The Last Boy

The schizophrenic quality of Mickey Mantle's life is made powerfully manifest throughout Jane Leavy's exhaustively researched, delightfully readable biography. Right from the start, Mantle's enormous athletic potential was bundled with his debilitating psychological and physical problems. Leavy not only wrestles with the maddening contradictions of the man himself but also the carefully-constructed myth of Mantle: that the Yankee slugger, by pure willpower, transcended humble beginnings and a lifetime of physical pain to become an American icon. But she keeps her eye on more than the facts of her subject's life, recognizing that fans and writers (herself included) have "invent[ed] a kinder, warmer, bigger Mick, the Mick [we] wanted him to be."

 

Mantle's distant father, like several Mantles, died young, leaving Mickey a sense of abandonment and a fatalistic streak. Once his ballplaying career took off, he found himself saddled with excruciating pain from multiple on-the-field injuries. Despite these physical and psychological problems, his wounds were largely cloaked—the press and public celebrated Mantle as a shimmering example of American manhood. As Yankee wife Lucille McDougald tells Leavy, "Who wouldn't hop into bed with him?" Married with children, Mantle loved the nightlife, drinking and chasing beautiful women (or in Mantle's case, being chased). Much like his battle-scarred knees, his liver and his marriage almost collapsed under the exertion.

 

Leavy interviewed everyone close to Mantle. The slugger's hyper-forgiving wife, Meryl, tells Leavy that "[h]e thought no one ever loved him." The Last Boy's most telling revelation may be in Mantle's sexual abuse as a boy, a trauma which made him largely incapable of trusting others. When Leavy interviewed the retired Mantle, he was drunk and made a pass at her. She also watched Mantle telling numerous dirty jokes and off-color anecdotes. The tragedy Leavy exposes is that Mantle only confronted his present problems, and damaged childhood at the end of his life. If we like our heroes because of, not in spite of, their frailties, then Mickey Mantle may be the greatest hero of all. Leavy gives us Mick, not necessarily as fans have wanted to see him, but still glorious in all his self-destructive, splendid complexity.

July 23: Jessica Mitford died on this day in 1996.

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