The schizophrenic quality of Mickey Mantle's life is made powerfully manifest
throughout Jane Leavy's exhaustively researched, delightfully readable
biography. Right from the start, Mantle's enormous athletic potential was
bundled with his debilitating psychological and physical problems. Leavy not
only wrestles with the maddening contradictions of the man himself but also the
carefully-constructed myth of Mantle: that the Yankee slugger, by pure
willpower, transcended humble beginnings and a lifetime of physical pain to
become an American icon. But she keeps her eye on more than the facts of her
subject's life, recognizing that fans and writers (herself included) have "invent[ed] a kinder, warmer, bigger Mick, the Mick [we] wanted him to be."
Mantle's distant father,
like several Mantles, died young, leaving Mickey a sense of abandonment and a
fatalistic streak. Once his ballplaying career took off, he found himself
saddled with excruciating pain from multiple on-the-field injuries. Despite
these physical and psychological problems, his wounds were largely cloaked -- the press and public celebrated Mantle as a shimmering example of American manhood. As Yankee wife Lucille McDougald tells Leavy, "Who wouldn't hop into bed with him?" Married with children, Mantle loved the nightlife, drinking and
chasing beautiful women (or in Mantle's case, being chased). Much like his
battle-scarred knees, his liver and his marriage almost collapsed under the
Leavy interviewed everyone
close to Mantle. The slugger's hyper-forgiving wife, Meryl, tells Leavy that "[h]e thought no one ever loved him." The
Last Boy's most telling revelation may be in Mantle's sexual abuse as a
boy, a trauma which made him largely incapable of trusting others. When Leavy
interviewed the retired Mantle, he was drunk and made a pass at her. She also
watched Mantle telling numerous dirty jokes and off-color anecdotes. The
tragedy Leavy exposes is that Mantle only confronted his present problems, and damaged childhood at the end of his life. If we like our heroes because of, not in spite of, their frailties, then Mickey Mantle may be the greatest hero of all. Leavy gives us Mick, not necessarily as fans have wanted to see him, but still glorious in all his self-destructive, splendid complexity.
Bob Costas eulogized the Yankee great as "a fragile hero to whom we had an emotional attachment so strong and lasting that it defied logic." The "we" in Costas's remarks--with author Leavy (Koufax: A Lefty's Legacy) as stand-in--is as much the subject of this fascinating biography as the ballplayer himself. Mantle, who succumbed to cancer in 1995 at age 63, was justly famous for his baseball exploits, but what Costas described as Mantle's "paradoxical grip" on a certain generation of baseball fans is exactly what Leavy tackles in this book. She should know. She spent much time in her childhood in the shadow of Yankee Stadium, a tomboyish "Mickey guy" listening to the roar of the crowd from across the Grand Concourse. While a sportswriter for the Washington Post, she won a 1983 assignment to interview Mantle for his upcoming golf tournament in Atlantic City. What happened that day and night between the fading, embittered Mantle and the former fan girl trying to do her job is the drama that structures Leavy's narrative--she has never reported the truth till now, and she does so without judgment. Instead, she proceeds with steely determination to understand what brought this onetime golden boy from the zinc mines of Oklahoma to center stage at Yankee Stadium and made him into America's quintessential tragic hero, a freakily gifted athlete haunted by a deadly genetic inheritance, including alcoholism. With storytelling bravado and fresh research, Leavy weaves around her own story the milestone dates in "the Mick's" career, which as often burnishes the legend as tarnishes it. Leavy concludes that Mantle cavorted in a more innocent time, when people believed in sports heroes and would not hear otherwise. That's hardly a new idea, but no matter: by the end of this book, readers will know what made Mantle rise, fall, and survive into recovery for his last 18 months. In Leavy's hands, the life of Mantle no longer defies logic: it seems inevitable. She's hit a long home run. 8 pages of color and 8 pages of b&w photos. (Oct.)
Mickey Mantle was a sensitive country boy who was both blessed and cursed. Blessed with a level of natural ability and a twist of fate that made him into a baseball legend at age 21. Cursed by injuries and by the unattainable set of expectations that came with being cast in the role of America's hero. A shy person at heart, he coped with the glare of the spotlight in the traditional ways: via alcohol and sexual profligacy. Author Leavy (Sandy Koufax: A Lefty's Legacy) conducted years of research and interviewed hundreds of people. As a sports writer for the Washington Post in the 1980s, she even interviewed the man himself on several occasions. What sets Leavy's work apart from other Mantle biographies is the framework of personal memories—her own, growing up in the Bronx during Mick's heyday, interspersed with details from 20 selected days that reveal "flashpoints" from Mantle's turbulent personal life.Verdict Leavy's well-crafted portrait of this American hero evokes a range of emotion—admiration, disdain, and compassion—regarding a man who carried some mighty burdens upon his broad shoulders. Recommended for baseball fans and for the Yankee faithful. (Photos not seen.) [See Prepub Alert, LJ 12/1/09.]—Susanne Wells, P.L. of Cincinnati & Hamilton Cty.
