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The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America's Childhood Hardcover – October 12, 2010
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Jane Leavy, the acclaimed author of the New York Times bestseller Sandy Koufax: A Lefty's Legacy, returns with a biography of an American original—number 7, Mickey Mantle. Drawing on more than 500 interviews with friends and family, teammates, and opponents, she delivers the definitive account of Mantle's life, mining the mythology of The Mick for the true story of a luminous and illustrious talent with an achingly damaged soul.
Meticulously reported and elegantly written, The Last Boy is a baseball tapestry that weaves together episodes from the author's weekend with The Mick in Atlantic City, where she interviewed her hero in 1983, after he was banned from baseball, with reminiscences from friends and family of the boy from Commerce, Oklahoma, who would lead the Yankees to seven world championships, be voted the American League's Most Valuable Player three times, win the Triple Crown in 1956, and duel teammate Roger Maris for Babe Ruth's home run crown in the summer of 1961—the same boy who would never grow up.
As she did so memorably in her biography of Sandy Koufax, Jane Leavy transcends the hyperbole of hero worship to reveal the man behind the coast-to-coast smile, who grappled with a wrenching childhood, crippling injuries, and a genetic predisposition to alcoholism. In The Last Boy she chronicles her search to find out more about the person he was and, given what she discovers, to explain his mystifying hold on a generation of baseball fans, who were seduced by that lopsided, gap-toothed grin. It is an uncommon biography, with literary overtones: not only a portrait of an icon, but an investigation of memory itself. How long was the Tape Measure Home Run? Did Mantle swing the same way right-handed and left-handed? What really happened to his knee in the 1951 World Series? What happened to the red-haired, freckle-faced boy known back home as Mickey Charles?
"I believe in memory, not memorabilia," Leavy writes in her preface. But in The Last Boy, she discovers that what we remember of our heroes—and even what they remember of themselves—is only where the story begins.Amazon Q&A: Bill Madden Interviews Jane Leavy
For more than 30 years Bill Madden has covered the Yankees and Major League Baseball for the New York Daily News. The author of several books about the Yankees, including Steinbrenner: The Last Lion of Baseball, Madden is also the 2010 recipient of the Baseball Hall of Fame's J.G. Taylor Spink Award.
Madden: Your best-selling biography of Sandy Koufax was a tour de force, partly because Koufax was a very private man whose life story had never really been told before. Mickey Mantle’s life is quite the opposite, it’s been in the subject of a spate of different “autobiographies,” some of which he even wrote. Under those circumstances, what made you want to take up another book about him?
Leavy: Originally, I wanted to write about Willie, Mickey and The Duke in New York in the Fifties. The publisher said, “Do The Mick. Everybody loves The Mick.” I was wary because so much had been written about him—he left a paper trail as long as the drive from Commerce, Oklahoma to the Bronx, so I didn’t expect to learn that he’d been raised by a den of Alaskan she-wolves. My challenge was to strip away all the layers of myth that had accumulated and let Mickey breathe. And he, of all people, was my worst source. For example: the knee surgery he said he had after tripping over a drain in the 1951 World Series trying not to run into Joe DiMaggio in centerfield. In fact, he didn’t have surgery until two years later. I only learned that because I went through every day of the New York Times from October 1951 to November 1953 looking for the date the knife fell! That’s why this book took five years and nearly 600 interviews. I wanted to try to understand why after all these years, and all these revelations, Mickey Mantle still means so much to so many people—including me—and the first step was to get the basic facts straight.
Madden: You make the point early on in the book that Mickey was a childhood hero, but you also have a recurring sequence in the book of your first interview with him in Atlantic City in 1983, where—at one point—he drunkenly makes a pass at you. What lingering effect did this have on how you ultimately approached your book?
Leavy: I was plenty nervous when I met him. Mickey was my hero. But, he was also a very particular kind of role model. I was born two months prematurely (in a hospital a mile from Yankee Stadium) and came with some of the flaws that afflict those who don’t incubate as long as we’re supposed to. Mickey taught me how to function with pain and without complaint—his triumphs were mine. I was devastated with how he acted. After I’d taken his hand from my knee, I called the only person I could think of still awake at that hour, a new mother, who basically told me to grow up.
The next morning, over breakfast, I vented my anger and disappointment, railing at him for, among other things, greeting my youthful autograph request with flatulence. He was stunned and remorseful, albeit in a hilariously idiosyncratic manner. He gave me an 8 x 10 glossy that said, “Sorry, I farted, your friend, Mick.” For a moment, I felt I saw behind his crude façade. I decided the only way I could write this book was to acknowledge my lack of dispassion and scrutinize him completely. That’s what happened that weekend in Atlantic City. It forced me to see the world as it was, not how I wanted it to be.
