Book Review

book cover


The only thing Jane Leavy didn’t share about Mickey Mantle in her fine new book The Last Boy is where and when he made his deal with the devil; the one whereby he became the best-looking [white] ballplayer in America during the decade spanning the mid 50’s & 60’s, both on and off the field; the one that eventually cost him his dignity and family, plus tax. Or maybe the deal was struck by Mickey’s father deep inside an Oklahoma zinc mine and maybe Mutt didn’t drive a hard enough bargain.  Speaking of Mickey’s first coach, there is much more Oedipal fodder in this account of Mantle’s improbable life than just the hackneyed anecdote about the confrontation between father and son in a Kansas City hotel room when a demotion to the minors could have become a demotion to those Oklahoma mines.


I opened the book with a pre-existing fascination about Mantle. His stardom paralleled my boyhood and his agonizing demise at the end of life revealed some things about him that I related to. This is not to make a case for or against him versus any other ballplayer from any era. I am not a Mantle apologist. Nor did the book disillusion me, despite that it’s built around the author’s own disillusioning encounter with her childhood hero when she was assigned to interview him for the Washington Post in 1983. I’m too old for disillusionment. Instead my fascination was deepened. His extraordinary athletic prowess both obscured and excused what an otherwise uncoordinated person he was.


Laid bare are the childhood, career and afterlife of the man whose legacy runs a long, wide gamut from the tape measure home run to organ donation. Mantle is painted here as equal parts humble and boorish; a real, live Zeus who was saved from financial ruin but not himself by a nascent memorabilia craze that followed, not coincidentally, his folklorian playing days. He capitalized on celebrity despite that it confused him. He was always a ballplayer, even after he stopped playing ball, never having learned how to be anything else that could profit him.


Leavy earned commendation for the extraordinary depths of her research into, for instance, the mammoth and legendary home run at Griffith Stadium and a later one that rattled the pigeons’ perches at Yankee Stadium. So diligent and thorough was her excavation of Mantle’s ruins that I’m almost surprised she didn’t find her way to me for an account of how I got him to sign my ticket at a pro-am golf event in Iowa City in 1974. For a sportswriter Leavy is an accomplished archaeologist.


The title of the book is just right. Still, it occurred to me that Mickey Mantle would have fit as comfortably in the ranks of Peter Pan’s Lost Boys as he did in the juvenile sanctuary of the clubhouse. Only in dying did he ever grow up.


The Mick who emerges in Leavy’s portrait is someone who was to be pitied and then perhaps briefly admired, but rarely envied. His soul was as tortured as his once remarkable but finally dilapidated body.


When he was young and still enjoyed it himself I imagine Mantle would have been a choice drinking companion. In lieu of ever having that opportunity I’ll hoist this book, poured neat, as a toast to his tragicomic memory.


 

I haven’t read too much John Updike. And I never saw Ted Williams play ball live, even on television. But honest to God, Updike’s famous essay on Williams’ last game [“Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu”] is on my list of favorite things. I already have a recorded version on CD which I listen to occasionally just as I re-watch “Hoosiers” every now and again as an antidote for creeping cynicism. And now, thanks to the Library of America, I have it bound in hardback too. I regard it instantly as a prized possession, a piece of me the heirs shall have to fight over in my aftermath. Why do I value it so? Because it marries a couple that were meant for each other and each of whom mean a lot to me - baseball and writing.

Updike was no baseball fan. But he saw the essence of the game’s appeal more clearly than just about all of the game’s most ardent followers are able to and articulated it. His insights are there for the taking in his reflections on the very last at bat in the career of the enigmatic Teddy Ballgame.

Steve Johnson, Chicago Cubs Yesterday & Today (Minneapolis: Voyageur Press) 2008. 144pp. $26.95

Any new addition to the collection of Chicago Cubs anthologies, encyclopedias and coffee table books is faced with the elemental problem of distinguishing itself from the dozens of other works competing for your beer money. In the case of Steve Johnson's Chicago Cubs Yesterday and Today, published by Voyageur Press, the pitch is twofold. First, instead of a chronological ordering that begins in the past and proceeds linearly towards the present, Johnson organized Yesterday and Today topically, juxtaposing pictures from different eras in Cubs history for side-by-side comparison. Hence the title. Second, Johnson presents an extensive and diverse selection of historical photos, many in color, from the archives of the Chicago Historical Society, the Hall of Fame, and private collections. While the execution of the whole "then and now concept" was about as consistent as a young Kerry Wood - full of promise, if alternatively brilliant and off target - the photo selection is more Greg Maddux - consistently great.

 

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