Monday, October 11, 2010

Jane Leavy's 'The Last Boy' digs deep into Mickey Mantle's past, dispels myths about Yankee slugger

By Bill Madden
Tuesday, October 12th 2010, 4:00 AM

A new book about Yankee icon Mickey Mantle paints a poignant portrait of a man haunted by sexual abuse and alcoholism - and who played in excruciating pain throughout his storied career.

Beginning Wednesday, the Daily News will excerpt Jane Leavy's new book, "The Last Boy - Mickey Mantle and the end of America's Childhood." The bio, published by HarperCollins, hits bookstores Tuesday.

Unlike her 2002 best seller about Sandy Koufax, which celebrated the Dodger lefty's greatness, "The Last Boy" digs beneath Mantle's baseball prowess to reveal the insecurities that defined him.

Drawing on more than 500 interviews with Mantle's family, friends, teammates and their spouses, the book dissects and dispels many of the myths of his career and is the definitive biography of the Yankees great - warts and all.

Leavy focuses on 20 significant days in Mantle's life, beginning with his career-threatening injury in 1951 in Yankee Stadium, when he got hurt avoiding a collision with an aging Joe DiMaggio, and ending with his death in 1995.

She crafts a compelling account of who Mantle was and what made him tick.

Among the highlights:

* Mantle's teenage half sister and an older boy sexually molested Mantle when he was a child - incidents that made a huge impact on his life, especially on his relationship with women, said his wife, Merlyn, and close friends.

* His long descent into alcoholism and his controversial liver transplant. During surgery, doctors discovered cancer had spread from the liver to the pancreas, rendering the transplant useless and leaving them with a decision: continue or let him bleed to death on the operating table. Mantle died two months later; he'd been sober a year and a half.

* Mantle's womanizing, drinking and often lewd public behavior - he insulted children and the elderly alike - were legendary, and Leavy delved into all of it in painfully lurid detail. Once, for instance, he signed an autograph for a young boy this way: "You're lucky. Your mom has nice t-ts, Mickey Mantle."

* Leavy disputes details of Mantle's reported 565-foot "tape measure" home run off Chuck Stobbs of the Washington Senators on April 17, 1953. The ball sailed out of Griffith Stadium and supposedly landed in the backyard of a brick rowhouse a block away.

Yankees' public relations director Arthur (Red) Patterson exclaimed in the press box, "That one's got to be measured" and set out to find the ball. Newspaper accounts say Patterson returned to the press box, accompanied by a young boy named Donald Dunaway, who attested to retrieving the ball from the backyard of the rowhouse.

Dunaway, the only witness to the home run's final resting place, was never heard from again. Until Leavy found him - and he blew a few holes in the story.

* Leavy makes a compelling case that no player in the history of baseball likely played with more sustained pain than Mantle. She looked closely at Mantle's injuries, which were attributed to drinking and his cavalier attitude about off-season conditioning, and reveals his knee injuries were misdiagnosed in 1951 and 1953.

One medical expert, noting how Mantle was able to play at an MVP level despite having an unrepaired ruptured ligament in his knee, told Leavy Mantle was "a 'neuromuscular genius,' one of the select few who are so well-wired they are able to compensate for severe injuries ... and still perform at the highest levels ... It's a phenomenon comprised of motivation, high pain threshold, strength, reflexes and luck."

* A "vitamin" injection - likely prompted by an attempt to treat gonorrhea, also known as the clap - by the infamous amphetamine dispenser Dr. Max Jacobson, derailed Mantle's 1961 chase for Babe Ruth's home run record and left him with a massive infection.

Jacobson's medical license was revoked in 1975 after he was found guilty of manufacturing and combining "adulterated drugs" made of "filthy, putrid and/or decomposed substances."

Book Review: The Last Boy

By James Bailey
October 5, 2010

The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America's Childhood

By Jane Leavy
HarperCollins, 2010
List Price: $27.99

It's been 40 years since Jim Bouton earned pariah status by naming names in "Ball Four." One of his greatest sins in the eyes of many was outing Mickey Mantle's drinking, hotel voyeurism, and rudeness to fans, including children. Bouton was accused of lying by some, while others never forgave him for breaking baseball's unwritten code of silence.

