Babe Ruth was clearly the best player in Yankees history, Yogi Berra earned the most World Series rings, and Joe DiMaggio was, well, Joe DiMaggio, but somehow Mickey Mantle still stands apart. He came of age along with millions of baby boomers who curled the brims of their hats to match Mantle’s, imitated his swing, and even limped like he did.
Quite simply, he was the Mick. Jane Leavy explores the man and the legend in her recent book, The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America’s Childhood. Ms. Leavy was generous enough to talk with me about her book and a few other topics.
Bronx Banter: Behind every good baseball book, you can usually find an author who grew up loving the game, who grew up playing catch with his father…
Jane Leavy: Ah, ah, ah… Watch that “his,” watch that “his,” Hank!
BB: But I think that’s what I want to get at, the fact that typically most of these writers are men who were boys growing up wanting to be baseball players and then settled for being writers. I was just wondering how much of that was true of you as a child?
JL: Well, I don’t think past the age of probably five I really thought there was much prayer I was going to be a baseball player. I think the inheritance of a passion for a game, whether it’s baseball, since baseball claims a supremacy in that, though certainly I know people whose devotion to the New York Football Giants or the Jets or even, God help us, the Redskins, is handed down along with the season tickets the same way. But baseball certainly has a claim on that matter of inheritance, and yes, I inherited my love of the game from my dad. I don’t think I had any illusion that I was going to be out there on the field with the guys, and that was pretty sad. I could dream, but that’s different. And I do think that that makes a big difference in the way that women write about sports. I’ve often said, and I really do believe this, reporters are supposed to be outsiders. There’s always been a little bit of a competitive thing going on when the guys who wish they could’ve been the second baseman for the New York Yankees are trying, almost, in their question to prove to the interview subject that they know as much and they could’ve been out there with them and the whole nine yards. I don’t think any woman is going to go into a locker room with that same notion. Reporters are supposed to be outsiders, that’s what we are. When you’re a woman in a locker room, that’s what you are. You’re an outsider.
BB: It reminds me of something that I heard Suzyn Waldman once talk about. She said that when a player is traded, a male reporter will immediately think about how it impacts a team, whereas she would always realize that behind that player there’s a family that’s being uprooted, and she felt like her female perspective allowed her to see more of a situation than just what was going on on the surface. It seems like you’re kind of saying the same type of thing, I suppose.
JL: Well, I don’t think you can make the acute generalization that every male reporter is gonna not wonder about how somebody’s nursery school age kids are gonna feel, or how every baseball wife is going to deal with yet another relocation. Not every guy is an insensitive boob, and not every woman is an empathic shoulder to cry on. As a reporter, it’s partly determined not just by personality, but by assignment. If you’re just out there to write the game, whether you’re male or female, it doesn’t matter. For a while, once in a while I would trade bylines with a male friend just to see if anybody noticed. I think I wrote this actually once. When I first started sports writing, the gig was can you write so that nobody could tell you were a girl. You had to prove that it was an okay thing to be. I do believe, and this is what I was saying, there are advantages, though it’s certainly a double-edged sword, particularly early on – but there are advantages to being a woman in a locker room. There are things that guys tell women that are different than what they tell other guys. And there are questions that women may ask that are different than what a guy may first ask. I always use this example. I’ve heard countless numbers of men say to a player, “Well, that slider didn’t do much, did it?” The question presumes that they know exactly what the pitch was. Well, maybe they don’t. Half the time the hitters don’t. But a woman, certainly this woman, would presume nothing. I would say, “What was the pitch? Do you know what that pitch was? And where was it? Where did it go? What was it supposed to do?” That’s what I meant about the competitiveness. I didn’t feel the need to show my bona fides in that way.
BB: My ten-year-old daughter recently learned how to keep score, can identify most of the Yankee players, she loves to play catch with me…
JL: My kinda girl!
BB: Exactly. And even though that’s not typical of most girls, she certainly isn’t seen as odd. How were your feelings about baseball viewed when you were growing up?
