Mickey Mantle, who played baseball for the Yankees, and Jerry Garcia, who played guitar for the Grateful Dead, died within a few days of one another last August. Both had become certified cultural icons, and in death each was washed with the kind of bathos usually spoken by party hacks at the funerals of fallen dictators.
Two-hundred people must have been quoted as saying, “Ten years from now people will ask, ‘Where were you when Jerry Garcia died?'” At least another two-hundred declaimed that for Fifties kids, answering “Who was better, Willie, Mickey, or Duke?” was the generational equivalent of “Where were you when Kennedy was shot?” for kids of the Sixties.
In this age of media hype, one gets used to rhetorical overkill. What really stuck in the craw was the presumptive moral equivalency accorded both figures, as if the ultimate equality were the equality of vice. Mantle, as we know, was felled by alcoholism, Garcia by addiction to heroin and diverse other substances too numerous to mention. One wag, writing in the New York Times, said he found himself “listening to a Jerry Garcia tribute on the radio for 10 minutes” before realizing that it was actually a tribute to Mantle. “When I reported this to a friend, she said the same thing had happened to her; another friend said the reverse had happened to him.”
Cute, but allow me a brief dissent. At the outset, I confess at once that I am, root and branch, a Fifties kid. Those were the days when a boy was free to be a boy, unmolested by the indecent assaults of feminists. Teenage sex in the Fifties remained pretty much as John Updike described it in the Forties: “a persistent though unlikely rumor.” As a result, the erotic life of boys was instead devoted to baseball, which was then as much a part of America’s civil religion as Washington, Lincoln, and the Fourth of July. This altogether healthy diversion provided a rich curriculum for life and introduced us to the full range of human emotions. Nothing I later learned from Sophocles or Shakespeare taught me more about tragedy than what I learned when Bobby Thomson’s homer sailed over the fence at the Polo Grounds in 1951.
The heroism of those days was pretty much undiluted, thanks to the boys in the pressbox, who mercifully spared us detailed accounts of players’ nocturnal peregrinations. A lad could thrill to one of Mantle’s towering blasts without having to puzzle about his carousing. At his best, and despite his considerable personal vices, Mantle played the game about as well as it can be played. In recent years, he came to terms with his reprobate life, repented, and sought to make amends. His attitude in death dignified his suffering and will only serve to enhance the reputation of the heroic feats of his youth.
Jerry Garcia, by all accounts a superb guitarist and a certifiably gentle man, is unlikely to attain a similarly happy fate. When you set out to define yourself precisely by the criteria of anti-heroism, you are going to have a hard time sustaining your reputation sub specie aeternitatis. Long after his musical skills are forgotten, he and the band he founded will be known for one thing and one thing only: their uninhibited celebration of the drug culture. As Martha Bayles has observed, The Grateful Dead were notable chiefly for “managing the moods of a stoned crowd.” Three of the original band members, including Garcia, appear to have died of drug-related excess, and God only knows how much misery their endorsement of narcotics brought to impressionable kids. Why this sort of thing deserves to be celebrated in the same heroic hall as baseball is beyond me. It will not do to say that many baseball heroes, like Mantle, have clay feet too, or that all Garcia did was to expose the cant and hypocrisy surrounding phony American myths.
To reduce the argument to one about hypocrisy, or even about whose vices were greater, is to miss the larger point. It is that Mantle’s heroic feats were accomplished despite his vices, which for the most part he managed to keep off the field and out of the hearing of hero-worshiping boys. He clearly enjoyed his vice, but he never confused it with or defended it as virtue. Garcia’s coming to fame, by contrast, consisted precisely in the celebration of the vice that, in the end, consumed him. If, as La Rochefoucauld said, hypocrisy is the homage that vice makes to virtue, Garcia succeeded in eliminating hypocrisy only by eliminating virtue at the same time. That’s the moral equivalent of a .100 lifetime batting average, which, last time I looked, wouldn’t get him in the Hall of Fame.