November 24, 2014

Mickey Mantle: The Last Boy

October 26, 2010 by · 3 Comments 

“Get the f___ outta here. It’s like a cemetery to me.”     – Mickey Mantle

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National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum



When I first saw Mickey Mantle he was standing next to a barbecue grill in the late afternoon light outside a motel room in St. Petersburg, Florida.   He struck a relaxed and happy pose, the sleeves of his golf shirt tightly wrapping his biceps, manly spatula in hand, smiling that perfect all-American boy smile as if life was perfect, could never get better, and would always be so.  As soon as I saw that photo, I wanted it.   Not the picture per se, not even the guy nor that specific way of life, but the glowing atmosphere of spring training, the expression on a young man’s face, the sense of well being and confidence and promise.   Something about that portrait spelled baseball to me.

The black and white photograph made me believe that baseball was something  true and good.  To this day, I have no idea whether that picture was real or not.   I haven’t bothered to research its existence in any form.  It’s entirely possible I made it up.

Real or illusory, the compelling photograph invited me in, but I never got anywhere with it.   Until now.   I never understood all that the picture represented.   Until now that I’ve finished reading Jane Leavy’s masterpiece, The Last Boy:  Mickey Mantle and the End of America’s Childhood.

Three pages into the book’s preface, Leavy explains that photographer Ozzie Sweet always shot Mickey Mantle and other potential sports heroes  “from below … rendering his subjects larger than life.”   This is precisely how I remembered the spring training shot lodged in my own imagination.  “His photos look as if they could have been taken anywhere, anytime.   The context is timelessness.”    Yes, that portrait of Mickey that I had long admired always appeared as if it had been taken just yesterday.  Mickey was youthful and happy; he was a good person.

Others will bring to Leavy’s biography their own set of perceptions, expectations, memories, fantasies, biases, stereotypes, and regrets.   Whatever image of Mickey Mantle you carry in your own consciousness, I suspect that The Last Boy will go a long way in amplifying or deflating it, while also doing his memory justice.

“I care too much whether people like what I write,” Leavy confessed to Mickey Mantle in person during a weekend spent in Atlantic City in April 1983.    I found it poignant that an author would confide in a famous person so candidly, especially given the unsettling circumstances under which she met with Mickey face to face.

The depth of Leavy’s caring – about what readers think, that is –  has paid off, in my estimation, and richly so.    In writing Mickey Mantle’s story, Jane Leavy has offered to all of us  a comprehensive and honest account of one American life, a disturbing yet beautiful story,  a truly stunning work of art.

In a recent interview I asked the author  about her two distinguished biographies -  The Last Boy and Sandy Koufax: A Lefty’s Legacy (2002), wondering which had been the more difficult work for her to craft, not so much emotionally but artistically.  She replied that The Last Boy was by far the “harder story to tell,”  because there simply wasn’t “enough new to justify it.”  Countless Mickey stories had already been written.  What more could be said?

Leavy’s project took on an added urgency and difficulty, due to the fact that some of her sources were nearing the end of their lives.   “The window of opportunity was closing,” she offered soberly.  Indeed, several of Mickey’s teammates and loved ones did in fact pass away as his story gradually took shape.

Almost everyone who has reviewed The Last Boy has praised Jane Leavy for her prodigious  research, recognizing the over five hundred interviews that have resulted in a best-selling biography.  Her index alone is eighteen pages long (in microscopic font); the bibliography reads like that of a doctoral dissertation; and Appendix 1 -  Leavy’s interview list – spans ten pages.   (Her interview list for A Lefty’s Legacy occupies a page and a half, though that measurement doesn’t necessarily imply that the pitcher’s story was any less compelling or complete).

There’s simply no substitute for scholarly rigor and personal access of this kind, and the result is incredible richness, authenticity, and depth of story.   The Last Boy is the work of a brilliant mind, though intellectual rigor is never at odds with the plain-spoken, oakie-dokie, crude and sometimes repugnant reality of the character that Leavy has sought to define.   Her ultimate goal is truth.

It’s really not enough to say “Leavy interviewed over 500 people” and leave it at that.   The mere number doesn’t really say anything about her achievement.   It’s what she does with all these perspectives that is ultimately so impressive and so deeply moving.  Leavy takes the voices of human beings from all walks of life:  teammates, trainers, neuroscientists, kinesiologists, family memebers, orthopedic surgeons, mechanical engineers, damaged women, sabermetricians, rednecks, Catholic priests, Jewish grandmothers,  young boys playing ball in upper Manhattan and out on Route 66, and of course Mickey himself – reprehensible and endearing, winsome, disgusting, lonely, and sincere.  We’re enriched with a fascinating variety of perspectives and emotions, as Leavy packs a great deal of content into every paragraph, efficiently and unobtrusively so, synthesizing many disparate voices, intertwining them seamlessly in a narrative that never seems disjointed.