JL: I measure the change, which I think is profound and which you’re seeing in your daughter, with a story I’ll tell you in a second. Certainly as I approached that tender age, at least growing up in Long Island, you’re supposed to be thinking about what you’re going to wear to all the bar mitzvah and bat mitzvah parties, and not whether the first baseman is in a slump. My particular infatuation for baseball, and more particular for the Yankees, did not serve me exactly well. I’m old enough that it was the era of tom boys, and girls were supposed to like boys more than they liked baseball, and I was a girl who liked the things that little boys got to do. And that was not a popular way to go in 1950s Long Island. As a young girl I was, I’m sure, pretty unaware of whatever may have been swirling around me, but as I got older it became more uncomfortable, and for period of time I suppressed the Yankees.
BB: What a terrible thing.
JL: Terrible! But I have a daughter who’s twenty-two, and one day when she was somewhere around eight, at the age when little girls like to wear make up and those stick-on earrings that come in little packages, so maybe seven or eight years old, something like that. I have a painting in the front hall of my house, a floor painting, that’s almost a perfect square, but it’s all painted florals. It’s almost like a mural on the floor, but Emma decided one day that it made for a perfect boxing ring. And down she comes dressed in a red sweatsuit with lots of appliqué butterflies and flowers, wearing her brother’s Michael Jordan hightops, a tutu over the sweatpants, her father’s boxing clubs from when he was a kid, forty-seven different shades of lipstick covering her face…
BB: She was covering all the bases, basically.
JL: You got it. Seven or eight pairs of those stick-on earrings, and she comes downstairs and plops down in the funny boxing ring she imagined, and she says, “Put ‘em up!” Now, what that said to me was, this is a new generation. This is not a case of having to choose between either or. Emma felt perfectly comfortable, and still does at age twenty-two, getting rotty and sweaty and being competitive and being, in my opinion, the most gorgeous twenty-two year-old young woman on the face of the earth, who has successfully, finally, taught this tom boy mom how to put on makeup correctly. So I think that that schism that used to exist for young girls in this culture, doesn’t anymore, and I think that’s the best measurement I can give for how different it is for my daughter, your daughter, compared to how it was for me.
BB: That’s interesting to hear that perspective. All of which leads us to Mickey Mantle. What did Mickey mean to you as a fan of the game?
JL: Ah, the Mick. Well I don’t think he meant anything particular to me as a fan of the game, it was a far more personal relationship. I think that these relationships that existed then between kid and player or grownup and player had a really proprietary quality to them. When you used that phrase, “He was my guy,” it’s possessive. It’s in the language and the structure of the sentence, a kind of possessiveness. We belonged to each other. He was my guy, I was a Mickey guy. So this didn’t have so much to do with being a fan of the game – though I was also that and remain also that – this was about a particular attachment to a public figure who touched something – obviously metaphorically – in me, just as Willie Mays did for other kids and Duke did for kids in Brooklyn or Michael Jordan or Larry Bird or Magic Johnson did for other kids. There was a part of the book that got sort of crunched down. I suppose it was the right decision, though it pained me. I went to Columbia, and there was a teacher there back in the day, Ethel Person, a very prominent psychiatrist who taught a class in human development, and I just thought she was the coolest thing ever. She wore all these swanky, black chemise dresses and smoked cigarettes through a cigarette holder. Whoa! This class was odd because it featured a lot of Columbia football players because they thought this would be an easy grade. Anyway, she wrote this book called Feeling Strong: How Power Issues Affect Our Ability to Direct Our Own Lives. Ethel knew nothing about sports, which is part of what made the whole class so funny back in the day. And in the middle of this book she suddenly does this weird digression into what the whole psychoanalytic underpinnings of the who’s better debate is all about. Her whole argument is that these fierce debates that continue into late middle age about who’s better are basically for young boys a way of trying on the vestments of adulthood and what kind of man they want to be, under the guise of it being an objective conversation with all these statistics. You’re investing this power in this person because you’re trying on different ways of being man. Am I gonna be a Mickey kind of man? Am I gonna be a Willie kind of man? The fierceness of those debates is what that is about. So I thought that was brilliant. I thought, “Oh, my god, that explains it – of course!”
