Sometimes a great ballplayer is just a great ballplayer.
May 23, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 34 • By JOHN C. CHALBERG
The Last Boy
Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, 1951
Mickey Mantle and the End of America’s Childhood
by Jane Leavy
HarperCollins, 480 pp., $27.99
Say it ain’t so, Jane.
The trouble is, she already has. It’s right there in the title. America’s “last boy” has come and gone, and our childhood is finally over. But it’s even worse than that. It appears that Mickey Mantle, “tragic hero” and “proof of America’s promise,” was also just another victim.
Mantle, we learn, was a victim at least twice over. As a young boy, he was sexually abused by a half-sister and later seduced by a high school teacher. And as both a Yankee great and ex-Yankee great, he was a victim of what might be called celebrity abuse, courtesy of adoring fans who sought to preserve their own childhood by keeping him in a similar state. Or so Jane Leavy wants us to believe. Mantle, she tells us, was not just the “last boy” but the “last boy in the last decade ruled by boys.” Was that the 1950s, when a boyish Mantle and his “coltish” smile burst on the American scene and became the “unwitting antidote” to the menacing Elvis and his signature sneer? Or maybe it was the boys-will-be-boys decade of Bill Clinton by which time Mantle had morphed into an “avatar of the confessional nineties” just before his death in 1995.
Or maybe it was some other last boy and any decade in between—or before—or beyond. That’s because America always seems to be producing one more “last boy” and forever winding up her childhood one more time. And that’s because there always seems to be yet another writer determined to tell us that American innocence is not just a curse, but the curse that must be conquered, if we’re ever going to act (and be treated) like adults, whether as individuals or as a nation. As a result, countless generations of Americans have grown up and grown old being told that they have never quite grown up—at least not until now, whenever “now” might be.
In any case, if Leavy’s time frame is uncertain, her intentions are not. Her account of Mantle’s life is surely a sad tale, but it is an indictment less of his excesses and failings than it is of the culture that first celebrated him and then victimized him. Fan that she is, Leavy doesn’t pretend to deny Mantle’s greatness as a ballplayer. Good for her. Pop psychologist that she claims to be, she can’t resist taking shots at those Baby Boomers who wasted their childhood by idolizing Mantle the ballplayer before taking pity on them for trying to restore their lost youth by venerating Mantle, the icon. Not so good for her.
It is Leavy’s contention that Mantle, in retirement, played a second unwitting role: The accidental anti-Elvis contributed to the “ultimate boomer entitlement” by enabling his aging fans to maintain their “fond illusions” of perpetual childhood. And if all of that isn’t bad enough, America’s “last boy” now becomes the unwitting tool (victim?) of a biographer who is less interested in putting America’s childhood to bed than in perpetuating her own myth, namely that her countrymen (or at least its Baby Boom males) have been perpetual adolescents and doomed to remain just that, at least until they get their hands on this book and finally discover what fools they have been.
To be sure, Leavy doesn’t ignore Mantle’s greatness as a player. How could she? After all, who would want to read page after numbing page about just any old serial philanderer who also happened to be a helpless drunk, a certifiable and belatedly certified alcoholic, an absentee father, not to mention a troubled soul doomed to lead an aimless life? What makes The Last Boy half worth reading is that it’s the Mickey Mantle we’re talking about here: This would be the baseball half of this book, which thankfully isn’t a chronological account of his 18 Yankee campaigns but, rather, a wisely conceived series of episodes chronicling various Mantle baseball highs scattered among a few Mantle lows. The somewhat longer half deals with Mantle’s pre- and post-baseball lives, especially the nearly three decades that he spent trying and failing to find a meaningful role in life besides, well, besides playing the role of ex-Yankee great at card shows and casinos, on golf courses or Old Timer days, or in too many beds and bars.
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