Earlier in the Boston Book Blitz Series (which will soon be coming to you from Brooklyn, but more on that at some later point), we reviewed Howard Bryant’s “The Last Hero,” a biography of baseball great Henry “Hank” Aaron. Throughout his playing days and post-baseball life, Aaron has had to deal with fans thinking of him only as Hank Aaron the ballplayer, not Henry Aaron the person. To us it may seem like only a few letters difference, but to Aaron it is the difference between those who want something from him and those people he considers friends.
While reading Jane Leavy’s biography of Mickey Mantle, “The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle And The End Of America’s Childhood,” I was struck by a comment Mantle made that he never figured out who The Mick, Mickey Mantle, was. For so long, he did what his father had wanted and told him to, that only late in life did he figure out what he wanted. These baseball icons couldn’t be more different in the ways they approached the game. Aaron was meticulous in his studying of the game and pitchers while Mantle was known to have played games hung-over and on at least one instance was out so late that he missed the team’s train to the next city and had to pay a cabbie to get him to the stadium in time for batting practice in the next city. Imagine the field day in the New York press if Alex Rodriguez missed the team’s flight from Chicago to Minnesota after a night of partying.
“The Last Boy” is not your traditional biography. It is broken down into five parts with twenty different chapters spread through the entirety of the book, each focusing on a specific day in Mantle’s life. Leavy uses the events of each day to flesh out Mantle’s life story. The figurative knuckleball to this set-up comes in the form of the story of Leavy, as a Washington Post reporter meeting a long retired Mantle at an Atlantic City casino for an interview in 1983. This story is told in parts at the beginning of each section.
Growing up in New York City as a Yankees fan, even in the 1990s before the Yankees dynasty started, players like Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle seemed like these epic greats who graced the diamond in the Bronx and in comparison to the players of my youth who seemed to be making headlines for going on strike or getting in trouble with the law, were the not-at-all realistic ideal of playing nine frames and then going home to have dinner with their wives.
My first encounter with the reality of Mickey Mantle as a baseball player with human flaws came in the form a 1984 or ’85 baseball almanac that my neighborhood library was selling for a quarter. After pouring through the rosters of all 26 teams and getting my first taste of fantasy baseball, I stumbled upon an excerpt from a book chronicling the hard partying, heavy-drinking ways of Mickey Mantle, Billy Martin, and other Yankees of the 1950s. While tame enough for an eight year to read, the author’s tone made it seem like the shenanigans were just boys being boys and that the guys were still ready to play ball the next day. Leavy’s book makes it clear that was not always the case.
Mickey Mantle’s career was far shorter than it should been. His playing days were cut down by illnesses from his childhood like osteomylitis and a litany of on-field injuries, including the ghastly leg injury in the 1951 World Series when Mantle’s foot got caught in a Yankee Stadium drainage pipe jutting out from the outfield grass. These ailments were only exacerbated by the drinking and the epic disregard Mantled showed for his health and body. Reading “The Last Boy” is an exercise in patience when dealing with a Mantle who wanted nothing more than to play and would take the field injured, but when it came to his conditioning and taking care of himself, consistently dropped the ball.
The investigative work undertaken by Jane Leavy for this book is impressive. In her efforts to shine the stadium lights of reality on the Mantle myths, she finds the old man who as a child found the homerun ball Mantle hit out of DC’s Griffiths Stadium as she tries to pinpoint how far it actually traveled on the fly. She reaches out to scientists and sabrmetric experts to break down Mantle’s swing and find out his value to the Yankees. She even interviews the doctors who performed the controversial liver transplant Mantle underwent weeks before his death and explains how his celebrity played no role in receiving the liver.
From her interviews with members of the Mantle family and his friends, she explains how Mantle was sexually abused by a step sister as well as by a neighborhood boy. These traumatic events inevitably impacted the way he treated women and sex in his life.
This willingness to uncover who Mantle really was is what eventually makes “The Lost Boy” so disappointing as Leavy doesn’t hold Mantle accountable. When she addresses Mantle’s affairs, his disregard for his wife and family, and the second woman he ends up spending his last years with, she does so with kid gloves. In some ways, it feels as if Mantle is getting one last pass, just like he did when he was alive.
Leavy’s claim that Mantle played a starring role in the end of America’s childhood seems far fetched to me. Mantle’s career spanned the 1950s and 1960s. If any players were central to ending America’s childhood, it was those like Jackie Robinson, Aaron, Willie Mays, Larry Doby, Elston Howard, and the hundreds of other African-American ballplayers who broke color barriers or followed in their footsteps, suffering the humiliations of minor league games in southern cities during the Jim Crow era and the fight for civil rights. Mantle’s serves as a north star of reverence to baby boomers quoted in the book and throughout America, even though to this jaded millennial, he represents squandered opportunities and a disregard for those closest to him. His role in the end of America’s childhood only comes at the tail end of his own life where the consequences of alcohol abuse (which Mantle struggled at the end of his life to give up) and a lifestyle where he boasted to Leavy he led the league in crabs six different years was personified in the husk of a man Mantle had become.
“The Last Boy” is never a hagiography, but Leavy makes no qualms about the fact that she grew up worshipping the Yankees, in particular Mickey Mantle, as a child in the Bronx. Maybe it is the last drops of a child’s hero worship or the seemingly close bond she developed with Mantle’s family while writing the book, because in comparison to “The Last Hero,” Leavy seems more eager to shield Mantle from a full-on examination of his actions, his reasons for doing so, and the consequences and end with the belief that Mantle truly was a boy, even when he was nothing more than an adult blessed with the superhuman ability to hit, run, and throw. It is as if, after years of Mantle’s finances being exploited by hucksters, his name and autograph commoditized by weekend memorabilia shows, Leavy shied away from what she feared would be one last piece of exploitation: describing Mantle as what he really was.