BB: That’s why people are so passionate.
JL: The only place I would disagree with Ethel – and I never disagree with Ethel – is that I don’t think it’s exclusive to boys. [Laughing] It certainly wasn’t for me. That’s a long way around to your answer, and I apologize…
BB: That’s okay.
JL: What I’m saying is that everybody remembers the news conference, Mickey’s last news conference, when he got up and pointed that withered thumb at his caved in chest and said, “I’m not a hero. Don’t be like me.” Well, I did want to be like him, and not just ‘cause I wanted to be able to go up to the plate and pop one over the fence, but because I had – and I couldn’t have articulated this at that age – I had physical problems dating from my premature birth. I have this very inchoate sense of myself as being, for lack of a better way to put it, half-baked because I was born two months prematurely. So I was, kind of, not fully baked, and I had things that weren’t even diagnosed until later. I didn’t understand them, but I had a real sense that something wasn’t right and I had to cope with it. And Mickey did, too. I knew that, we all knew that. So my identification with him had to do with the way he carried himself. I couldn’t explain it at that age. It was a way of learning how to carry myself despite a sense that I had of being physically… I hate challenged… I don’t want to say challenged…
BB: Fragile or vulnerable…
JL: Yeah, right. Thank you. Exactly right. So he really did help in that way. And the other thing, of course, was the proximity of my grandmother’s house and Yankee Stadium. To me, going to see her was the same as going to see him, and vice versa. In the weird elixir of childhood and imagination and a grandmother who was willing and able to give me permission to be exactly who I wanted to be, whether or not it comported with notions of fifties girliness, in my mind the two of them are inseparable. When I got to think about it more later, I realized that in some ways they were more alike than I realized and I think I wrote about it a little in the book. I said something to the effect that, how different is it really, my grandmother’s determination to fast on Yom Kippur despite her diabetes, and Mickey’s willingness to play hurt. They were both taking one for the team! And it represented the same kind of bravery to me, and the same kind of grace. To watch my grandmother shoot her thigh with the insulin that she kept in the refrigerator was to me an incredible act of heroism. I was in awe. And again, how different was it, really, than what Mickey could do? So they were just all mushed up in my mind.
BB: You talked earlier about how you felt like you were able to be objective as a reporter. How difficult was it to be objective as you were writing a biography of your guy?
JL: Impossible. Which is why I wrote it the why I did. I’m not sure any of us is ever really objective, Hank. I think that’s a faux objectivity that we like to affect. Even if you allegedly start out objective, I’m not sure you end up there. Certainly in this particular case I could not pretend to be dispassionate. There was just no way. And so the only way, I concluded pretty fast, that I could write this book – other people could do it differently – but the only way I could write this book was the way I did, by acknowledging what he had meant to me, acknowledging the fierce disappointment that therefore ensued upon being confronted with what and who he really was.
BB: Talking about Mantle the player, one thing that I feel like we’ve lost in this internet age is that sense of mystery and excitement that comes along with a hot new prospect. I think we got a little taste of that this past summer when Stephen Strasburg made his debut with the Nationals, but even with Strasburg, we still knew an awful lot about him by the time he arrived. What was it like when Mantle made his debut in 1951? What were the expectations?
JL: Well, I think it was an understated set of expectations. I think by the time he had been the MVP of the Western League as he was the year before, it was pretty clear that he could hit. What was it .353 or something like that? But still, nobody expected him to be in the major leagues the next year. Nobody. And he wanted to go back down and play for Harry Craft again. He really did. So the effect of him blowing through that thin air out there in Arizona was extraordinary. Of course, as Red Smith used to always say and Stanley Woodward would write, “Quit godding up those ballplayers!” But you don’t really realize you’re doing it when you’ve spent that much time in the sun, and there isn’t much incentive for doing it either. So the gushing of column inches had as much to do with the astonishing demonstration and breadth of his talent as the sun, the air, and the desert. Mickey would often laugh about it later about how thin the air was in Arizona. It’s not like he wasn’t doing what he was doing, but he certainly wasn’t really an outfielder, was he? One of things that puzzled me, and I still can’t figure out, is how come in 1950 Casey says, “I don’t wanna see him at shortstop ever again,” and yet he plays another whole season at shortstop for the Joplin Miners. One possible scenario, what that tells you is that they really didn’t expect him to be in the major leagues in ’51 and they thought he was gonna have another season to learn how to play outfield.
