In the Arthurian Romances, when a knight encounters a white stag in the enchanted forest, he is magnetically drawn into pursuit because… well, who wouldn’t be? But he never catches the supernatural creature, or even catches up with him. As elusive as an echo, the stag usually leaves his pursuer at the doorstep of a mysterious castle or on the brink of some other new adventure, having faded permanently into the background.
My personal white stag is the 1962 Topps Mickey Mantle card. Don’t laugh. I know there are lots of them in circulation—but they also cost anywhere from fifty bucks (for a chewed, creased, off-centered sample) to almost a thousand (for mint-condition perfection). I don’t have money to spend on utter frivolity, and I don’t really want a Mickey that used to turn some kid’s bike into a motorcycle. (Yes, wanton brats of my generation used to clothespin their cards against the spokes of their spinning wheels so as to create a sputtering noise: motorcycle racket. Cool, huh?) The question, then, reduces to the very practical one of when or if my situation will ever allow me to blow about two Franklins on a somewhat mediocre card that a collector like me would still be proud to own.
There’s history to this romantic quest. I have a very distant, but very clear, memory of visiting my cousin Joey in Pound Ridge, New York. Joey and I didn’t hit it off in those days. (He has since utterly transformed himself into one of the most unassuming and considerate human beings you’d ever meet—a scintillating testimony to the power of people to change in rare cases.) In a manner typical of how he’d been brought up, Joey became a Doberman off the leash when he discovered that I possessed a 1962 Ralph Terry. Now, I have no particular attachment to Ralph. The photo of a tall, lean young man (or “grown-up”: I don’t suppose any card’s photo struck us kids as showing a “young man”) having just delivered a pitch was dramatic, but… but besides that, who was Ralph Terry? A guy who went 16 and 3 for the Yanks in 1961, yes (and who would lead the AL with 23 victories in 1962… but none of us saw that coming). I knew even then that such accomplishments as a 5:1 win ratio were celebrated. Still, this was just a pitcher. I couldn’t imagine getting that worked up about a fellow who didn’t even play every day.
Joey was so keen to get his mitts on my Ralph, however, that he offered me three Mickey Mantles in return. I never saw the merchandise. It’s quite possible that, in the domineering fingers of a kid like my feisty cousin, none of those three Micks had survived without a crease. Some kids just couldn’t grasp a card without bending it. My sister, whose only interest in collecting was that we boys did it, had come by a Stan Musial and an Orlando Cepeda through the luck of the draw… and both, within days, looked as though they’d done motorcycle duty, been wadded up in a hip pocket, and afterward fallen into those trash compressors which she called drawers. Would Joey have been any kinder to his unhappy minions taken prisoner from packs of bubblegum?
The point, though, is that I never saw them; and, in my mind forever after, they were three mint Mickeys. I had declined a gift of solid gold—the three gifts of the Magi—because Joey overplayed his hand and made me believe that Ralph Terry must be baseball’s greatest secret. It didn’t help that Joey’s family were sophisticated Northerners, the self-appointed aristocrats of our tribe, and that I was a stupid backwoods Texan. I was like the hillbilly who was offered a thousand bucks in cash for his piebald, sway-backed mare. “I know he thinks I’m a dumb hayseed. Well, I’ll just show him that I ain’t too dumb to see old Hildie’s hidden merits… even though she ain’t got none.”
For over half a century, I have been tormented by the recollection of that missed opportunity. Last spring, especially, as I excavated my 1962 Topps collection (which covers the immortal 1961 season) and began to fill it out with frugal caution, I never failed to notice the “Mickey gap” among all my assembled Yankees. Maris: check. Whitey and Yogi: check. Moose and Kubek, Tresh and Cletis and Richardson: check, check, check. But no Mickster. At the time, I was slowly descending into a very deep spiritual pit which would bottom out in the revelation that I had metastatic prostate cancer. The diagnosis should have come within days; but, thanks to a combination of professional incompetence, callous indifference, and idiotic COVID protocols, it kept falling through the cracks for months. In a bid to distract myself as my pains and my suspicions grew, I dropped a couple of bucks on eBay every other day (and eventually every day): a Marv Breeding, an Eddie Kasko, a Chuck Hinton. I revisited my childhood in a very low-intensity way. After a month or so, I had actually filled out the plastic pages of my 1961 Season three-ring binder very creditably.
