"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice

The Fella With the Celebrated Swing

Jane Leavy’s Mickey Mantle biography, which I finished over the holiday weekend, is nothing if not meticulously fair. It features a staggering amount of reporting. Leavy talked to anyone and everyone alive with anything to say about The Mick, and includes all available sides of every story. (Sometimes this can be almost excessive – she expends quite a bit of time and effort, and nearly 20 pages, tracking down the then-teenager who found the ball Mantle hit out of Griffith Stadium in 1953, in an effort to find out just how far the home run had really traveled). The result is a careful and detailed character study that manages to describe all Mantle’s many glories without lionizing him, and all his many faults without demonizing him — no easy feat in either case.

Leavy (who was interviewed by our own Hank Waddles just a few weeks ago) grew up idolizing Mantle; I never got to see him play. I think my earliest real memory of him has to do with my father’s surprised reaction to Mantle’s openness and honesty about his alcoholism and stint at the Betty Ford Clinic in 1994. Leavy’s book details decades of Mantle’s uncontrolled debauchery and downward spiral, which dragged in teammates and friends and lovers and, most upsetting, his entire family. But it also does a good job of explaining why, despite all of that, he was still so beloved, not just by fans but by almost all of those same teammates and friends and lovers and family, no matter how severely he hurt them. She also digs up some new information about possible childhood sexual abuse that, while deeply uncomfortable to contemplate, could explain some of the facets of Mantle that hadn’t previously made much sense.

Fans and columnists today often decry modern players’ lack of privacy, but I can’t help wondering what effect that level of scrutiny might have had on the Mick. Maybe it would have ended his career – then again, maybe it would have saved him decades of suffering; maybe it would have saved his life. Mantle was publicly drunk and inappropriate quite literally hundreds if not thousands of times over his career; the Yankees did nothing more than scold and fine him and the papers never reported it. Today, the tabloids would feast on that kind of story, but at the same time I have to believe that the Yankees or Major League Baseball would’ve pressured him into getting help sooner.

Given all the Jeter-contract shenanigans over the holiday weekend, I couldn’t help drawing some comparisons between Yankee superstars — Mantle held out for better contracts from the Yankees multiple times, and was villainized by reporters and fans as greedy, though the parallels are hardly exact since Derek Jeter made more per base hit last season than Mantle ever got paid in a year. Mantle of course ended up a proud lifelong Yankee and, something I didn’t know, was buried in pinstripes (I still haven’t decided if that’s touching or unsettling; both I suppose). Jeter is as controlled and buttoned-down and sophisticated as Mantle was raw and out of control, although I suppose it’s quite possible that, as with Mantle’s fans back then, we simply don’t know him as well as we think we do.

On that note, I wanted to share one revealing  Jeter-related passage from the book that cracked  me up:

On a flawless spring training day in 2006, arms folded over a slight pinstriped paunch, Reggie Jackson turned away from tracking the flight of one hundred batting-practice hacks to consider the question of Mickey Mantle and white-skin privilege. Forty-five minutes into Jackson’s disquisition, Derek Jeter jogged over to find out what was holding Mr. October’s attention. “We’re just talking about how Mantle would have been remembered if he was black,” Jackson said.

Jeter, a post-racial hero who has perfected the art of public speaking without saying anything at all, executed the patented mid-air pirouette usually reserved for hard-hit balls in the hole and headed in the opposite direction.


1 Alex Belth   ~  Nov 29, 2010 2:30 pm

Interesting about Jeter. He is post-racial. NOBODY ever talks about race with him but he's as black as Roy Campy. He's his own race. He's a Jeter.

2 ms october   ~  Nov 29, 2010 2:52 pm

[1] well sheffield probably did :}

3 The Hawk   ~  Nov 29, 2010 3:12 pm

That's a great bit about Jeter. That about sums it up.

4 Chyll Will   ~  Nov 29, 2010 3:44 pm

At least Jeter wasn't obvious about his intentions >;)

5 OldYanksFan   ~  Nov 29, 2010 7:13 pm

Jackson: “We’re just talking about how Mantle would have been remembered if he was black"

Jeter: "Black what?"

6 omarcoming   ~  Nov 29, 2010 10:25 pm

I just finished the Mantle book. I admit to having seen him play his whole career. I wish I could have had the chance to tell him how much joy he brought to a generation of fans. I never would have asked for his autograph.
The most interesting appendix item was that according to modern metrics he would have been MVP nine times. I guess the same people who voted for Felix Hernandez for the Cy should have been voting at that time.

