The last boy Mickey Mantle and the end of America's childhood

Jane Leavy

Book - 2010

Drawing on interviews with friends and family, as well as teammates and opponents, "New York Times"-bestselling author Leavy delivers the definitive account of one of the biggest talents and most tragic figures ever to play baseball--Mickey Mantle.

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BIOGRAPHY/Mantle, Mickey
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New York, NY : Harper c2010.
Main Author
Jane Leavy (-)
Physical Description
xxiv, 456 p., [16] p. of plates : ill. (some col.), ports. ; 24 cm
Includes bibliographical references (p. [421]-438), filmography (p. 436-437), and index.
  • Preface: My Weekend with The Mick
  • Part 1. Innocence Lost, Atlantic City, April 1983
  • 1. March 26, 1951: The Whole World Opened Up
  • 2. October 5, 1951: When Fates Converge
  • 3. October 23, 1951: Undermined
  • 4. May 27, 1949: Patrimony
  • 5. May 20, 1952: In the Ground
  • 6. April 17, 1953: One Big Day
  • 7. November 2, 1953: Fish Bait
  • 8. September 26, 1954: No Other Time
  • Part 2. A Round with The Mick, Atlantic City, April 1983
  • 9. May 30, 1956: A Body Remembers
  • 10. May 16, 1957: Returns of the Day
  • 11. August 14, 1960: Season Under Siege
  • Part 3. Nightcap, Atlantic City, April 1983
  • 12. September 25, 1961: Dr. Feelgood*
  • 13. May 18, 1962: His Best Self
  • 14. June 5, 1963: The Breaking Point
  • 15. September 26, 1968: Last Licks
  • Part 4. Dream On, Atlantic City, April 1983
  • 16. June 8, 1969: Half-life of a Star
  • 17. December 19, 1985: 18 Below in Fargo
  • 18. February 5, 1988: Top of the Heap
  • 19. February 4, 1994: Getaway Day
  • Part 5. Riding with The Mick, Atlantic City, April 1983
  • 20. August 13, 1995: The Last Boy
  • Epilogue
  • Acknowledgments
  • Appendix 1. Interview List
  • Appendix 2. The Kinetic Mick
  • Appendix 3. Who's Better?
  • Bibliography
  • Index
Review by New York Times Review