Except for Mickey. And when I finally learned the truth of my condition, any thought of card-collecting whatever was swept aside. In order to get myself cleaned up, I had to travel to Tijuana, Mexico, and submit to a series of therapies none of which would be covered in the least by Medicare or Blue Cross. The FDA doesn’t approve treatments that save lives, you see; it only approves treatments that mass-market costly drugs and surgeries to the vast benefit of the Medical-Pharmaceutical Complex. (Footnote: did you know that you cannot legally sue the manufacturers of the new COVID vaccine if it harms you?) A fellow in my position, then, didn’t need to be frittering away nickels and dimes on the one-time contents of bubblegum packages. Luxury and amusement, never intimate guests, packed up and left my humble abode.
Well, I returned from Tijuana better, much better… but I also returned with a stack of debts and, alas, with several months’ worth of a potent drug in highly excessive doses. I didn’t discover the dosing error for about half a year, by which time my bones and muscles were so stressed that (in my personal opinion) cancer was able to creep through the back window as my system fought to recover normal function. The very drug which had initially strangled those cancer cells (and, just so you know, it’s the only FDA-approved substance I was given in Mexico) had cleared the way for a resurgence of the disease. As near as I can tell, the person who slipped up by packing overdoses into my take-home goody-bag was a clerical type of no medical training. She’d misread the labels and pulled the wrong boxes.
So now I enter the final week of what is easily—I do not exaggerate—the most pain-ridden, dispiriting six weeks of my life. The holidays played a part in delaying my access to a top-flight clinic, and I have to add that my own utter shock at the disease’s suddenness and speed of return lured me and my current physician into wasting a couple of weeks in wait-and-see observation. It’s been a hard year for all of us, boys and girls; but for me, it has been the Mother of all Years from Hell.
If the innovative treatment I am to receive next month works out, I should once again be able to sit at a window as the morning sun clears the treeline and absorb life in peace, not constantly shifting on the cushions as pain chases me hither and yon. Say, February First.
If I am pain-free on February 1, I’m going to log onto eBay and buy the best-looking Topps 1962 Mickey Mantle that I can reasonably afford (multiplied by a modest Unreasonability Factor). No more Mickey Gap in the binder. No more obsession over the missed opportunity in Pound Ridge. (For that matter, Joey seems to have lost virtually every article he ever owned made of paper or cloth in the California wildfires: so Ralph actually fared much better with me.) One more bridge to my childhood completed; one more mooring to this adult world of “what matters” cast off without a second look. Dear God, only give me back my strength, and I promise never to be a fully sensible adult again! I promise never again to spot the frost in sunrise’s first light and simply turn away to race the clock!
I know Mickey Mantle, the man, was no saint. I know he wasn’t even a very admirable human being sometimes. I know he wasn’t the hero we kids made of him. I’m talking about a face on a card—a “grown-up” (but barely grown-up) face framed by the unique mock-wooden paneling of the Topps ’62 set, its rightful place among Yogi’s face and Roger’s and those of the other Yanks who helped Ralph to a 16-win season now filled. I guess I’m talking about a romance of sorts, one where you don’t catch the White Stag but where you seal off the enchanted forest where he roams. I can do that for myself, if God gives me back a little earthly life in another month. I will do that for myself, if God forgives me for having squandered so many chances to remain a child.
I thank this game for surrounding me with such chances. May God bless its days to come! If I don’t write something over the next month for you who faithfully read these posts, then please be patient. I expect to have a lot of “down time”, but I don’t know what kind of condition I’ll be in as I wait for the treatment to work. If I don’t reach you again soon… remember to find a way to stay a child at heart. I’ve seen all that the adult world has to offer. I’d rather be the eternal shadow of that stag-never-caught than a sedentary consumer of butchered corpses.