“The Last Boy” by Jane Leavy
By Jane Leavy
480 pages. Audio: 17 hours and 3 minutes
If you’re going to write about baseball you need to be a fan. And in the case of this book, if you are going to read it you probably need to be a fan. The author Jane Leavy obviously qualifies. She has written two truly great baseball biographies. The first was about Sandy Koufax and this one is about Mickey Mantle. Even people who are not baseball fans probably know the name Mickey Mantle. What a perfect name for the great American hero. A natural athlete from Oklahoma with extraordinary power, grace, and speed, Mantle was right out of Hollywood casting as every boy’s idol.
But Leavy’s title and subtitle indicate that this story is not going to be entirely happy. In fact, it is a tragedy of epic proportions; it tells the story of a very broken hero.
Mantle had hardly begun his career when tragedy struck. As a rookie he stepped on a water drain in the outfield and wrecked his knee. The rest of his two-decade career would be a constant battle with the balky knee. Even though his career statistics are eye-popping, you have to wonder what they would have been like if he had had good health. Very seldom did he play a full injury-free season.
However, the real story here is not Mantle’s health but his character. And while a great many of the famous Yankees don’t come out of the story looking very good, no one comes out looking worse than Mantle. (For the record, if you want to know who besides Mantle comes out looking the worst, it’s DiMaggio.)
I freely admit that this book will be a lot more interesting to people who know who Billy Martin, Ryne Durren, Hank Bauer, and Roger Marris are. As I said, it helps to be a fan.
Yet for pure human interest, this book is riveting. You see, America’s hero was a wreck of a human being. He was an alcoholic and sometimes played drunk. He was a horrible womanizer who treated his wife deplorably. He was a miserable father. There are mitigating factors that I will not discuss for fear of spoilers. But the question keeps pressing on us: how does this guy get away with it?
That is precisely where I think the great drama of this book plays out. There were people all around Mantle who saw what he was doing. Some did nothing but aid and abet; they were along for the ride and enjoyed it. But there were plenty of people who could have tried to intervene but didn’t because, after all, this is Mickey Mantle. This silence of Mantle’s so-called friends is the most agonizing part of the book. Mantle was so famous, so iconic, so powerful, that no one had the nerve to tell him he should knock it off. Only at the end of his life, when his playing days were over, did anyone say what they should’ve said long before. There is a famous interview of Mantle when he is dying of the liver disease caused by his drinking. He talks wistfully about the kind of husband and father he wished he had been. One wonders if his life can be considered any kind of success and, if so, at what cost?