Saturday, December 10, 2011

A Great New Book on the Life & Times of Mickey Mantle


Mickey Mantle’s sweater hangs on the door of my office.
I put it there the day I decided to write this book. It has
Followed me from closet to closet and house to house since
He gave it to me twenty-seven years ago. I packed it away
In an old garment bag right after I said goodbye to him.
I thought I was done with the Mick.
- Jane Leavy, author

The Last Boy is hailed by many as a masterpiece and an uncommonly thoughtful sports biography that goes beyond the myth to a deep examination of one of our greatest sports heroes - a man who was both generous and deeply flawed. Leavy carves out her narrative in five parts that are preface by an interview she conducted with Mantle in 1983. Each section begins with a first person account of the interview that sets the stage for a year-by year, blow-by-blow, examination of Mantle’s life and times. She spares no punches and does not shy away of uncomfortable truths. But her writing is fair and balanced and she’s able to convey Mantle’s uncommon humanity and generosity. In Leavy’s sensitive hands Mantle receives a fair shake that neither vilifies nor idealizes him. Leavy achieves a skillful dialectic in her analysis that makes Mantle more human. He comes off as a tragic hero who ultimately self-destructed. Most of Mantle’s outrageous behavior was kept from the public by a worried Yankee management and protective press corps. Leavy excavates the real Mickey Mantle starting with his 1951 breakthrough to his retirement in 1968 and his post baseball decline in 1969 and his death in 1995. It is an incredible piece of history.
The book runs 387 pages and contains another 33 pages of Appendixes and Acknowledgments that are worth reading.
The sentinel event that forever changed Mantle’s destiny is examined in fine detail in Chapter 2. It is entitled “When Fates converge.” The year is 1951 and baseball was changing. Babe Ruth had died three years ago and Joe DiMaggio was aging out of baseball. Mantle was ascending to the throne. He was stronger than most players and was considered the fastest runner in the Majors – plus he was telegenic, even beautiful and he had that big boyish grin. It all took place in the 1951 World Series between the Yankees and the New York Giants. DiMaggio was in center and Mantle was in right field. Willie Mays, an up and coming rookie stepped up to the plate and hit a pop fly, not very deep. It’s a tweener that splits the difference between DiMaggio and Mantle. DiMaggio called for it at the last minute as Mantle was running full-tilt to make the catch. Mantle can only try to put on the brakes to avoid a collision. In a twist of fate Mantle’s cleats became caught in a hidden four by four inch sewer drain. The injury was immediate and it forever changed the trajectory of his career, his life. At that same time Mantle learned of his father’s cancer. As Leahy writes, “In less than twenty-four hours all the supporting structures of his life imploded. His father only had months to live; his potential was irrevocably circumscribed; his knee and heart were never the same. That October afternoon was the last time Mantle set foot on a baseball field without pain.”
He was 19 years old.
Dr. Feelgood is the title for Chapter 12. It is a masterful revelation of what actually occurred in the 1961 MLB season. Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle were going head to head in pursuit of Baseball’s Holy Grail - Babe Ruth’s longstanding record of hitting 60 home runs in a season. Leahy debunked a few myths in an almost heroic effort to reach some semblance of truth. Myth #1 Mantle and Maris hated each other and were openly feuding; Truth: Mantle and Maris were supportive of each other and became lifelong friends. Myth # 2 Maris was coveted breaking Ruth’s record; Truth: Maris did not enjoy the limelight and tried to avoid playing in the last game of the season. This is the game in which he broke Ruth’s record. Myth # 3 Maris made a ton of money after breaking Ruth’s homerun record; Truth: Maris never profited from this Herculean feat. In fact it almost ruined his life. Sportswriters (as well as owners and baseball historians) criticized his accomplishment. It became a source of torment. He was never considered for the Hall of Fame – an egregious slight.
By the way, the “Dr Feelgood“ title refers to Dr. Max Jacobson who treated athletes and a long list of celebrities -even President Kennedy - with a highball cocktail of amphetamines, vitamins, human placenta and eel cells guaranteed to make you feel …well - good.
Leahy weaves a tale of startling clarity and purpose. She built an impressive interview list consisting of ten full pages. She talked with everyone who was close to Mantle or knew him in a particular way including: Merlyn Mantle, his ever suffering wife and their children Mickey Jr., Billy, David and Danny; Greer Johnson his longtime business partner and lover; Yankee teammates and business partners.
It is a tragic tale that is also redemptive and oddly uplifting. It is a testimony about the enduring strength of the human spirit
It is clear through Leahy’s vivid narrative style that Mantle was a reluctant hero who flinched at the spotlight and found it to be ultimately demeaning - especially after his retirement and the ascendance of the baseball cards and the memorabilia industry. He became a trained mouthpiece, recycling the same old stories and selling his autograph. He knew what he was doing and helped many of his friends and colleagues by gifting them personalized Mantle photos. It was unsatisfying at best. He even became a shill for Maypo Breakfast Cereal – because he needed the money. Mantle’s loss of meaning and purpose contributed to his raging alcoholism and womanizing. It was a death wish passed down from father to son – for at least three generations. It was a self-inflicted, unkind fate that would not be avoided in Mantle’s days and times.
Mantle never wanted to be an American Hero and he reacted strongly to the false images portrayed by the Yankee Organization (and major league baseball as a whole). Leahy tells the story of Mantle’s alternate rebellion. It was 1973 and the Yankee Organization was celebrating the fiftieth Anniversary of the House That Ruth Built. The public relations department sent a questionnaire to past Yankee players.
It read:
I consider the following my outstanding experience at Yankee stadium:
Mantle wrote:
“I got a blow job under the right field bleachers by the Yankee bullpen”
This event occurred on or about; (Give as much detail as you can)
It was about the third or fourth inning. I had pulled a groin and couldn’t fuck at the time. She was a very nice girl and asked me what to do with the cum in her mouth. I said don’t ask me I’m no cocksucker.
Mickey Mantle
The All-American Boy
This document was sent to a minority team owner and memorabilia collector who eventually sold his collection for 30 million dollars. Its existence is well known in the memorabilia circuit and excerpts have emerged through the years. The dark scatological humor in the document seemed to suggest something more than locker room crudeness. Leahy quotes Robert Pinsky, a former poet laureate of the United States, “That may be the best thing I’ve ever heard about him. He’s saying, “I am not going to be your all-American boy.” It may have been a cry for help; it is apparent that very few heard it
Mantle died in 1995. Leahy writes; Mantle is interred in a crypt illuminated by flickering sconces and graced with plaster angels whose wings shelter cards and letters left by his fans. Fixed to the wall is a plaque. It reads:

October 20, 1931 – August 13, 1995
A magnificent New York Yankee,
True teammate and Hall of Fame Centerfielder
With legendary courage
The most popular player of his era
Loving husband, father and friend for life

Bo White

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