I'm a lifelong Yankee fan. No, I didn't just jump on the bandwagon when they started winning World Series again in the 1990s, and I'm not a "follow the winner type" (my favorite NBA team is the woebegone Nets. Sigh.). It actually began when I was maybe seven or eight years old. I had gotten the distinct impression that my grandfather didn't like me. I can understand why--he had had two daughters, and then his oldest daughter (my mother) had three daughters, with me being number three, the last in a long line of disappointments. I think he was exasperated and annoyed by the fact that he couldn't get the much yearned for boy in his family. To top it off, I was neither pretty nor charming, not the kind of girl who could make a cranky old man forget that he thought he should have had a son or grandson. I thought, though, that if I tried to be interested in things he was interested in, he would be less gruff and critical. When he came over to our house during the summer he would turn on the TV and watch the Yankees game. I sat with him and he did not teach me about the game, nor did he steep me in Yankees lore, or tell me anecdotes about his own visits to the stadium (I never found out if he actually saw a game in person or not, but I suspect he did, because my mom's now 90 year old cousin has told me about going to Yankee games in the 1930s and '40s). He mostly yelled at the screen when someone got thrown out while stealing, popped out, or struck out. I realized after a while that I was wasting time with him and instead devoted all my time to my grandmother, who taught me how to play poker and whist, and was all around wonderful. She liked to watch old movies on TV that she remembered seeing in the theater, and I liked watching them with her. It couldn't have been easy being married to my grandfather, who mostly expected a wife to wait on him (he was apparently spoiled rotten by his mother and sisters), but my dad always said that the one thing in life that really made her happy was her grandchildren. I'm glad I was able to help a little bit. But though I gave up on my grandfather, I didn't give up on baseball.
(I know, too much about me.)
All this leads me to Jane Leavy, who was a baseball crazed little girl growing up in New York in the 1950s, whose beloved grandmother aided and abetted her Yankee addiction, which was much worse than mine, and included a huge crush on the big star of the period, Mickey Mantle. She became a sportswriter, and got the chance to meet her idol, which was not...well, not the way I'm sure she dreamed of it when she was a little girl and a big fan. He was rude and crude to start with, then drunk, and ended the event by hitting on her and passing out. Aren't you glad now that you never met your childhood hero (or if you did, I hope it went a little better)?
Leavy includes this story in her new book about Mantle: The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America's Childhood. I'd read her earlier book on Sandy Koufax, so my expectations for this book were high. They were met.
Mantle in 1961, during the home run chase with Roger Maris.
Many, many books have been written about Mantle, so part of Leavy's task was to make her book stand out--here's why you should read another book about Mickey Mantle. She accomplishes this first through an innovative structure--each chapter focuses on an important day in Mantle's life, but within the story of that day are a million other little stories. By the time you finish the book, you've gotten his whole life story but in a way that avoids the predictability of standard, linear biographies (which, by the way, can be fantastic in the hands of the right writer, but in the wrong hands seem like a high school social studies assignment).
The exhaustive research Leavy put into her book also disproves the idea that everything about Mantle was already known, every story told and retold. She interviewed over 500 people (the list of names in the acknowledgements reveal that a significant number of them died between the time of Leavy's interview and the book's publication; if you are an aging ballplayer and Leavy calls to request an interview, you might want to think twice about it). She blows apart a number of myths, the kind of things that had become such an accepted part of the Mantle story that others had long stopped bothering to check them. .She finds out that Mantle never had surgery on the knee injury that devastated his career in 1951. She searches for the boy who found the ball that Mantle hit a legendary, much disputed distance in Washington, DC--the so-called tape measure home run--and then uses his information and physicists' work to try to find the actual distance. She proves that he didn't get his tremendous strength from working in the mines in his hometown of Commerce, Oklahoma (he worked for the mining company, but not in the mines), a long-held myth, and also that his freakish strength didn't cause all his injuries; rather, most of them were the result of the 1951 injury that never healed, or (if I'm reading it correctly) just sometimes bad luck. She dispels both the myth that Mantle's celebrity got him bumped to the top of the transplant list when he needed a liver transplant, and the idea that his plea for people to become organ donors caused a notable uptick in organ donors.
Leavy writes about all of Mantle's flaws--he could be incredibly mean to fans. He was a womanizer and an absentee father until his sons were old enough to become drinking buddies (and acquire alcoholism, the family illness). But he could also be astonishingly sweet and generous, especially to his teammates. He never understood the adulation that followed him, or the criticism that dogged him for never quite living up to his potential. Incredibly, the best anyone ever saw of Mantle was during those few months in 1951 before his knee injury--yet despite that, the lesser version of Mickey Mantle was better than almost anyone else's best. But he found it hard to deal with this, and in his own disappointment at himself, could lash out at anyone who asked the wrong question or was in the wrong place. He was not easy to love, but so many people kept trying. He was not the perfect all-American hero, except sometimes, when he was.
My only quibble with Leavy is her book's title--I would argue that there are more boys than ever masquerading as men, and that America is just as childish as ever (and probably always will be--which isn't necessarily bad). I don't understand it, but maybe it's something you understand more if you grew up in that time period worshipping Mickey Mantle.
Despite my own Yankee fandom, I knew little about Mantle when I began to read the book, other than that he is always one of the first names anyone mentions when people begin "All-time great lists." By the time I finished the book, I felt that I knew a lot. When I reached the last page, I thought that I didn't know which must have been worse--being Mickey Mantle's wife, his son, or being Mantle himself.