Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Mantle Biography Delves Into Traumas and Myths

The New York Times
October 12, 2010

Mickey Mantle at Yankee Stadium in 1961, before ailments had begun to erode his remarkable production. He retired at 37. (AP)

Jane Leavy, Mickey Mantle’s new biographer, admits her bias: she loved him as she grew up in Roslyn, N.Y., on Long Island, and always took his side when she debated her father over who was better: Mantle or Willie Mays. “Facts, statistics, nothing mattered,” she said. “Mickey was my guy.”

Her grandmother lived two blocks from Yankee Stadium and near the Concourse Plaza Hotel, where Mantle and his wife, Merlyn, lived early in their marriage.

Although her grandmother never set foot in the stadium, “in my memory she loomed large in it,” Leavy said. For her, the stadium and her grandmother’s Apartment 2A at 751 Walton Avenue were personal Edens.

“My intense love for Mickey,” she said, “was suffused with my intense love for my grandmother.”

But something else bound her to Mantle: her premature birth and Mantle’s injuries.

“I felt that he carried a sense that he was damaged and so did I,” she said.

Her new book, “The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America’s Childhood” (Harper), is an episodic tour of Mantle’s athletic achievements and his physical and emotional traumas. Harper is publishing the book with a large first printing of 200,000 copies.

In her investigation of Mantle’s titanic home run out of Griffith Stadium in Washington, in 1953, she located the elderly man who, as a youngster, found the ball after rushing from his bleacher seat; at the same time, she debunks the myth that the home run traveled 565 feet.

Her research into Mantle’s injury history rejects his claim that his right knee was operated on after he fell over a drain cover at Yankee Stadium while stopping to let Joe DiMaggio catch a fly ball in the 1951 World Series. When Mantle had surgery two years later, there was no established procedure to fix a torn anterior cruciate ligament, which she believes Mantle played on for the rest of his career.

The orthopedic surgeon who analyzed the case history that Leavy compiled said it was likely that Mantle compensated for the torn A.C.L. with what the orthopedist called “neuromuscular genius.”

And through more than 500 interviews over five years, she delves further than other biographers have into Mantle’s alcoholism; the sexual abuse he suffered as a child and the sexual relationship with a teacher when he was a teenager; his philandering; the extent of his osteomyelitis; and the history of cancer in his family. She also explores his sense that he would not live a full life, which she traces partly to his growing up in Oklahoma’s lead-and-zinc-mining country, where hard-rock miners like his father, Mutt, died of cancer or perished in cave-ins and explosions.

“It was a metastatic landscape,” she said, one that is now a federal Superfund cleanup site. “You know the word ‘undermine’? It means they’ve taken all the stuff out from the crust of the earth and there’s nothing there anymore. Mickey’s hometown is undermined.”

Unlike Leavy’s previous biographical subject, Sandy Koufax, Mantle has been the subject of numerous books, several that he collaborated on, and one searing memoir by his wife and sons.

Koufax was also devoid of the demons, regrets and unfulfilled promise that characterized Mantle. And while Koufax’s career ended at age 30 because of arthritis in his arm, he finished with a 27-victory season and a 1.73 earned run average.

Mantle retired at 37, years after his productivity had peaked.

Earl Wilson/The New York Times

Jane Leavy, now a Mantle biographer, grew up with an “intense love for Mickey.”

“I knew from the get-go that I wasn’t going to discover that he’d really been born in Alaska and raised a Mormon,” she said. “I knew there wasn’t an uncharted narrative arc where I’d say, ‘Oh my God, he’s really Lebanese!’ ” She created a structure of 20 chapters — turning points in his life and baseball career — that let her focus on critical days while fleshing out the details of his life.

She wanted to understand why men in their 50s and beyond still revere Mantle, but she did not want to recount every home run or every significant game. A few years into the project, she said, “I had a ta-da moment: Mickey is the ultimate boomer entitlement.”

As in her Koufax book, which alternates between biographical chapters and an inning-by-inning account of his perfect game in 1965, Leavy uses a device to help tell Mantle’s story. She detours from the narrative several times to recount her 1983 encounter with Mantle at the Claridge Hotel in Atlantic City (where her parents had honeymooned in 1941) when she was a reporter for The Washington Post.

Mantle was in a part-time job at the hotel-casino as its director of sports promotions; it helped pay for his son Billy’s cancer treatments, but the gambling connection got him exiled from baseball. The work required him to be nice, sign autographs and play golf with high-rollers.

But the easy access to liquor was no favor to an alcoholic.

Mantle greeted Leavy almost immediately with a crude anatomical reference (“That was the end of the world as I knew it,” she said), and at 2 the next morning in the casino bar, his hand moved up her knee. Although she later learned that he acted provocatively and spoke vulgarly to keep people off balance, it was a rude introduction to the player she once adored.

“I’m going, ‘Oh my God,’ ” she said. “He’d had one too many, but I was saved by whatever he was drinking; he started to say something and over he went into my lap.” He had passed out, she said. “I’m trapped beneath 200 pounds of American idol when American idol meant something else.”

She added: “Many illusions were shattered, but he forced me to grow up. That’s not so bad. I was 32.”

The 2,700-word article she filed did not — and could not — fully reflect her time with Mantle and only hinted at his excesses and his melancholy. But as she retrieved her old notes, she recalled being stunned at seeing that he told her that he had cirrhosis but had continued to drink.

“I asked Merlyn if it was true and she said, ‘Yes,’ ” Leavy said, referring to an interview with Mantle’s widow, who has since died. “I questioned what I did,” she said. “Should I have found a way to write it even if he told it to me off the record? Should I have called his wife?”

She added, “I felt a certain sense of guilt that I’d let him down.”

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