Mickey Mantle: Jane Leavy talks about "The Last Boy"

Mickey Mantle biographer Jane Leavy talks about her quest to find the real man lurking behind Mantle's image.

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    "I could never get close to people," Mantle once told an interviewer. "I don't know why."
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Mickey Mantle was a superstar who left a legacy of unrealized potential.

By all indications, he could have been a better athlete, husband, father, and role model. If only he hadn't tripped in the outfield in that 1951 game. If only his family hadn't damaged him so much as he grew up. If only almost everything was different, yet mostly the same.

Such is the conundrum of the man from a tiny Oklahoma mining town who never left the public eye after putting on Yankee pinstripes. He was great but not the greatest, a flawed man with much to confess in a confessional era. His fans love him anyway, despite the alcoholism and adultery and one bad decision after another.

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Former sportswriter Jane Leavy interviewed hundreds of people as she sought to understand Mantle, even quizzing linguists about why his four-syllable name rolls so beautifully off the tongue. As the World Series loomed this week, I asked Leavy about what she discovered during the research for her thoughtful and tender new book The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America's Childhood.

Q: What were you hoping to learn about Mickey Mantle?

I set out to answer a question posed by a man named Cromer Smotherman, who was a teammate of [Mantle's] in 1950 in Class C ball. The manager assigned this guy, a first baseman, to be Mantle's minder, to keep an eye on him and help try to regulate his moods because he was so hard on himself when he didn't do as well as he ought to have.

I asked this guy, "If you could speak to Mickey today, what would you ask him, what would you want to know?" The man actually got fairly choked up, and he said, "Mickey, why did you do it? Why did you choose to lead the life that you led? What happened? You were not that kind of person."

Those became my marching orders: to answer that question and to answer a second question: Why does he still have purchase on the American imagination 15 years after his death and decades after he played his last game? I was at a luncheon today and there were people lining up to buy the book who weren't born when he was playing.

Q: What made him unique?

There was a sense of optimism in the profligacy of his talent, the riches of his sheer power and speed. A miner's son in a godforsaken corner of the country that had been and would continue to be devastated by horrible environmental pollution, he seemed to epitomize what was best about us. He seemed to touch a sense of our potential, our resources and our strengths. It was that coast-to-coast smile, a name that had the meter and cadence of poetry.

And he left room for imagination. As one of his great diehard fans said to me, he was both everyman and Superman. There was a sense of his being both invincible and incredibly vulnerable.

Q: How did his life change after he retired?

The rules changed for all these guys. They grew up with a "see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil" press corps. They were accustomed to being able to assume that everything they did and said would not be recorded but would be buried and go to the grave with the writers. Then the rules changed.

There's an unfairness implicit in this that has to do with the notion that we're all ready to look the other way as long as they can hit home runs 500 feet and run to first base in 3.1 seconds.

The minute you can't do those things anymore, the rules change. You used to be Mickey Mantle, and now you're just some guy acting like an idiot in a bar. I'm not condoning the behavior but I certainly have empathy for the fact that one day it's OK and the next day it isn't.

Q: What do people misunderstand the most about him?

I was surprised by the unanimity of former teammates who regarded him as the greatest teammate ever. They talked about his instinctive generosity and his empathy. He had an ability to understand what other people were feeling and needed.

Q: Do you think he was happy?

He really loved baseball and loved being on the field. But Mantle was lonely in a lot of ways. He had many great friends, and by all accounts was a good, generous and loyal friend. But there were a lot of people who wanted only a piece of him.

In an interview after he got out of the Betty Ford Center, Bob Costas said, "I always sensed a sadness in you." Mantle had tears on his cheeks and said, "I could never get close to people. I don't know why."

Q: What do you think was behind that?

There were two things. One was the sense that he couldn't get close to people because they weren't really interested in being close to him. They wanted to be able to say, "I bought Mickey Mantle a drink or knew him well enough to make small talk to him."

And he couldn't get close to people because he was so damaged by some of the things that had happened to him as a child.

He had a hard time trusting relationships. People tried hard to take advantage of him, and they did.

Q: People who only knew him in his later years may only be aware of the darker sides of his reputation. What do you make of that?

That wasn't all there was to him. I hope I've shown that with some discretion and fairness and balance.

Randy Dotinga regularly reviews books for the Monitor.

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