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Garcia and Mantle

so very different, and yet.......

This is Dark Cloud on Wednesday, August 16, 1995.

If Jerry Garcia or Mickey Mantle are ever mentioned in the same breath, it’ll be because they died within a week of each other and represented all too well the values of their respective generations. In a way, they were much alike. They were both, bluntly, junkies, grateful to their public, puzzled by the acclaim, bemused, and vaguely uncomfortable with it. They lived only to do what they loved: Garcia to play music, and Mantle to play baseball. They are gods to their fans and overrated yahoos to most. Like all American icons they are damned and praised for all the wrong reasons.

Garcia was older than most of those in his band and generation, which sounds like an oxymoron but isn't. He spent two years in the US Army, which gives many pause, and he was one of the very few people in show business who loved music - all music. From classical to country to jazz, he loved, and attempted to play, it all. I cannot say he was a great technical musician. I have never heard more bad notes than Garcia’s from a vaunted star, but it misses the point. Garcia had a vision of expanding the taste of his audience as his tastes expanded, and he did it. His attitude was that of old time, pre-WW II performers. We’re in it for the long haul. Treat your fans well; they’ll be there for you. He did, they were, and this ain’t the rock and roll ethic. The Dead played four hours a show, they gave away their songs, they made people happy, and if people point out much of the vibe came from drugs, fine, but the Dead were a hell of a lot more socially responsible and civic minded than drunken Republicans showering ballplayers with beer cans, screaming obscenities.

A scene that never would have happened to Mickey Mantle. People today cannot realize or recall 1) how important baseball was, 2.) how hated the Yankees were or 3) how one man, just six feet tall, could be so physically intimidating at a distance of two hundred feet. The musical “Damned Yankees” struck a responsive chord in the 1950s and lost nothing of its appeal through Mantle’s career. People who never saw him and know him only as an apologetic drunk are rightly confused by the adulation.

Mantle was early in his career the best right-handed hitter in baseball. Also the best left handed hitter. He had few peers and no superiors as a fielder, including Duke Snyder and Willie Mays, his contemporaries, or Joe DiMaggio, who he replaced. He was the fastest man, not only in baseball, but in professional sports. People who hate the Yankees, like ABC’s Brit Hume and Cokie Roberts, will only say he was the best switch hitting power hitter in history, as if there were others to speak of. Mantle also hit the longest potential home run in history, from his weaker side, left handed. It almost went out of Washington Stadium, hitting the rim eighteen inches from clearing the stadium five hundred sixty four feet from home plate. Most say, including Yankee haters, the ball was still rising.

Mantle was weird looking, his legs way too short for his torso, his shoulders and back way too broad for his body. He was, really, scary looking, and taller and bigger men never seemed so standing next to him.

Even though he was the best, he never lived up to the altogether frightening potential. Since his first year as a Yankee, when he essentially broke his knee covering for an aged DiMaggio, Mantle qualified for handicapped parking. Henry Aaron, who broke Babe Ruth’s home run record, was a friend and admirer. You didn’t appreciate Mantle, he said, until you watched him get bandaged for a game. He played, said Aaron, on one leg for ten years. He was, said Henry Aaron, who knew, impressive. He never will be acclaimed by historians who never saw him play. But as Bob Costas said yesterday, he was the most compelling sports figure of his time.

Garcia, once a baseball fan, an artist, no doubt admired Mantle, whatever his feelings about the Yankees, and since his own excesses cut short his life, as they did Mantle's, perhaps he had cause to reflect on choices made. I doubt he regretted much, if anything. He was a genuine artist. And while I would would contend many musicians made better art, it would be well to consider this. In my lifetime - and your’s - no greater artist ever played music.