Open the book to virtually any page and you will find a vivid quotation from a reliable and often intriguing source.

The story of Mickey Mantle’s experience attains a higher level of sophistication than that of previous studies, in part because of the sophisticated language that Leavy borrows from highly intelligent people who are experts in their fields.  At the same time, however, she takes on the vernacular of some very inarticulate people, dignifying their discourse and making seemingly stupid individuals sound eloquent through the elegance of her own prose.

Leavy is being modest when describing her beautifully crafted work as “boring Writer 101 stuff.”   The blending of all these voices – as many as six or eight  different personalities on a page -  is very hard to achieve if you’re aiming to create a fluid story.   The author adeptly combines her own intelligent narrative voice with those of others, all playing in counterpoint to create a compelling whole, the point of which is to get at some important truth.

It’s as if you’ve been invited to a special gathering of ballplayers, all your favorite baseball guys, some of whom you’ve long considered your imaginary friends.  They’re all standing in a room having fun together, and you’re among them. They’ve gathered to tell Mickey’s story, roast him and praise him, and you’ve been invited to the party. You hear their voices during the course of an evening, or maybe over a  relaxing weekend, and eventually you leave the venue feeling as if you’ve  experienced something truly rare.  You feel as if you know the man for who he actually was.

Familiar ballplayers and baseball people form a chorus of eyewitness accounts:  Casey Stengel, Bob Costas, Mickey Lolich,  Joe DiMaggio (stating that Mickey “is a rock head”), Whitey Herzog, Duke Snider, Clete Boyer, Yogi Berra and Carmen too – just to name a few; and there are hundreds more.   There is no shortage of expletives emanating from these sources, but there’s poetry too, some of it coming from unlikely places, like Boog Powell for example, who describes the sound of the ball coming off Mickey’s bat:    “It was a ring.  It was more like a musical note.”  (I doubt that Boog thought of himself as speaking poetry.)

Others tended toward lyricism when characterizing Mickey’s performance on the field:  “He bunted on me,” recalls Ed Roebuck. “I fielded the ball.  It sounded like a bunch of wild horses running by.”  Mickey Lolich captures the “buzzing” sound of the sinking fastball after it made contact with Mickey’s bat:  “It’s actually the seams grabbing at the air as it goes by.”  (Only moments later did Lolich realize that the very same ball had just hit him forcibly in the thigh.)   A few of these poetic moments serve as lyrical cadences in Leavy’s chapter endings:  “When asked how he had pitched to Mantle, Frank Sullivan said, ‘With tears in my eyes.'”

Jane Leavy is the perfect biographer for Mantle.  Erudite and colloquial, satirical in delivering sharp one-liners,  tough yet compassionate, she talks the talk just as coarsely as The Mick once did.  She has an off-the-charts baseball IQ.  She is an elegant literary stylist.  And above all, she approaches her mission with the rigor and intensity of a first-rate investigative journalist.    Whether she’s chasing medical answers or a tape-measure home run,   she pursues information with urgency and passion, tirelessly and passionately so.

Leavy’s analysis of Mickey’s hitting technique is nothing short of masterful.  Most simply stated, hitting is a combination of strength and technique.   Leavy takes this basic definition and amplifies it through excellent narrative supported by fascinating appendices that feature kinesthetic drawings of Mickey batting from the right and left sides.

Formulaically stated, Mickey Mantle hitting a baseball = inference + stored experience + reflexes + visual motor system + DNA + Granpa Charlie out by the shed with tennis balls. Or in the words of one specialist, hitting is “an intricate biomechanical task that requires the coordination and mobilization of virtually every muscle in the body in less than a second.”

The Last Boy is worth purchasing for just that sentence alone.

So this is what we’re watching.   No wonder we love baseball.     No wonder we say we “love” Mickey Mantle.   It’s because we’re witnessing the human form in the act of achieving something that’s profoundly difficult and rare, even as we’re cracking peanut shells and downing warm beer.   We’re in the presence of an action that is biologically and technically amazing, even if we don’t stop to analyze that person’s complicated movement, even if we can’t begin to comprehend what it is we’re feeling at any given moment of live action or historical footage.  Even if all we seem to hear is music.

Leavy’s artistic vision did not  play out as a straight chronology of Mickey Mantle’s professional life.  We can access that information, including all the game summaries and stats, in countless other ways.   Statistics aren’t necessarily the stuff of good literature.   Nevertheless, the author focuses effectively on pivotal turning points in Mickey’s career, beginning for example with the astonishing performance at USC that “catapulted him to fame”  (5 AB, 4 H, 2 HR, 1 3B, 1 1B, 7 RBI).

