Thursday, April 18, 2013

The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America’s Childhood By Jane Leavy

The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America’s Childhood
By Jane Leavy
Copyright 2011

Mickey Mantle was baseball’s last iconic player. Perhaps that’s why Leavy subtitles her book, “The End of America’s Childhood.” There were many great ballplayers that followed Mantle after his retirement in 1969. There were better players. More complete players. But nobody ever personified any American institution the way The Mick personified baseball through the 1950s.

Leavy opens her account with a slice of a personal narrative. She encountered Mickey Mantle in 1983 at a golf tournament. He gave her a sweater when she was cold. Covering the event for the Washington Post, she’d later interview Mantle and relate a highly personal anecdote about the legend.

From there, Leavey examines 20 days from The Mick’s career and uses those anecdotes to build a narrative of Mantle’s heroic and ultimately misbegotten life.

Leavy’s biography of Mickey Mantle opens as most biographies do, with a description of his roots in Commerce, Oklahoma and his upbringing. She conveys the bleakness of the flat, dusty, lifeless lead mining town that was home to the most popular player of his age. Leavy doesn’t dwell too much on Mantle’s roots before moving on to the emergence of his legendary career.

She almost immediately delves into the big “what if. . .” of Mantle’s career. Mantle’s power at the plate from both sides is the stuff of legend. He could also hit for average, drag bunt, and was more than adequate in the field. He was a complete player. But what if he’d not have injured his knee in a practice mishap when his cleats got caught in a drainage tile in the Yankee Stadium outfield? The injury required the complete reconstruction of his knee and hampered his base running throughout his career. What if Mantle had also been a speedster on the base paths?

Mantle was popular in the clubhouse from his earliest days in New York, but was never liked by the reigning Yankee – Joe DiMaggio. The Yankee Clipper seemed to hold his heir apparent in low regard and was quite standoffish with the young phenom. DiMaggio comes across as a very petty, very small man in Leavy’s book.

Early in her book, Leavy delves into a forensic examination of the legendary 565 foot home run Mantle hit in 1956. She managed to find the young boy who found the ball where it reportedly landed more than two blocks outside Yankee Stadium. She talked to experts in physics and experts in baseball stats who examine tape measure home runs. Her conclusion is that the ball did travel approximately 565 feet from home plate.

Every facet of Mantle’s life during his playing days is examined. His on field performance with his prodigious home runs. His off field shenanigans with women and booze. His encounter with the legendary Doctor Feelgood who made a career of injecting athletes, celebrities, and politicians with his speed concoction. What emerges is an incredible athlete with no concept of self control or even self awareness. He lived day to day. Leavy examines the psychology of this later in her book.

During the bulk of Mantle’s playing days, there were three teams playing in New York. The Yankees who dominated baseball in the 1950s into the early 1960s. The Brooklyn Dodgers played cross town and had a star of their own in center fielder Duke Snider. The also rans of New York baseball were the Giants who had a great star in Willie Mays. The debate raged through the era of who was best – Mantle, Snider, or Mays? As time passed, Snider deservedly fell away from that debate, but baseball historians continue to debate if Mays was better than Mantle. Leavey offers no opinion, but provides the cybermetric statistics for both players so the reader can reach his own conclusions.

Mantle was smarter than Mays when it came to understanding the infirmities of old age. Mantle had just begun the downhill slide of age when he hung up his cleats in 1969. Mays would go on to play until 1973, sometimes embarrassing himself by being a shadow of the great player he once was. Unfortunately for Mantle, he did not adjust well to post baseball life.

Mantle lived his entire life believing it would be a short life. People in his family did not live long and he wanted to cram as much high life into the short period of living he expected. He continued to drink heavily after baseball. He tried baseball announcing, but was not good at it, finally giving it up after a part time announcing gig with the lowly Montreal Expos. He tried business, but his restaurants failed miserably. The only thing Mantle was good at for a long time was drinking and adultery.

Leavy discusses Mantle the family man in great detail. Mantle was a lousy husband and a lousy father. Teammates and their wives discuss great detail Mantle’s prodigious sexual conquests outside of his marriage. His children hardly knew him and would eventually develop substance abuse problems similar to their father’s. Mantle and his wife, Merlyn, eventually separated, but never divorced.

In the 1980s, Mantle did find something he was good at: being Mickey Mantle. He signed on as a greeter at an Atlantic City casino where he was paid to wine and dine high rollers. He also sponsored a golf tournament in Atlantic City (where Leavy would have her encounter with Mantle). As baseball memorabilia emerged as a burgeoning industry in the 1980s, Mantle made a fortune signing his name over and over again at sports memorabilia shows across the country.

As the time passed, Mantle’s drinking problem became worse and worse. Leavey, who parcels out between chapters bits of her personal encounter with Mantle finally delivers the climax near the end of the book. She was to interview him for the Washington Post. She got a great deal of reflection and introspection from Mantle – including the disclosure that he’d been sexually abused as a child. She also got a hand on the thigh and a drunken pass from the aging star. Before Mantle could follow up on his sexual overture, he passed out.

Mantle’s last years are sad. The boy with the gapped-tooth smile that personified America’s pastime in perhaps its happiest decade, was slowly dying of alcoholism. Finally, he entered the Betty Ford Clinic and emerged sober. He remained dedicated to his sobriety and in a late in life effort to be a parent, tried to help his children find sobriety.

However, Mantle did not get sober soon enough. Years of constant inundation with alcohol had destroyed his liver and he needed a transplant. Less than a year sober, Mantle was in the hospital getting a new liver. He made a valiant effort at recovery and tried hard to put his personal life back into order. He reconciled with his wife and children. He spoke with remorse and regret about his drinking. However, it was a battle he was destined to lose. Mantle died in 1996, less than a year after receiving that new liver.

I’m fond of sports biographies and Leavy’s examination of Mantle’s life is exceptional. It’s one weakness is the interruptions of its otherwise flawlessly flowing narrative. The forensic examination of the long home run was tedious. The Mantle/Snider/Mays debate analysis overdone. There was perhaps too much about Mantle’s sex life in the narrative.

However, Leavy captures the complete Mantle. Mantle was a hero to a generation. He was a sports icon that transcended baseball into popular culture. He was a great athlete. He was also an alcoholic, a chronic adulterer, and sometimes a completely gauche asshole. In other words, he was a human being. And Leavy reveals Mickey Mantle as a human being who accomplished great things on and off the field and often behaved in the basest manner possible.

It was hard for me to relate to the book because Mantle’s career predates my awareness of baseball. I don’t remember Mickey Mantle the baseball player. My memories of Mantle are the guy who hawked autographs at $65 apiece. However, I came away from Leavy’s book with a larger understanding of just how important Mickey Mantle was to baseball and sports in general. Nobody has replaced him as an icon. In a day and age where the media is as apt to report off field transgressions as much as on field accomplishments, we’re not likely to ever see the likes of Mantle again in any sport.

No comments:

Post a Comment