Summer Reading Book Club: The Last Boy Mickey Mantle by Jane Leavy


I wanted to read something that would give me an idea about all things Mickey Mantle; a player I never got to see play but a figure whom I consider more to be a God of the great game or an icon of the game’s storied past. In The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America’s Childhood, Jane Leavy pulls together every moment in great detail from seedling to star of ‘The Mick’. After completing this book I am convinced that this will be history’s comprehensive read on one of the game’s greatest legends ever.

It’s obvious from the book’s beginning that Leavy did a great deal of homework in pulling this together – and I like when writers do that. It’s a quality that really endeared Jeff Pearlman to me. Leavy takes the same approach; if the milk man would have seen Mantle playing in the front yard a few times in Oklahoma and he was still leaving, Leavy would have done her due diligence in talking to him about Mantle’s childhood.

We learn very early on that Jane Leavy was one of the American’s who put Mantle on a pedastool, idolizing him through the heat of many steaming Bronx summers. Later on in life she had the opportunity to spend a day with her hero to interview him and was shown some very human like blemishes of her Superman (Mantle actually attempts to sleep with the author in one of his drunken stupors). But she also sees the soft side of the Mick. Leavy learns the truth about his sobriety – how for all his folk story accomplishments on a baseball diamond – that his greatest triumph was perhaps the man he ended up becoming before his expiration. This will serve as a proud moment for those who loved Mantle when they read about him.

This book simply offered such exquisite documented detail on every event in Mickey Mantle’s life and career. I wanted to read about the degrees of Mantle’s alcoholism and hard partying days. Leavy tells dozens of tales of Mantle staying up all night long with his own teammates and friends of the opposition; only to report to the park the next day and homer twice. If it weren’t so accurately descriptive you would think it was a folk hero tale.

I wanted to read about that Yankee Stadium outfield drain that Mantle stepped in during the World Series that left him playing on one leg his entire career – it’s in the book down to the detail of what the doctor who cut Mantle open after the surgery.

You’ll read about Mantle’s rocky relationship with Joe Dimaggio, his close friendships with Whitey Ford and Billy Martin, that magical 1961 season with Roger Maris as well as an entire chapter on the longest legendary home run he hit against the Washington Senators in the nation’s capital.

And there’s stories about him chasing broads. Lots, and lots of broads. Right down to the bitter end, Mantle was always kept company with buxom beauties just like you’ve always heard about.

You also learn that on the inside of this superhero was a very mortal human being who was a lot like you and I. He was not able to be with his father when he died. Mantle often feared his own death at a young age and wondered whether or not he would be saved once he got to the pearly gates.

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When you read about all those summer days of the Yankees glory, you’ll be able to picture the bright July sunshine that beat down on Yankee Stadium when Mantle was the king of the earth. Nearly any Mantle tale that you’ve heard from fathers, grandfathers, or figures of your life who grew up in this era will be touched upon and give you an accurate trial of how it went down. You’ll feel as if you actually got to see the Triple Crown season of 1956 unfold.

Through reading this book I realize one take-home message: that for all the talking I do to try and tell those with an interest in baseball that Bryce Harper or Mike Trout will be the ‘Mickey Mantle of my son’s time’; I realize there will NEVER be another Mickey Mantle that walks the earth or anything close to it.

Not only was Mantle a modern marvel of science with more God given ability then most of the ballplayers who are on our television sets in today’s era, he simply existed in a time and space that wasn’t of the internet-age where information is readily available. The access we have to players today spoils us. The lack of access that fans and writers had to Mantle, coupled with the way everything in sports are sponsored and so corporate in today’s world robs us of the magical mystique in today’s world. That part of the game has been gone a long time.

Players today simply know better. They don’t openly drink cans of Natural Light in the locker room or smoke cigarettes down in the tunnels, and if they do it’s immediately a story. In Mantle’s day it was nothing for him to sleep off his hangover in the training room before the game only to get started on a new one when his work at the yard was completed for the day.

I wasn’t privileged enough to grow up in the era of ‘The Last Boy’, to experience the age of innocence that was baseball in the 50’s and 60’s. But I realize through reading this book that I would have probably been a Yankees fan, helpless against the intoxication that the man who wore number seven offered to those born in the late 1940’s or early 1950’s.

And in the end the things that should be important to every man were important to Mantle. He did good things and righted many wrongs in his life. It is almost sad and cryptic to read along and watch as he self destructs after his playing career ends. He turns his sons into drinking buddies – after largely ignoring his wife and family during his playing career. Yet one learns that through all the lovers he kept in his company, Mantle refused to ever get a divorce from his wife Merlyn because he loved her to the fullest of the ability that he knew how. At the end of the story, Mantle becomes the father he always should have been. It’s a part in the story that will tug on some heart strings because it will remind readers of their own personal lives and their own fathers perhaps.

Through it all you also realize that Mantle did every bit as much to raise the Yankee ‘NY’ insignia to greatness as players like Ruth, Gehrig, and Dimaggio. Mantle was simply the next one in line to carry the torch, and he did it with a lot more flair than his past counterparts.

You come to realize why Mantle’s collectible items are still as valuable as anyone’s in the collector market present day. Leavy devotes an entire chapter to Mantle’s collectibility back in those days, his relationship with the Upper Deck company, and how his rookie card came to be the card that changed sports collecting and the hobby.

This was one of the most interesting baseball works that I’ve ever opened up, and it’s a perfect book to start reading in the summer months when you’re in the heat of baseball season. We’ll never have the chance to know what it was like growing up in the Bronx, listening to our radio while they tar the streets in hopes that Mantle would hit the next of his gargantuan blasts. But through Leavy’s work, we get to experience just a taste of it. Leavy takes us along through Mickey Mantle’s wild and unbelievable ride through life.