Sunday, March 27, 2011

#16: The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America's Childhood by Jane Leavy

I tend to shy away from anything with "end of America" in the title, as usually the text turns into an overblown piece of sentimental foolishness. Not so this book; most of that is due to the subject, but no small part is due to the organizational scheme of the author. In all, this is a highly recommendable book.

Leavy organizes the text around 20 days in the life of Mantle, with a single day in 1983 in Atlantic City as interludes between sections. We see Mantle in various stages:
A. The "Commerce Comet", a whole ballplayer who could run and hit with power who is in the majors by age 19.
B. The "Whiskey Slick" with Whitey Ford and Billy Martin
C. The "Hero" who plays hard at all times
D. The broken down drunk, reduced to glad-handing rich assholes in Atlantic City.
E. A man with only a name to give

I knew most of the stories of debauchery; the impact on Mantle's marriage and friendships is palpable. What kind of father was he? One of his sons said "absentee"; later they were reduced to drinking buddies. I can relate to that, as at the end of my father's life, it was a shocking realization that the best times I spent with my dad involved swilling beer in a shitty bar.

The life Mantle led after baseball was truly sad. A seemingly endless round of drinks and golf with autograph sessions thrown in; he did not lose his sense of humor, however. Mantle sent Barry Halper, "legendary" collector of memorabilia (shady character) who made millions off of old ballplayers like Mantle, Musial and Mays, a bag of shit from his deathbed. Following his liver transplant, he asked Halper "Hey Barry, did you get my other liver?" Mickey Mantle from 1972-1990 was beset by parasites, hangers on and cursed with his own weaknesses. I got the feeling that he never got used to being "Mickey Mantle" and wanted to be "Mick" but never knew how.

Leavy does not neglect mantle as a ballplayer, and this is where the book turns from great to excellent. The discussion of injuries and the physics of Mantle's swing are first rate. Playing hurt is one thing; playing the better part of a season and a half with a torn ACL is something completely different. Playing in the world series with a hole the size of at least a golf ball in your hip following an abscess removal borders on superhuman. One of his teammates said "He did most of this to himself, but he still played." Right on. Mantle comes across as an honest, genuine, hard working and hard drinking player, fully aware of how he may be screwing up the lives of his family and his own. This doesn't make him a tragic figure, and Leavy leaves that romanticism for other writers. It simply makes him human. That's a trite and common thing to say, but not many humans could have kept up with Mantle in is prime on or off a ballfield.

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