It was spring and baseball fever was in the air. I was meeting a friend for lunch and suggested we meet on Central Park South, at Mickey Mantle’s Restaurant & Sports Bar. After being shown to a table, I looked around and was thrilled to see Mickey himself sitting in a booth. I am a true New Yorker, in other words, I leave celebrities alone. But I had a special reason for approaching him that day. My dad, a huge Mantle fan, was very sick and I was searching for ways to bolster his spirits.
I picked up a post card from the reception desk and hesitantly approached Mantle’s booth. I told him about my dad and asked if he would autograph the card. He smiled, picked up a pen and wrote, “Ralph, Get well, Mickey Mantle.” My dad was thrilled and kept the card on a shelf where he could see it and show it to others.
Mickey Mantle was my hero, too. Growing up in upstate New York, I watched his games, collected his baseball cards, and pasted his photos to my wall. I listened constantly to Teresa Brewer’s hit single, “I Love Mickey,” with Mickey asking, “Mickey who?” until the many scratches rendered the 45 unplayable. Billy Crystal’s 61*, chronicling the season when Mantle and Roger Maris raced to break Babe Ruth’s home run record, is one of my favorite movies. When I’m suffering baseball withdrawal, watching 61* is the antidote. Long before I picked up Jane Leavy’s biography of Number 7, The Last Boy, I knew that Mantle may have been a hero on the field, but his outside life was filled with controversy. What Leavy does, however, is give us a full view and therefore an understanding of what forces controlled the Yankee superstar.
Thinking back to my encounter with Mantle, I felt both guilty and grateful. According to Leavy, Mantle hated giving autographs, feeling almost violated by these intrusions. I was grateful that I had approached him in his retirement when he was feeling mellow and trying to compensate for those occasions when he was rude and profane. He autographed one young boy’s baseball: “You’re a lucky, kid. Your mom has nice tits.”
I would have been devastated if my childhood hero had written something insulting on my dad’s card. And that gets to the heart of what Leavy went through researching and writing The Last Boy. Growing up in the Bronx near the stadium, she was a huge fan. As a reporter for the Washington Post, she had the opportunity to interview Mantle. That up close experience might have totally destroyed her hero worship. (At one point, he made a pass at her). She was able to understand how Mantle’s childhood, growing up in a dysfunctional family, left him damaged and led to his self-destructive behavior as an adult.
In order to understand Mantle, you have to understand what it was like playing baseball before A-Rod-like salaries. The players in Mantle’s era made good salaries but not superstar salaries. Few players could afford the expense involved with keeping up two households. So players like Mantle and Maris played in New York while their families remained behind. That arrangement suited Mantle just fine, even later in his career when his salary would have allowed him to bring his family north. His loyal wife, Merlyn, stayed in Commerce, Oklahoma, raising their four sons, while Mantle lived it up in New York, drinking hard and chasing women.
“He was adorable,” said Gil McDougald’s wife, Lucille. “We used to joke about it. Who wouldn’t hop into bed with him, given the opportunity, just for the fun of it?”
Although the press refrained from reporting on Mantle’s dalliances, everyone knew— the fans, the Yankees, and his wife, who, during their troubled marriage, looked the other way. It would be simple to paint Mantle as a serial adulterer just out to have a good time. But he wasn’t having a good time. Fans tend to see baseball as a game and the men who play it as grown up boys having the time of their lives. Some fit into that mold, to be sure. Derek Jeter comes to mind. But contrast Jeter’s upbringing with Mantle’s and it’s easy to see why Number 7’s life played out as a tragedy.
Mantle was born in Spavinaw, Oklahoma, on October 20, 1931. His father, Elven (Mutt) Mantle was a miner intent on getting one of his sons to the majors. With his incredible speed and power, Mickey became the frontrunner.
“With his aura of limitless potential, Mantle was America incarnate,” Leavy writes. “His raw talent, the unprecedented alloy of speed and power, spoke directly to our postwar optimism. His father mined Oklahoma’s depths for the lead and zinc that supported the country’s infrastructure and spurred its industrial growth. Mutt’s boy had honest muscles. His ham-hock forearms were wrought by actual work, not weight machines and steroid injections.”
Mutt, however, was living on borrowed time, diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease that would take his life at age 39. His desperation to see his son make it in the big leagues before he died no doubt fueled his anger when Mickey’s self-doubt threatened to doom a promising career. There’s a famous so-called “woodshed” scene, retold in countless books and stories, where Mutt visits Mickey in a Kansas City hotel and bullies him into continuing, with comments like: “If that’s all the man you are, then get your clothes and let’s go home,” and “I thought I raised a man. You ain’t nothing but a goddamn coward.”
