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Thursday, February 17, 2011

Peter Pan (on Jane Leavy's The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America's Childhood)


Jane Leavy The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America's Childhood (New York: HarperCollins, 2010)

My friends and even those who know me only slightly would all be surprised, I think, to know that I read Jane Leavy’s fascinating biography of Mickey Mantle, The Last Boy. I am quite obviously disinterested in most sports, and when I do watch such events, it is usually the three s’s, swimming, skating, and skiing. The only group sport I can endure is another sport that begins with an “s”, soccer! In fact, much to the amusement and, perhaps the embarrassment of my three nephews, I do not even know the names of most American football, basketball, or baseball teams. I often visit sports bars to write, since I can completely tune out the several televisions broadcasting events, one of those bars being Mickey Mantle's Restaurant and Sports Bar on Central Park South in New York City, where I sat reading and writing before a meeting with author Richard Kalich one recent afternoon.

It is rather odd, therefore—or completely predictable—that I grew up in a family completely immersed in just to what I am oblivious of. My father began his career as a womens’ basketball coach, and early on coached football as well. My brother David, his second son, went on to become the football and golf coach for the school district for which my father served as superintendent and where I grew up. His three sons were all players of football and basketball there, and my youngest nephew has gone on to study sport’s therapy, after finishing a B.A. in business.

I was steeped in sports, made to participate in Little League baseball each summer—where I bleakly cowered in right field, terrified a ball might come my way. I was also strongly encouraged to, and obediently did play on the second string football team. I dreaded each practice session. During the games I sat on the bench, playing, to my recollection, only in one game.

By my Junior year of high school, I was freed from that indenturement, as I was taken on as the “mascot,” which meant I had to attend all sports events—basketball, baseball, football, wrestling, even field and track—cleaning up the locker room and, mostly, ogling the beautiful boy’s bodies. Herewith I reveal a long kept secret: at the end of the year, I, the most disinterested of sports enthusiasts in the city, received a letter sweater! The irony of it haunts me still today, and I saved that sweater for years after it ceased to fit my expanding body until my companion Howard insisted we remove it from our closet.

Growing up in the 1950s, accordingly, there was no way that I could not have heard of Mickey Mantle, and for one glorious summer, even I was in sync with my peers, collecting baseball cards, with the especial hope to open a pack of gum—a substance I did not enjoy and seldom chewed—to find a Mickey Mantle card—or, at least, to be able to trade one. My failure to acquire was thoroughly explained in Leavy's book. I believe my brother succeeded where I did not, but, then, he was the greatest sports lover I knew, and his sons continue in that tradition, announcing in Facebook message after message: “Go Hawks!”, “Go Pirates!”, “Go”—whatever their favorite team is of the week.

It must of have been as early as the summer of 1955 or 1956, the glorious years of the Mick’s pinnacle that I dropped the baseball cards for the Burns-Mantle Theater books, listing the names of plays, authors, dates, directors, and choreographers with the same intensity sports lovers did homeruns, runs batted in, and other such trivia. A year later I had added an addiction to film through seeing my second Hitchcock movie. I had no more time for sports, despite my father’s insistence that I persevere in playing them.

For all that, I found Jane Leavy’s personally sympathetic and yet substantially critical perspective of Mantle—no relationship to Burns—and his personal life a truly joyful read, for which I was happy to put away old grievances to regain a vision of what those golden days meant to the culture as a whole.

And as Leavy makes clear, they were days of cultural innocence. It was, as she puts it, the "cusp of a radical change":

Babe Ruth was three years dead; DiMaggio was taking his curtain call. His successor, Mickey Mantle, the first telegenic star of the new broadcast age, was installed in right field. Mantle's charismatic foil, Willie Mays, was playing center field for baseball's first all-black outfield.

Born the same year to fathers who rolled baseballs across the floor to baby boys who could not yet walk, they were in their major league infancy. What the 65,000 paying customers at Yankee Stadium saw that afternoon were two works in progress whose unlimited potential would fuel unending debate. They would improve each other and everyone who played with them and against them.

Added to Mantle's all-American grinning face, topped by blond locks, a personality that generally was friendly to his fans, and you had a hero in the making. And for many, as Leavy recounts, Mantle was like no other. No matter who you might think is the best all-time ballplayer, Mantle has always to be in the running, and Leavy, employing encyclopedic data, convinces that it has to be Mantle!