AN attempt to publish the inventory of Mickey Mantle iconography began in February 2009 and will continue well into next year. From Mickey Mantle vanity license plates to Mickey Mantle postcards to Mickey Mantle bobblehead dolls to Mickey Mantle postcards depicting him holding Mickey Mantle bobblehead dolls, the cataloged, photographed and priced relics will ultimately exceed 2,000, and will have filled 200 pages in the memorabilia industry's weekly Sports Collectors Digest. Included in the reckoning are at least 30 full-scale Mickey Mantle biographies, half a dozen of which carry the Mantle imprimatur as author, co-author or frontman. Thus, to wade now into the river of nostalgia, collection and recollection that is Mickey Charles Mantle, 42 years since his last major league at-bat, and 15 years since his death at 63, is like crowding into the last row of the Yankee Stadium bleachers at the start of a World Series game and expecting to get a TV close-up. Yet as she did in her innovative biography "Sandy Koufax," Jane Leavy has found a different path through the throng. For her portrait of Koufax, she alternated an inning-by-inning account of that great pitcher's perfect game in 1965 with deeply researched and fluidly written examinations of the rest of his life and import. "The Last Boy," a nonlinear biography, takes the form of 20 days in Mantle's life (something of a conceit; some of the "days" are stretched to cover nearly a season, or an entire childhood). The approach refreshes and underscores the facts and patterns of a life, and enables Leavy to connect the dots in new and disturbing ways. The Mantle who emerges is perhaps more whole than ever previously captured. His was an almost Dickensian childhood spent atop a veritable toxic waste dump in Commerce, Okla., with piles of lead and zinc mining debris called "chat." The detritus was dangerous: Leavy offers evidence that it might have induced dyslexia in Mantle, and one of Mantle's sons suggests it might have contributed more damage in his father's fatal liver cancer than did 40 years of alcoholism. Death is, in fact, the unexpected theme of this biography, and it emerges in the most unexpected places. Leavy's most salient observation is of the day in June 1969 when the Yankees retired Mantle's uniform number in front of 60,096 fans: "He had watched Gary Cooper deliver Lou Gehrig's farewell address in 'The Pride of the Yankees.' Now he was standing in the same spot, invoking Gehrig's parting words: 'I always wondered how a man who knew he was going to die could stand here and say he was the luckiest man in the world. Now I think I know how Lou Gehrig felt.' "What was lost in all the huzzahs attendant to the occasion - the last lap around the stadium in a bullpen cart with handpainted pinstripes - was that he cast himself as a dying man. In fact, he was already planning his funeral." Almost anyone who knows about Mantle knows that the frequently admitted presumption of early death is part of his legend. While Leavy disproves his depiction of a family in which all the men died by 40, she also convincingly identifies this specific fear as the likely outcome of Mantle's having been repeatedly sexually abused as a child by a half sister and neighborhood boys, and produces heartbreaking on-the-record evidence to support this painful conclusion. This is not, however, a dark book, no matter how dark parts of the life it portrays surely were. The hero worship of the fans, and the women who constituted a kind of endless batting practice in Mantle's life, are presented thoroughly and fairly. There are revelations of hidden charity and great empathy, of a hero's genuine inability to understand what others saw in him, and deeply endearing self-deprecating humor, even when a drunken Mantle is literally in the gutter. Almost everyone in sports over 40 has a "When I met Mickey" story, and Leavy weaves her own through five vignettes interspersed with the main chapters. Hers is too sweetly, horribly, blissfully, embarrassingly Mantlean to give away here. Most important, the affection with which Mantle's teammates always embraced him is chronicled abundantly, and stands in stark contrast to his wife and children's struggles to do the same despite the emotional roadblocks that were seemingly all Mantle was capable of offering them. And as Leavy honors their Sisyphean efforts, she does the same for Mantle's own attempts to overcome an equally impossible obstacle. Reinforcing the historical record with scientific reinterpretation, she posits that when Mantle injured his right knee swerving out of Joe DiMaggio's way in the fifth inning of the second game of the 1951 World Series, he in fact tore his meniscus and the anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments. Insufficient treatment of the "unhappy triad" would downgrade him from the prospect of being the game's greatest performer to playing nearly all of his remaining 17 years on one knee. Still, he won three M.V.P. awards and, in 1956, the triple crown. Leavy has also given us old-fashioned, nonanalytical gumshoe research, enough - and good enough - to make the crowds of amateur baseball sleuths or the pros at the Hall of Fame weep. Mantle's 565-foot home run at Griffith Stadium in Washington in April 1953 was not merely one of the longest ever hit, nor was it just Mantle's true self-introduction on the baseball stage. It also sealed the sport's obsession with the "tape-measure homer," largely through the artifice of the anecdotal report by the Yankees' public relations director, Red Patterson, that he found the boy who had come upon the Mantle baseball where it finally stopped, in somebody's backyard. More than half a century later, Leavy tracked down the man, by then 69 years old, and managed to get just enough detail from him to produce a true picture of the transformational blast. His was one of 563 interviews Leavy conducted, ranging from the executive responsible for the creation - and scarcity - of Mantle's landmark 1952 Topps baseball card, to Eric Kandel, who won the 2000 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Kandel is asked to try to explain both Mantle's explosive swing, which made the bat seem of double width, and his inability to explain to others how he did it. (Kandel rightly answers, "I think your question is not dramatically different than asking, 'What makes Mozart Mozart?'") But Leavy comes as close as perhaps anyone ever has to answering "What makes Mantle Mantle?" She transcends the familiarity of the subject, cuts through both the hero worship and the backlash of pedestal-wrecking in the late 20th century, treats evenly his belated sobriety and the controversial liver transplant (doomed mid-surgery by an oncologist's discovery that the cancer had spread), and handles his infidelity with dispassion. Sophocles could have easily worked with a story like Mantle's - the prominent figure, gifted and beloved, through his own flaws wasteful, given clarity too late to avoid his fate. Leavy spares us the classical tragedy even as she avoids the morality play. "The Last Boy" is something new in the history of the histories of the Mick. It is hard fact, reported by someone greatly skilled at that craft, assembled into an atypical biography by someone equally skilled at doing that, and presented so that the reader and not the author draws nearly all the conclusions. Asked to explain Mantle's explosive swing, a scientist says it's like asking, 'What makes Mozart Mozart?' Keith Olbermann is an anchor on MSNBC. His new book, "Pitchforks and Torches," will be published later this month.

Copyright (c) The New York Times Company [October 10, 2010]
Review by Booklist Review

*Starred Review* Another Mantle biography? Yes, but Leavy, author of the celebrated Sandy Koufax (2002), about another baseball icon, takes a new tack, approaching the New York Yankee center fielder from the mixed perspectives of fan, journalist, and personal acquaintance, striving, as she says, to portray the man she loved as a child but whose actions were unlovable. She conducted more than 500 interviews with family, friends, teammates, managers, and medical professionals. The latter group is, sadly, surprisingly large. In his rookie year, Mantle ruined his knee on an uncovered drain in Yankee Stadium. He essentially played hurt the remaining 17 years of his career, a condition that helped fuel his ultimately fatal alcoholism, which, in turn, led to the attendant flaws that propelled him into a satyr's life of infidelity, despite a devoted wife and four sons. Mantle, Leavy shows, could be a wonderful, witty, and gregarious friend. He also was capable of horrible cruelty and verbal abuse. He ignored his sons when they were young; when they were older, they became his drinking buddies and sank into their own addictions. This is unlike any biography on the sports shelf. Leavy, in exploring her own ambivalent feelings toward Mantle, permits readers to experience the same confusing emotions that many of those around him felt: proud to bask in his reflected glory but too intimidated to confront him. They loved him and hated him, too, leaving the Mick adrift to wrestle with his own demons, a battle he wasn't equipped to win. Expect both acclaim and tremendous demand. A masterpiece of sports biography.--Lukowsky, Wes Copyright 2010 Booklist

