USA TODAY | November 3, 2010
Jane Leavy has written a biography of Mickey Mantle called the The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America’s Childhood.His prodigious talent led Mickey Mantle to become one of the most popular heroes in history.
His prodigious demons — which included being sexually abused — led him to alcoholism, infidelity and anger management problems.
Both sides of Mantle are revealed in Jane Leavy’s new biography, The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America’s Childhood.
Leavy weaves the brilliance of his talent along with those constant demons and her own experiences with Mantle, her childhood hero.
“I started to become convinced, pretty far in, that Mickey was really two people,” said Leavy. “…There were two very different people leading two separate lives. Home and away. It never changed for him.”
Leavy talked to Game On! about her new book
(Mantle’s cousin) Max Mantle says at the end that Mickey was more complex than War and Peace. What did that mean?
Max is one of those touchstones for me. When I started to turn over the rocks in the Mantle legend…every time I thought I knew what I knew, I found out I didn’t know. It got to feel like every sentence was a land mine….The reason the book was a 5-year campaign was because there were so many of these factual landmines. And, each one, when they exploded, changed the story and changed my perspective. I said to him ‘it is because of things like this, every time I think I got it, I don’t.’ And he said “well, Mick was kind of like War and Peace.” It says more succinctly more than anything else what the experience of writing the book was like and what it was like knowing Mickey Mantle and being Mickey Mantle.
Mantle was that complex of a person?
He had a temper that was the other side of that smile that never got old. Just as War and Peace are polar opposites I started to become convince, pretty far in, that Mickey was really two people. He was the guy who gave Jerry Lumpe the house to live in and the 10 cashmere sports jackets he left behind in the master closet. And, he was also the guy, who when a woman approached him for an autograph, got so furious at the pen that wouldn’t write that he hurled it at a wall with such fury that the woman fled in tears. There were two very different people leading two separate lives. Home and away. It never changed for him.
Mantle’s whole life seemed to be turned on his shame over being sexually abused.
People have focused on the sexual abuse stuff in this book but the most interesting thing about to me, when (wife) Merlyn (revealed in her book book) said it was the first time people really understood her husband. Why he acted the way he did. His attitude toward women. His loneliness. His isolation. Mickey was humiliated and embarrassed and remembered being laughed at more than anything else. He liked being laughed with but he did not like being laughed at. I’m starting to put this together. This is much bigger than I thought. That is when I started to do research and go to the experts. When they said one of features that they see in people that have been abused is a split in a public and private self….Why do you lead two lives because that is a way of not getting close. I really think there was a war and a peace in his soul.
Did you like Mantle more or less when this was finished?
I liked him the same but different. What do you do when the person you revered turns out not to be who you thought they were? I became an everyday fan, a true detective looking for Mickey’s true-self. I think that experience of losing one’s illusions and being forced to grow up in the way I was….You go from exalted, exorbitant reverence down to fury about being disappointed and then you have to stop and say, ‘yeah but he’s a guy.’ There is a difference between saying ‘he’s my guy” and ‘he’s a guy.”
Did Mantle have too many enablers?
I think that is the disease. You can’t make anybody go to rehab. You can’t make anybody get sober. They have to hit bottom. You can say that people around him didn’t do him any favors. That they led him astray. That they enabled him. That’s all true. But the bottom line is that only one person could make him do this and that was him and he wasn’t ready to do this.
Mantle was even more lost after baseball, was he not?
That is the whole turning point of the book. “I don’t know what to do with myself, I never thought I’d live this long.’ It was just a yawning chasm and no resources to fill it with. People were unable to relate to him as a human being but only as a thing, and a ‘get’ and then a record and then an example of poor behavior and then redemption. But none of it had to be with relating to him as a human being.
Do you think he was mad that he lived past the time of “being Mickey Mantle?”
I think he was pissed off and bewildered and surprised and absolutely incompetent to know how to fashion a different identity. A different person. I think he just didn’t know how to be. In that way he’s not a lot different than other athletes or celebrities when the spotlight is off.
Mantle certainly had his charming side but he could be as crude as anyone. The story he tells about going to the birthday party of an 80-year-old woman just turns off-color for no reason. Why?
It wasn’t just about being disguising. He was trying, and I think he did this a lot, he used that as a way of keeping people our of that fragile interior that he didn’t reveal any of until he told Merlyn (about abuse). He had learned the best defense was to be as offensive as humanly possible. And that is what he was doing. I was getting too close to demanding something of him, an accountability…He was trying to deflect scrutiny. He didn’t want to be understood.
What do you want people to take away from the book?
For the people who are Mickey fans I want them to (see) a guy who was human, who had prodigious talents, who had flaws like anyone else which I hope now are more understandable. On a very serious note, I would like people to come away of a better understanding for organ donation, not too late to join “Mickey’s Team” come away with appreciation what the scourge of alcohol is and how it still pervades the sports culture and people still draw a false distinction between drugs and alcohol in this country. And also with a understanding for the need for education about the profound trauma of child abuse. I think there is a whole lot meat and potatoes baseball in here that I’m proud of finding. That fact that I was able to shed some new light on the injury on Oct. 5, 1951, the failure of a groundskeeper to fail to put the rubber cover on the drain, the fact that he didn’t have the surgery then. Part of the Mantle myth he wasn’t as good as he ought to have been. He’s not Superman, how come? This may explain how come. Also, what made Mantle, Mantle?
Mantle was a top physical specimen. How do you think that played into his legend?
His beauty clearly played a huge part in it. And the particular kind of beauty. Everybody stopped in the clubhouse and just looked. How often does that happen? He had the kind of beauty that was so American. His face was open and dominated by the coast-to-coast smile that looked to me always had a hint of a grin. It was expansive and it was open. I really think in his person was optimistic. He really evoked in his musculature which concealed the dark side, a sense of American plenty and resources, abundances. I really think he touched on two myths. One was we could fix anything, we could do anything. Mickey Mantle could do anything. We could beat the Japs, we could whip the Germans, we could rebuild Europe with the Marshall Plan. We could send all the GIs to college. We could make it happen. That is what I thought I saw in Mantle’s face.