Friday, March 4, 2011

Mickey Mantle and Jane Leavy: Do you have the guts to know the truth and lose your hero?

Mickey Mantle should never have farted in that 8-year-old girl's face.

Farting in her face instead of signing her program was probably the biggest mistake the great Mick ever made in a life full of mistakes because she grew up to be a fearless journalist and relentless researcher. Then she wrote "The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the end of America's childhood" which delivered the unexpurgated story of the ballplayer who was, for many of us, second only to our father as hero and role model.


It’s hard to imagine Jane Leavy left out even one sad, disgusting, tragic story about the boy from Commerce, Okla., but she probably did. Maybe the Mick should not have hit on Leavy when she came to one of his golf tournaments late in his life to interview him for the Washington Post. Or maybe the Mick shouldn’t have passed out with his head in her lap at the table in the restaurant at the end of the evening.

I won’t say it. OK, I will.

Strike three.

Actually, I’m trying to be funny because sometimes it is easier to laugh than to cry. I’m not implying that farting in her face when she was a child or resting his hand on her thigh when she was a woman is why she told his story so honestly. She didn’t go after Mickey Mantle. She went after the truth about Mickey Mantle.

And, if the truth is uncomfortable to a man who grew up with Mickey Mantle on his wall, so be it. I had a hard time finishing this book, to be honest. One reason is I’m nearing the same age Mick was when he died and I’m more than a little uncomfortable with reminders of mortality.

Part of the reason I thought about quitting the book several times is Leavy destroyed the myth I had built around Mantle, who always represented the rebel, the unrepentant man who refused to grow up and put on a necktie, who farted in the face of Yankee brass, not little girls who want autographs.

I needed Mickey Mantle to be my example of raw power, the guy who said of Charlie Hustle, if I’d wanted to dunk the ball in over the second baseman my whole career I’d have worn a dress. I needed Mantle to be my example of triumph despite flaw. I needed him to represent those of us who have problems with authority.

I needed a hero who was so gifted he could live life exactly the way he wanted and still win. That is the myth, really, of Mickey Mantle for me.

And, I needed the poetry of his swing. I needed the image in my head of the guy who never got cheated at the plate, who went all out every time, who never seemed to be calculating what to do but went, not for the fence, but for the street every time.

I can close my eyes right now and watch that swing. I have gotten through more than one deadly boring meeting watching that swing over and over behind my eyes. I’ve been in trouble, sitting across from a fuming dean of students as an undergraduate and across from a fuming college president as a professor, and watched that swing to steady my nerves. That swing was magic.

I needed Mickey Mantle to be the last boy… and for that to be ok.

But, I’m not sure he was the end of America’s childhood. In fact, I’m sure he was not the end, if I represent any significant part of America. He wasn't the end; he was the last glowing ember. What Leavy should have said in the title is after you read this book America’s childhood will be over for you.

This is tough stuff. This is the stuff of tragedy. All of Shakespeare is like a "Saturday Night Live" skit compared to this. If you cherish your Mantle myths, as I did -- if you cherish your childhood and you’ve tried to prolong it into your sixties, as I have – better not open the cover.

If you have the stomach for the truth… it’s somewhere inside.


Topps 1952 Mickey Mantle #311 courtesy The Golden Age of Baseball Cards.

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