While many have pointed to Mutt’s approach as “tough love,” that shook Mickey out of his doldrums, later in life Mantle would look back on the encounter as a defining moment—and not a positive one. In treatment at the Betty Ford Center, Mantle wrote a “grief letter” to his father. “I shoulda grabbed my dad right then and told him, `Hey, I’ll make my own decisions. Get outta here.’ But I was too young then.”
As Mantle’s friend, Joe Warren, told Leavy: “When you don’t raise your children to make their own decisions, then they grow up and they don’t know how to make decisions.”
Mantle carried around with him many demons—a domineering father, the fear of dying from cancer, an early bout with the crippling disease, osteomyelitis, a traumatic knee injury just as he was beginning his career. Yet the repeated sexual abuse he suffered as a young boy helps explain much of Mantle’s self-sabotaging behavior.
He once confided to Merlyn that his half-sister, Anna Bea, sexually abused him when he was four or five years old. Anna Bea, Mantle’s mother’s daughter from an earlier marriage, used to babysit for her half-siblings when Mutt and Lovell went out to Friday-night barn dances.
“[Anna Bea] began molesting him, pulling down his pants and fondling him while her friends, `teenagers and older,’ giggled and smirked. ‘They started playing with him,’ Merlyn told me. ‘And, of course, he got an erection. They laughed at him. He remembered how embarrassed he was.’ That was the only time they ever spoke about it. `It could have been why he turned out the way he did,’ she told me.”
There were other instances of sexual abuse, an older boy in Mickey’s neighborhood, a teacher at his school. “To experts in the field, Mantle’s story is consistent with a cluster of symptoms often seen in survivors of childhood abuse: sexual compulsivity or extreme promiscuity; alcoholism or substance abuse; difficulty regulating emotions and self-soothing; bed wetting; a distorted sense of self; self-loathing, shame, and guilt; a schism between a public image and the private self; feelings of isolation and mistrust; and difficulty getting close to others.”
One has to wonder, without the demons and the injuries, would Mantle have been even greater than he was? His size—five feet, eleven, 185 pounds—belied his power. Baseball aficionados are still trying to measure some of Mantle’s home runs, perhaps the most famous his 1951 blast at Bovard Field at USC that cleared the fence and landed in a neighboring football field. “Six decades later, Bovard Field remains sacred ground in Mantleology,” Leavy said. Estimates range from 551 feet to 660 feet.
Besides his power at the plate, Mantle had great speed on the bases. “He has more speed than any slugger and more slug than any speedster—and nobody has ever had more of both of ‘em together,” [Casey] Stengel declared. “This kid ain’t logical. He’s too good. It’s very confusing.”
Mantle would lead the Yankees to seven World Series championships. He was a 20-time All Star, a three-time American League MVP, and winner of a Gold Glove Award. While his all time batting average was 298, he would have finished over 300 if he had not continued to play with debilitating injuries. The most devastating injury occurred when he was only 19 playing in his first World Series. In right field, Mantle chased down a fly ball hit by Willie Mays, only to be called off at the last minute by Joe DiMaggio in center field. Coming up short, Mantle caught his spike on a drainage cover that had been left sticking up in the grass. Witnesses said that Mantle went down with such force it looked like he had been shot. The resulting knee injury was never properly repaired (today’s surgical techniques didn’t exist in 1951), and would plague Mantle his entire career.
Mantle’s power enabled him to drive the ball, but that force also wreaked havoc on his entire body. “A photograph taken as he hobbled toward a waiting limousine was converted into an annotated medical chart with dates and arrows fixed to every part of his body except the grimace on his face: knees, tonsils, shoulders, rib cage; abscessed hip, fractured finger, fractured foot; pulled, sprained, and torn muscles; surgery, surgery, and more surgery.”
He played with incredible pain for virtually his entire career. He never complained, never made excuses.
Other superstars will continue to come up through the ranks, some with better numbers than Mantle. Yet few will capture the public’s fascination as Mantle did.
“…Mantle fit the definition of a tragic hero—he was so gifted, so flawed, so damaged, so beautiful. The traumatic and defining knee injury he suffered catching a spike in an outfield drain during the 1951 World Series attenuated his breathtaking potential after just seven months in the major leagues. His death from alcohol-related cancer in 1995 attenuated eighteen months of belated, hard-earned sobriety. He had so little time to be his best self.”