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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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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.

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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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