I finished Jane Leavy’s The Last Boy last night. It resonated with me; it compelled and enthralled me. I’m not exactly sure why it dug so deep.
I come from a baseball family, but I stopped paying attention many years ago after the pros went on strike–such a chasm between their lives and ours; such a distance between playing for the love of the game and the pursuit of fame and fortune. The heck with ’em, I thought, although occasionally we would get tickets and go to a bush league game–go to watch the Buffalo Bisons or the Columbus Clippers. Those games were always relaxed and fun, and we saw some pretty good ball handling, and some pretty decent hitting, too. But I no longer watched TV baseball, and I didn’t follow the teams–not even the Yankees–in the papers.
My life didn’t seem impoverished.
But growing up, baseball was almost the lingua franca in my household. My oldest brother, Dennis, played through grade school and high school, and even after high school, in something called the ‘Grape Belt’ league. My father,–who played softball himself, well into his fifties,–managed and coached a team called the Firemen when my brothers Mike and John were old enough to play. That was a dynasty that lasted several years, and John continued playing for a long, long time afterward. (He may be playing yet.)
We had a ball field in the backyard on East Main Street, baselines and pitcher’s mound and batter’s box defined by tramping feet. Grass never grew in those places in that backyard; it never had a chance.
I learned to hit, pretty well. I learned to catch, adequately. I didn’t have much of a toss, though. Dennis’s friend Jim defined it for me, once, watching me try to pitch: She has an arm like a boy, he said, but she throws like a girl.
In the late fifties and early sixties, baseball was still strictly gender-sorted; there were no girls on Little League teams. And in western New York, there was no professional team but the Yankees. Uniforms were pinstriped; Casey Stengel and Yogi Berra were familiars; and ‘Maris and Mantle’ was a term.
I wrote to the Yankees, to Maris and to Mantle, and they wrote back, sending me glossy black and white flyers with sharpie-inked autographs. (I wrote to the heroes of my OTHER religion, too–nuns, and I heard back from them, too. That seemed a more reasonable career choice for a girl in the 1960’s. I contemplated the contemplative Carmelites after reading the biography of the Little Flower. I read Babe Ruth’s biography, too, but never considered a baseball-related calling–that was as outrageous as thinking a girl could be a priest.)
There was baseball talk over the dinner table. We argued about who was better, Mantle or Maris. I always, without much knowledge, took up for the less attractive, less popular guy, so I rooted for Roger. (Later, John would be my favorite Beatle, and Mike, my favorite Monkee. ‘Cute’ was not my definer, although I’m not sure what took its place.)
Once a year or so, my father would take the older boys on a pilgrimage to Cleveland, where they’d watch the Indians play the Yankees. It became a family myth that every time the Kirst boys watched the Yankees in Cleveland, the Yankees lost. But I’m sure they saw the Mick hit one or two out of the park.
Those outings were memorable only because my mother would take my younger brother and me downtown, to Hunter’s snack bar, and buy us hot fudge sundaes. That was supposed to be a consolation prize, I think, but to me it was the real deal. It never occurred to me, seven years old in 1962, to want to go to the ball game with the boys.
And then the ’60’s changed. The pretty young president died, shockingly; our church was draped with black and white bunting; flags hung at half mast, and we stayed home from school to watch the funeral cortege make its solemn way through the streets of DC. Then the Beatles invaded. Then the Who smashed their amplifiers on the Ed Sullivan show, to that host’s vast disgust.
Panty hose arrived, but who wore them anyway? I traded in skirts for jeans and peter pan collars for Army-issue jackets, and I rebelled, in a vague and useless way, against the machine. And I forgot, as I grew up, all about baseball, except for a few half-hearted stints at playing girls’ softball. Greats like Mantle retired; that was a blip. By the seventies, my father was bemoaning the Yankees as a money team; although he was loyal pretty much all of his life, he was disappointed too.
And then there was the strike, and then I had things to do, meals to cook, kids to raise, papers to grade, and really, who had time?
I remember hearing about Mantle’s liver transplant and wondering if he got the liver because he was rich and famous. I remember reading about his death and thinking the transplant didn’t do him very much good. And then I don’t think I gave Mickey Mantle any thought at all for thirty years or more, until one day, I saw The Last Boy on the clearance shelf at Half-Price Books. I had read reviews extolling the book, and there it was for a dollar. I was compelled to buy it.
It sat on the shelf in my dining room all through a long year, through autumn storms and winter snows and holidays, waiting while other, noisier books demanded precedence. But this spring, it made itself known. I picked it up and started reading, and I plunged into Leavy’s rich and thoughtful narrative.
Why does Mickey Mantle’s story compel me so? He was a clueless kid from a mining town whose father pushed him, hard, into baseball. Yankees scouts took advantage of him, signing him for nothing, telling him he was lucky at that. He married his high school sweetheart, Merlyn, way too young; he was a daddy, way too young; he was a superstar, way too young.
