Feature

Book of the week: The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America’s Childhood by Jane Leavy

Leavy's new biography—“the most complete book ever about Mantle”—captures both his legendary profligacy and his enduring appeal.

(Harper, 480 pages, $27.99) 

The first time Jane Leavy met Mickey Mantle, he made her cry, said Allen Barra in Salon.com. The Yankee legend was then working as a celebrity host at an Atlantic City hotel, and when Leavy arrived to profile her former idol, she was unprepared to confront “a pathetic, broken” man who would make crude advances, then pass out drunk in her lap. But that 1983 encounter didn’t cause Leavy to give up on the man. Her new biography—“the most complete book ever about Mantle”—captures both his legendary profligacy and his enduring appeal. Past authors have amply detailed Mantle’s self-destructive tendencies, but Leavy’s sympathetic account “brings an insight to Mantle’s story that previous writers, including Mickey himself, lacked.”

In a world of celebrity tell-alls, this is truly “an understand-all,” said James Bailey in Baseball America. The son of a poor Oklahoma miner who died young, Mantle convinced himself at an early age that he wouldn’t live past 40, and that belief apparently “gave him license to abuse a body he wouldn’t need for long.” His fatalism was daily reinforced by painful physical ailments. As a rookie, Mantle blew out a knee in the 1951 World Series while chasing a Willie Mays fly ball. He suffered terribly throughout his career from that injury, as well as from the bone disease osteomyelitis. Yet the “most telling” revelations in Leavy’s book indicate that the star’s deepest injuries may have been psychological, said Chuck Leddy in BNReview.com. As a boy, Mantle was sexually molested by his half-sister. Later, an older boy in the neighborhood fondled him numerous times, and a teacher in high school seduced him.

But to recast Mantle as a victim misses something essential, said Henry D. Fetter in The Wall Street Journal. The abuse “explains everything”—except, of course, the accomplishments that made him a hero. This damaged child somehow grew up to be an athlete of such stoicism that he played through pain every day and still put up Hall of Fame numbers. Despite constant criticism from the press and even his own manager, he also remained gracious with fans and teammates alike. “Yes, Mickey Mantle behaved like a wild adolescent in his private life.” But so do today’s biggest sports stars. Meanwhile, “Mantle’s better qualities—displayed in both athletic skill and what used to be called ‘class’ on the playing field”—are scarce these days. Leavy’s title labels him “the last boy.” Really? “In some ways, Mickey Mantle was the last man.”

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