Mickey Mantle’s Teshuvah

Elul’s promise is that self examination will help us live life more fully and mindfully. We have the opportunity to grow – as friends, as people, as rabbis, as neurosurgeons, as members of a family.

Based on a sermon by Rabbi Jack Riemer

Sociologists at the University of Pennsylvania conducted a study quantifying what differentiates the top 1% of neurosurgeons from the bottom 1%. They looked at patient mortality and personnel records where assessments were made and came to a conclusion. The trait separating the best from the worst had nothing to do with intelligence or test results. It had nothing to do with manual dexterity. The key factor distinguishing the best from the worst neurosurgeons was how they handled failure. The best neurosurgeons used failure as an opportunity to learn – they hit the books, and they carefully examined the details of what happened. They asked the question, “How do I make sure that I do not do it wrong again?” In contrast, the bottom 1% couldn’t acknowledge failure. Instead they rationalized and blamed – it was the lighting, the nurses, the bureaucracy.

Darn That Sandy Koufax!

This is the month of Elul that precedes Rosh Hashana. It is a month where we seek to learn from our failures and grow from our setbacks.   Elul is a time of introspection, when we look honestly at ourselves and ask, “Where have I missed the mark?” We hold a looking glass up to our souls and ponder, “What have I done with my gifts? What obstacles exist, or have I created what I need to overcome? What opportunities exist that I should be aware of?”

Elul’s promise is that self examination will help us live life more fully and mindfully. We have the opportunity to grow – as friends, as people, as rabbis, as neurosurgeons, as members of a family.

So I mark Elul with you by sharing stories of heroes who teach us who we can become. Today we get baseball stories. I love sharing the story of my mother who knew very little about sports. But somehow she knew that Sandy Koufax and Hank Greenberg didn’t play baseball on Yom Kippur and she’d use that knowledge when I’d resist going to services – “If Sandy Koufax could miss the World Series for Yom Kippur, so can you.” Darn that Sandy Koufax!

Sandy Koufax pitches in game seven of the 1965 World Series.
Sandy Koufax pitches in game seven of the 1965 World Series.

I shared her story one Yom Kippur when Shawn Green, who then played for the LA Dodgers, chose not to play, and a congregant who is a doctor for the Giants brought me a signed ball. I used the story last year, when AYSO scheduled pictures on Rosh Hashana, and several of our young congregants chose to attend High Holidays instead of being in a team picture that meant a lot to them. Greenberg, Koufax and Green teach us that in the struggle to fit into our culture, we can still hold onto our religion with pride. During Elul, we hold onto role models that remind us that our Judaism needs to remain central in our lives.

Mickey Mantle's Teshuvah
Mickey Mantle, 1951

An Unlikely Elul Role Model: Mickey Mantle’s Teshuvah

But this morning, I would like to share a story about another baseball player who is an even more fitting role model for Yom Kippur – Mickey Mantle. Mickey Mantle isn’t Jewish, but as Rabbi Jack Reimer describes, he embodies the lessons of Elul. Rabbi Reimer recounts an article by Isaac Steven Herschkopf, who is a psychiatrist in private practice, a member of the faculty at the NYU Medical School, and also a devoted baseball fan since childhood. This is the story that he tells:

Dr. Herschkopf grew up in Washington Heights on 161st Street, which is the same street that the old Yankee Stadium was located on. Mickey Mantle – one of the best ball players of all time – was one of his great childhood heroes.

Then, in the 1980’s when he was visiting Los Angeles, he was given a rare opportunity. His host told him that Mickey Mantle was sitting by himself in the hotel bar, and that if he was willing to pay for his drinks, he could probably talk to him for as long as he wanted.

Dr. Herschkopf’s heart was pounding with excitement. He was going to meet his childhood hero in person! When he went into the bar and saw him, he was a little bit disappointed. The man sitting at the bar was clearly Mickey Mantle, but he certainly did not look very heroic – not at all.

He says that Mr. Mantle did not welcome his company, but he did not refuse it either. In fact, until he offered to pay for his drinks, he did not seem to even notice that he was there. When he finally got his idol’s attention, he tried to ingratiate himself by recounting some of his hero’s famous plays. He thought that Mantle would be impressed by how much he remembered about his career, but he wasn’t. He didn’t seem to care.

The doctor understood why. Drinking marathons follow predictable patterns. At first, the rising blood alcohol levels create a sense of euphoria. Then, as the drinking goes on, the euphoria gives way to resentment and recriminations. The doctor had arrived late in the drinking, and that is why he was getting such a cold reception.  Mickey Mantle was not interested in his visitor’s adulation. He only wanted to complain. With each drink, he grew increasingly unintelligible, and by the end of the evening, the doctor had lost his hero.

Dr. Herschkopf met Mickey Mantle a second time in 1989. He had gone downhill since they’d last met. He was wearing sunglasses in the middle of the day – indoors – to hide his bloodshot eyes.   He did not remember ever having met the doctor. But when he was told that Dr. Herschkopf was a psychiatrist, he playfully rested his head on the doctor’s shoulders, as if to say, “Can you help me, Doc?” Evidently, this time the doctor had arrived early in Mr. Mantle’s drinking binge, while the blood alcohol level was still high and his disposition was still manic. Dr. Herschkopf reflected that during his years of retirement, Mickey Mantle had degenerated before our eyes. His four sons were all alcoholics like he was, his marriage was destroyed, and he walked around as a drunk.

Then came his final years – and something changed. Mickey Mantle took a hard look at himself and didn’t like what he saw. He went into rehab, recovered from his alcoholism, and spent the last years of his life trying to persuade anyone who would listen not to follow his example.

Dr. Herschkopf is not only a psychiatrist; he is also an observant Jew. And so he says that these final years of Mickey Mantle’s life remind him of the three steps in the Teshuvah process that Jews are supposed to go through on the days leading up to Yom Kippur.

The first step is vidui – confession. We must face up to the fact that we are doing wrong. We have to admit where we have missed the mark. We stop rationalizing and admit our own responsibility for what is going on is our lives. When we’re able to admit our wrongdoings aloud, we begin the process of change. What is it that we need to give voice to?

The second step is harataregret. We must realize and regret the harm that we have done, be it to ourselves or to others. Regret is more than a feeling. It is acknowledging and taking responsibility for the consequences of our actions. What do we regret? How much time have we wasted?  Who have we hurt? What relationships need mending? What characteristics do we need to work on?

The third step is teshuvah – returning. Once we admit where we have missed the mark, then we can do teshuvah and begin to right wrongs, rebuild our lives and change our character. Where do we need to do teshuvah?

Mickey Mantle did all three of these things at the end. He realized that he could not change without help, and so he went into rehab. He realized that he had done great harm, and so he tried to apologize. He realized that he needed to make restitution, and so he became a teacher to young people on how not to live, and based his teachings on his own personal mistakes.

Mickey Mantle at the end grasped that saying “I have sinned” or “I am sorry” may not mean much, unless it is accompanied by concrete and specific changes in our behavior. Mickey Mantle can be our model for the requirements of this month: vidui, harata, and teshuvah.

Mantle’s Lesson

Mickey Mantle died on August 13, 1995, worthy of being a hero again.

Let’s use this month of Elul to recall the stories of heroes and to work on our own souls. Hank Greenberg, Sandy Koufax and Shawn Green make us proud and teach us that we could be both Americans and Jews. Mickey Mantle teaches us a deeper and more profound lesson. We can change. We can grow. Tradition provides tools to help us in this process. May we embrace this opportunity for renewal and growth. Amen.