Physically classically beautiful, Mantle was irresistible to women and notoriously unfaithful to Merlyn, but the press covered his baseball exploits and not his extracurriculars. Like his teammates, most notably like Whitey Ford and Billy Martin, Mantle drank. And drank. And drank.
He often played hung over. He sometimes played drunk. Once, a paid ‘date’ kept him up all night, drinking and doing god knows what else; she was so sure she had worn him out, she went and bet the money Mantle gave her on the opposing team.
And Mantle went out and had a great day. He homered and RBI’d and the Yankees won and the call girl lost. Such were the stories of unreported legend.
Mantle was often unkind, invariably crude, and usually an absentee family man. He asked waitresses for their phone numbers while he was eating out with his wife and kids. Leavy reports that Mantle once rented a suite at a hotel when the family was on the road with him. Merlyn slept in his bed. His current girlfriend, billed as his secretary, slept in the adjoining room.
And he was hurt, physically for sure, and emotionally, too. He’d been sick as a boy; the illness affected his knees. He crashed and tore and eroded and played anyway. Leavy says, at the end of his life, Mantle figured he’d operated at about 80 per cent of his potential. It was an amazing career none-the-less. Maybe one of the things that compels us so is to think how incredibly good he WAS, and then, imagining a Mantle without the carousing and the injuries, to think how incredibly good he COULD have been.
Mantle’s story is well-known, so it’s no spoiler if I tell you that Leavy details both his plummeting, long-lasting fall, and his ultimate redemption. Mantle spent time, finally, at the Betty Ford clinic, and kicked, finally, the alcoholism. He was inspired by one of his sons; he inspired another; and he was too late to help Billy, who died in jail a few weeks after his Dad left the clinic.
And then the Mick got a liver transplant, but the doctors discovered that even that was too late; a cancer had crept into his bile ducts, and there was nothing they could do. Perhaps the new liver made him more comfortable in the two short years he had left to make his amends. He did that, too–he left a legacy to his family, refusing to divorce Merlyn, giving her and his sons his licensed name and millions of dollars and the ability to make millions more. He started a foundation for organ donations. He said ‘sorry’ to a whole lot of people; he told a whole lot of people that he loved them.
There’s a passage in Leavy’s book where she describes Mick and Merlyn visiting the White House, talking with Jackie and JFK. And there are similarities between the two couples, maybe the definitive icons of the early sixties. The pretty young king with his physical pain and his infidelities; the pretty young warrior with his pain and his own transgressions. The lovely, lonely wives who turned their faces away and soldiered on through sorrow and betrayal.
The press collaborated with the privileged men and hid their well-known high-jinks. The women–well–what could the women do? And it was a society that drank, the era of the cocktail hour, a time when no one was afraid of Virgina Woolf.
But the children who grew up in those time, many of them, weren’t having it; that decade ended in screaming, in demands to stop the subterfuge and tell us all. In that sense, the era was an end to innocence, but the innocence, let’s admit, was willful. Maybe we knew, really, but we just didn’t want to.
Such a well-written, deeply emotional read, Leavy’s book. So many times, I thought, “No way. How could he SAY that? How could he DO that? What a pig; this man was a pig.” I wanted just to discount him. And then Leavy would write about the fact that Mantle alone called sick teammates every week to check on them; she’d tell us about the young couple with the broken down car and the crying baby who discovered themselves five thousand dollars in the black thanks to the Mick, who didn’t hang around for thanks. And she tells us, of course, about his ultimate, eleventh hour bid for redemption.
He was flawed, but he shone; he was wicked, but he atoned. He was neglectful, but he deeply, deeply regretted. That knight riding out of Camelot and losing his way was a very, very human knight–although he seemed imbued with super-powers.
I grew up near Buffalo during the OJ years; we saw how totally and heartbreakingly a person, lifted from poverty and thrust into athletic stardom, can crash and burn. Mantle hurt people, but he didn’t stray over that line into thinking he reigned over anyone’s life or death but his own. And he persevered. He persevered through pain to be a great ballplayer; he persevered through personal flaws and egregious mistakes to find his way to a place where he could, at last, be proud of the man he was.
And what’s more compelling than that? The mighty have a mighty long way to fall, but all of us, even when our descents are so much shorter, can benefit from their examples. This was a good, good book.
I have some other biographies to read–David McCullough’s The Wright Brothers awaits, and so does Jackie Robinson’s autobiography–but another “Last” book sat under Leavy’s Mickey bio on my shelf. It’s Dorothea Benton Frank’s The Last Original Wife, and the picture on the cover is of a sprawled woman on the sand, watching the surf. I’m reaching for that beach book first, a palate cleanser, a light bright read. From Last Boy to Last Original Wife…it will be interesting to see where that road wends.
I hope you have a wonderful week!