The Latest Biography on Mickey Mantle
Author Jane Leavy’s latest biography has a preposterous title, but that doesn’t take away from its achievements. The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the end of America’s Childhood is an expertly researched and well-written tale about a sports icon whose legacy might be as exaggerated as the book’s implication that somehow Mickey Mantle paralled the end of America’s innocence.
This whole idea that America’s purity was soiled in the 60s and 70s has been exploited countless times, but bittersweet nostalgia still sells books to a generation that believes America’s best years have passed. Depending on which book you read, America lost its innocence with the assassination of JFK, the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., the Vietnam War, Watergate, or the “me” decade of the 80s. All of these notions are overblown, but at least within the realm of reason.
But Mickey Mantle? That’s a bit of a stretch.
The title notwithstanding, Jane Leavy’s book is hardly a trip down nostalgia lane, but rather a look at where reality and legend intersect and diverge.
During his best years, from 1952 to 1964, Mantle was among the greatest baseball players ever, rivaling New York’s other center field stars, Willie Mays and Duke Snyder (not to mention another outfielder, Henry Aaron, the most underappreciated player of them all). Mantle won the Triple Crown in 1956, earned the top spot in three MVP contests, and appeared in twelve World Series, winning seven of them. The injuries he endured were numerous and devastating, starting with his rookie season in 1951, when he tore his knee in game 2 of the World Series so badly that he would never play without pain again. Some of the stories surrounding Mantle’s baseball career are so grandiose, so epic in proportion, it would take a Hollywood movie to properly capture them, and in some sense they were in Barry Levinson’s The Natural, albeit through the fictitious Roy Hobbs. But Mantle really did drive a ball off a the façade of Yankee Stadium – twice, some 510 feet had the balls travelled unimpeded – and he really did play with blood seeping through his jersey in the ’61 World Series. Roy Hobbs had nothing on this guy.
Throughout the 387 page book, Leavy interweaves a personal encounter she had with Mickey Mantle in 1983, and this very effective tactic (borrowed from Doug Write’s play, I Am My Own Wife) helps to illuminate not only the various traits of one of the greatest ballplayers to play the game, but also how the public’s perception of the Mick changed over time. As is so often the case with sports figures, Mantle’s off-the-field activities undermined the heroic status he garnered from so many star-struck fans in the 50s and 60s (Tiger Woods, anyone?). Starting prior to his retirement in 1968, and especially in the twenty years that followed, Mantle’s life degenerated into one long binge of drinking, philandering and selling himself with no less shame than Orson Welles did during his final years. As a result, the public became more aware of Mantle’s humanity, for better or for worse, and it’s this realization the Leavy attempts to link to the end of America’s childhood, a broad attempt that falls short. But as a personal journey of disillusionment, it works beautifully.
Mickey Mantle’s greatest achievement may have been his sobriety for the last eighteen months of his life, perhaps the first grown-up decision he’d ever truly made, and no doubt the most difficult. Appearing on the cover of Sports Illustrated in 1994 to talk about his alcoholism was more important than any of his 536 home runs. This turn around, along with the revelation of Mantle’s own sexual abuse as a child and the portrayal of his stern and discontented father, help end Mantle’s story on notes of empathy and redemption. Mantle was no human being to emulate, but he was human through and through.