By KEITH OLBERMANNÂ | New York TimesÂ | October 17, 2010
An attempt to publish the inventory of Mickey Mantle iconography began in February 2009 and will continue well into next year. From Mickey Mantle vanity license plates to Mickey Mantle postcards to Mickey Mantle bobblehead dolls to Mickey Mantle postcards depicting him holding Mickey Mantle bobblehead dolls, the cataloged, photographed and priced relics will ultimately exceed 2,000, and will have filled 200 Âpages in the memorabilia industryâ€™s weekly Sports Collectors Digest. Included in the reckoning are at least 30 full-scale Mickey Mantle biographies, half a dozen of which carry the Mantle imprimatur as author, co-Âauthor or frontman.
Thus, to wade now into the river of nostalgia, collection and recollection that is Mickey Charles Mantle, 42 years since his last major league at-bat, and 15 years since his death at 63, is like crowding into the last row of the Yankee Stadium bleachers at the start of a World Series game and expecting to get a TV close-up.
Yet as she did in her innovative biography â€œSandy Koufax,â€ Jane Leavy has found a different path through the throng. For her portrait of Koufax, she alternated an inning-by-inning account of that great pitcherâ€™s perfect game in 1965 with deeply researched and fluidly written examinations of the rest of his life and import. â€œThe Last Boy,â€ a nonlinear biography, takes the form of 20 days in Mantleâ€™s life (something of a conceit; some of the â€œdaysâ€ are stretched to cover nearly a season, or an entire childhood).The approach refreshes and underscores the facts and patterns of a life, and enables Leavy to connect the dots in new and disturbing ways. The Mantle who emerges is perhaps more whole than ever previously captured. His was an almost Dickensian childhood spent atop a veritable toxic waste dump in Commerce, Okla., with piles of lead and zinc mining debris called â€œchat.â€ The detritus was dangerous: Leavy offers evidence that it might have induced dyslexia in Mantle, and one of Mantleâ€™s sons suggests it might have contributed more damage in his fatherâ€™s fatal liver cancer than did 40 years of Âalcoholism.Death is, in fact, the unexpected theme of this biography, and it emerges in the most unexpected places. Leavyâ€™s most salient observation is of the day in June 1969 when the Yankees retired Mantleâ€™s uniform number in front of 60,096 fans:â€œHe had watched Gary Cooper deliver Lou Gehrigâ€™s farewell address in â€˜The Pride of the Yankees.â€™ Now he was standing in the same spot, invoking Gehrigâ€™s parting words: â€˜I always wondered how a man who knew he was going to die could stand here and say he was the luckiest man in the world. Now I think I know how Lou Gehrig felt.â€™â€œWhat was lost in all the huzzahs attendant to the occasion â€” the last lap around the stadium in a bullpen cart with hand-painted pinstripes â€” was that he cast himself as a dying man. In fact, he was already planning his funeral.â€Almost anyone who knows about Mantle knows that the frequently admitted presumption of early death is part of his legend. While Leavy disproves his depiction of a family in which all the men died by 40, she also convincingly identifies this specific fear as the likely outcome of Mantleâ€™s having been repeatedly sexually abused as a child by a half sister and neighborhood boys, and produces heartbreaking on-the-record evidence to support this painful conclusion.This is not, however, a dark book, no matter how dark parts of the life it portrays surely were. The hero worship of the fans, and the women who constituted a kind of endless batting practice in Mantleâ€™s life, are presented thoroughly and fairly. There are revelations of hidden charity and great empathy, of a heroâ€™s genuine inability to understand what others saw in him, and deeply endearing self-deprecating humor, even when a drunken Mantle is literally in the gutter. Almost everyone in sports over 40 has a â€œWhen I met Mickeyâ€ story, and Leavy weaves her own through five vignettes interspersed with the main chapters. Hers is too sweetly, horribly, blissfully, embarrassingly Mantlean to give away here.Most important, the affection with which Mantleâ€™s teammates always embraced him is chronicled abundantly, and stands in stark contrast to his wife and childrenâ€™s struggles to do the same despite the emotional roadblocks that were seemingly all Mantle was capable of offering them. And as Leavy honors their Sisyphean efforts, she does the same for Mantleâ€™s own attempts to overcome an equally impossible obstacle. Reinforcing the historical record with scientific reinterpretation, she posits that when Mantle injured his right knee swerving out of Joe DiMaggioâ€™s way in the fifth inning of the second game of the 1951 World Series, he in fact tore his meniscus and the anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments. Insufficient treatment of the â€œunhappy triadâ€ would downgrade him from the prospect of being the gameâ€™s greatest performer to playing nearly all of his remaining 17 years on one knee. Still, he won three M.V.P. awards and, in 1956, the triple crown.Leavy has also given us old-fashioned, nonanalytical gumshoe research, enough â€” and good enough â€” to make the crowds of amateur baseball sleuths or the pros at the Hall of Fame weep. Mantleâ€™s 565-foot home run at Griffith Stadium in Washington in April 1953 was not merely one of the longest ever hit, nor was it just Mantleâ€™s true self-introduction on the baseball stage. It also sealed the sportâ€™s obsession with the â€œtape-measure homer,â€ largely through the artifice of the anecdotal report by the Yankeesâ€™ public relations director, Red Patterson, that he found the boy who had come upon the Mantle baseball where it finally stopped, in somebodyâ€™s backyard. More than half a century later, Leavy tracked down the man, by then 69 years old, and managed to get just enough detail from him to produce a true picture of the transformational blast.His was one of 563 interviews Leavy conducted, ranging from the executive responsible for the creation â€” and scarcity â€” of Mantleâ€™s landmark 1952 Topps baseball card, to Eric Kandel, who won the 2000 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Kandel is asked to try to explain both Mantleâ€™s explosive swing, which made the bat seem of double width, and his inability to explain to others how he did it. (Kandel rightly answers, â€œI think your question is not dramatically different than asking, â€˜What makes Mozart Mozart?â€™ â€)But Leavy comes as close as perhaps anyone ever has to answering â€œWhat makes Mantle Mantle?â€ She transcends the familiarity of the subject, cuts through both the hero worship and the backlash of pedestal-wrecking in the late 20th century, treats evenly his belated sobriety and the controversial liver transplant (doomed mid-surgery by an oncologistâ€™s discovery that the cancer had spread), and handles his infidelity with dispassion. Sophocles could have easily worked with a story like Mantleâ€™s â€” the prominent figure, gifted and beloved, through his own flaws wasteful, given clarity too late to avoid his fate. Leavy spares us the classical tragedy even as she avoids the morality play. â€œThe Last Boyâ€ is something new in the history of the histories of the Mick. It is hard fact, reported by someone greatly skilled at that craft, assembled into an atypical biography by someone equally skilled at doing that, and presented so that the reader and not the author draws nearly all the Âconclusions.
Keith Olbermann is an anchor on MSNBC. His new book, â€œPitchforks and Torches,â€ will be published later this month.