NEW YORK - Ernie Provetti left home Saturday morning on the pretense of a business meeting. He could not bear to tell his wife the terrible truth. He knew he could not justify what he had resolved to do.
Provetti traveled from Saddle River, N.J., to midtown Manhattan Saturday morning to pay homage and hard-earned cash to the memory of Mickey Mantle. He wanted to bid on the hard-written text of Mantle's last speech, and he was prepared to put up the price of a luxury automobile.
''You remember where you were when JFK was shot,'' Provetti said. ''I remember where I was when he made that speech. I have a soft spot for Mickey Mantle.''
There are a lot of us, it turns out, with a soft spot for The Mick, and it might be argued that it is between our ears. Several hundred middle-aged hero worshippers were drawn to a Manhattan hotel Saturday by a live auction of some of the late ballplayer's stuff, and there demonstrated the dangers of too much disposable income.
Mike Vasquez of East Brunswick, N.J., bid $6,900 for what was represented as a lock of Mantle's hair. (He said he was in the recycling business. Could he have meant cloning?)
John Brigandi, a New York attorney, bid $13,600 for the tuxedo Mantle wore to Billy Martin's wedding. ''I had to have it,'' he said. ''I can't explain it.''
Ernie Provetti bagged Mantle's scrawled script for $24,125, and counted himself blessed that it had not cost more.
''Most of the stuff here is going for crazy prices, but it's readily available,'' he said, referring to the boundless supply of autographed material. ''I thought the speech was a good buy. I would have gone to $25,000 or $30,000.''
A $541,880 haul
Compared with last year's Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis auction, the Mantle bidding was kid stuff. The Mick's golf clubs went for $20,700, less than 3 percent of the $772,500 Arnold Schwarzenegger bid for JFK's MacGregor woods. Still, it was astonishing. The 200 lots collected by Greer Johnson - Mantle's agent and mistress - sold for $541,880.
That figure would have gone higher, but bidding on Mantle's home and condominium did not meet the auction's reserve requirements. Furthermore, 33 items were removed from the auction at the last moment to settle a lawsuit brought on behalf of Mantle's widow and sons.
Mantle's executors questioned whether Johnson had legal claim to his bathrobe and bathing suit, his prescription medicine bottles and his frequent flyer cards, and also alleged that putting such personal items up for bids was beyond tacky.
His hair, however, was fair game.
''Hair is a very viable and sophisticated collectible,'' said Joshua Evans, chairman of Leland's auction house. ''Whether it's the hair of Abraham Lincoln or George Washington or Napoleon. I have been dealing with hair for a very long time.''
It is, evidently, a matter of taste. Advised that Mantle's hair was available, my wife wondered whether I might be able to bid on his toenail clippings, too.
''Only,'' I told her, ''if they are in mint condition.''
Fountain of youth
For men of a certain age, Mickey Mantle is as compelling a cultural icon as the '50s produced. We are grown men, ostensibly, but arrested adolescents where The Mick is concerned.
''It's a New York thing,'' said Bill Lenahan, a free-lance photographer and former Cincinnatian. ''If it were Ted Williams, the prices wouldn't be nearly as much. The guys in here are dieheard Yankee fans. They're trying to recapture their youth.''
Lenahan said he was prepared to bid $2,000 for a Mantle jersey, but the bidding didn't stop there. He settled instead for a $900 set of autographed invitations to Mantle's Manhattan restaurant.
My own goals were more modest. I wanted something unique that might cost less than a mortgage payment, and bid $400 for an honorary police badge the State of Texas had presented to Mantle upon his induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Presale estimates were that the bidding on the badge would run between $200-$300. It sold for $1,725.
The good news is I need not explain it to my wife.
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