Another biography of the late Yankee slugger—but this candid, compassionate portrait is worth a dugout full of the others.
Sports journalist Leavy (Sandy Koufax, 2002) produces an enduring, though certainly not endearing, portrait of The Mick. Eschewing traditional chronology, the author begins with a 1983 interview she conducted with the boozy, boorish, lecherous Mantle (he'd been retired for 15 years), an experience she spreads throughout the narrative, using portions of it to introduce each major section. She focuses on 20 significant days in Mantle's life (five of them after his playing days), beginning with his career-threatening injury in 1951 in Yankee Stadium, and ending with his death to cancer in 1995. In between are glimpses of Mantle as son, brother, husband, adulterer (he was a serial offender), father (not a good one), player, teammate and fading and feckless celebrity. Leavy is generally careful not to celebrate his athletic accomplishments excessively, though it's hard not to. His home runs were prodigious; his speed was gazelline; his capacity to endure pain was humbling. He won the Triple Crown in 1956 and entered the Hall of Fame as soon as he was eligible. The Mick, however, harbored many demons, and the author justly emphasizes them when appropriate. Often ignorant, capricious and extremely self-centered, he drank heavily, cheated on his wife and could be crude and obnoxious to fans (some of the things he wrote on souvenirs for young hero-worshippers—e.g., "You're lucky. Your mom has nice tits"—are legendary). But as Leavy points out, it was in no one's pecuniary interest to portray Mantle as anything other than the All-American Ballplayer.
The best of the Mantle biographies.
…Leavy comes as close as perhaps anyone ever has to answering "What makes Mantle Mantle?" She transcends the familiarity of the subject, cuts through both the hero worship and the backlash of pedestal-wrecking…treats evenly his belated sobriety and the controversial liver transplant…and handles his infidelity with dispassion. Sophocles could have easily worked with a story like Mantle'sthe prominent figure, gifted and beloved, through his own flaws wasteful, given clarity too late to avoid his fate. Leavy spares us the classical tragedy even as she avoids the morality play. The Last Boy is something new in the history of the histories of the Mick. It is hard fact, reported by someone greatly skilled at that craft, assembled into an atypical biography by someone equally skilled at doing that, and presented so that the reader and not the author draws nearly all the conclusions.
The New York Times
“[The Last Boy] is a tale deftly told, rich in detail, unvarnished and unsparing, researched to a fare-thee-well, alternatively fluid and florid, and without staleness because Leavy has found a new angle from which to come at a well-worked-over subject.”
Booklist (starred review)
“A masterpiece of sports biography.”
New York Newsday
“Engrossing.… The Last Boy is a fresh, thorough examination of Mickey Mantle’s life.”
“Leavy shows Mantle at his unfathomable worst and unrecognized best. For even the most ardent Mantleologist, The Last Boy, is an education.”
“Do not walk—sprint—to the bookstore to get a copy of The Last Boy.”
“Part biography, part memoir, and part fan’s note, The Last Boy is the most complete book ever about Mantle.”
“The Last Boy is something new in the history of the histories of the Mick. It is hard fact, reported by someone greatly skilled at that craft...and presented so that the reader and not the author draws nearly all the conclusions.”
“Every kid growing up in New York in the ‘50s wanted to be Mickey Mantle, including me.... Jane Leavy has captured the hold he had on all of us in this gripping biography.”
"Leavy shows Mantle at his unfathomable worst and unrecognized best. For even the most ardent Mantleologist, The Last Boy, is an education."
Doris Kearns Goodwin
“This is one of the best sports biographies I have ever read. Beautifully written and thoroughly researched, it reveals with stunning insight both the talents and the demons that drove Mickey Mantle, bringing him to life as never before.”
“In sharp detail and graceful style, Leavy cuts through the myth and treats us to a rarely known Mantle: more flawed, more human and more likeable. A terrific read.”
“The only thing about this book that is better than Jane Leavy’s vivid prose is her astonishing reporting. To my knowledge, no one has ever investigated the life of an American athlete with Leavy’s rigor and thoroughness.”
“The Last Boy is stunning. Jane Leavy captures the beautiful, imperfect Mickey Mantle with equal measures of depth and empathy. She finds the buried answers to the riddle of what drove and haunted the Mick.”
"A masterpiece of sports biography."