the ball far into the outfield and right fielder Mickey Mantle and center fielder Joe DiMaggio raced for the ball. DiMaggio called for the ball so Mickey stopped suddenly and tripped over a drainage pipe to break some of the cartilage in his knee and tear his anterior cruciate ligament. That injury never healed so that he played with knee pain for the rest of his life.
Habits that Destroyed His Liver
Alcohol damaged his liver, and his many infidelities probably caused the infection with hepatitis C that destroyed his liver. He often spoke of his great fear that he was going to die at a young age no matter what he did. His rationale for his wild lifestyle was that all of the men in his family had died young, so he might as well enjoy himself. His father died of Hodgkin’s lymph node cancer and a heart attack at age 39. His grandfather and two uncles died at very young ages also, but they had all been exposed to the toxins from the lead and zinc mines where they worked. While he was one of the most famous athletes in the world, he told a reporter, “I’ll never get a pension. I won’t live long enough.” When he had outlived his father and grandfather by many years, he quoted Eubie Blake, jazz pianist and composer, who said, “If I knew I was going to live this long, I’d have taken better care of myself.” (Blake died at age 96 after smoking more than a half pack of cigarettes a day from age five, but he said he did not drink alcohol).
One year before his death, he was admitted to the Betty Ford Center in California for a program to rehabilitate him from alcohol abuse. He never drank again. After his discharge, he was diagnosed with liver cancer which can be caused by excessive alcohol, hepatitis C or both. He received a liver transplant, but the cancer had already spread to his lungs and he died at age 63 on August 14, 1995. Just before he died, this gifted athlete apologized for drinking and admitted that he was no role model for America’s youth, saying “Don’t be like me.”
Alcoholism can “run in families” for reasons that may be genetic or environmental. Highly-motivated people with this disease can stop drinking completely. However, if they take one drink, they suffer from an overwhelming urge to keep on drinking to excess. Mantle’s wife and sons were treated for alcoholism. His son Billy died in 1994, at age 36, of heart problems aggravated by years of substance abuse. Mickey Junior died at age 47 of liver cancer on December 20, 2000.
Hepatitis C and Liver Cancer
Hepatitis C is the most common cause of liver cancer and the need for liver transplants. It is a virus usually spread by sexual exposure or contaminated needles. Today, infections with the hepatitis C virus can be treated with interferon injections and Ribavirin pills. More than 10 percent of hepatitis C infections can be cured by taking daclatasvir (Daklinza) and sofosbuvir (Sovaldi), but these drugs can slow the heart rate so much that the patient may need a heart pacemaker to stay alive. These drugs were not available for Mickey Mantle as they had not been developed at that time.
At the time of Mantle’s liver transplant there was controversy over the short time it took for a donor to be found, putting a celebrity in line ahead of other people who probably had a much greater chance to have lived after a transplant. Giving people with active hepatitis C liver transplants can spread the hepatitis C virus through their bodies and kill them. A person’s immunity recognizes someone else’s liver as a foreign body and tries to kill it, so to keep them from rejecting the transplanted liver, they need to take powerful drugs to suppress their immunity. The drugs that Mantle took to prevent his immunity from killing the transplanted liver could also keep his immunity from killing the hepatitis C virus and the cancer cells, so both the virus and the liver cancer could spread quickly through his body.
Dr. Gabe Mirkin is a Villager. Learn more at www.drmirkin.com