clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Yankees Book Club, Part One: “The Last Boy” by Jane Leavy

On the toxic, undermined origins of a superstar from Oklahoma to New York.

Mickey Mantle

Today, in this edition of Yankees Book Club, let’s discuss the first half of The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America’s Childhood and its rich thematic content.

One thread that emerges early and often is Mantle’s embodiment of the American Dream. Born in small-town Commerce, Oklahoma during the Great Depression, Mantle faced circumstances early in life emblematic of his time. His family was a walking example of Dust Bowl, blue-collar sentiments of a better life borne out of the soil of opportunity. Essentially, he was made for Steinbeck’s America, his father drifting from town to town for jobs during Mantle’s early childhood, the whole family subsisting on beans and biscuits. When The Mick came of age in the Fifties, the story resonated deeply with Americans who saw in him a reflection of their own aspirations for American Dream success in a postwar culture moving quickly toward suburban ideation.

The consequences of fame on his personal life truly consumed him in an all-encompassing crusade of self-destruction when he reached his peak, but Leavy sets up his original conflict first. For Mantle, the son of a lead miner named Mutt, the triumphant golden boy who’d grown up in a clapboard house with four to a bed, a meteoric rise to stardom brought wealth and recognition beyond his wildest dreams.

As a boy from an ecological war zone, he feared the possibility of his father dying at work every day. Kids playing in Commerce had to watch their step for collapsed mineshafts that could swallow them whole and leave no trace. In a few short years, with Mutt gone from cancer as a result of mine work, Mickey found himself at the receiving end of bottle service in the back room of every restaurant in Manhattan. His survivor’s guilt must have been crippling. As many of us do, he often felt the most pressure from those closest to him. Mutt groomed Mickey as a switch-hitter, far ahead of his time predicting the skill’s value. Mutt also belittled and terrorized Mickey, reminding him at every turn the underground horrors waiting for him in the event of failure. The acute and lasting fear of this fate would become part of his son’s undoing long after Mutt’s death.

It must’ve been darkly formative for Mantle to see his father come home filthy and aching, coughing up blood every day after work only to pick up a glove and ball, somehow finding more energy to throw batting practice for Mickey’s sake. Years later, wading in the excess of stardom, Mickey couldn’t shake the guilt. The adulation from fans, media scrutiny, and constant pressure to perform at superhuman levels created a paradoxical existence for Mantle — one where success was as suffocating as lead fumes.

Mutt worked underground, inhaling toxic dust all day in a special kind of hell that Mickey only envisioned, but never saw. Mickey never plunged into the darkness looking for poisonous minerals, barely scrounging a living to feed his family, and he carried that fact with him always. It’s utterly symbolic that in Yankee Stadium, lurking just out of sight underground in the pristine expanse of right-center field, lay a slight recess in the ground that’d change his life forever. Mantle, of course, played right field rather than center in 1951 due to a certain legend’s final year. With Eddie Lopat on the mound, Willie Mays at the plate, and Joe DiMaggio to Mickey’s right manning center field in Game 2 of the 1951 World Series, Mantle stepped on disaster:

The story is familiar by now. A moment after he sped to a gallop chasing the dying fly ball at the culmination of his rookie year, Mantle crumpled to the ground, his knee shredded and career stymied. A small drain in the outfield caught his spike. Leavy’s use of the phrase “America’s most famous lawn” is an intentional and powerful choice that evokes the memory of Mantle’s childhood.

Earlier she points out that due to persistent mining activity, Commerce’s soil was too toxic for grass to grow — Mantle played on dirt his whole childhood. Maybe he didn’t know how to read imperfections in grass quite yet. Maybe the cold, spiteful veteran DiMaggio neglected to remind the ascendant rookie of the metal grate’s existence. In fact, their alleged first conversation all year came when DiMaggio informed Mantle the stretcher was coming out for him. The team went on to win that World Series and the next two in succession. Despite the team’s success and his otherworldly performance in those years, Mantle’s health and potential were forever compromised. For years to come, tales of his pre-injury ability loomed over his accomplishments.

Mickey’s personal life lends itself to mythology, but he made some awful decisions that were painfully era-appropriate. I am a person of color, and because of that it gets difficult to study and glean meaning out of this story sometimes. Mantle had many putrid character flaws as a result of his upbringing. During his first days in New York, he shouted racial slurs out a car window at a black man walking in Manhattan. It’s up for interpretation how much of this was his fault — there were no minorities in Commerce during his childhood, not one person of color, according to Leavy’s interview with a local historian.

What isn’t up for interpretation is that Mantle was undoubtedly racist early in his life. It’s perhaps oversimplification to say he overcame those prejudices when his world expanded, but by many accounts, he did to some degree. Racism was not his only offense. There’s a reason Leavy begins the book with the story of a middle-aged drunk Mantle cornering and groping her after their interview during his time living at a casino in 1983. He manipulated his first love and wife Merlyn at every turn, along with countless other women. He often played the part of the innocent country boy to facilitate these manipulations. This conduct is as fundamental to his memory as any of the home runs, World Series rings, or shoestring catches.

The first part of our discussion leaves off with Mantle still young, still full of life, accumulating World Series rings during the 50’s dynasty — long, long before the cash-grab autograph signings cheapened his name and failing liver did him in. The signs were there, though, and were etched in the toxic landscape of his birth.

Please let me know what you thought of the first 13 chapters in the comments! I’ve included a couple of discussion questions below. Our second half will focus more on his on-field exploits and more cumulative chronicles of the Yankees teams he was a member of, although we get plenty of worthwhile clubhouse anecdotes in the first chapters. I’m partial to Mickey’s pathological disobedience of Stengel and how Stengel handled it: namely, handing him a bat after a dugout tantrum and saying ‘Here, why don’t you bang yourself on the head with this?’ It’s a pleasure to read along with y’all!

  1. Was Mutt Mantle a good father? Why or why not?
  2. We see lots of side characters from Yankees history — Bill Skowron, Casey Stengel, Hank Bauer, Yogi Berra, and more. Who stood out?
  3. Much of Chapter 9 is dedicated to breaking down the mechanics of Mickey’s swing. What, in your opinion or observation, made it both so great and so aesthetically satisfying?