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

The sad second act of a living legend withering away into memory.

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Mickey Mantle At Batting Cage Photo by Transcendental Graphics/Getty Images

Note: This article features possibly triggering themes of substance use, as well as language.

Following our discussion of the first half of The Last Boy by Jane Leavy, it’s time to bring this biography of Mickey Mantle to a close. The second half is a somber read, as Leavy details the total destruction of Mantle’s life after retirement, but she first notes the discouraging tail end of his career.

In the Mick’s and others’ tellings, the last few seasons in pinstripes passed unceremoniously. The team just wasn’t winning, all of his old friends were hanging up their spikes, and when he himself retired after the 1968 campaign, he didn’t know what to do with himself. The effects, as he put it, of “living in a fishbowl with no way out” caught up with him. What comes next after a legendary career that ends at age 36?

Back on the field, Mantle’s later years prior to retirement saw him develop his jokester persona even more. Being injured so much meant he had a lot of time to kill. His humor was almost always a diversion of humility — like when teammate Tom Tresh informed Mantle he named his son Mickey, the legend responded immediately: “What the fuck did you do that for?”

Countless teammates attested to his lack of the expected self-centeredness and gave many examples. The only person he was hard on was himself on and off the field. When new acquisition Bob Turley walked into the locker room, he found a tongue-in-cheek, but also sincere, gift of a soda and a flower waiting by his locker, courtesy of Mickey. It wasn’t uncommon to see Yankees’ minor leaguers using a new pair of Mantle’s spikes, gifted to them in spring training — especially outfielders. There was also, of course, the Harmonica Incident, where Mickey needled his old friend Yogi Berra into blowing up at teammate Phil Linz to mixed results.

Those later years got dreary, and it stuck out to me how inconvenient mid-1960s travel would’ve been for an MLB team. For example, the Yankees played a “doubleheader in Cleveland, followed by a three-hour bus ride to Pittsburgh...an abortive flight to Boston that returned the Yankees to New York at 5am because Logan Airport was fogged in; then, after three, maybe four hours of sleep, they flew back to Boston, played two night games, a day game, and flew back out to the Bronx to face the Twins.”

In 1962, Mantle wasn’t exactly a young buck anymore. Before notions like staying hydrated and getting enough sleep, they all must’ve been miserable, and his devastating leg injury shortly after made things even more difficult. Through these circumstances he won his final AL MVP and the Yankees captured the World Series title, plus pennants in the following two while he dealt with the effects of the injury. After ‘64, Mantle never played a postseason game again, but fought through it enough to post a 145 wRC+ in his last four years (though at the time, his batting average was held in scorn).

Mickey Mantle & Family At Home Photo by Transcendental Graphics/Getty Images

Our next stop in the timeline is a darker one: June 8, 1969, Mickey Mantle Day at Yankee Stadium. An honorary day of praise for a man who hated praise was a well-meaning, but ultimately ill-conceived notion. His wife, Merlyn, called it the worst day of his life. She also said that at this point, her husband was “happy only when he was smashed and not coherent.” He got through the adulation of that day as much as it made his skin crawl, but things only got worse. The first few years of retirement, his mood was volatile. His loved ones tip-toed around him, cleaning the house and supplying Mickey with food and undoubtedly drink to avoid a breakdown or fit of rage. In childhood, he used to help his mother do the same for his father Mutt.

A mother of a small boy with a broken arm once stopped Mickey for an autograph, and in full view of the public, he said “Let me know when he breaks the other one.” To be fair, if I was the little boy, I’d probably remember this more fondly than if he simply gave the autograph. On Mickey’s 40th birthday, he reportedly woke up urgently and said “I don’t know what to do. Nobody’s ever lived this long.” Clearly, his childhood sense of inevitable catastrophe never left him. A few years later in ‘76, Mantle received an invitation to the White House to meet President Gerald Ford. He agonized awake all night in his Washington D.C. hotel, begging Merlyn to let him skip it. “I don’t have a thing to say. I won’t understand what the hell they’re talking about,” he said.

The drinking escalated almost more than humanly possible. Former teammates worked hard behind the scenes, but nobody could get through to him.

“We’ll go out and drink with him. But no, we don’t tell him the one important thing: ‘You’re drinking yourself to death.’ We all have regrets. I think we were all enablers. Players, including myself, feel guilty, and they should feel guilty.” - Tony Kubek

Carmen Berra was Merlyn’s rock during this time. Unfortunately, it wasn’t their fault that every man in America wanted to say they’d ordered a round for Mickey Mantle. He made some bad investments, so he relied on speaking and appearance fees for the next 20 years, which were just glorified parties.

New York Yankees Photo by Hy Peskin/Getty Images

Leavy then returns to her chronicle of her 1983 interview with Mantle at a casino. He’d passed out after groping and propositioning her the night before, and their breakfast interview didn’t go much better. Mantle seemed like nothing but an old man full of regret: from “I always thought I should’ve played longer...” to “Merlyn always told me I’m too truthful...”

“That’s what he wanted: to make me recoil, to drive me away, anything to make me quit asking these questions.” - Jane Leavy

Not much changed in his life after that. Failed attempts at sobriety and solace on the golf course were about it. Mickey Charles Mantle died on August 13, 1995, aged 63, from liver cirrhosis and complications of alcoholism. Whitey Ford, Berra, Moose Skowron, Hank Bauer, Johnny Blanchard, and Bobby Murcer were pallbearers at his memorial service in Dallas. Joe DiMaggio did not attend, sending a note instead. Bobby Richardson officiated — he’d made that promise to Mantle at Roger Maris’ funeral. Mickey was laid to rest in Dallas rather than his hometown of Commerce, Oklahoma.

I’ll conclude by letting Mickey speak for himself, in his own words: “I was just a fuckin’ ballplayer. It’s like I’m reading about someone else.”

Former baseball player Mickey Mantle waves at the Photo credit should read PAUL BUCK/AFP via Getty Images

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