The Last Boy

I was 13 when Mickey Mantle passed away. I still remember the moment vividly. I heard the news in bed, under the covers, clutching a radio that was tuned into the local sports station. This had become a routine for me, a product of my teenage insomnia combined with a budding love for all things sport. The host made the announcement, succinctly, but with great sadness: The Mick was gone. I wept.

Mantle’s death was the first time I encountered true loss. It’s a ridiculous statement, I realize, but a true one nonetheless. Three of my grandparents had passed away by the time I was two, and I was fortunate enough not to experience further loss on a personal level since. I was naïve, innocent – even for a 13-year-old. But I had come to love baseball.

I reveled in baseball’s storied past, immersed myself in books about bygone eras. I recognized Mantle as one of the final links to that rich history, to a period that seemed more myth than reality, and one that would never be duplicated. Through a remarkable Sports Illustrated feature detailing his alcoholism, I had a sense of his complications as well. It reinforced the tragedy. A fallen legend. And so I wept.

But it was was not until I picked up Jane Leavy’s The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America’s Childhood this past month that I truly came to appreciate the nuances of Mantle. Leavy tackles the legend, deconstructs the myth, delves into both the ballplayer and the man, and analyzes what was and could have been. It is unequivocally the best sports book, arguably the best book, I have ever read.

Leavy structures the book around twenty specific days that cover the spectrum of Mantle’s life. Smartly, she does this loosely: a pivotal injury during a World Series game on October 5, 1951, for instance, allows her to consider Mantle’s relationship with Joe DiMaggio (who played no small role in that injury), to chronicle Mantle’s struggles throughout that rookie season.

Or take November 2, 1953, when Mantle was brought to Burge Hospital for his knee to be operated on. Leavy details the different injuries Mantle experienced in his career, explores his experiences with a wide range of doctors (and discusses treatment options had he been a modern ballplayer), and sheds light on the daily hell Mantle put himself through to be on the field.

It’s an understatement to say that the book is well-researched. Leavy interviews hundreds of individuals: family members, friends, ex-teammates. She supplies a multitude of perspectives, ensuring that we are never left with just a single anecdote or recollection. Where appropriate, she corrects the narrative history. While unrelentlessly truthful, the book is never boring, establishing a gripping narrative.

One of my favorite chapters, for instance, deals with a home run ball Mantle crushed in D.C., well out of the stadium. Leavy convincingly makes the case that the event marked the beginning of the sport’s obsession with ‘tape-measured’ balls. She notes the irresistible story in the papers the next day: the reporter who determined the distance, the neighborhood boy who retrieved the ball.

How far did the ball actually travel? Leavy finds a physics professor. She reconstructs the flight of flight, notably from a stadium that no longer exists, into a neighborhood that has changed dramatically, based on accounts that are more mythical than real. She tracks down the boy who found the ball, contrasts his recollection with that of the reporter. Poignantly, she traces the life of that boy, who died at 71, who still considered it the best day of his life.

Despite these sporadic – and fascinating – interjections, despite the commentary about memory and history, ultimately, The Last Boy is about Mickey Mantle. It is about a man who lived with a ton of demons, a man with a deeply complicated relationship with his father. About a man whose failures became most manifest in his marriage and family, a man who became all too conscious of his own shortcomings.

Of course, the book deals with the legend as well. He was an all-time great ballplayer, yet one who never quite lived up to the promise he showed in his first healthy few years. Leavy paints a picture of a shy Oklahoman kid, incredibly immature, but also insanely driven and fiercely loyal. It’s about how people treated him because he WAS Mickey Mantle… and the damage that that ultimately caused.

Interwoven through all of this is Leavy’s own relationship with her childhood hero, established through a 1983 interview in Atlantic City when Mantle’s alcoholism ran rampant. It adds yet another dimension, and even more of a personal perspective, to one of the most thorough and richest biographies I’ve ever read. The Last Boy is not about baseball. It’s about a man. I can’t recommend it enough.

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