Friday, February 16, 2018

Book Review: 'The Last Boy' by Jane Leavy


In 1951, Mickey Mantle went from being a small-town miner's son to being the heir-apparent to Joe DiMaggio as the New York Yankees centerfielder, almost over night. From his humble beginnings in Commerce, Oklahoma to his late-in-life boorish and arrogant behavior as an alcoholic ex-athlete; author Jane Leavy weaves a fascinating and well-researched narrative of the baseball player that came to personify the “good ole boy” nostalgia of the American 1950s.
In The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America's Childhood, Leavy does not attempt to pen a strict chronological biography from birth to death. Rather she hones in on several key moments of his life in this five-part, twenty chapter book. In toggling between 1983 and 1956, for example, Leavy paints an interesting back and forth story of Mantle at the height of his fame, and at the depths of his humiliations. As “the Last Boy” we see “the Mick” as the personification of a simpler 1950s America giving way to the more turbulent and complicated 1960s and beyond. Mantle's career spanned nineteen years (1951-1969) and just as America changed, so too did Mick.
Mantle's father Mutt was determined for his son to be a great ballplayer and tutored him early on to be a switch hitter. Mutt Mantle played a massive role in Mick's life, as he pushed his son to greatness and longed for him to have life beyond the zinc mines of northeastern Oklahoma. In 1951, when Mick had been sent down to the minor leagues, he called his father and asked him to pick him up in Kansas City. Discouraged and depressed, Mick planned to quit. What resulted was Mutt driving to Kansas City and blasting his son's lack of fortitude. Questioning Mickey's manhood, Mutt convinced him to persevere, while threatening him with a bleak future as a worker in the mines. Of course, Mick went on to greatness, as Mutt went to the grave; dying of the all-too-common natural causes that plagued the miners of his era. Mutt was 39.
Dying young was a Mantle family trait; as numerous Mantle men succumbed to cancer at a young age. This reality both haunted and drove Mickey to baseball immortality, but also to the bottle. Leavy descriptively writes: “That the earth would give way beneath his feet was a grim irony for Mickey Mantle. Growing up in Commerce, Oklahoma, in the dead center of the Tri-State Mining District, fatalism was an inheritance. It percolated up from the tainted, unstable earth. That forgotten corner where Missouri, Oklahoma, and Kansas meet was hardly the Oklahoma of Rodgers and Hammerstein. A century of mining lead and zinc from the ancient bedrock had left the ground as hollowed out as the faces of the men who worked it.” (pg. 38)
With a fatalistic assumption that he would die young, Mick lived it up in the bars of New York and later, the country clubs of Dallas and Atlanta. He married Merlyn, in accordance with his father's wishes, at a young age; and stayed married to her for the remainder of his life. While fathering four sons, Mick would also cavort with numerous other women, often with Merlyn's full knowledge. Mick provided for his wife, kids, and extended family. But the provision was often financial and not emotional, choosing instead to carouse with Yankee teammates like Billy Martin, Whitey Ford, and others. And while constant injuries marred his playing career, Mick always seemed to find the energy for bar-hopping. Many have wondered, how could he might have been, had he taken better care of himself.
Leavy interviewed hundreds of people for this biography, and traveled to all the places Mick frequented. This adds a rich and lucid detail to the book. She also pulls no punches in telling of his countless drunken escapades and sexual trysts, including Mick's inappropriate behavior toward the author herself. In the end, the reader will likely feel both pity and disappointment with Mick's behavior; while also being drawn to his self-deprecating humility and loyalty as a teammate and friend.
In the end, Mantle's life is both inspiring and depressing; as controversy seemed to follow him wherever he went. Many questioned why he was not drafted into the military in the early 1950s as the Korean War raged. Others openly hated him for daring to replace the legendary Joe DiMaggio. By the end of Mick's life, many other's wondered how he was able to move to the top of a liver transplant list, while so many other needy (and some would say more worthy) patients languished.
Mick got a new liver, but it was too little too late. He died in 1995 of liver disease, brought on by years of alcohol abuse. But Mantle's tale is one of redemption as well. In his final years, he overcame the alcoholism after a stint in the Betty Ford Clinic. He broke off the relationship with his longtime mistress, Grier Johnson; and seemed to make some measure of peace with Merlyn. He connected with his four sons and tried to make up for the years of neglect. And he tried to make his peace with God, being influenced by longtime friend Pat Summerall, who spoke to him about his alcoholism and about his soul. Former Yankee teammate, turned minister, Bobby Richardson would speak to the Mick about committing his life to Christ; and would speak on behalf of Mick as he preached his funeral.
In conclusion, The Last Boy makes for an interesting read, fraught with warnings about living life in the fast lane, as you run over the ones who love you most. While in one sense, Mickey Mantle was a simple, uneducated country boy who hit the big time; in another sense he was an extremely complex individual, who was both loved and loathed. At times, his behavior was inexcusable; yet his greatest admirers sought to offer excuses anyway. Mantle was “The Last Boy” and in some ways this is true because he never really grew up. But he did get old. He did get sick. And though he lived a lot longer than he expected, he did eventually die. Jane Leavy does an admirable job of telling his life story as she intertwines his younger days and his twilight ones. The book is a page-turner for those who love baseball, and even for those who don't. Mantle's life was a fascinating story and Leavy tells it well.

Editor's note: This review was written by Shane Kastler and republished with his permission.

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