Her subsequent analysis of the knee injury that Mickey sustained upon losing his footing atop an uncovered drain in the outfield of Yankee Stadium is an amazing journey in itself, moving as it does from the re-creation of bizarre circumstances and team dynamics on the field and through the exhaustive medical research that followed.   Again, Leavy chases the truth in seeking to determine what exactly happened and why,  finally uncovering the precise nature of Mantle’s injury, and making the astonishing discovery that he played through unimaginable forms of pain, more agonizing than anyone ever realized.

Leavy acknowledges  that her hero’s career might have been dramatically different had physicians possessed the tools and technology that would have enabled them to diagnose and solve the problem as medical experts now do almost effortlessly with the click of a button; with MRIs clearly showing tears in the ACL, MCL, and meniscus; and with routine arthroscopic procedures.  While clearly regretting the “cascading episodes of instability” that plagued Mickey’s performance on the field, Leavy downplays the useless what-ifs and might-have-beens.  In doing so, she rescues her subject from sentimentality and from the easy label of  “tragic hero.”

It’s tempting to see Mickey as a victim of early injury and a troubled past.  Some readers have formed precisely this interpretation.   The early episode of child abuse is regarded by some as the cause that explains or justifies Mickey’s lifetime of bad behavior.   This is not the reality that Jane Leavy has  chosen to emphasize as the structural or thematic heart of her story, however.   She describes the matter quietly, almost privately, yet without minimizing its significance.

Biography is not psychiatry.

Mantle grew to be a man who could be deeply cruel to others, often deliberately so. One could argue that The Mick caused more harm to others than was ever done to him.  He knowingly uttered statements that were offensive, crude, and hurtful.  He sometimes wrote horrible things to children when signing memorabilia.  Although his own boys appeared to love him, often gravitated to him, and sought to emulate him for better or worse, he was on many counts a terrible father.   Although Mantle was a lot of fun to be around, he often treated women in ways that will make readers cringe.   Incredibly, Merlyn stuck by him for most of their married years  (he wrote like he loved me … I like being Mrs. Mickey Mantle….  he was married in a very small geographic area of his mind), but her reminiscences are often heartbreaking.

Mickey was raised in a family that “didn’t show up emotionally.”   They seldom expressed or spoke of love, seldom spoke at all in fact, showed very little affection, and failed to connect with each other in the most basic ways.  It was an American household that can only be described as bleak.   Once he left Commerce, Oklahoma, with its piles of chat and vast holes underground, Mantle had little incentive to return.  Its depressing landscape was emblematic of a  deeper human problem.   Mickey Mantle would never know a true home.

Having married very young (at the insistence of his father), Mickey would eventually comment on his troubled relationship with Merlyn:    “I love her.   She’s like my sister, though.”   Combine this peculiar attitude with the fact that Mickey first became sexually aware in the hands of his own half-sister, and it’s no wonder most of his experiences  in intimacy took place outside the home.  Repeated encounters with countless willing and beautiful women left him hungry for affection and human connection.

It’s no accident that he was a man easily prone to tears later in life.   The tears sprung from a variety of troubles,  untapped emotions, and melancholy what-ifs that resided deep within.

“The ballpark throbbed with love,” wrote George Vecsey on “Mickey Mantle Day” in June 1969.    It’s a peculiar form of affection, this so-called “love” we fans feel when applauding and contemplating our heroes; with all due respect to Vecsey, one wonders if love is the right term.   In responding to players like Mickey Mantle, we witness kinesis and anatomy, the graceful human form in motion.    Let’s not tip-toe around the idea:  we embrace the maleness of the thing, the very ideal of male beauty, even as we admire the intensity and violence of an athlete’s hitting.   Somehow this experience gets translated into “I love the man.”   But fans don’t really love the man – at least not in the ways that this particular man truly needs and yearns to be loved.

We sport his number on “authentic” jerseys.   We covet his autograph, though that signature is likely counterfeit.   We build him up, deify and sanctify him, grab some metaphorical piece of him, measure him against the rest, perhaps settle on number two, then maybe let him go.

How is it possible that a man so beloved by so many – thousands in a screaming, joyful crowd – comes to feel that he has never known love?   He had an entire day named after him; yet Merlyn would remember Mickey Mantle Day at Yankee Stadium as the worst afternoon of her husband’s life.   “I don’t get close to people,” Mantle once confessed to Bob Costas, eyes filling with tears, “I’m weird or something, I guess.”