BB: I can’t quite imagine a bigger move than going from Commerce, Oklahoma, to the Yankees and New York City. How was that transition for Mantle, in terms of both baseball and culture?
JL: Well, I’m sure he would’ve done his best to hide whatever fears were there. His father obviously knew enough to go to Red Patterson and say, “I want you to look out for this kid.” And for Red Patterson to turn around and say, “That’s not really my job, I can’t be his agent…”
BB: Yeah, I was struck by that. I can’t imagine something like that happening today.
JL: Right. So his father clearly intuited, maybe because of his role in producing this particular phenomenon, physically and emotionally, that he was ill-prepared to negotiate this. After all, how could Mutt Mantle really know what it meant? He couldn’t. He could have a sense of it. He’d taken him to St. Louis and seen Stan Musial in an elevator, but he couldn’t have an idea of what it was like to come to New York with all of that potential. The fact is, I’m sure Mickey was terrified. Red Smith wrote that fabulous column about him going out and playing in a pair of spikes with the soles flapping like radio announcers mouth. What does that tell you about how prepared he was?
BB: One thing that really caught my interest was your description of the rivalry between Mantle and Joe DiMaggio. Can you talk about that a little bit? That tension?
JL: Picture little Mickey Mantle in study hall looking at a Life Magazine spread about Joe DiMaggio. He’s sitting there with his pals saying, “I’m gonna be Joe DiMaggio one day.” Well, how many people around the country have done that, sitting at kitchen tables or in study halls? A zillion. Do they really think they’re gonna become Joe DiMaggio? Do they possibly, in their wildest imaginations, think that they’re gonna end up playing beside him in right field as he tries to figure out a way to retire as gracefully as he had played? I don’t think so. And then you have Casey Stengel who has his own ambitions. Jerry Coleman has said to me, “Joe coulda kept playing. He didn’t need to quit.” That’s the only person I ever heard say that, but I put a lot of credence in Jerry Coleman’s statements. Stengel clearly wanted to get the process of being in the second half of the twentieth century under way. And in his view, clearly DiMaggio was the first half of the twentieth century, and I don’t think you can underestimate how much Stengel wanted to be able to mold someone and to be known as the Ol’ Professor who really could teach and tutor and shape the career that would then reflect back on him. So with all that and DiMaggio, who may not be, after reading Richard Ben Cramer’s unbelievable book, anybody’s idea of the best human being on the planet, but the fact is it’s not easy to seize center stage than it is to let go of it. And you can certainly have compassion for anybody, any of these athletes, who having been Joe DiMaggio, having been Mickey Mantle, have to figure out a way, not just to leave it, but to go on.
BB: Right, right.
JL: That Joe DiMaggio would have ankle spurs – an Achilles Heal – doesn’t really, metaphorically, surprise me. And here comes this young kid, who for that very brief moment in time, really can do anything. Now, could he do it for eighteen years? Look at your analogy to Stephen Strasburg, which is fabulous. My publisher was inundated after Strasburg’s fourteen K game with proposals – the greatest pitcher who ever lived! Well, wait a minute. How many games has he pitched? There’s a rush to judgment in the making of daily history. You don’t know how it’s gonna come out, and it’s really hard to remind yourself that before Mickey Mantle got hurt, before the whole process of physical deterioration set in, before Mutt died, before Mickey started carousing with grieving Billy Martin, you didn’t know what he was really gonna become. Merlyn would say later that she regretted naming their first boy Mickey Junior because of the burden it was. Well, my thought was, she didn’t know what the burden was gonna be then, because Mickey Mantle…
BB: Wasn’t Mickey Mantle.
