This month, my mom turns 87, and one of her greatest goals is to meet Russell Westbrook. “I don’t get much out of life,” she said recently, “but I do love Russell and my Thunder. I would love to shake his hand and tell him, ‘Thank you,’ for bringing happiness to people like me.”
Mom has a stuffed teddy bear I gave her for Mother’s Day one year. She named him “Russ.” He sits beside her on the sofa, and every season they cheer on the Thunder.
So, I come from a sports-loving family. I tried to be the Russell Westbrook of my generation, but somehow I could never make the ball go through the hoop. I switched to baseball, and somehow the ball would never make contact with the bat. I sucked at sports and I knew it, so I decided to concentrate on writing. It comes a bit more naturally.
Through all the trials and errors of my short-lived sports career, I had a great coach. He also came from a sports-loving family. Larry Mantle, or “Coach,” as we called him, was the brother of legendary Yankees superstar Mickey Mantle. And when Larry and his wife Linda moved to my hometown in the early ’70s, it was like Hollywood royalty had come to Cashion. All through the town, from Anglin’s Groceries to Colleen’s Beauty Shop, the whispers were the same: “Did you know the new coach is Mickey Mantle’s brother?”
Indeed, he was. Larry was the youngest Mantle sibling, and grew up in Commerce, Oklahoma. In tracking him down for an interview about his famous brother, I called my old babysitter, Carolyn, who was the greatest basketball star to come out of Cashion in the ’70s; the female equivalent of Russell Westbrook. She knew exactly how to contact Coach.
When I called, Linda said, “Of course we remember you, Mark. Larry and I remember you and your entire family. In fact, your mom and I used to visit quite a bit. We loved those years living in Cashion.” After a brief conversation, Coach came on the phone. It was the same voice I remembered echoing through the gym, and across the baseball and football fields of my youth.
“What do you want to know about Mick?” Coach asked. “Growing up, he was always ornery.”
For the next 20 minutes, Coach stepped back in time, recalling memories of arguably the greatest Yankee player of all time.
“I remember when he signed with the Yankees in ’51,” Coach said. “During my summers out of school, I would go stay with him. He took me to the practice field, and it was my job to retrieve the balls. He kept me running all day.”
He was also a built-in babysitter. “Mick has four boys, so when he was on the road in the summers, I stayed with my nephews. We always had a lot of fun together.”
Mickey Mantle played for the Yankees until his retirement in 1968. His youngest brother was there through the fame, awards and accolades, and he was with him when he died.
“It was August, 1995, when Mick passed away,” Coach said. “I was with him at the end in the hospital. The world knew him as Mickey Mantle. But to me, he was just my big brother.”
Author’s Note: This story began as a straight feature on the legendary Mickey Mantle, but changed into a more personal reflection on his brother Larry. During this interview, Linda Mantle talked about her life, meeting and falling in love with Larry when they were in college at UCO. “My mom was a cook at the university,” she said. “She pointed to a table where all the athletes sat, and that’s when I first saw Larry. I fell in love with him instantly, and the next year we were married. We have two beautiful children and have lived a wonderful life. What a blessing to spend 50 years with the love of your life.” Linda died unexpectedly a few weeks later.