The emotional rhythms of Leavy’s biography are among its greatest strengths.   She is a master of rescuing the moment from sentimentality, and she does so with exquisite timing.   Just when Mickey lets his guard down and finally says something generous and kind, the moment is swiftly deflated with a sophomoric wisecrack.   The story’s hero may utter a deeply offensive statement, and just when you’re ready to close the book and drop it to the floor in disgust, the man redeems himself; or a friend like Jerry Coleman or Clete Boyer speaks up on Mickey’s behalf, sounding an amusing, endearing or uplifting tribute.  We feel it all:  sorrow, repugnance, compassion, disgust, delight.  And maybe even love.

“Do you love him more or less after writing the book?” asked one reader last week at Politics & Prose.    “The same,” Leavy softly replied.   She went on to observe that Mickey Mantle was at once “very flawed” and “very decent,”  uncomfortable with attention yet wanting very much to succeed.    There were many times when he was “generous beyond measure.”

What emerges in the end is Mickey Mantle’s utter likeability in the midst of all his reprehensible qualities.   Leavy’s book has a way of making you want to forgive him. He was fun to be around; men and women agree that this was most assuredly true. He could be shy and unassuming, quiet,  boyish in a good way, sweet and genuine in displaying his aw-shucks modesty.  He was a player who loved being among his teammates, and he treated them well.    “What the f__ did you do that for?”  he asked Tom Tresh, upon learning that Tresh had named his newborn son Mickey.   At the same time, writes his biographer, Mickey was “quietly honored”  by the gesture.  He was a man who could be deeply touched, though it seems he never knew quite what to do about such sensations.

Jane Leavy taps into Mantle’s essential goodness even as she watches her childhood hero fail repeatedly.   It might surprise some readers that this tough investigative journalist becomes a quiet and important presence in her own story, lending it an occasional feminine touch – the clicking of a young girl’s party shoes,  for example, or a woman’s stunned refusal of an unwanted advance.   Leavy enhances the baseball chapters of her story with five very personal interludes (rendered in softer, quieter italics) during which she keeps company with a  ballplayer whose more private behavior demonstrates the familiar contradictions.

In one of these poignant scenes, Leavy references I Love Mickey, a ditty made popular by Teresa Brewer in 1956.  In the original recording, Mantle can be heard calling “Mickey Who?” as a bouncy refrain.  Some thirty years later, while sitting quietly in the close quarters of a limousine, Mickey and his biographer consider the song.    We learn that the flip side of the 78 rpm includes an apt companion piece:  Keep Your Cotton Pickin’ Paddies offa My Heart.

The Last Boy ends with a bitter indictment of the memorabilia industry, which often deals grotesquely in relics of the game.   How are the rest of us any different, I sometimes wonder, the biographers and writers, statisticians and artists among us, when mining our own treasures from the lives of those we tend to idolize?

Literature of this caliber is what separates memory from memorabilia and the men from the boys.  Jane Leavy’s biography is an exquisitely crafted narrative that educates its readers in all kinds of things statistical, historical, medical, moral, mechanical, and human.  It’s a work of art that seeks truth and does justice to one ballplayer’s complicated life.  Some might argue that Leavy treats Mantle with more intelligence and fairness than he even deserves.

When Mantle returned to Cooperstown in 1988, he took his time inside the Gallery:   “Mickey read every plaque . . . . Then he put his hands up to his face and cried.”   Tears of awe, regret, what-might-have-been  . . . who can really say or know what those tears were all about?

So, which Mickey is he?   The one who couldn’t wait to get outta there?  Or the man who wept when contemplating greatness?  It’s a bit like having to choose between Mays and Mantle.  Who was the better player? Can’t we just have both?

I wonder how The Mick would respond if he knew about The Last Boy.  “It’s like I’m reading about somebody else,”  he might say.  In all likelihood, he wouldn’t read the book at all.  “Why can’t they get over me?”   Maybe that’s what he would say.   I wonder what he’d say next.

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highly recommended

Jane Leavy, The Last Boy:

Mickey Mantle and the End of America’s Childhood

HarperCollins, 2010

Comments

3 Responses to “Mickey Mantle: The Last Boy”
  1. Len Levin says:

    An excellent review, except that to my knowledge Frank Sullivan is not “the late.” He was very much alive when I saw him at a BoSox Club lunch in the summer of ’09.

  2. BaseballinDC says:

    Judy’s interview of Jane Leavy on the podcast was exceptional.

    I’d like to see more of her writing and more interviews by her with baseball writers on the podcast.

  3. Judy Johnson says:

    Thanks for bringing this to my attention, Len. I referenced Leavy directly when writing “the late” (page 162 final sentence), but can’t find anything to indicate that this is true.

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