Yet as she did in her innovative biography “Sandy Koufax,”
Jane Leavy has found a different path through the throng. For her portrait of Koufax, she alternated an inning-by-inning account of that great pitcher’s perfect game in 1965 with deeply researched and fluidly written examinations of the rest of his life and import. “The Last Boy,” a nonlinear biography, takes the form of 20 days in Mantle’s life (something of a conceit; some of the “days” are stretched to cover nearly a season, or an entire childhood).The approach refreshes and underscores the facts and patterns of a life, and enables Leavy to connect the dots in new and disturbing ways. The Mantle who emerges is perhaps more whole than ever previously captured. His was an almost Dickensian childhood spent atop a veritable toxic waste dump in Commerce, Okla., with piles of lead and zinc mining debris called “chat.” The detritus was dangerous: Leavy offers evidence that it might have induced dyslexia in Mantle, and one of Mantle’s sons suggests it might have contributed more damage in his father’s fatal liver cancer than did 40 years of alcoholism.Death is, in fact, the unexpected theme of this biography, and it emerges in the most unexpected places. Leavy’s most salient observation is of the day in June 1969 when the Yankees retired Mantle’s uniform number in front of 60,096 fans:“He had watched Gary Cooper deliver Lou Gehrig’s farewell address in ‘The Pride of the Yankees.’ Now he was standing in the same spot, invoking Gehrig’s parting words: ‘I always wondered how a man who knew he was going to die could stand here and say he was the luckiest man in the world. Now I think I know how Lou Gehrig felt.’“What was lost in all the huzzahs attendant to the occasion — the last lap around the stadium in a bullpen cart with hand-painted pinstripes — was that he cast himself as a dying man. In fact, he was already planning his funeral.”Almost anyone who knows about Mantle knows that the frequently admitted presumption of early death is part of his legend. While Leavy disproves his depiction of a family in which all the men died by 40, she also convincingly identifies this specific fear as the likely outcome of Mantle’s having been repeatedly sexually abused as a child by a half sister and neighborhood boys, and produces heartbreaking on-the-record evidence to support this painful conclusion.This is not, however, a dark book, no matter how dark parts of the life it portrays surely were. The hero worship of the fans, and the women who constituted a kind of endless batting practice in Mantle’s life, are presented thoroughly and fairly. There are revelations of hidden charity and great empathy, of a hero’s genuine inability to understand what others saw in him, and deeply endearing self-deprecating humor, even when a drunken Mantle is literally in the gutter. Almost everyone in sports over 40 has a “When I met Mickey” story, and Leavy weaves her own through five vignettes interspersed with the main chapters. Hers is too sweetly, horribly, blissfully, embarrassingly Mantlean to give away here.Most important, the affection with which Mantle’s teammates always embraced him is chronicled abundantly, and stands in stark contrast to his wife and children’s struggles to do the same despite the emotional roadblocks that were seemingly all Mantle was capable of offering them. And as Leavy honors their Sisyphean efforts, she does the same for Mantle’s own attempts to overcome an equally impossible obstacle. Reinforcing the historical record with scientific reinterpretation, she posits that when Mantle injured his right knee swerving out of Joe DiMaggio’s way in the fifth inning of the second game of the 1951 World Series, he in fact tore his meniscus and the anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments. Insufficient treatment of the “unhappy triad” would downgrade him from the prospect of being the game’s greatest performer to playing nearly all of his remaining 17 years on one knee. Still, he won three M.V.P. awards and, in 1956, the triple crown.Leavy has also given us old-fashioned, nonanalytical gumshoe research, enough — and good enough — to make the crowds of amateur baseball sleuths or the pros at the Hall of Fame weep. Mantle’s 565-foot home run at Griffith Stadium in Washington in April 1953 was not merely one of the longest ever hit, nor was it just Mantle’s true self-introduction on the baseball stage. It also sealed the sport’s obsession with the “tape-measure homer,” largely through the artifice of the anecdotal report by the Yankees’ public relations director, Red Patterson, that he found the boy who had come upon the Mantle baseball where it finally stopped, in somebody’s backyard. More than half a century later, Leavy tracked down the man, by then 69 years old, and managed to get just enough detail from him to produce a true picture of the transformational blast.His was one of 563 interviews Leavy conducted, ranging from the executive responsible for the creation — and scarcity — of Mantle’s landmark 1952 Topps baseball card, to Eric Kandel, who won the 2000 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Kandel is asked to try to explain both Mantle’s explosive swing, which made the bat seem of double width, and his inability to explain to others how he did it. (Kandel rightly answers, “I think your question is not dramatically different than asking, ‘What makes Mozart Mozart?’ ”)But Leavy comes as close as perhaps anyone ever has to answering “What makes Mantle Mantle?” She transcends the familiarity of the subject, cuts through both the hero worship and the backlash of pedestal-wrecking in the late 20th century, treats evenly his belated sobriety and the controversial liver transplant (doomed mid-surgery by an oncologist’s discovery that the cancer had spread), and handles his infidelity with dispassion. Sophocles could have easily worked with a story like Mantle’s — the prominent figure, gifted and beloved, through his own flaws wasteful, given clarity too late to avoid his fate. Leavy spares us the classical tragedy even as she avoids the morality play. “The Last Boy” is something new in the history of the histories of the Mick. It is hard fact, reported by someone greatly skilled at that craft, assembled into an atypical biography by someone equally skilled at doing that, and presented so that the reader and not the author draws nearly all the conclusions.
Keith Olbermann is an anchor on MSNBC. His new book, “Pitchforks and Torches,” will be published later this month.