Book Review: Jane Leavy’s “The Last Boy”

Editor’s note: I originally read “The Last Boy” in pre-release, a courtesy extended to me by Marty Appel’s PR firm. I resisted posting a full review at the time because I wasn’t really sure how I felt after reading the book.  Time has given me a little more perspective so here, seven months later, is my review.

1995 was the year that brought me back to baseball.

It’s an odd statement given the strike of 1994, but it’s the truth.

I was a junior in college, going to school in Boston where Yankee fans aren’t exactly greeted at the exit ramps of the Mass Pike. My Yankee ties were kept on the QT on Commonwealth Avenue after a friend had a bottle flung at him from a moving car for wearing an Ulf Sammuelson jersey. It may not have been the smartest thing he ever did but he didn’t care. I remained a bit more cautious.

In truth, the Yankees and I had drifted apart for awhile. I was in college, going to most of my classes and leading a more social life than I ever had before. The team itself didn’t help the situation, spending most of the late eighties and early nineties, my formative teenage years, not playing well. As Don Mattingly’s back worsened and the team dropped in the standings, I found less and less to hold on to as I made the transition from high school to college. The lack of modern day accessibility via the Internet made it that much more difficult to get decent news outside of Sportscenter.

It hadn’t always been that way, though. I grew up living baseball and the Yankees. I spent many afternoons walking between the various baseball card shops in my area, trying to see what Mattingly cards I could get for the measly few bucks I had in my pocket. I even bought a Clemens rookie because it seemed like that guy was going to be great.

I watched as many games as I could. I remember pouring through a World Series book my dad had gotten me which gave the stories and statistics of every World Series up through the mid-eighties. I skipped through a lot of the pages, only stopping on the ones that had New York (A) in the heading, usually only pausing when it appeared they had lost. Thankfully, there were still lots of pages to read.

I learned about Mickey Mantle, Joe DiMaggio, Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford. I could put faces to these characters on Old Timer’s Day every summer, when black and white names became living breathing uniforms, the crowd still celebrating, roaring to their accomplishments from twenty years past.

I never saw Mickey Mantle play but it felt like that wasn’t necessary. The crowd, the books, the resume, the exaggerated myths told my impressionable self that this man, with the improbably perfect baseball name of Mickey Mantle, was to be admired, maybe even idolized. My dad gave me his copy of “All My Octobers” and I poured through it in a few days. He didn’t give me “The Mick,” which in hindsight was probably a good move on his part.

Then a weird coincidence happened in that summer of 1995. Baseball returned from the strike that cancelled the 1994 season. Many fans across the country were angry, swearing off baseball and the greed heads who played the game and owned it.

Not me. The Yankees were finally good again. Don Mattingly was getting close to the post season after getting robbed in 1994. This new wild card thing had created another opportunity to reach the playoffs, something the Yankees could have used a few times in the eighties.

Baseball was back in my life again. Only… one of its heroes was dying.

As the events of Mantle’s cancer and liver transplant came out in the press, a part of me looked for something to hold on to, something that would keep the Mick around after his death. The inner card collector in me steered toward one of the local memorabilia shops where an autographed Mantle baseball sat on the shelf.

Two hundred dollars.

I wasn’t swimming in cash but I had a credit card just like every other gullible college student. I stared at the ball, wandered around the store debating my purchase, and bought it.

Two months later, Mantle was gone.

The ball (and a few others) traveled with me through the rest of my time in Boston and my eventual return to New York. It generated a lot of conversation from people in the know, seemingly keeping the myth alive in whatever purpose I thought that might serve myself.

As I grew older, I learned more about Mantle. I finally read “Ball Four,” although the shock value had diluted with age. The myth of Mantle the ballplayer had been diluted as well by the reality of Mantle the human being, a man who was an alcoholic, absent father, and a generally crude individual.

I learned a few years back that the ball I had purchased back in 1995 was likely a fake, purchased at a time when there were no certifications and players were hiring guys to mimic their signatures. The ball, just like the man, wasn’t what I thought it was.

Jane Leavy delves deep into the Mantle mythos in her new biography, The Last Boy, probing through the twenty most significant moments of The Mick’s life and career to try and pinpoint what made Mantle such a complex figure.  Contrasting this lifelong examination is the background of an interview Leavy did with Mantle in Atlantic City in 1983, the full story of which she hadn’t revealed until this book.

The story of Mantle himself has been recounted in numerous volumes, some by himself and his family, some by others. Leavy takes this opportunity to set the record straight on some of these stories by investigating home runs or simply checking box scores. One of the most interesting passages involves the investigation of Mantle’s first tape measured home run in Washington and the man who found the ball. It’s a small window into the sensationalism heaped upon baseball in the name of selling newspapers.

Leavy does an admirable job culling her sources and talking with those who lived alongside the Mick. The wealth of information is pretty remarkable, although much of it seems like it has been told before. Leavy’s bigger task is the breakdown of Mantle’s psyche as she attempts to link together his relationship with his father, a possible addictive genetic trait, and events from his childhood to explain the duality of the troubled baseball player. In this, the author is mostly successful as it is easy to sympathize with the personal struggles that dogged Mantle throughout his life.

My issues with the book stem more from it’s readability, or better put, it’s lack thereof. Leavy is a good writer and has gathered a wealth of information, but the format she has chosen doesn’t allow it to hang together very well. The device of writing chapters based on Mantle’s seminal moments quickly evaporates as the narrative wanders, pulling experiences from throughout his life toward building a larger argument. The reader is left with a biography that jumps backward and forward, never giving the sense of where we, or The Mick for that matter, are in his life.

That may be part of Leavy’s intent, portraying each moment as the necessary outcome of Mantle’s experiences. From a narrative standpoint, it leaves the reader more aware of Leavy’s conclusions and less educated on the life of the subject itself. These conclusions could have easily been reached with a more traditional biography timeline while interjecting the story of the interview in Atlantic City, but Leavy probably felt that approach was redundant given the wealth of writing available about Mantle.  It also would have required revealing some of Mantle’s childhood ghosts early in the book which may have proven anticlimactic in Leavy’s eyes. As the reader, I can’t help but think I would have had a better understanding of what led to Mantle’s raucous life if I had experienced it in the same manner he did.

This becomes most evident when considering some of the lesser qualities of Mantle’s personality. The reader is left to judge many of these stories, including the Atlantic City interview itself, away from the context of Mantle’s past. Judged on their own merits, one’s opinion of The Mick could be quite bad based on his attitude and treatment of the people (especially women) around him. Leavy eventually wants us to believe that Mantle was a victim of circumstance and the events of his youth. Unfortunately, by the time we understand that conclusion, our opinions of Mantle may already have formed.

None of this makes Mickey Mantle the icon any less intriguing. For the uninitiated, The Last Boy provides a tremendous overview of the life of one of baseball’s greatest players. Leavy never intended to portray Mantle as a spotless American icon, which is both admirable and necessary. Instead, she leaves us with the question that Mantle faced in his final months: did Mickey Mantle keep himself from being an even greater ballplayer and human being, or was he an unfortunate victim with a golden smile?

The answer, like always, lies somewhere in between.

2 Comments

  1. Thanks for the great review. I grew up watching Mantle play and worshiping him like a god. I am looking forward to reading “The Last Boy”. Thanks for your perspective.

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  2. Good review on many points. I grew up in NY during the Mick’s time and also idolized him. I read the “Last Boy” book and enjoyed it very much. Jane Leavy also wrote Sandy Koufax’s bio.

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