In the decades that have passed since, Mantle's late-night exploits have become part of the public record. He drank. Heavily. He caroused. He cheated on his wife for nearly the entire length of their marriage. And he was often a boor in public, generally when he'd overlubricated himself on whatever the drink of the day was.

Despite it all, Mantle never stopped being the All-American Boy in the eyes of his fans. Jane Leavy was no exception, though hers were opened during a weekend in Atlantic City spent interviewing him while working on a feature story for her newspaper in 1983. She saw then some of his faults rise to the surface. Two decades later, when she began research for "The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America's Childhood," she grappled with how to balance the idol so many had grown up worshiping with the fatally flawed Mantle so many refused to recognize.

"So how do you write about a man you want to love the way you did as a child but whose actions were often unlovable?" she asks in the preface. "How do you reclaim a human being from caricature without allowing him to be fully human?"

Leavy committed more than five years to chasing the essence of The Mick. She interviewed more than 500 people, a staggering list that consumes nearly 10 pages in the appendix. She spoke with teammates, opponents, family, friends, doctors, business associates, fans, and writers who had covered him. They won't all embrace the final project, but their reasons for disliking it will be personal and rooted in a love for a man whose flaws they either downplayed or wished others would.

Most of Mantle's offenses have been written about before. In 1996, the year after he died, his wife and sons released "A Hero All His Life," detailing the family's battles with alcoholism and addiction. The opening chapter was a first person account from Mantle, apologizing for all the ways he let his wife and boys down. By then, he'd been through rehab at the Betty Ford Center and stopped drinking. Mantle was sober for the last year and a half of his life, but the damage was done to both his body and his relationships. It wasn't too late, however, for him to begin making amends. That confessional chapter was part of that process, as was a press conference in which he told America's kids "Don't be like me."

So Leavy wasn't looking to shock anyone with Mantle's exploits. What she hoped to do, and does, was humanize him. Without excusing the drinking, the womanizing, the rudeness, she explains how this fatalistic son of an Oklahoma miner became the man he was both publicly and privately. His father Mutt, who groomed his son as a ballplayer, died young, like so many of Mantle's relatives. Mickey believed he too wouldn't live past 40, which gave him license to abuse a body he wouldn't need for long after his playing days concluded.

Leavy tapped doctors to help explain how his osteomyelitis and chronic knee injuries impacted his playing career. And how a trip to a quack to resolve what was likely the clap cost him a shot at Babe Ruth's 60 home run mark in 1961 after the "cure" became infected. He was renowned for playing with pain, but even Mantle couldn't perform with an abscess the size of a baseball on his backside. He managed only six at-bats in the World Series that year, lining one hit, after which he was removed for a pinch-runner. America saw a warrior valiantly attempting to play through pain. They didn't, however, have any clue about his infidelities and how they had at last caught up with him.

She also does some fine detective work to un-supersize one of his legendary home runs, a 1953 blast in Washington that was reported to have traveled 565 feet before landing in the backyard of a home across the street from Griffith Stadium. That made it the longest home run ever measured. The problem was, it was never actually measured. The reporter who trumpeted the tape measure shot didn't actually use a tape measure. Nor did he see where it landed. Leavy tracked down the boy who recovered the ball, and with the help of a physics professor she recreated the legendary hit. Their conclusion: The ball could have traveled as far as 530 to 540 feet.

The home run, like the man who hit it, is brought down respectfully in size in "The Last Boy." From time to time it almost feels like a tell-all—but it's not, at least not in the sense that we have come to know tell-all books. It's more of an understand-all book, piecing together the man whose exploits have been both exaggerated and hushed over the last six decades.

Leavy saves her best for last. The final chapter details the liver transplant that outraged many who believed, incorrectly, that Mantle's fame had allowed him to skip ahead in the queue of needful patients. She talked with doctors who recognized too late that he was a poor fit for a new liver, as the cancer had already spread to neighboring organs. Mantle died two months later, surrounded by the wife he had put through so much and a son he had finally begun to bond with after so many years of not knowing how to be a father.

While acknowledging those who helped her flesh out the real Mantle, Leavy writes "I cannot predict how his loved ones will receive this effort. I hope they feel I kept my promise to reclaim him from caricature. The way I look at it, after everything The Mick did for me, the least I could do was try to return his humanity to him in full."

Mission accomplished, and powerfully so.

