Leavy’s “The Last Boy”: A Review
[Braham Dabscheck is an industrial relations scholar, sports writer and enthusiast, and author of Reading Baseball: Books, Biographies, and the Business of the Game, published April 2011, by FiT. He has written extensively on many aspects of sport, and he continues with that tradition today by offering a review of The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America's Childhood. Dabscheck is a man proper from Down Under, and out of respect for his Australian English, no edits have been made to his vernacular.]
Jane Leavy, The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America’s Childhood, Harper Perennial, New York, 2011, 468 pp., paperback $16.99.
A problem which confronts all writers is to find a hook with which to reel in readers. The hook here is to provide a proof of the mathematical truism:
3 + 4 = 7.
Is this truism always correct? Is its reach such that it can be applied to the wonderful world of sports? Can the truism help us understand the inner workings of baseball, America’s “national pastime,” and in particular, that powerhouse franchise, the New York Yankees?
Does 3 (Babe Ruth) + 4 (Lou Gehrig) = 7 (Mickey Mantle)?
The fish that I will seek to reel in here, in providing a proof of this proposition, is an exploration of why writers choose the topics that they do. The focal point of this inquiry will be Jane Leavy’s The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle And The End Of America’s Childhood. Mickey Mantle is regarded as one of the all-time greats of American baseball. He played with the New York Yankees from 1951 to 1968. A power switch hitter who played in centre field, he won the American League’s Most Valuable Player Award three times, hit 536 home runs and was elected to Baseball’s Hall of Fame in 1974.
Jane Leavy was born in New York in late 1951. In her biography of Sandy Koufax (Sandy Koufax: A Lefty’s Legacy, 2003) she said she was the only Jewish kid in New York who was not a fan of the gifted leftie pitcher. This was because her father, who was a New York Giants fan, refused to take her to Ebbets Field before the Brooklyn Dodgers high tailed it across the continent at the end of 1957, to Los Angeles. She was only five! The Giants also moved west at the same time, landing in San Francisco. Two other reasons seem to have determined her choice of team. They were, first, that when she discovered her fascination for baseball at a tender age, the New York Yankees was the only team. It is a good guess that proximity determined her choice of team; she ‘rebelled’ against her father whose team proved to be so disloyal to its New York fans, and while the now Los Angeles Dodgers had a Jewish pitcher, at the time she made her choice, he had not reached his peak. The second reason was that Leavy’s grandmother lived close to the ‘House That Ruth Built.’ While listening to games on the radio at her grandmother’s house and reading match reports in the papers, she fell in love with Mickey Mantle.
In time, Jane Leavy became a sports journalist. In Atlantic City in April 1983, she tracked Mantle down for an interview; one of a phalanx of journalists seeking time with the great man. She teases us with the question she wants to ask him: who was the better player, Mickey Mantle or Willie Mays? When she finally gets some time with him, the drunkard that Mantle now is, or always was until the last eighteen months of his life, mutters away in answering such a dull question. He then steps up to the plate and puts his hand where he shouldn’t, and before he even starts to head for first base falls asleep in a drunken heap on top of her. He is too heavy for Leavy to extract herself, and she is eventually rescued. Her hero didn’t even have feet of clay.
Before he had passed out, Mantle had agreed to talk to her the next morning after breakfast, on his way to catch a flight to attend the birthday of an 80-year-old matron. This time had the virtue of being the time that Mantle was most likely to be sober. One of Mantle’s sons was ill and in the process of dying. Mantle’s father had died young at the age of 39, a victim of Hodgkin’s disease. The question she asked was, “Given what happened to your dad, what’s happening to your kid must be really tough” (p. 368). Without knowing it, she had struck a raw nerve. Mantle’s bravado turned nasty. He tried to shock her by speculating on the sex he would have with the 80-year-old matron who was next in line for the grand parade, which had now become Mickey Mantle. Leavy was too intelligent for this example of stupidity and saw right through him. But this moment stuck in her craw. It was an irritant that festered and would not go away. How could it be that this shining light of her youth could have such a dark and self-destructive core?
In the early years of the new century, she published her biography of Sandy Koufax. Her interest in him may have been connected to her being Jewish—her remembrance of him not pitching on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement and the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, and how despite her being assimilated, she never worked on Jewish High Holidays. Leavy tells us that Sandy Koufax had made himself at home in her soul (Sandy Koufax, p. xv). This, however, did not resolve the problem of Mickey Mantle and that fateful meeting in Atlantic City in 1983. It was solved by a most unlikely source.
In either 2003 or 2004, Jane Leavy saw Doug Wright’s award winning play, I Am My Own Wife, based on the German transvestite Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, an antiquarian whose collection, so it seems, was acquired from the disposed items of Jews deported (this is not really the right word) during the Third Reich. Wright had trouble coming to terms with the dark side of this gay icon. Rather than focus on von Mahlsdorf’s history, he decided to write ‘a play about his love affair with Charlotte von Mahlsdorf’ (p. 399). This provided Leavy with the means to get rid of the itch in her craw.
