Wednesday, February 10, 2016
From the bio by Jane Leavy:
That the earth would give way beneath his feet was a grim irony for Mickey Mantle. Growing up in Commerce, Oklahoma, in the dead center of the Tri-State Mining District, fatalism was an inheritance. It percolated up from the tainted, unstable earth. That forgotten corner where Missouri, Oklahoma, and Kansas meet was hardly the Oklahoma of Rodgers and Hammerstein. A century of mining lead and zinc from the ancient bed-rock had left the ground as hollowed out as the faces of the men who worked it. The lead went into munitions used to fight the Hun in World Wars I and II, into lead-based paints and pigments, into sinkers for fishing rods and weights for balancing tires. It was also crucial to the manufacture of lead-acid storage batteries. Zinc was needed to galvanize steel, to cure rubber, and to line sinks and washstands. It was an essential ingredient in pharmaceuticals and cosmetics.
Two blocks west of the front door of Mantle's boyhood home was a hulking, ashen heap of mineral detritus disgorged from the abandoned Turkey Fat Mine, where the first shaft' was sunk in Commerce. Three blocks from the house he purchased for his parents with his first World Series check was a crater twenty to thirty feet deep, an insidious reminder of how easily life could give way. That house at 317 South River Street, with the family's first telephone, was where he went to recuperate when doctors at Johns Hopkins told him he could go home. By the time he arrived, Mutt had gone back to work as the ground boss at the Blue Goose Mine. Even before Mutt got sick, before Mantle ripped up his right knee trying not to run into Joe "Fuckin' DiMaggio, he had reason to doubt his own longevity. Everything about the world that produced him under-mined confidence in long life. When a reporter came to call, Mantle told him that three hundred feet below his chair, men like Mutt were trying to claw out a living from exhausted mines. It was only a slight exaggeration. Mining had created a tenth circle of Hell, turning a verdant swath of the Great Plains into alien terrain, flat except for the mammoth piles of mineral waste known as chat. Locals call this range of bleached man-made dunes the "Chatanagey" Mountains. Cruel Billy Martin called Merlyn "Chat Pile Annie." The highest of them, at the Eagle-Picher Central Mill, a mile and a half northeast of the Mantles' home, was a twenty-story behemoth built from over 13 million tons of chat. Long after the ore played out, the meta-static landscape remained disfigured by 5,000 acres of tailing piles and sludge ponds so toxically opaque that no shadows were cast upon them; 1,200 open or collapsing mine shafts lurked beneath the overgrown, con-taminated grass; 40,000 drill holes and hundreds of water wells reached deep into the Roubidoux Aquifer. The worst desecration was centered in Ottawa County, Oklahoma, where 2,500 acres were left undermined, 50 of them punctured by cave-ins. Also left behind when the ore played out were 300 miles of tunnels that wound their way through parts of three states and underground caverns, one as big as the Houston Astrodome. Some folks swear you can walk the twenty-eight miles from Commerce, Oklahoma, to Joplin, Missouri, without ever seeing the sky. Only 6 percent of what miners like Mutt hauled out of the ground was
ore-grade--thus the aptly named Discard Mine on the Kansas-Oklahoma border. Waste laced with cadmium, magnesium, copper, and gallium was strewn over 41 square miles. When the Mantles arrived in the area in 1935, a time of unprece-dented and violent labor unrest in the Tri-State region, these towering buttes were a source of pride for a workforce known for its fierce indepen-dence and anti-union ways. Adults regarded them as protectors against the tornados that spiraled across the land. Children rode their bikes up the dusty slopes in summer and slid down them on rusting car hoods in winter. In the shadow of these bleak mounds, they roasted wieners, ate cake, and sang "Happy Birthday." Boys learned to play baseball on dried-out sludge ponds of chemical residue, alkali flats as smooth as the most manicured major league infield but not as forgiving. There was one a block from Mantle's home and the ball would roll forever, which is why, he confessed later, he preferred to play the infield. "They was full of lead and zinc—it's a wonder we all didn't end up with lead poisoning in our blood," his boyhood friend LeRoy Bennett said. "There was no grass that growed on 'em because it was so heavily slanted one way or the other on the chemical chart." Everyone but Mantle learned to swim in the quarries created by cave-ins, leaving them with rat-red eyes; his mother would haul him home in a fury when she caught him so much as wading. He could barely manage the dog paddle. Cave-ins were routine yet shocking. One night driving home from work, Merlyn's uncle felt the pavement give way beneath his wheels. "Went over and it crashed in," Merlyn told me. Route 66, the Mother Road connecting Chicago and Santa Monica, California--and Mickey and Merlyn's hometowns—was not immune. "I never will forget, one time, the highway splittin' wide open," Bennett said. "Miners were always gettin' killed and that kind of thing, but it was kind of expected. Eventually it was gonna happen and you couldn't do anything about it anyway, so most people just accepted it." Everyone knew the air the miners breathed wasn't good, that the work was lethal, the earth's crust precarious, but Paul Thomas, the undertaker who buried Mickey's father and Merlyn's mother, never thought he would have to bury the entire place. No one could have imagined that one day the government would pay citizens to leave their toxic homes. Hanging from
the beams in Thomas's Picher garage above three shiny hearses were rusty relics of the miners he interred: helmets with carbide lamps, lanterns, and kettles. The walls were covered by wide-angle portraits of proudmining crews, including Mutt Mantle's at the Hum-bah-wah-tah Mine. Posed in front of the doghouse where they changed their clothes, lunch pails at their feet, the roof trimmers, hookers, bumpers, and rope riders peer at the camera through masks of exhaustion and soot. An Eagle-Picher sign declares: WE USE SAFETY HERE. The photo is dated June 8, 1941. In the language of the mines, men worked on top or in the ground, never above or below. In 1935, when Mutt went to work for Eagle-Picher, a common underground worker earned $2.80 a day, according to Union Busting in the Tri-State, a definitive history of the industry written by George Suggs, Jr. In an eight-hour shift, miners filled as many as forty-five to sixty 1,250-pound cans, all by hand, lifting up to 75,000 pounds every day. They rode to work in the buckets they loaded, falling into the dark-ness at the force of gravity. Everything needed below went down the same five-by-seven-foot shaft, including the air they breathed—there was no other ventilation. The mules that pulled the cans to the shaft lived out their lives in the ground inhaling the smell of mother earth in a climate-controlled 65-degree tomb. The working conditions for man and beast were appalling. Miners carved the rock face, inhaling the dust generated by their labor. A roof trimmer standing atop an 80-foot ladder chipped ore from the ceiling while four rope riders steadied the precarious perch. Their backbreaking labor required teamwork and bred a mordant camaraderie not unlike that of baseball teams. It's no accident that so many of them, including Mutt and his brother Eugene —known as Tunney—spent their off days playing baseball in the sun-shine and arguing over pitch selection. The mine whistle summoned Mutt and his crew at 7 A.M. and sent them home at 4 P.M., fifteen minutes after the dynamite charges were lit in prepara-tion for the next day's dig. The ground shook; wives and children went about their business and hoped for the best. "Sirens were a dreaded, scary thing, because that did mean there had been some kind of a cave-in and somebody was hurt," said Ben Craig, a banker in Kansas City who played sandlot ball with Mantle. "It was just, always, hold your breath."