James Bailey reviews books for Baseball America. He can be contacted at

Mickey Mantle: From golden god to alcoholic wreck

"The Last Boy" goes further than any biography yet in capturing the baseball legend -- and the mess he became

By Allen Barra
Friday, Oct 8, 2010 12:01 ET

Mickey Mantle's image looms over American sports like a golden god from a time only dimly remembered but still strongly felt. He was the consummate blend of power and speed ever to play baseball (he was clocked going from home to first base at 3.0 seconds, the best time of his era), his prodigious 500-foot blasts creating the term "tape measure home run." He was also, with an assist from his exact contemporary, Willie Mays (the player with whom he was destined to be compared to and contrasted with), the creator of baseball nostalgia, the king of the card show-autograph circuit.

Jane Leavy, author of a superb baseball novel, "Squeeze Play," and the best-selling "Sandy Koufax, A Lefty’s Legacy," zooms right in on the essence of Mantle's appeal in "The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America's Childhood." He was the last boy in the last decade ruled by boys. He was L'il Abner in a posse of dreamy reprobates: James Dean, Buddy Holly, Frankie Avalon, Dean Martin, Elvis. Women wanted to have them or mother them, young men aped them, while behind the scenes, elders and handlers tried to tame them."

Mantle has inspired several fine biographies over the years, including David Falkner's "The Last Hero: The Life of Mickey Mantle" (1995) and Tony Castro's "Mickey Mantle: America's Prodigal Son" (2002), and Mickey himself coauthored several highly readable memoirs, most notably "The Mick" (1985), which kicked off the resurgence of interest in Mantle and his career. Leavy, though, brings an insight to Mantle's story that previous writers, including Mickey himself, lacked -- namely, a personal insight into the blond, self-destructive former Adonis.

Late in his life, when Mantle resembled an alcoholic train wreck, Leavy spent several hours with her childhood idol trying to interview him. She failed to get much that was usable at the time, but nearly three decades later, the encounters paint a vivid picture of Mickey and his twilight years -- a pathetic, broken, self-deprecating middle-aged man baffled by people's adoration.

"Oh, well," he said cheerfully after Leavy rebuffed his advance at an Atlantic City hotel, "y'know what they call me, doncha?"

"'No, Mick, I don't.' 'Well,' he drawled, 'they call me Mighty Mouse, because I'm hung like him.' I went up to my room and cried."

Mickey Mantle made a lot of people cry in his 64 years. The son of an Oklahoma zinc miner, Mickey was groomed practically out of the cradle to play ball and thus escape the brutal and dangerous mines. No ballplayer was ever given greater natural talents and worse luck. His father, grandfather and uncle, miners all, died premature deaths. Mickey, who began drinking at an early age, became, like the men on his mother's side of the family, an alcoholic; contracted the bone disease osteomyelitis from a high school football injury; when the draft board ruled him 4-F because of the disease, he received hate mail by the thousands accusing him of being a draft dodger.

At the Yankees spring training camp in 1951 he was hailed as the second coming of Babe Ruth and Joe DiMaggio combined. The expectations put on the 19-year-old were ludicrous; in retrospect, it's almost scary how close he came to fulfilling them. The second game of the 1951 World Series with the New York Giants was, writes Leavy, "the last time Mantle set foot on a baseball field without pain." Chasing a fly ball hit by -- quel irony! -- Willie Mays, Mickey got his cleats tangled in an open drain pipe, tore up his knee and, from then until his retirement after the 1968 season, was plagued with injuries.

It seemed at time there were two Mickey Mantles, the one who, from the early 1950s through 1964, was the best player in the American League and the one most sportswriters thought he could have been. He won three Most Valuable Player Awards, and in the opinion of baseball analysts, could justifiably have won three or four more. As his teammate Clete Boyer put it, "Jesus Christ, how much better could he have been?" He was berated almost his entire career by skeptical writers, hostile fans and even his own manager, Casey Stengel, for his reticence; Jackie Robinson scolded Mantle's critics after Mickey destroyed the Brooklyn Dodgers in the 1952 World Series, telling a reporter, "We got plenty of guys that stupid, but we don't have anybody that good."

Part biography, part memoir, and part fan's note, "The Last Boy" is the most complete book ever about Mantle, the one that puts his career into best perspective as well as the one that deals most openly with his failures as a husband and father. Mickey was the world's greatest teammate: "Rookies or veterans, slumping teammates, got invitations to dinner. You come with me tonight." But he drove his wife, Merlyn, his childhood sweetheart back in Oklahoma, to drink and despair with his constant womanizing and allowed his four sons to sink into alcoholism with him.