The Last Boy has the structure of a baseball game, a battle between defence and offence, the good and the bad. It is a game which only comes alive in the ninth inning, where Leavy provides us with material to better understand Mickey Mantle and what made him tick, or more correctly, not tick. The early innings set the scene and provide us with accounts of the persona and issues that will come to fore with great force at the end.
The defence, or good side of Mantle, was his exploits on the diamond, especially his power hitting. Unlike other great players, he was friendly to rookies and on a few occasions, where it mattered, he stood up for African American players. With a seemingly never-ending supply of money, he was an easy mark and was generous to others.
Mantle was born in Oklahoma in October 1930, the son of a miner. His father was the dominant person in his life who tutored him in the art of baseball from an early age. When returning from work, he would pitch to his son to perfect swinging from both sides of the plate. The Mantle family lived in poverty. Their life was dominated by hard and dangerous work, early deaths, baseball and booze. As a child, Mantle suffered from long bouts of osteomyelitis (an inflammation of the bone). Mantle believed that he would not live to 40. He was a bed wetter until age 16, when he left home and started playing minor league ball.
The offence, or rather offensive and dark side of Mantle, was his loneliness and self hatred, which was masked by his womanising and alcoholism. His marriage was a farce and he experienced difficulties relating to others, especially his sons, until later in his life. He never acquired a skill other than being a baseball player. People fawned over him in his prime and retirement, showering him with money, booze, gifts and sex. Like Forrest Gump, people wouldn’t leave him alone, but it wasn’t as if they wanted to know him; they were only interested in the myth that was Mickey Mantle. But unlike Forrest Gump, especially when he was really tanked, he delighted in being crude, rude and offensive. He used to boast that he held the Major League record for the number of times he had had the clap, which was six, and his wife came in second with four! He was a person without life skills.
Into his sixties, with a damaged liver and a realisation that he was an alcoholic that required help, he signed himself into a Betty Ford clinic. There, he was forced to confront his demons. Leavy informs us that he was sexually molested as a four or five year old by a half sister and others, by older boys when he was older and by a teacher at school. These childhood experiences help to explain his promiscuousness and his inability to develop relationships. The major demon in his life, however, was his father. He had never been able to stand up to him and be himself. This, according to Leavy, is the essential source of his self loathing. And unlike in the mythical world of cinema, he was unable to play catch with his father in a Field Of Dreams moment. He sobered up, and in the last eighteen months of his life, he found himself and mended fences with family members and others in his orbit. A liver transplant revealed that his body was riddled with cancer. He died sometime later, in 1995 at the age of 63.
Jane Leavy is a relentless researcher who cannot stop herself from ferreting away for the bits and pieces that combined to make up the life that was Mickey Mantle. She interviewed over 600 people in obtaining information to help understand aspects of his life. She also possesses an enormous skill in recreating a time period or an event; to make you feel that you are there watching whatever it is as it unfolds. She is as tenacious with her writing as Mickey Mantle was competitive on the plate with a bat in his hand. She also has a facility with words; her prose flows like water down a river.
Let us return to the mathematical truism 3 + 4 =7 and its applicability to the rarefied air of the New York Yankees. Number 3, the fabled Babe Ruth, was a man of wine, women and song who also loved fast cars and probably racked up more speeding fines than the 714 home runs that he hit. The Babe was like a kid in a lolly shop with an enormous appetite which he loved to indulge; and he did. He was a whirlwind of bonhomie and a good time all round. Number 4, the misnamed ‘Iron Horse’ Lou Gehrig, was a classic loner, dominated by feelings of insecurity and guilt. His tragedy was that when he was coming out of himself he was struck down by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a disease which affects the nervous system and progressively shuts down the body (it is known as Lou Gehrig’s disease). On July 4, 1939 at Yankee Stadium, on Lou Gehrig appreciation day, he delivered one of the most famous speeches in American sport when he said that he regarded himself as one of the luckiest men on earth.
On June 8, 1969 the Yankees held Mickey Mantle Day in appreciation of its recently retired star. Mickey Mantle stood at the same spot where Lou Gehrig had delivered his “luckiest man” speech 30 years earlier. Mantle, who had seen Gary Cooper’s delivery of Gehrig’s famous speech in The Pride of the Yankees, said “I always wondered how a man who knew he was going to die could stand here and say he was the luckiest man in the world. Now I think I know how Lou Gehrig felt” (p. 298).
Number 7, Mickey Mantle, lived a life that looked like the Babe’s from the outside, but internally he was more like Lou Gehrig, overcome with despair and self loathing. Drunkenness, debauchery and being obnoxious provided spaces for him to hide and not confront the darkness that lurked in his soul. The Yankees’ Number 7, Mickey Mantle combined the disparate parts of the Yankees’ Number 3, Babe Ruth, and the Yankees’ Number 4, Lou Gehrig. Mathematical truisms, tautologically, are always correct, even (especially!) in the case of baseball.
3 + 4 = 7.
Quid Est Demonstratum.
© Braham Dabscheck
University of Melbourne