Madden: One of the people I wish I'd been able to interview for my Steinbrenner book was Mantle, if only because I detected a very strained relationship between the two of them. Steinbrenner made a point to deify DiMaggio and had memorial services for Joe, Billy Martin, Roger Maris and Mel Allen, but did nothing for Mickey when he died. In your conversations with Mickey did he ever talk about Steinbrenner and anything that might have led to ill feelings toward each other?
Leavy: When I told Mantle I’d heard the Boss was thinking of turning Monument Park in centerfield into a water park for the disadvantaged youth of the South Bronx, Mantle was completely incredulous. He told me, “It was 480 in centerfield when I played. It’s 420 now and he’s talking about bringing them in farther,” and shook his head. “I was at a banquet one time and I said to him, ‘they ought to let those boys throw the ball up and hit it.’ That pissed him off.”
Mantle was interested in Yankee history—he grilled a friend who saw Babe Ruth lying in state in the rotunda at the Stadium about what it was like to be there that day. But I don’t think he had a whole lot of patience with “Yankeeography.” It was a quick disillusionment. When he signed with the Yankees, reporters asked which Yankee had been his childhood hero. He said, “Stan Musial.” George Weiss, the general manager, immediately “corrected” his memory and from then on Joe D. was his hero. Furthermore, I think he was deeply disappointed with the baseball community’s response—or lack of response—when commissioner Bowie Kuhn banned him in 1983 because of his affiliation with the Claridge Hotel and Casino, a job he had taken to pay for his son Billy’s treatment for non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. He told me, “I feel really kind of bad no one took up for me.” By “no one” I was pretty sure he meant Steinbrenner. The Yankees did little more than observe a moment of silence when Mantle died.
Madden: It would seem that most everybody pertinent to the book cooperated with you, especially the Mantle family. I was grateful for the cooperation I had from George Steinbrenner’s friends and associates when I wrote Steinbrenner, but I had an advantage that you didn’t in that most of them knew me personally and, I suppose, trusted me. As a stranger, did you meet any significant resistance?
Leavy: Danny and David Mantle—Mickey’s sons—and their late mother, Merlyn—were extremely generous with their recollections and insights. Their openness about their lives and their relationship with their father was extraordinary. Like him, they are extremely honest. There’s no put on, as folks in Commerce, Oklahoma like to say. I hope they’ll come away from the book with a deeper understanding of the forces that formed him and contributed to his downfall, but I don’t know how they’ll react.
Madden: This is the definitive “warts and all” biography of Mickey, with heavy emphasis on all of his demons. How do you think Mickey himself would feel about the book?
Leavy: I think it’s an honest book and Mantle was a very honest man. I don’t see this is as a dark book. I hope it’s enlightening in the most literal sense of the word and I hope that critics—and readers at large—will agree. I think the tragedy of Mantle is that he had so little time, at the beginning of his baseball career, and at the beginning of his sober life, to be his best self. He was a decent man who was genetically pre-disposed to alcoholism and enabled his whole life by the trappings of his celebrity. That’s his story. As Billy Crystal told me about his movie, 61*, Mickey wouldn’t have wanted the sugar coat.
His late wife, Merlyn, wrote about the sexual abuse he suffered as a young boy in the family memoir, “A Hero All His Life” and she elaborated on it when we spoke, as did several of his close friends. It turned out that his half sister wasn’t his only abuser and experts tell me that many of the destructive behaviors he manifested are seen in victims of childhood sexual abuse. So, I came away with enormous compassion for him and, I hope, with an answer to the question posed by one of his minor league teammates: “Mickey, what happened?”
From Publishers Weekly
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
More About the Author
Before joining the The Washington Post, she was a staff writer at womenSports and Self magazines. She has written for many publications, including The New York Times, Newsweek, Sports Illustrated, The Village Voice, and The New York Daily News. Leavy's work has been anthologized in many collections, including Best Sportswriting, Coach: 25 Writers Reflect on People Who Made a Difference, Child of Mine: Essays on Becoming a Mother, Nike Is a Goddess: The History of Women in Sports, Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend: Women Writers on Baseball, A Kind of Grace: A Treasury of Sportswriting by Women, and Making Words Dance: Reflections on Red Smith, Journalism and Writing.
She grew up on Long Island where she pitched briefly and poorly for the Blue Jays of the Roslyn Long Island Little League. On her parents' first date, her father, a water boy for the 1927 New York football Giants, took her mother to a Brooklyn College football game. She retaliated by taking him to Loehmann's after the final whistle. It was a template for their 63-year union. As a child, Jane Leavy worshipped Mickey Mantle from the second-floor ballroom in the Concourse Plaza Hotel where her grandmother's synagogue held services on the High Holidays.
