The Last Boy

Mickey Mantle and the End
of America's Childhood

By Jane Leavy

Harper. 480 pp. $27.99

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Reviewed by Bill Lyon


There were those home runs, of course, those towering, titanic, majestic tape-measure launches, struck with equal ferocity from both sides of the plate, leaving his peers slack-jawed in awe as batted balls traveled to places previously unreached.

And there were those blondes, of course, platoons of them, lush and warm and willing, an endless, accommodating supply, unashamedly brazen and softly solicitous, and as they would walk away to another hotel elevator, his peers would gape in undisguised envy.

So there it was: Men wanted to be him, and women wanted to be with him.

Mickey Charles Mantle. Baseball player extraordinaire. Lavishly talented but fatally flawed. And now, 15 years after his death, the subject of yet another book. You might think that particular literary mine has played out by now. By author Jane Leavy's own reckoning, at least six biographies have been done, plus a small library of offerings by various family members, and 20 more biographies just since his passing.

Comes now The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and The End of America's Childhood. It is a tale deftly told, rich in detail, unvarnished and unsparing, researched to a fare-thee-well, alternatively fluid and florid, and without staleness because Leavy has found a new angle from which to come at a well-worked-over subject.

It's not a sports book. It is not weighted down with numbers. It is both biography and sociological study, traced back to an earlier, more innocent time, the Happy Days of the 1950s, a decade ruled by boys: James Dean, Buddy Holly, Frankie Avalon, Dean Martin, and, of course, Elvis. Grown men with boys' names: Billy, Whitey, Mickey. As for The Mick, she writes:

With his aura of limitless potential, Mantle was Fifties America incarnate. His raw talent, the unprecedented alloy of speed and power, spoke directly to our postwar optimism.

He was the rejoinder to the promise that anyone in America could grow up to be president or Mickey Mantle - even Mickey Mantle. And he recognized it. "I guess you could say I'm what this country is all about."

And yet he could say such a thing without sounding full of himself. He was shy by nature. He was lucky, and that was not lost on him. Fate had decided he would be her partner for the last dance.

A teammate, Eli Grba, is quoted:

His aura had an aura. The way he walked, the way he ran and the way he presented himself once he put on the uniform - he was a symphony. Ever hear Beethoven's Ninth? The Ode to Joy? You see him hit and then you see him run, and it's like going into the chorale.

And yet for all his incendiary exploits, we are left to wonder: What might he have done had he been whole? He was hurt - a knee blown out almost before his career began - and he would spend that career plagued by injury. Teammates would turn away when he began to harness and wrap his wounds. Now playing center field for the New York Yankees - The Mummy.

"Did you get to see me run?" he asked a teammate, and then added this bittersweet proviso: "I mean, back when I could run. . . . "

He didn't help himself, of course. He drank like a man with a death wish, which is exactly what he had, certain he was doomed genetically never to reach 40.

Lanny Wadkins, the pro golfer and a pal of The Mick, offered this melancholy epitaph: "All he was good at was destroying himself."

Mantle himself asked another pal, the country balladeer Roy Clark, to sing at his funeral his hauntingly beautiful valedictory to a life ill spent, and Clark choked back tears and obliged with "Yesterday When I Was Young."

Leavy invested a sizable chunk of her career in this book, trying to separate the apocryphal from the true, and she has gone to extraordinary lengths to chase down and flesh out and revisit time, place, and deed. Along the way, for all the tragedy, there is humor, sometimes from twice-told moments.

A personal favorite: The Mick is ragingly hung over and curled up in the fetal position at the far end of the Yankees dugout when he is summoned to pinch-hit. There is some debate whether he will even make it to the batter's box. He does, turns on the first pitch and crushes the ball. Home run, line drive trailing blue flame.

"Honest to God," said a teammate, Clete Boyer, "I didn't think he'd make it around the bases."

Mike McCormick, the pitcher who yielded the rocket, said: "He kinda sobered his way around."

Back in the cool sanctuary of the dugout, Mantle said: "Those people have no idea how hard that really was."

Most of his life was hard. He spent his last 18 months in recovery. He underwent a liver transplant, but it was too late. In the gathering dusk, he sought redemption, looking into the camera and imploring: "Don't be like me."

It might have been his finest hour.

Bill Lyon (lyon1964@ comcast.net) is a distinguished former sports writer for The Inquirer.