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.
Mickey Mantle was a superstar who left a legacy of unrealized potential.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
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.