JL: How did you know what this little baby was gonna have to be carrying around with him? But I think that that’s what’s so amazing about that moment. Talk about what if. That was the moment, before the knee, those seven months, one of which he spent in Kansas City wearing #35 for the Blues, where you really could allow your imagination to run wild and imagine not what he could have done, but what he might do.
BB: When Mantle arrived in the early 50s it was kind of a golden age of New York City baseball, with Duke Snider and Willie Mays leading competitive teams in Brooklyn and Manhattan while Mickey did his thing in the Bronx. What was that rivalry like? Did those three men have a sense of what was going on, or is this something that’s been created in retrospect?
JL: I said something to Duke about ’51, and he said, “No, it really started in ’54.” Mantle had been injured in the Series, then Mays left for the Army in ’52 and ’53, so ’54, he’s right, was the first time that they were really, metaphorically and literally, together on the big stage. So that’s when it really all dates back to. The “who’s better” thing didn’t really begin until ’54, because that was the first time they really all played a season on that center stage. I think it certainly gained force over the next couple of years with Duke continuing to hit his forty home runs a year and the Dodgers and the Yankees being in the two World Series. And Willie faded, of course. He didn’t have those great years. All things you read about Mantle, how he’s not fulfilling his potential, there were stories like that about Mays.
BB: It’s surprising. I recently read the Mays biography, and it’s kind of amazing to read what people were writing about him at the time.
JL: Duke was really great on this subject. I think he certainly resented it, and Carl Erskine described this to me how O’Malley exaggerated the pressure by putting all the averages up on the scoreboard. All through ’54 you had the head-to-head things with Mays and Mueller and Snider. Duke didn’t like that at all, and he felt it was counter to the Branch Rickey way he had been schooled in: if the team wins, the individual numbers will be there. But it really was the old ethos. That’s what they cared about then. Not just because they were selfish, but because that was how they were gonna make the money, if they played in the World Series. Scott Boras wasn’t around to count the base hits and the stolen bases. It didn’t really matter. Duke said that he and Willie would kibitz behind the batting cage – Oh, I got you today, blah, blah, blah – but they weren’t close friends by any stretch of the imagination. I love the story about Willie hitting two home runs in Ebbetts Field and coming out to the parking lot to find all four of his tires slashed and having to take the subway back to Harlem. This was personal. When people say it took a lot of guts to be a Mickey fan in Brooklyn, it really did! I think Duke and Mickey overlapped a lot in the World Series, obviously, but a lot of it is retrospective. Right at the opening of the ’57 season Stan Isaacs had a piece in Newsday about who’s better, saying we’re starting to see it now, but we’ll know in fifteen years when all the statistics are dry. Well, we don’t know, because we’ve just invented more statistics to keep the debate going. The debate’s just relocated from the street corner to cyberspace.
BB: It didn’t take long, of course, for Mantle to grow into – and even exceed – the expectations that he first brought to the big leagues. But while he was winning multiple World Series and winning the hearts of America, he was also spending time off the field with people like Billy Martin and Whitey Ford. How serious was all this debauchery? How much did it affect Mantle’s performance on the field, both the next day and the long term?
JL: I think that is impossible to answer. When people like Ralph Houk said to me, “That’s all exaggerated, he didn’t drink that much.” When Moose Skowron said, “He didn’t drink that much, he didn’t hurt nobody,” they’re talking from a very different perspective.
BB: And aren’t they in a sense kind of defending him?
JL: Yeah, but let me see if I can explain it. We need some perspective. It was a culture in which that was the norm. So how much he was doing…There’s good evidence that with Billy Martin around, particularly with Billy being as emotionally distraught as he was in ’53 when his wife left and took the baby, and Mickey still not over his father’s death, that they hit it pretty good. But what Sam McDowell said to me is the thing that’s most persuasive. I don’t think Houk was lying when he said he didn’t drink that much, it’s just that the standards of how much was “that much” are different. I don’t think he came to the ballpark in the ’50s hung over. I don’t think he probably got drunk every night. But what Sam McDowell said, and what is true, is that the seeds of his alcoholism would’ve been invisible. You just would’ve thought he was being irresponsible, because he wasn’t doing anything that was much different from anybody else. What you couldn’t see was that the effect on his biochemistry was different from everybody else.