7 OldYanksFan   ~  Nov 30, 2010 9:19 am

We all know I have an irrational love for Mickey.
".. according to modern metrics he would have been MVP nine times."
Yeah... on one leg. GOD! What might have been....

My favorite story is one game Mantle game to the Stadium even more hung over then usual. He told Casey he needed the day off, but Casey basically said Fuck That, and told Mickey to suit up and sit in the dugout. So Mickey basically propped himself up in the corner of the dugout and slept a lot of the game. Come the late innings, Casey was still pissed and wanted to embarrass Mantle to teach him a lesson, so he told him to grab a bat so he could PH. Mickey couldn't believe it, but staggered up, grabbed a bat, and tripped on the dugout steps on his way to the on-deck circle.

But of couse, when Mickey came up to bat, he hit a Home Run.
•Led AL in Batting Wins 9 times
•Led AL in Adjusted Batting Runs 9 times
•Led AL in Runs Created 7 times
•Led AL in Offensive Win % 7 times
•Led AL in OPS 6 times
•Led AL in Extra-Base Hits 3 times

"Son, nobody is half as good as Mickey Mantle."
Al Kaline, to a taunting fan who said Kaline was not half as good as Mickey Mantle

8 The Mick536   ~  Nov 30, 2010 11:58 am

I, too, am a guiless fan, retaining my right to be critical. The book didn't do it for me. Either Jane was too caught up in her fandom to see more of the story or she didn't have the skills to do deep research. It added in part to my knowledge base, but not dramatically. I recommend it, but you learned more about Dimaggio from Richard Ben Kramer's book than you learned about The Mick from this book. I wish Peter Golenbock had written it, though I had great hopes for a Koufax like book from Jane.

I have also had more of a passing interest in position players who pitch. So, and I know it be just a little thing, but what went on between him and Casey over his desire to throw a knuckle ball in a game would have been nice.

[0] Where did you get your information that she interviewed everyone who had info. Lots of living whom she missed and the info she got seemed banal. She didn't ask what needed to be asked and some of her anecdotes were time worn. I also believe that he must have had some friends outside the game, ones who lived on the dark side. I was just part of New York at the time. Why did he go to the Dr. Feelgood? Did Mel Allen take him? Where are the piercing questions to Whitey Ford, yet alone Joe Pepitone, among others. Did she talk with Jake Gibbs? Very thin. Very thin. Bouton said more about him in Ball Four than he did in this book.

Not enough answers to the telling questions, among which were the drug use (including why he missed part of a world series), his relationships with teammates, and philandering. I know of someone who lives nearby in Burlington she didn't speak with.

Jane's book spends too much time on the mundane, as you pointed out, like with respect to the homer in Washinton. Not much on the homer that almost went out of the stadium. Always thought DeLillo used that story in Pafko at the Wall. How tired are all fans of The Mick of the Copa story. Put the Tom Scout story to bed and the story of him and Mutt watching the WS from the hospital bed. In fact, she didn't do as good a job with the knee as she could have. And she missed the opportunity to deconstruct the triple crown season, an achievement worthy of more pages. Didn't she have an editor who was a baseball fan?

Ancient manner used to tell the story. I felt cheated by the oft used photos and lack of interactivity-at least refer us to the many web sites on The Mick. Inadequate explanation why sources aren't documented or referenced. Lots of the places she went were places we could go without leaving our computers.

Her attempts at psychological analysis seemed primitive, if not simplistic. So, Mutt died. Big deal. And he was a star.

What happened to him money? How did he amass the millions he died with if he wasn't doing anything that produced a salary. What products did he hawk-coffee makers, banks.... What was he doing? Why did he move to Florida. Whom did he live with? What was he putting into his body and who, if anyone, was getting it for him

I also suggest that someone knows more about his relationship with Billy. He used Billy as a cover, I would submit as well as a foil.

Hard to put together a good picture of The Mick's relationship with his wife. I have read her book, a painful read, and still don't get it, either the actual contact they had or the nature of their relationship. I mean, was he Tiger Woods or just an ordinary shit?

[7] Jane could have used your help in actually setting out his significant statistical superiority. I needed a little more of how these offensive contributions made the Yankee dynasty and how they related to the performance of others at the time.

And now it comes out. One day, I tripped up, here, by suggesting that part of The Mick's stardom came from his being white. Some banterer took me to task. Jane's book spends some time on this subject. I was the most interesting and unique part of the tome.

Not a satisfying read. I am on to Reggie's book, after I finish the latest Phillip Roth.

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"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver