Mantle’s Billy Martin cow-shooting story is urban legend …

February 29, 2012
By admin

I get a kick out of a wonderful story that circulates about Mickey Mantle and Billy Martin (and sometimes includes Whitey Ford) on a hunting trip in Texas (or sometimes in New York and elsewhere) that involves firearms, livestock and the legendary Billy Martin’s penchant for impetuosity tinged by various anger management issues.

There is a neat U-Tube version of Mickey telling what I assume is the most frequently repeated version of the tale, and it was this clip that was sent to me last week by a friend from high school. I’d heard the story many times – and many versions – but it’s always fun to listen to Mantle tell it. Just as fun was reading the various comments from readers indicating that a significant number of them believe that the story is real. That’s almost as much fun as the story itself, and it bothers me not one bit that it’s nothing more than urban legend.


The most likely explanation is that the “joke,” which sounds uncannily like any number of Borscht Belt stories from the heyday of the comics playing the Catskills hotels in the 1950’s and 1960’s, was subsequently customized by Mickey and Billy into a hilarious anecdote that in the end seems like it was so perfect for the duo that it just had to be true. That’s what makes so many people fall for it. I also love the irony that a guy who has literally hundreds of stories of booze-enhanced adolescent tomfoolery from his playing career and beyond would trumpet a phony story among his favorites.


In the story, Mantle tells of being on a hunting trip in Texas with Martin, and stopping at a farmhouse owned by a doctor friend of Mantle’s. Mickey asks for permission to hunt on his land, and the doctor enthusiastically agrees but asks for a favor. Would Mickey be willing to shoot the doctor’s mule, which he must put down but can’t bring himself to do it himself. That’s so bizarre that it should raise all kinds of skepticism, but as Mantle tells the story with such detail and believability, I suppose folks just get sucked into the tale. Mickey agrees to do it, but then decides to play a trick on Martin.


Mantle returns to the car, grabs his rifle and feigns anger, saying the doctor had refused them permission to hunt on his land. He then shoots the mule that’s in the barnyard, presumably startling his hunting mate, but apparently not quite in the manner Mickey had hoped. As the mule drops dead, Mantle hears three more shots and looks over to see Martin holding his own rifle and proclaiming triumphantly, “I got three of his cows!”


I laugh like a school girl every time I hear the story, even though I don’t believe it for a minute. Mantle calls it his best story, and maybe it is. I’d give a shiny new quarter to know how many people think it is real; I haven’t got a clue how many that is, but you can rest assured it’s a whole bunch.


There have been many versions of this story, with different locations and even changes in what kind of critter the landowner asks to be put down (sometimes it’s a bull), but it’s likely to continue to have a considerable cadre of believers, if for no other reason than the Mantle interview telling the whopper will remain out there for eons on the Internet. Ultimately, what was ostensibly a great practical joke being pulled on Billy Martin winds up being an even better practical jokes being pulled on several generations of baseball fans. It’s a doozy.


* * * * * *


You need no greater proof of the apocryphal nature of the tale than to realize that Jane Leavy made no mention of it in her wonderful 2010 book “The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America’s Childhood.” The author of the earlier bestseller “Koufax,” Leavy created a remarkable picture of Mantle’s life in general and his post-retirement years in particular, telling a host of stories about the years leading up to his 1995 death in amazing detail and with compassionate nuance.


Her research was so thorough that she even got around to interviewing me, presumably because of my former role as editor of Sports Collectors Digest. We talked on the phone for about 15 minutes or so, and at the end of the conversation I told her I knew of a Mickey Mantle story from his final days in the hospital that was almost certainly too yucky to be included in the book. And almost before I could describe it in much detail, she said she already knew about it …. And it was in the book.


Boy, that sure gave me a chuckle, because I had never used it in Sports Collectors Digest out of a combination of fears. I thought it just a wee bit too raunchy for our older audience of SCD readers, plus I just never liked the idea of putting stuff out there that might be construed as painting Mantle in a negative light.


Even here, I won’t go into too much detail (buy the book; it’s a great read), other than to note it involved Mantle adding his signature to some hospital equipment in a fashion that would make the anecdote inappropriate for the Kiwanis Club annual banquet. The “memorabilia” in question was created in the presence of – who else? – but Barry Halper. Naturally, it ended up in his famed collection, and because of the tasteless nature of the creation was never put up (as far as I know) in any of the several auctions that disposed of most of the Halper Collection. I haven’t got a clue where it is at this moment, but I know where it was the last time I saw it. Halper used to kind of hide it behind his desk in his home office in New Jersey. As stories go, it’s not remotely as funny as the idea of Billy Martin shooting innocent cows, but it does have the advantage of being true.

- T.S. O’Connell

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