One wouldn’t think that in the heart of Red Sox country, people would be clamoring to read about a Yankee. But that’s exactly what happened earlier this season when there was a run on at the Minuteman Library network for Jane Leavy’s acclaimed biography The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America’s Childhood. To deal with the reader demand, member libraries were forced to order extra copies – and this for a book released last October.
The fascination with Mantle clearly transcends the pitched lines of a fierce sports rivalry. After all, Mantle, much like Marilyn Monroe, was an iconic figure who lived both a glamorous and tragic life.
Interestingly, Monroe was briefly married to Joe DiMaggio, Mantle’s predecessor as the Yankees’ centerfielder. DiMaggio, however, was a standoffish teammate who Mantle felt did little to facilitate their handoff.
This comes through clearly in “The Last Boy,” which very possibly is the definitive work on Mantle, despite there being more than 20 other books about him.
Leavy, who was born in the Bronx 20 blocks from Yankee Stadium, spoke to more than 500 people in writing the book and lists each one in an appendix. As she puts it, she went to such great lengths “in an effort to find [Mantle’s] good heart.” She was convinced that he had ennobling character traits buried beneath his often coarse and insensitive behavior.
He, in fact, had given her a sweater in 1983 on a cold day when, as a sportswriter for The Washington Post, she had followed Mantle during a weekend in which he hosted an invitational golf tournament for an Atlantic City casino. To write the worst of what she encountered then, she said, wouldn’t have been acceptable to the Post’s editors.
But now some of the Mantle’s X-rated language and exploits are common knowledge, so Leavy pulls no punches in her detailed account.
Part of what may be driving the current interest in Mantle is that this year marks the 50th anniversary of the famous 1961 home run race between Mantle and teammate Roger Maris to break Babe Ruth’s single-season record.
Then, too, baby boomers seem eager to dig into the recent spate of in-depth biographies of superstars from the 1950s and 1960s. Other players whose lives are chronicled in 400-plus-page biographies are Roy Campanella (“Campy: The Two Lives of Roy Campanella"), Stan Musial (“Stan Musial: An American Life”), and Willie Mays (“Willie Mays: The Life, the Legend”), the focus of the heftiest treatment of all at 640 pages.
Ross Atkin is a sports writer for the Monitor.