The darker side of an American sports icon
Many words have already been expended in striving to ascertain the truth about Mickey Mantle. The Mick was certainly a sports hero—the statistics and on-the-field achievements bear that out. His image was helped immeasurably by playing baseball in New York when television was becoming a huge force, and those factors also helped to ascribe to him the elements of tragedy and courage, soldiering on as he did through numerous injuries during an 18-year career. As for the evidence that Mantle was a profane, bumpkinish and usually drunken galoot, Jane Leavy’s new bio The Last Boy tends to back that up as well, though the ultimate effect of her generally serious effort is also to evoke pity for one of America’s most iconic public figures.
Smartly, Leavy uses Mantle’s games primarily as a framework for her investigations, but she finds newly fertile ground in researching his legendary home run, struck in 1953 in Washington, D.C., as well as the critical knee injury he suffered in the 1951 World Series, which is said to have changed the course of history, making a mere mortal out of a would-be god. This latter episode leaves the impression that if only Mantle had had access to more advanced surgery, he might have reclaimed most of his unearthly powers.
Leavy’s contradictory portrait of the personal Mantle compels: At once generous and caring to many, his behavior toward his long-suffering wife and sons was damaging and distant, much of his time off the field spent instead with buddies and booze and indulging other appetites. (Howard Cosell is quoted as calling Mantle a “whoremonger.”) Leavy also details Mick’s later years effectively, when he lent his name and image to casinos and corporate concerns, becoming a king of the sports memorabilia circuit. Those pursuits continued to earn him a good living, but Mantle’s personal life was an essential cipher, and he kept drinking until it was too late.
The big revelations here are about Mantle as the victim of childhood sexual abuse, plus Leavy’s tabloid account of her attempted 1983 interview with him, when Mick groped her and acted like a drunken fool. Though many will see Leavy as further besmirching Mantle’s image, she also evokes a sense of sadness about a life that might have been more but simply wasn’t.