BB: It wasn’t just a guy going out drinking.
JL: No. He didn’t know it, and they didn’t know it. There was just no way to know that.
BB: I wanted to also ask you about 1961. So much has been written about that and movies have been made. What kind of relationship did Mantle and Maris have?
JL: I really think the stuff about them hating each other was untrue. It really was one of those reporter created…
BB: It made for a good story.
JL: Yeah. Now do I think that Mickey didn’t care about not winning the home run race? No, I think he cared. To the point where he hated Roger Maris’s guts or anything? No, of course not. I think he would’ve liked to have broken that record, but I think this is one of those cases when ballplayers say, “Do you know how much time we were out there together?” And it was true. At least for part of the summer, it was true.
BB: And what about the end? There are a lot of contradictions in the Mantle story, especially when we look at his final days. He’s every woman’s dream, but he’s juggling two different…
JL: Whoa, whoa, whoa. Why do you say that?
BB: That’s part of the contradiction, I think.
JL: No, I think that is a male fantasy.
BB: Well, let me tell you what I think, and then you tell me why I’m wrong. The next part of the question is that he’s every man’s hero, so maybe I’m just assuming that if I love him, then every woman must love him, too.
JL: It depends on when you’re talking about.
BB: Over the course of his career. Because what I’m thinking about is this contradiction that he’s a hero, but in the end he’s juggling two different women during his final hours, and he essentially drank himself to death. During those days I remember a lot of people being very conflicted, going through two different types of mourning: the death of the man, and the death of the legend, I suppose. But the legend survived all of that. Am I making any kind of sense? Does any of that make sense to you?
JL: No. I think that in his youth, the Mickey Mantle whom you see on the cover of the book was an incredibly gorgeous, magnetic figure, and that men and women were infatuated with him. I think it’s an erroneous supposition to assume that he was later every woman’s dream. I don’t buy that at all. I think he became more every man’s dream: what you can get away with, how many women you can have, how you can do all this and get drunk every night. I think it became more a male fantasy than a female fantasy. But does that mean that there weren’t women ready and willing and available? No, of course it doesn’t mean that. But you know, that’s true for baseball players pretty much across the board. There are always the baseball Annies.
BB: So how did you reconcile your feelings about him as you grew older and grew more to understand what was going on?
JL: I’m not sure what you mean.
BB: For instance, when you talk about how important he was to you as a child, and even looking back how intertwined his memory is with your memories of your grandmother. I think it’s interesting how we can still separate, how we can accept one part of a person without throwing out the baby with the bathwater.
JL: Isn’t that just being a grown-up? That’s probably the answer to your question. Grown-ups are capable, allegedly, of holding more than one idea in their heads. That’s what the subtitle means. He can be as magnificent an athlete, compromised as he was by circumstance and disability, and he can be not somebody you would’ve wanted to have passed out in your lap. Just because things are opposite doesn’t mean they’re mutually exclusive. To me, that’s what it means to be a grown-up. It means you don’t need to see things or people as one-dimensional. You can see that it’s complex. There was good and there was bad. It literally isn’t all black and white.
BB: I think that sums up Mickey, and a lot of people.
JL: I think the part that I care about most, Hank, I think maybe I said it better in the book, is that Mickey forced me to grow up. He forced me to see him as he was and not as I wanted to see him. I think that the thing that he has in common and the unshakeable bond with his legions of Mantleologists, the fan boys, is the refusal to grow up, the refusal to abandon their fond illusions of childhood. And Mickey, I think to his credit, was trying over and over and over in so many ways with so many ridiculous excesses to say, “Look at me!” – just like he said “Don’t look at me” at the end – he said, “Look at me! Look at me!” I think a lot of his behavior was a cry for help. And nobody could see it or could hear it over the roar of the crowd.
[Photo Credits: Bob Olen and John Dominis]