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Latest biography of Mickey Mantle as much about America and sports heroes as it is about baseball

December 22, 2010

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Saying the name Mickey Mantle in the 1950s and early 1960s conjured an image of the all-American boy for baseball fans.

Just as golf aficionados today say the name “Tiger” and even non-golfers know of whom one speaks, that was the star power of “The Mick”  — an image with legs for decades, one that sparked the baseball memorabilia craze of the 1980s and beyond.

Mantle was the best player, the best hitter, on the best team in baseball, the New York Yankees.

Jane Leavy, a former sportswriter, presents in a new biography all the reasons the name of this professional ballplayer  received — and deserved — that kind of recognition. But “The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America’s Childhood” goes well past the box scores and on-the-field heroics to give us the complete picture of Mickey Mantle.

Children of the Fifties who had to have the Mantle signature glove or who had to use the Mantle signature Louisville Slugger — guilty as charged, your honor! — will meet a different Mantle, Mantle the off-the-field man:

  • the self-admitted terrible excuse for a father;
  • the falling-down alcoholic;
  • the all-star who cried when he struck out;
  • the womanizer who constantly had a female “business manager” as well as a wife who was the mother of his children;
  • the amazingly good friend and supporter of worthy causes;
  • the jerk who wrote foul-language comments on baseballs for autograph seekers;
  • the humble athlete who was filled with self-doubt about his talent and who felt he never got the praise for how he played, at least not from whom he needed to hear it.

Baseball, yes, but much more

“The Last Boy” has just enough baseball to keep a sports nut turning pages. You’ll enjoy the comparison of Mantle, Willie Mays and Duke Snider — all centerfielders in New York at the same time in the 1950s. You’ll come away thinking less of Casey Stengel and Joe DiMaggio. You’ll learn about the true friendship of Mantle and Roger Maris. And you’ll wonder if the baseball teams today coddle and protect their players the way the Yankees did there stars back in the day.

There are great anecdotes, including a brief one involving the Minnesota Twins’ pitcher Jim Kaat:

“Two-and-oh on Mantle, Earl Battey (Twins’ catcher) would wave his arms and make the sign of the cross.”

But there’s less baseball in this 420-page Harper hardcover than the typical fan might expect. That’s not a criticism. This is a exceptionally good book that I highly recommend. The number of interviews Leavy conducted with Mantle’s Yankee teammates, players on other teams, minor league teammates and opponents, hometown Oklahomans, family, fans, friends, media and medical people makes this an extremely thorough capturing of history. The study of the kinetics of Mantle’s swing alone is worth the price of the book ($27.99, but available now with discounts.)

Rather than being a baseball book, though, “The Last Boy” explains Mantle and major league baseball in the context of life in small-town America, life in the big city when you’re a star, and the sports hero worship of Mantle’s time. The Mick is the centerpiece for explaining all-too-frequent father-son relationships — both that of he and his father and he and his sons. The all-star centerfielder’s life helps us understand the perpetual childhood of some athletes, the privileged existence shoved upon the likes of a poor kid from Commerce, OK, and his inability to choose wisely when success on the field brought him celebrity and its perks.

In so many ways, Mantle’s story is a tragedy. Very late in life he came to realize that, and blessedly went through rehab to spend his last 18 months in sobriety. But from start to finish I found I could only take small bites of reading Mantle’s life story, and there were two reasons for that.

The pain no one knew

The first was that I was savoring this so-well-written work. Peavy has a great story to tell, and she tells is extremely well. But I came to feel so sorry for Mantle — sorry for the injuries that kept him from being even a greater player than he was, sorry for his inability to handle stardom, sorry for his sinning and the people he hurt — that I often found I had to stop reading because I couldn’t take anymore of this tragic waste of God’s gifts.

What was perhaps the most painful was reading how many people — teammates, reporters, members of the Yankee organization, even New York City cops — were unable or unwilling to help Mantle help himself. Swinging my 32-inch Mickey Mantle bat in the 1960s I knew nothing of the injured knee Mantle played on almost his entire 18-year career, nothing of his public drunkeness, nothing of his family life, what little of it there was.

This was a time — and I’m not sure it’s over completely — when reporters didn’t write that The Mick was unable to play because he was hungover.  Or that he had a succession of both mistresses and one-night stands. The fear of Mantle — or any other star player or celebrity — no longer speaking to a reporter kept them from doing anything more than praising the on-the-field Mantle, the powerful clean-up hitter, and gauging the distances of his home run blasts.

For my money, Leavy spends a bit too much time on what is allegedly one of the longest homers ever, but there is so much more that is interesting and informative and insightful in “The Lost Boy” that that misstep is easily forgiven. Her saga of interviewing the retired Mantle actually made me squirm; I’m wasn’t sure I wanted to read about that Mickey Mantle. But there’s a good point: Something in us doesn’t want our heroes tarnished

And today’s ‘heroes’ ?

Did we want to know that Tiger Woods had a mistress in New York when he had a supermodel wife  in Florida — or would we just rather see him making birdie puts on Sunday afternoons?

Did we really want to learn that Brett Favre had sent nude photos of himself to a woman who wasn’t his wife — or do we just want to remember him driving a team down for that final-minute winning touchdown?

To put this in a Catholic context, do we really want to know that a priest has abused young boys — or do we want to hold onto our image of our priests as holy men with no faults?

No place to hide

The end of America’s childhood. That’s the story that circulates around the life story of Mickey Mantle. There’s no more covering up. There’s no place to hide. There’s no one who can stop the foibles and failings of our heroes from being spread across television and computer screens, no less the pages of newspaper and magazines. And there’s no reason to do so.

Readers of “The Last Boy” may come to loathe some of the things Mantle did that tarnish his image, yet at the same time find much to like about The Mick, more than his 536 career homers. For one thing, he understood the power of his celebrity could be used for good, and did so both on behalf of many charities but also to help former teammates cash in on the trading card phenomenon.

It’s a wonderful reminder that we humans are neither all good nor all bad. What a great lesson to remember, especially in our own time, when so many choose to demonize others. None of us is perfect. None of us us all good, all holy, nor all evil. – bz

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