In a bitter scrap underway downtown in federal court, Mantle’s widow, Merlyn, and his two living sons, Danny and David, are trying to block Lewis Rothgeb, a San Francisco collector who made a 1988 documentary about the ballplayer, from continuing to use the Mick’s name and image to sell memorabilia on the Internet.
Rothgeb, now about 58, claims in court papers that he first met Mantle as a seven-year-old tyke out at Griffith Stadium, the old Washington Senators’ field. Thirty years later, he says, he ran into Mantle at a fantasy camp and convinced him to sit for a videotaped interview, which led to the video.
The heart of the long-simmering dispute resides in a well-thumbed 1988 contract between Mantle and Rothgeb. Under the deal, Mantle got $50,000 up front plus a $35,000 advance against royalties, court records show.
The deal allowed Rothgeb to produce and market a video and book about the Mick. Rothgeb used the contract in 1997 to create what he billed as the “official” Mantle site on the Internet from which to sell T-shirts, jackets, and other stuff. He claims that the contract gives him the right to use Mantle’s name forever.
“Mickey never said or suggested to me he disapproved of anything that I had done,” Rothgeb says in court papers.
Danny Mantle worked alongside Rothgeb at memorabilia shows in the early ’90s and even sent him a Christmas card in 1993, but the Mantle family now downplays any past association with Rothgeb. Instead, they portray him as a “stage-door Johnny.” Merlyn Mantle claims in a deposition that Mickey himself wanted to sue Rothgeb, but didn’t because “we felt like we wouldn’t get anything out of it.”
The Mantles have their own “official” site, which declares: “We’re interested in all licensing inquiries.” Last year, the family signed a deal allowing Mantle’s image to be used on a slot machine. They offer “motivational speeches” and autographed items.
No one really wants to talk to the Voice about this case—not the Dallas-based Mantles; not their lawyer, Dorothy Weber; and not Rothgeb’s lawyer, Allon Lifshitz. Attempts to set up an interview with Rothgeb also failed.
But lots of people like talking about the Mick. During a memorable career and despite numerous injuries, Mantle won seven World Series rings, batted .298, hit 536 home runs, and waltzed into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Unlike the obsessively private Joe DiMaggio or the reticent Roger Maris, the hard-living, hard-drinking Mantle wore his flaws on his sleeve. He remains a hot commodity: A recent check showed 316 Mantle items for sale on eBay, ranging from a copy of a baseball card for one cent to a little statue of the Mick hitting a home run for $550, to a Mantle silk-screen valued at $2,500, to an autographed jersey valued at $7,500.
It’s hard to tell how much money is at stake in the lawsuit, but the Mantles often try to defend their rights to the Mick’s image. In 1997, the estate won a settlement in California federal court against Upper Deck, a baseball-card company, for royalties in connection with the use of the Mantle name.
In 2005, they dropped papers on an Alabama company called Art Smugglers LLC for selling what they described as “a low-quality Mickey Mantle bronze statue.” The statue, they claimed, “tarnishes the enormous and unprecedented reputation for quality that the Mantle trademarks have come to convey.” Lawyers for the company shot back that the statue was simply a work of art “entitled to First Amendment protection.”
Before suing someone in Ohio last year, the Mantles also sued a Cooperstown, New York, company for selling a $199 Mantle bat.
The Mantles’ dispute with Rothgeb started percolating in 1998, about three years after the ballplayer’s death from liver cancer. Family lawyer Roy True wrote Rothgeb that year that the deal was through. “No lawsuit has been filed against you simply because Mr. Mantle did not want to throw good money after bad,” True wrote. “Mantle’s estate shall not abide your self-serving, overreaching liberties with Mickey Mantle’s publicity rights.” True’s letter accused Rothgeb of an “obnoxious and irresponsible usurping of publicity rights” stemming from “appalling greed.”
Rothgeb responded indignantly and wouldn’t back down. “How could you paint me as a villain after the respect I showed for Mickey?” he wrote, according to court records. “Your tone and allegations leave me bewildered,” he added in a subsequent letter. “The Mantle family has not been provided with an accurate picture of my rights and relationship with Mickey. I will not allow my business to be destroyed and my reputation maligned.”
In July 1998, Rothgeb declared that he owed the estate $3,839 in royalties from the video—a total that Merlyn Mantle called “a joke and an insult.” In a deposition, Danny Mantle said his mom didn’t like the stuff being sold on Rothgeb’s website. A succession of other lawyers tried in vain to force Rothgeb to stop trading on Mantle’s name, but he wouldn’t back down. “I categorically refute the allegations,” he wrote, “and I will aggressively defend the rights granted to me.”
Rothgeb created an online store using Yahoo, made a deal to air the video on WNET, and announced plans to write a complete history of Mantle, including descriptions of every single game he played in.
The family filed suit in 2004. Rothgeb countersued, saying the Mantles improperly blocked him from placing radio ads with Madison Square Garden.
Just before Christmas, Manhattan federal court judge Kimba Wood allowed the dispute about the use of the Internet to go forward. Her decision sets up the possibility that this conflict over the monetary value of a baseball legend will finally be heard in open court.