“The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America’s Childhood,” by Jane Leavy. Harper, $27.99.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

By Bob Hoover, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

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: bhoover@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1634.

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