First of all there was his amazing ability not just to hit the ball out the park, but way out of the park, as if the ball had been launched into space rather than merely "hit" by some bat. Early in the book the author describes, in intense detail, the happenings of "One Big Day," April 17, 1953, when Mantle hit the ball out of Washington, D.C.'s Griffith Stadium, nicking the Bohemian Beer sign at the stadium's top:

The ball left his bat traveling at an estimated speed of 110 miles per hour. Clark Griffith, the namesake and grandson of the Senators' owner, was sitting in the family box behind the third base dugout, having cut class at Sidwell Friends School for an afternoon of baseball. "It went up and got caught in the jet stream," he said, "It took on a life of its own."

The thwack of contact resounded through the empty stands. The sound would stay in the memory of Roy Clark, the musical son of the Washington square dance bandleader, sitting with his father along the first base line. "It just echoed in that ballpark," Clark Said. "Even before it was halfway to its destination, you knew that it was gone. Looked like it was in the air for five minutes."

The Yankee's director of public relations, Arthur E. Patterson, immediately declared "That one's got to be measured," dashing from the stadium to discover the ball had been found by a young Black boy, Donald Dunaway. Leavy clearly reveals that much of the rest of the story of how far the ball had traveled was fiction. Yet, for years it stood in baseball history as Patterson had recounted it.

For months Leavy attempted, even with the help of a detective, to track down Dunaway, unable to find him in any source in Washington, D.C. until she went back to the neighborhood, querying people house by house. Miraculously, she found him, and sets the record straight: instead of falling to the backyard of 434 Oakdale Place, as Patterson reported Dunaway to have told him where he found it, Dunaway pointed to a window of a house twenty-five feet closer to the stadium.

Alan Nathan, a professor of physics at the University of Illinois-Champaign-Urbana reasonably estimates that the ball left the bat traveling at 113 miles per hour at an angle of 30 to 31 degrees. Given a wind of 20 miles per hour, less than the highest gusts, it fell from the roof of a nearby house about 512 to 540 feet from home plate, about where Dunaway reported to have found the ball.

But, of course, that was not the only Mantle home-run hit. Mickey Charles Mantle put 6,392 balls into play, according to Leavy, 536 of them home runs!

Secondly, there was his ability to hustle, even though for most of his baseball life Mantle was in almost unendurable pain. He could run, and raced round the bases throughout most of his career playable career. Leavy charts his numerous injuries which left him, for months and entire seasons, on the bench or bed.

Thirdly there was the simple likability of the man. His smile seemed to say it all. "It was a smile, Leavy quotes Tim McCarver, "quite unlike any other, almost a measure of man." In the club house he was looked up to by one and all, but while DiMaggio presumed he was God, Mantle was shy and affable about it. He was nearly everyone's best friend.

What Leavy also shows us, however, was Mantle's darker sides as well, particularly his dissociation with his own family, returning home only on occasions, while he lived most of his life in the locker room or boozing it up in bars, eateries and hotels with teammates like Whitey Ford and, almost always, women. Social diseases were a natural consequence.

Mantle was obsessed by death, and he presumed that he would never have a long life. And, apparently, he was often as broad-humored and coarsely-spoken as a small-town conventioneer. Hostile to the press, at times in his career he could equally tune out his fans. Generous to a fault, Mantle could also be so caught up in himself that he seemed to have no room for others.

The author of The Last Boy explains much of these "good boy/bad boy" extremes as having roots in his hardscrabble Oklahoma upbringing and through sexual abuse as a child by both women and men in his family.

But perhaps the best explanation is one based on a phenomenon that I have written about numerous times in the pages of these cultural memoirs: like so many young and middle-aged men I encounter in the sports bars, Mantle was never truly able to grow up—"He never grew up, and it ruined him," Leavy quotes Mantle's teammate Jerry Coleman.

Leavy's own enjoyable and painful encounter with the Mick at a time where he was forced to leave baseball for taking on the promotion of an Atlantic City casino, exemplifies nearly everything good and bad about the man, a story she tells in pieces throughout the book so that its revelations become even more powerful as we read. As she stood in the cold of a golf field waiting to interview him, Mantle screams out for someone to give her a coat, rewarding it to her almost as a gallant. Yet later he tries to grope her thigh before collapsing drunkenly into sleep, his head falling upon her lap. The next morning a question she asks about his son's cancer brings tears to Mantle's eyes.

By book's end we have little choice but to love while being being equally disgusted by this great baseball hero. I don't know if Mantle was "The Last Boy"—although we all know baseball changed again after his generation's passing, I fear many Americans' desires to return to childhood may never disappear—but he was a significantly lost boy in a long string of American Peter Pan's, and the terrible "hook" finally caught him. As an alcoholic whose body had been eaten up by both his vocation and personal behavior, Mantle's death serves as a awful testament to the heroic failure of men unable to face their adult lives. And yet, he was genius behind the bat, and how he could fly around those bases!

Los Angeles, February 13/16, 2011

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