Monday, July 15, 2013

Review: The Last Boy (2010)

By Jane Leavy

For those making up a list of the entertainment icons of the Fifties, Mickey Mantle deserves to be included, right there after Elvis and Marilyn. His story seemed almost too good to be true - a boy coming out of Commerce, Oklahoma, wherever that was, with incredible power and speed in a combination rarely seen in the sport of baseball. He overcame injuries, at least to some degree, to become a superstar. What's more, he did it in New York, where if you can do it there, you can do it anywhere.

Too good to be true, indeed. A generation of people grew up thinking that they would give anything to be Mickey Mantle. Yet, as Jane Leavy's fabulous book, "The Last Boy," shows, those who know the whole story probably would give anything not to live Mantle's life in its entirety.

Mantle wasn't particularly well-educated when he came out of Oklahoma. He didn't even go to his high school graduation, playing baseball instead. But his talent was remarkable, and fate picked him to replace Joe DiMaggio in the hallowed center field of Yankee Stadium. Even a serious knee injury, suffered in the 1951 World Series at the end of his rookie year, could only slow him down a little. Even so, he ran off a string of great seasons capped by championships and individual honors. If you needed a center fielder for one season, at his peak, Mantle was your man. He has been called the best player of the Fifties.

Alas, as Leavy points out, there's much more to the story. Mantle suffered frequent injuries, and compounded the problem by not listening to doctors and taking care of himself. It leads to the old "what if? question about his career. Then throw in the fact that Mantle seemed to enjoy taking advantage of the, um, opportunities that big city life offered. The Yankees thought Billy Martin was a bad influence on Mantle, but it probably was the other way around. Mantle did a lot of drinking in his playing days, not to mention possessing an inability to take his marriage vows too seriously.

When retirement finally arrives after the 1968 season, Leavy paints a picture of someone totally unready to face the real world. His innocence proves costly in the business world, and his only form of currency is his autograph. Mantle also seems frequently crude in his behavior, lost out of the macho world of the locker room. He descends into a world of personal appearances and alcoholism, unsuccessfully searching for a second act to his life. We put a lot of faith in our heroes, and when they can't live up to our standards in the course of a lifetime we blame them, and not ourselves. It's hard to say if Mantle ever had a chance.

It's not a happy story, and Leavy tells every detail - including a few that were shocking, even today. She literally talked to hundreds of people who knew Mantle, including family members, teammates, business associates, friends, and so forth. Their candor is strikingly universal. They were interviewed more than 10 years after Mantle's death, and apparently felt free to reveal all of the details.

The author's determination to track down information is particularly impressive. Mantle's most famous home run might be the one he hit completely out of Griffith Stadium in Washington. It was measured at 565 feet, although no one saw it land. But Leavy, after digging that could safely be called detective work, found the person who picked up the baseball when he spotted it in the neighborhood. He had been interviewed at the time of the homer. Leavy gave reports of Mantle's injuries and other issues to doctors and experts, who gave their best guess as to what went wrong. This includes the knee injury of 1951, for example, but also delves into why Mantle wet his bed until he left home to play baseball. The story feels complete, and it feels right.

In a poignant moment from the preface, a minor league teammate asks, "Why did you choose to live the life you did? Because you were not that kind of person. That was not you." At least by the time Mantle died, he had figured out that where he'd gone wrong and had asked for forgiveness from those he hurt with his behavior.

Leavy chose to frame the book in an unusual way. She had spent time with Mantle over the course of a couple of days in 1983 in Atlantic City for a story. Leavy saw Mantle at his worst, mostly drunk and who at one point - after an unsuccessful pass - fell asleep on her lap. It must have been a heck of an experience to see your childhood hero that way. I've heard it suggested that Leavy was "getting back" at Mantle by writing this book, but I never got that sense. It's a worthwhile story to tell under any circumstances.

What's more, Leavy stays objective throughout the text even though she grew up as a fan. The only sign of bias comes during a pair of remarks about the Hall of Fame qualifications of Roger Maris. She thinks he should be in Cooperstown, most people (including me) don't. It's an honest disagreement.

Leavy's first nonfiction book, "Sandy Koufax," received a great deal of attention and sold a great many copies. I thought that book was overrated. "The Last Boy," however, is one of the best biographies I've read in recent years. There have been all sorts of books written about Mantle over the years, including a few by the Mick himself. This is the one you want to read.

Five stars

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