Jane Leavy attended Barnard College and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, where she wrote her master's essay (later published in The Village Voice) on Red Smith, the late sports columnist for The New York Times, who was her other childhood hero.
She has two adult children, Nick and Emma Isakoff, and she lives in Washington, DC, and Truro, Massachusetts.
Top Customer Reviews
Have you ever had the experience of reading a book that, as you progress through it, you feel more and more pages are being added? Didn't she say that before? Will I ever get to the end? This is the feeling The Last Boy engendered for me. Leavy may or may not be a great sports writer, as the blurbocracy avers, but she has produced here what I call a "shovel" biography: if it's a "fact" of the subject's life, alleged, putative, speculative, or attested to, include it without calibrating its importance. The result is a huge slurry of episodes, interviews, quotations rather than a sharply edged authorial portrait. The Last Boy lacks narrative drive. It just goes on. And on. Throw in some armchair psychology along the way. Elicit quotations from subjective observers years after the events. Stir and repeat. Belabor. Then, having reached page 400 and not wanting to make another paper run to Staples, stop typing.
I was prepared to love The Last Boy. I'm very sorry that I didn't even like it.
For all of us, it was a dream that could not be fulfilled, but that didn't mean we couldn't still fantasize about it, and maybe that's why some pay so much for collectibles. We are able to hold, or touch something that belonged to the hero, and the hero's journey.
First of all, you must love sports, and sports heroes to thoroughly enjoy this book as I did. Ms. Leavy has captured the real Mickey Mantle, and although she covers the warts and all, this is still very much the story of a hero, a hero of mythic proportions. In ancient Rome there were the Gladiators. In the 20th century, we have our sports heroes, and surely Mickey Mantle captured America's attention like no other.
He made us forget about Joe DiMaggio who dominated an earlier generation of Yankees in center field. DiMaggio knew it, and made Mantle pay for it emotionally for his entire career. You might want to read Joe DiMaggio: The Hero's Life by Richard Ben Cramer, a great biography of Mantle's predecessor in center field.
Ah, and can Ms. Leavy write; she is accomplished, having earlier penned a magnificent biography of Brooklyn Dodger hero Sandy Koufax. When I began to read about Mickey, I at first wondered if she could capture the same spirit she captured in "Sandy Koufax: A Lefty's Legacy". By that I mean could she capture the essence of the man and the time in which Mantle lived.Read more ›
She could have reduced this biography to two paragraphs. He was a great player with a lot of crappy injuries and many emotional hang-ups. He was a profane, womanizing alcoholic who was also a better guy than DiMaggio. End of story. A book called "The Last Yankee" about Billy Martin, who was undoubtedly more of a creep than Mantle ever was, comes out making Martin a lot more interesting and sympathetic than this single-minded image of the Mick. I honestly tried to ask myself if it wasn't my own youthful idolatry of Mickey that was getting in my way. But I read a lot and all sorts of stuff, and there is no doubt in my mind that this book should be low on anyone's list.
Rather than simply tell the story of Mickey's life, this author felt the need to make herself part of the story, by periodically interjecting her recollections (more than 30 pages worth) of an interview weekend she spent with Mickey at the Claridge Hotel in Atlantic City (the answer to the question posed by the title of this review) in April of 1983.
If it weren't for the off-putting nature of the author's intrusion into the narrative, I would probably give the book 2-3 stars. It isn't the most favorable of treatment of Mantle, which would be a very difficult book to write at this point, but it isn't the most negative account either. It just isn't very good, although the author's interviews of Mantle's teammates and rivals yields interesting, if somewhat repetitive behind the scenes insights.
On balance, I would recommend that you look for another book if you want to read about Mantle, but if you choose to read Leavy's, you may want to consider passing on the italicized passages about her Atlantic City weekend.
Most Recent Customer Reviews
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. Read morePublished 1 month ago by WDX2BB
Dad wanted this for xmas. He is excited to read! Came as expected!Published 1 month ago by Stacykins34
Basically, this is an updated version of "Ball Four" by Jim Bouton albeit with more literary flair. Read morePublished 2 months ago by Carl DalBon
Great story, but at times I had a difficult time following the narration. Maybe it was the meter or the punctuation, used by the author, but there were moments when I didn't know... Read morePublished 3 months ago by Ken
Very different from other books about him. Little bit too much on physics and details of his longest hit home runs. Read morePublished 5 months ago by Thomas Martin
Fantastic book for any baseball fan. Mickey Mantle is a legend and Jane Leavy did a fantastic job showing the "human" side of Mantle. Read morePublished 5 months ago by Vinny Avella
This is a brilliant book by a top-notch writer and journalist. Who knew that Mickey Mantle was such a damaged human being? Read morePublished 5 months ago by Solangedesantis