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.
The baseball career of this Yankee great surely would have been even greater had it not been for a near-collision with another Yankee legend in the second game (as opposed to Game Two) of the all-New York 1951 Yankee-Giant World Series. After another young outfielder of some promise lofted a lazy fly to right-center field, three once and future baseball greats were caught in a moment of history: With Willie Mays charging to first, Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle headed for the ball. Consensus has it that the ball was Mantle’s to catch, but DiMaggio called the rookie off at the last instant. Mantle gave way abruptly, only to catch his spikes in a sewer drain. His badly-injured right knee would never be the same.
While Mantle never publicly blamed DiMaggio for his injury, he did so privately to his wife and teammates. Luckily for both of them, 1951 was the only Yankee season that DiMaggio and Mantle shared. The two really were very different men, and the Yankee shortstop Tony Kubek captured a key difference this way: “People have always placed Joe and Mickey on a pedestal. The difference is Joe always liked being there and Mickey never felt he belonged.” Perhaps that’s because Mantle, unlike DiMaggio, never ceased reminding himself and anyone within earshot that he was “just a f—— ballplayer.”
As a young man, Mantle also assumed that he would die young. His miner-father, Mutt Mantle, was dead at 40—and if only his son had been so lucky. E. B. White once offered these cautionary words to non-New Yorkers with dreams of conquering the city: “No one should come to New York to live unless he is willing to be lucky.” Well, Mantle, Oklahoman and New Yorker, was (and was not) lucky. Born with incredible physical talents, and to a father who loved baseball and wanted his son to be a big league ballplayer, Mantle was also fortunate to have been a New York Yankee with a Hall of Fame career and to have shared that city and his time in it with two other notable center fielders, all of whom would be immortalized as “Willie [Mays], Mickey, and the Duke [Snider].”
But in the end, Mantle wasn’t lucky enough. If he had died young, perhaps no more than his father’s two score years, he would be remembered very differently: for his wondrous baseball exploits, the “amphibious” switch-hitting slugger who Yogi Berra marveled at, for his 1956 Triple Crown MVP season, for 1961 when he had a great (54 home run) season and was a great teammate to Roger Maris, who was having a greater one, and for much more than all of that. Dead at his father’s 40, son Mickey would also be remembered for playing a boy’s game in a manful way, for fighting through innumerable injuries, for not just playing hurt but for playing hurt cheerfully and manfully, and for never forgetting that he was “just a f— ballplayer.”
If Mickey Mantle had fallen well short of, rather than slouched and staggered toward, his biblical three score and ten, he would have been spared a lot. In the short run, he would not have suffered the indignities that he brought on himself, and in death, he would not still find himself being asked to shoulder a burden that he need not bear. There will always be more “last boys” rising and falling among us only to stand accused of contributing to our perpetual childhood, as well as more Jane Leavys on hand to assure future readers that that cursed state of American innocence is once again finally on the verge of coming to an end.
John C. Chalberg is a writer in Minnesota.