SportsProf

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Saturday, November 20, 2010

Book Review: Jane Leavey's "The Last Boy"

Mickey Mantle was an American phenomenon whom everyone wanted a piece of but whom precious few people got to know. He was the all-American boy, a tremendous force on the baseball diamond and most of the time in the locker room, but lonely, immature, misogynistic, an absentee father (and bad influence), a neglectful spouse and an object of idolatry and curiosity off it.

Yes, he could really play, both on and off the field. He played in great pain, serving as an inspiration to his teammates and Yankee fans. He also didn't take great care of himself off it (if they kept records for off-the-field hijinx, his Hall of Fame numbers for that -- under any standard -- perhaps would be as impressive as his baseball numbers, which are impressive under any standard of measurement, whether the standards of the day or the "Baseball Prospectus"-like statistics of today).

But the dichotomy I suggest belies the light that shined on Mickey Mantle, the American hero, the idol for boys growing up all over the country, including the son of a record store owners in Manhattan (Billy Crystal), a boy who would start his media career as a radio announcer in St. Louis (Bob Costas), to a kid who played ball in the Bronx and then became a well-known singer of baseball ballads (Denny Minogue, better known as Terry Cashman). He was the "it" guy of all "it" guys, larger than life, playing on America's biggest stage. He was powerful, fast, raw, perhaps baseball's version of Locke's "man in nature," impressive when harnessed within the confines of a stadium and in need of guidance and mentoring off it.

Jane Leavey's book leaves no stone unturned. She talked with teammates, family members, people from Mantle's home town of Commerce, Oklahoma (once of the most toxic towns in the U.S. owing to the zinc and lead that was mined nearby), people who played with him at all levels and ordinary fans. You'll come away with a detailed impression of Mantle, a Mantle who never felt loved, didn't feel that he made many connections with people, and who didn't know what to do with himself when he wasn't hitting or catching a baseball, a man who could be crude, a man who could be generous, and, at heart, once and always, a boy, with all of the commendable and lamentable aspects of someone with great promise, but never fully formed.

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