From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission.
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

Bob Costas eulogized the Yankee great as "a fragile hero to whom we had an emotional attachment so strong and lasting that it defied logic." The "we" in Costas's remarks-with author Leavy (Koufax: A Lefty's Legacy) as stand-in-is as much the subject of this fascinating biography as the ballplayer himself. Mantle, who succumbed to cancer in 1995 at age 63, was justly famous for his baseball exploits, but what Costas described as Mantle's "paradoxical grip" on a certain generation of baseball fans is exactly what Leavy tackles in this book. She should know. She spent much time in her childhood in the shadow of Yankee Stadium, a tomboyish "Mickey guy" listening to the roar of the crowd from across the Grand Concourse. While a sportswriter for the Washington Post, she won a 1983 assignment to interview Mantle for his upcoming golf tournament in Atlantic City. What happened that day and night between the fading, embittered Mantle and the former fan girl trying to do her job is the drama that structures Leavy's narrative-she has never reported the truth till now, and she does so without judgment. Instead, she proceeds with steely determination to understand what brought this onetime golden boy from the zinc mines of Oklahoma to center stage at Yankee Stadium and made him into America's quintessential tragic hero, a freakily gifted athlete haunted by a deadly genetic inheritance, including alcoholism. With storytelling bravado and fresh research, Leavy weaves around her own story the milestone dates in "the Mick's" career, which as often burnishes the legend as tarnishes it. Leavy concludes that Mantle cavorted in a more innocent time, when people believed in sports heroes and would not hear otherwise. That's hardly a new idea, but no matter: by the end of this book, readers will know what made Mantle rise, fall, and survive into recovery for his last 18 months. In Leavy's hands, the life of Mantle no longer defies logic: it seems inevitable. She's hit a long home run. 8 pages of color and 8 pages of b&w photos. (Oct.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Review by Library Journal Review

Mickey Mantle was a sensitive country boy who was both blessed and cursed. Blessed with a level of natural ability and a twist of fate that made him into a baseball legend at age 21. Cursed by injuries and by the unattainable set of expectations that came with being cast in the role of America's hero. A shy person at heart, he coped with the glare of the spotlight in the traditional ways: via alcohol and sexual profligacy. Author Leavy (Sandy Koufax: A Lefty's Legacy) conducted years of research and interviewed hundreds of people. As a sports writer for the Washington Post in the 1980s, she even interviewed the man himself on several occasions. What sets Leavy's work apart from other Mantle biographies is the framework of personal memories-her own, growing up in the Bronx during Mick's heyday, interspersed with details from 20 selected days that reveal "flashpoints" from Mantle's turbulent personal life. Verdict Leavy's well-crafted portrait of this American hero evokes a range of emotion-admiration, disdain, and compassion-regarding a man who carried some mighty burdens upon his broad shoulders. Recommended for baseball fans and for the Yankee faithful. (Photos not seen.) [See Prepub Alert, LJ 12/1/09.]-Susanne Wells, P.L. of Cincinnati & Hamilton Cty. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

(c) Copyright Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Review by Kirkus Book Review

Another biography of the late Yankee sluggerbut this candid, compassionate portrait is worth a dugout full of the others.Sports journalist Leavy (Sandy Koufax, 2002) produces an enduring, though certainly not endearing, portrait of The Mick. Eschewing traditional chronology, the author begins with a 1983 interview she conducted with the boozy, boorish, lecherous Mantle (he'd been retired for 15 years), an experience she spreads throughout the narrative, using portions of it to introduce each major section. She focuses on 20 significant days in Mantle's life (five of them after his playing days), beginning with his career-threatening injury in 1951 in Yankee Stadium, and ending with his death to cancer in 1995. In between are glimpses of Mantle as son, brother, husband, adulterer (he was a serial offender), father (not a good one), player, teammate and fading and feckless celebrity. Leavy is generally careful not to celebrate his athletic accomplishments excessively, though it's hard not to. His home runs were prodigious; his speed was gazelline; his capacity to endure pain was humbling. He won the Triple Crown in 1956 and entered the Hall of Fame as soon as he was eligible. The Mick, however, harbored many demons, and the author justly emphasizes them when appropriate. Often ignorant, capricious and extremely self-centered, he drank heavily, cheated on his wife and could be crude and obnoxious to fans (some of the things he wrote on souvenirs for young hero-worshipperse.g., "You're lucky. Your mom has nice tits"are legendary). But as Leavy points out, it was in no one's pecuniary interest to portray Mantle as anything other than the All-American Ballplayer.The best of the Mantle biographies.]] Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.