Jane Leavy, whose book Sandy Koufax: A Lefty’s Legacy was a New York Times bestseller, had profiled Mickey Mantle before — in 1983, for the Washington Post. But her new book, The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America’s Childhood, out this week, draws not just on the weekend she spent with the Mick in Atlantic City for that piece, but on more than 500 interviews with former teammates, family members, and many, many others. Leavy spoke with The Sports Section about teammates who are still protective of his legacy, his knee injury in the 1951 World Series, and why Mantle was like a Thanksgiving Day Parade balloon.
You conducted hundreds of interviews for the book. Did you find that any particular group — be it teammates, family, or fans — was more protective of Mantle?
Well, certainly his Yankee teammates remained stalwart in his defense about everything. And there’s a funny story in the preface that’s absolutely true: After Peter Golenbock published the infamous novel 7 — which was so controversial that Harper-Collins dropped it from its list and it was published elsewhere — Johnny Blanchard, who is now deceased, called up Marty Appel, the former PR guy, and said, “You think it would help if me and Moose [Skowron] went down and beat the shit out of him?” And he wasn’t kidding! So there was certainly that, which didn’t surprise me.
The other place that you saw it — and I thought this was fascinating, and this was my kind of epiphany — you see it in the middle-aged men who were boys when he was The Mick, in full Mick-ness. It’s as if they cannot tolerate any … not even fault, just even a question about Mantle’s status. I’ve never seen that level of fanaticism, in the old-fashioned sense of the word, in any fan, anywhere. They’re so invested in him being the way they wanted him to be when they were little boys that they cannot look at what is then perceived as an unfair attack on him. And it finally dawned on me what it was about, and what it is about, I think — I mean, I could be wrong — but what I think it is about is that Mickey’s the boomer guy, and what’s the ultimate boomer entitlement? Not growing up. And so, in a funny way, they’re perpetuating their own childhood by refusing to see Mantle through grown-up eyes. And seeing through grown-up eyes doesn’t mean disparaging him. It just means seeing the full Mantle.
How much did you think about what could have been if Mantle hadn’t sustained his injury in the 1951 World Series?
That’s the prodigious “What if?” And baseball, and baseball writing, allows for that. It allows space for imagination. What would he have done if? There’s no way to know. There were a plethora of “What ifs?” It’s part of what makes him endlessly engaging as a subject. I think that he was of two minds. He said contradictory things to me. On the one hand, when he took my hand and put it on his knee, and said, “Here, feel this.” And it was like jelly, with a marble-sized piece of cartilage rolling around in there. So on the one hand he would say, as he did to me, when asked “When was the last time you didn’t hurt?” “When I was 18. Before Joe DiMaggio and I converged on this humpback liner.” Then he would get into his macho mode: “Oh, that was overplayed. I was fine from the waist up.” Oh sure, Mick, how about that injury from 1957? “Well yeah, there’s that.” He really didn’t complain. He really didn’t. So I think he was of two minds about that.
The thing that was clear to me was that he knew when he went down, in only a way that an athlete of that caliber can know, that something so profound and transformational had just occurred that nothing, including his potential, was ever going to be the same again. And I believe that from that moment on, his career became a matter of not becoming as good as his father envisioned, as good as all those newspaper people who were blown away by his spring training in 1951 envisioned he would be. It became a question of how good could he be, knowing he would never be what he might have become. I don’t know if “tragic” is the right word, but there was a kind of weird symmetry about his life. He had, including the better part of the month that he was sent down to Kansas City his first year, seven full months and change to be his best athletic self on the public stage — for everybody to see the breadth and dimension of that potential. And then at the end of his life, and here’s the symmetry, he hits rock bottom, he goes to Betty Ford in January of 1994, and he has until August of 1995 to be his best self as a human being.
When a book like this is about to be released, do you think about which part of it will sort of make headlines? In this case, the extent to which he was abused as a child has gotten some attention.
The way this business works is that I have no control over that stuff. I don’t get to say what Sports Illustrated or the Daily News excerpts. Or how they package it. What I do hope is that people see there’s not just one side of him. His son asked me to find his good heart, and I think I did. I think that’s in there too. And if there’s a tragedy of this, it’s that there really was a good guy in there, and it got lost and corroded by too much whatever he was drinking at the end. So for me, as a person who grew up loving him and wanted to love him the way I did as a child, but was having a hard time doing so because so many of his actions were unlovable, learning what I did about him certainly made that possible for me. I felt very much like I really understood the guy at the end. Does it mean that I understood everything? Of course not. You can’t.
Guys like Mickey, and there are not many that reach this inflated place in American culture — not just sports, but American culture in general — it comes to resemble a balloon in the Macy’s Day Parade. And I used to go watch them fill them up as a kid. I had some relatives that had a duplex on Central Park West, and as a little kid I would stand on the windowsill and the balloons were just my height. And one year, the turkey got loose and crashed into the window. In a way, Mickey was like one of those overly inflated cartoon balloons. He’d been so pumped up with hot air from fifties journalism and public relations that he ceased to have any human dimension. So what holds a person to the ground? I don’t even mean that he was full up on himself. I don’t think he shared that perception of himself. But what holds him to the ground? Very little. In a way, my job was to, not cut him down to size, but to bring him into human dimension, so he resembled a real human being again.
As a Mantle fan growing up, and as someone who’s obviously had the “Mantle or Mays?” debate many times, was it nice to see the advanced statistics you cite make Mickey look pretty good?
Yeah, sure. I think what Mantle said himself, that Mays was the greatest all-around player of his generation that he ever saw. And clearly Mantle and everyone else in their right mind would say that Mays was a far greater defensive player than Mantle ever aspired to be. And I didn’t make an attempt, though people are now doing so, to use the new metrics that define defensive ability. So I was talking about purely as an offensive player. He died before Bill James [who has written that Mantle, at his peak, was better than Mays] could come along and tell him why being called a .298 lifetime hitter really shouldn’t piss him off so much. But it did. He hated it. There’s a quote in there: He says, “When somebody introduces me and says ‘A career .298 hitter,’ I want to say, ‘You cocksucker! Quit saying that.’” That really bugged him.