The Wall Street Journal
Book Review: Oct 12, 2010
The Last Boy
By Jane Leavy
Harper, 456 pages, $27.99
Hits and Errors
One fateful baseball misstep—into a water drain while chasing a World Series fly ball—but lots of missteps off the field.
By HENRY D. FETTER
To Yankees fans of a certain age, the real "Mr. October" is not Reggie Jackson, famous for his clutch home runs in postseason play, but Mickey Mantle. Mantle played in 12 World Series and still holds the all-time Series records for most home runs, runs, walks, extra-base hits and total bases. Although Jane Leavy records these measures of Mantle's athletic prowess—and many others besides—her primary interest in "The Last Boy" lies beyond the ballfield. Only one World Series game finds a place among the 20 pivotal days that Ms. Leavy has chosen "for closer inspection"—days that represent, to her, the "highs, lows and flash points" in Mickey Mantle's life.
That Series game was played on Oct. 5, 1951, during which Mantle, a rookie, took a misstep into a water-drain opening in the Yankee Stadium turf (blamed on outfield-mate Joe DiMaggio for calling Mantle off the fly ball he was chasing). Mantle tore his right knee up so badly that "his potential was irrevocably circumscribed" thereafter.
Other pivotal days in Ms. Leavy's chronicle show Mantle doing great things—e.g., June 5, 1963, when he hit a home run that struck the top part of the right -field facade of Yankee Stadium, the closest that anyone ever came to hitting a ball out of that park. But there was also May 16, 1957, when a group of Yankees celebrating teammate Billy Martin's birthday at the Copacabana night club, including Mantle, got into a confrontation with some other patrons. (Martin, allegedly a bad influence on Mantle, was traded soon after.) Or Sept. 25, 1961, when Dr. Max Jacobson, New York's notorious "Dr. Feelgood," injected Mantle with amphetamines.
In fact, Ms. Leavy is most concerned with depicting—and trying to understand—the way Mantle lived when he was not wearing Yankee pinstripes, during his playing career and after. This approach provides something of a challenge. As Ms. Leavy recognizes, she is writing in the wake of a number of self-lacerating memoir-accounts that Mantle himself composed or collaborated on, as well as accounts from his sons and estranged wife. Certainly probing the psyche of a man who freely talked about even his adolescent bed-wetting on national television marks a change of pace for Ms. Leavy, who previously wrote about the notably reclusive Dodger pitching star Sandy Koufax.
Drawing on hundreds of interviews, Ms. Leavy compiles a grim record of Mantle's extramarital affairs and demeaning treatment of women, his vulgar, crude and spiteful behavior, his business failures and, not least, his uncontrolled drinking, which finally led him to the Betty Ford Center a few months before his death from cancer in 1995 at the age of 63. Ms. Leavy adds her own recollection of an assignment she had when she was writing for the Washington Post. She was to report on the retired baseball star when he was director of sports promotions for an Atlantic City hotel in 1983. She ended up being groped by a booze-fueled Mantle, who eventually passed out on her lap in a casino lounge.
What drives "The Last Boy" forward is the author's quest to answer the questions she would have asked of the man himself: "Mickey, what happened? Why did you do it? Why did you choose to lead the life you did?" As the evidence of a misspent and self- destructive life piles up, Ms. Leavy finally delivers her payoff pitch. We had already learned from Mantle's widow, in a family memoir called "A Hero All His Life" (1996), that Mantle had been sexually molested as a child by an older half-sister. Ms. Leavy has discovered additional episodes of abuse—in particular, an older boy in the Commerce, Okla., neighborhood where Mickey grew up had fondled him on a number of occasions. She says that Mantle was also seduced by a high-school teacher.
Ms. Leavy consults the experts and pronounces: "Mantle's story is consistent with a cluster of symptoms often seen in survivors of childhood abuse: sexual compulsivity or extreme promiscuity; alcoholism or substance abuse; difficulty regulating emotions and self-soothing; bed-wetting; a distorted sense of self; self-loathing, shame and guilt; a schism between a public image and a private self; feelings of isolation and mistrust; difficulty getting close to others."
The "last boy" is thereby recast as a victim. Which explains everything—except, that is, the 536 home runs, the three Most Valuable Player Awards, the Hall of Fame plaque, the 20 All-Star game appearances. Mantle never set foot on a baseball field, Ms. Leavy says, without pain after that outfield mishap during 1951 World Series and "would play the next seventeen years struggling to be as good as he could be knowing he would never be as good as he might have been." Yankee trainer Joe Soares said that "Mantle has a greater capacity to withstand pain than any man I've ever seen." Toward his inevitably less-talented teammates, Ms. Leavy notes, "he never showed any one up, he never called any one out, never blamed anyone but himself." Plus he had the grace to acknowledge that "Mays" was the right answer to the perennial question of who was the best among the "Willie, Mickey and the Duke" centerfield triad that ruled New York City's diamonds in the 1950s.
So, yes, Mickey Mantle behaved like a wild adolescent in his private life. But this may not require psychological theories to explain. Fifteen years after Mantle's death there is no shortage of "boys" among today's sports stars and celebrities engaging in boorish, sexually exploitative, even criminal, behavior. Mantle's better qualities—displayed in both athletic skill and what used to be called "class" on the playing field—are less in evidence. "Last boy"? In some ways, Mickey Mantle was "the last man."
Mr. Fetter, the author of "Taking on the Yankees: Winning and Losing in the Business of Baseball," writes about sports for TheAtlantic.com.