Leavy accomplishes the astonishing feat of capturing Mickey's big-heartedness without ever slipping across the foul line into sentimentality. She records Mantle's sins and achievements with the diligence of a first-rate reporter, never losing sight of what drew her to Mickey as a fan in the first place: "He had a lonely heart and it was a good heart and it was open and big," says a woman who knew Mantle for more than 50 years. It was a heart big enough to make everyone who knew him look past his transgressions.

In the final analysis, Leavy remains a fan, and in the process makes fans of us all.

Allen Barra's next book is "Mickey and Willie -- The Parallel Lives of Baseball's Golden Age," from Crown.

Mantle biography hits for the cycle

By Bob Hoover, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Sunday, October 10, 2010

Mickey Mantle takes a pre-game swing at Yankee Stadium in 1961.The ninth inning of the 1960 World Series is remembered, especially in Pittsburgh, for Bill Mazeroski's series-winning home run, overshadowing a remarkable flash of baseball brilliance by Yankee slugger Mickey Mantle in the first half of that inning.

His dive back to first base under the glove of a bewildered Rocky Nelson, who had fielded Yogi Berra's grounder and stepped on first leaving Mr. Mantle alive on the base path, wiped out what should have been the game-ending double play. Instead, it allowed New York to tie the game, 9-9.

Mr. Mantle's biographer Jane Leavy explains it:

"Without Mantle's balletic maneuver, Gil McDougal would have not scored the tying run. The Series would have been lost. There would have been no bottom of the ninth. There would have been no goddamned Bill Mazeroski ..."

Ms. Leavy grew up in New York a Yankees and Mantle fan, went on to be a sportswriter and encountered "The Mick" for an interview in his sad, waning days in the 1980s, a broken-down drunk working as a greeter at an Atlantic City hotel casino.

"Hi, I'm Mick," he said, sticking out his hand.

"Hi, I'm nervous."

"Why?" he drawled. "Scared I was gonna pull on your [breast]?"

Later, drunk, he passed out on top of her.

That was The Mick, uninhibited and foul-mouthed in public, cold and cruel in private, who despite squandering his athletic promise, was one of the great players of the game, with 536 home runs and 1,509 runs batted in during his 18 years with the Yanks.

He symbolized the great New York teams of the 1950s and early '60s, a switch-hitter with great speed and throwing arm who could also hit balls out of any park, "including Yellowstone," to use a baseball cliche.

Mr. Mantle's homer over the right-center field exit gate at Forbes Field in the second game of the '60 Series was estimated at 600 feet by Buc center fielder Bill Virdon, who watched it in amazement.

As Ms. Leavy delves deeper into this singular athlete, she sifts through the mountain of dollar-book Freudian analyses that Mr. Mantle endured in his lifetime by interviewing dozens of players, coaches, mistresses and her subject's long-suffering wife, Merlyn, and sons.

Trained hard by an unloving father to be a near-perfect player, then compared to Joe DiMaggio and abused by manager Casey Stengel, Mr. Mantle's messy life off the field was tied to one harebrained theory after another by the New York press who found him great copy.

Because Mr. Mantle deferred to Mr. DiMaggio's status as THE Yankee center fielder in the 1951 World Series, he pulled away from a fly ball to let Mr. DiMaggio catch it and badly injured his right knee, sentencing him to a life of constant pain.

In this 21st-century era of compassionate understanding and absolution, Ms. Leavy finds a kind of nobility and heroism in her flawed hero. She also finds evidence of childhood sex abuse, adding yet another explanation for the Mick's Hall of Fame love life.

As he was fond of saying, "I led the league six years in a row in getting the clap."

Mr. Mantle stopped drinking, sought forgiveness and cleaned up his act, only to fall victim to cirrhosis and liver cancer. Despite a controversial liver transplant, he died in 1995 at 64.

"The Last Boy," despite its pretentious if not silly subtitle, is as full a portrait of an American hero as we'll find.

As we are well aware here in Pittsburgh, our sports stars are still human despite their accomplishments on the field. Many of us expect them to perform as superlatively out of uniform as well, but writers like Jane Leavy know better.

Book editor Bob Hoover: or 412-263-1634

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