October 5, 2010 | Baseball America
It’s been 40 years since Jim Bouton earned pariah status by naming names in “Ball Four.” One of his greatest sins in the eyes of many was outing Mickey Mantle’s drinking, hotel voyeurism, and rudeness to fans, including children. Bouton was accused of lying by some, while others never forgave him for breaking baseball’s unwritten code of silence.
In the decades that have passed since, Mantle’s late-night exploits have become part of the public record. He drank. Heavily. He caroused. He cheated on his wife for nearly the entire length of their marriage. And he was often a boor in public, generally when he’d overlubricated himself on whatever the drink of the day was.
Despite it all, Mantle never stopped being the All-American Boy in the eyes of his fans. Jane Leavy was no exception, though hers were opened during a weekend in Atlantic City spent interviewing him while working on a feature story for her newspaper in 1983. She saw then some of his faults rise to the surface. Two decades later, when she began research for “The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America’s Childhood,” she grappled with how to balance the idol so many had grown up worshiping with the fatally flawed Mantle so many refused to recognize.
“So how do you write about a man you want to love the way you did as a child but whose actions were often unlovable?” she asks in the preface. “How do you reclaim a human being from caricature without allowing him to be fully human?”
Leavy committed more than five years to chasing the essence of The Mick. She interviewed more than 500 people, a staggering list that consumes nearly 10 pages in the appendix. She spoke with teammates, opponents, family, friends, doctors, business associates, fans, and writers who had covered him. They won’t all embrace the final project, but their reasons for disliking it will be personal and rooted in a love for a man whose flaws they either downplayed or wished others would.
Most of Mantle’s offenses have been written about before. In 1996, the year after he died, his wife and sons released “A Hero All His Life,” detailing the family’s battles with alcoholism and addiction. The opening chapter was a first person account from Mantle, apologizing for all the ways he let his wife and boys down. By then, he’d been through rehab at the Betty Ford Center and stopped drinking. Mantle was sober for the last year and a half of his life, but the damage was done to both his body and his relationships. It wasn’t too late, however, for him to begin making amends. That confessional chapter was part of that process, as was a press conference in which he told America’s kids “Don’t be like me.”
So Leavy wasn’t looking to shock anyone with Mantle’s exploits. What she hoped to do, and does, was humanize him. Without excusing the drinking, the womanizing, the rudeness, she explains how this fatalistic son of an Oklahoma miner became the man he was both publicly and privately. His father Mutt, who groomed his son as a ballplayer, died young, like so many of Mantle’s relatives. Mickey believed he too wouldn’t live past 40, which gave him license to abuse a body he wouldn’t need for long after his playing days concluded.
Leavy tapped doctors to help explain how his osteomyelitis and chronic knee injuries impacted his playing career. And how a trip to a quack to resolve what was likely the clap cost him a shot at Babe Ruth’s 60 home run mark in 1961 after the “cure” became infected. He was renowned for playing with pain, but even Mantle couldn’t perform with an abscess the size of a baseball on his backside. He managed only six at-bats in the World Series that year, lining one hit, after which he was removed for a pinch-runner. America saw a warrior valiantly attempting to play through pain. They didn’t, however, have any clue about his infidelities and how they had at last caught up with him.
She also does some fine detective work to un-supersize one of his legendary home runs, a 1953 blast in Washington that was reported to have traveled 565 feet before landing in the backyard of a home across the street from Griffith Stadium. That made it the longest home run ever measured. The problem was, it was never actually measured. The reporter who trumpeted the tape measure shot didn’t actually use a tape measure. Nor did he see where it landed. Leavy tracked down the boy who recovered the ball, and with the help of a physics professor she recreated the legendary hit. Their conclusion: The ball could have traveled as far as 530 to 540 feet.
The home run, like the man who hit it, is brought down respectfully in size in “The Last Boy.” From time to time it almost feels like a tell-all—but it’s not, at least not in the sense that we have come to know tell-all books. It’s more of an understand-all book, piecing together the man whose exploits have been both exaggerated and hushed over the last six decades.
Leavy saves her best for last. The final chapter details the liver transplant that outraged many who believed, incorrectly, that Mantle’s fame had allowed him to skip ahead in the queue of needful patients. She talked with doctors who recognized too late that he was a poor fit for a new liver, as the cancer had already spread to neighboring organs. Mantle died two months later, surrounded by the wife he had put through so much and a son he had finally begun to bond with after so many years of not knowing how to be a father.
While acknowledging those who helped her flesh out the real Mantle, Leavy writes “I cannot predict how his loved ones will receive this effort. I hope they feel I kept my promise to reclaim him from caricature. The way I look at it, after everything The Mick did for me, the least I could do was try to return his humanity to him in full.”
Mission accomplished, and powerfully so.
James Bailey reviews books for Baseball America. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.