THE LAST BOY MICKEY MANTLE
And the end of America’s childhood by Jane Leavy
When baseball soaked up much of America’s consciousness in the 1950s, before there were 500 cable channels, video games, soccer, and all the rest, there was a god who ran the ballfields and basepaths among the mere mortals and his name was Mickey Mantle. Raised by a pro baseball wannebe, dad Mutt and Mom, and named for old-time player Mickey Cochrane so even his name would have the right pop of an icon, he was Mickey Mantle, (MM, like Marilyn Monroe, get it)? We all did.
He backed it all up as a 18-year-old with a 3.1 second burst to first base, and 550 ft. home runs. Strength, speed, power – there was none like Mickey Mantle. For those of us who were boys then, we formed an attachment to him, to his name, to his capability that ‘defied logic,’ as Bob Costas put it, It was based solely on his speed, HRs, and the confident smile. We didn’t need to know more, and it’s a good thing. Because MM was no god, he was Esau selling his birthright out the back door, and author Jane Leavy deftly dis-mantles the legend. It is said ‘weary is the head that wears the crown,’ and in this case, one could add the word ‘cynical.’
What he did to himself with alcohol and womanizing, chronicled meticulously here, unforgiveable. What he did in promulgating his vices among his four sons, being “their friend,” sharing his drink, women, and dissolute ways, unspeakable. When told by someone he wished MM was his father, one of his sons quipped, ‘me, too.’ Their father was distant, away, uncommunicative, uncaring. But that wasn’t the half of it. Following in his steps, they led lives of alcoholism, drugs, dissolution, and even death wish. One played live Russian roulette, and only chance kept him from an untimely end.
Back in the 1990s, when pop Christianity still held some sway over pop culture, much was made of the cancer-ridden, liver-depleted Mantle’s deathbed conversion. Leavy is less than convincing on that score; read the passage there closely: without saying so per se, she’s not buying it. I hope I’m entirely wrong on this count, btw. I chronicle comebacks in my series of “Extraordinary Comebacks” books, and besides volunteering a bit for organ donation at the end, which resulted in some backfire for the cause since some claim he jumped the line to get a new liver (he didn’t), there isn’t much of one here.
In the end, an extremely sad tale, the ultimate cautionary tale for certain, we now have one less hero, when the larder, once stocked with the likes of Brett Favre, Tiger Woods, OJ Simpson, et al, was already pretty thin by now. Mickey Mantle we hardly knew ye, and maybe for the fact that such a great, great star was so fallen from the skies, maybe wished we hadn’t at all.