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.