Jane Leavy, the acclaimed author of the New York Times bestseller Sandy Koufax: A Lefty's Legacy, returns with a biography of an American original—number 7, Mickey Mantle. Drawing on more than 500 interviews with friends and family, teammates, and opponents, she delivers the definitive account of Mantle's life, mining the mythology of The Mick for the true story of a luminous and illustrious talent with an achingly damaged soul.
Meticulously reported and elegantly written, The Last Boy is a baseball tapestry that weaves together episodes from the author's weekend with The Mick in Atlantic City, where she interviewed her hero in 1983, after he was banned from baseball, with reminiscences from friends and family of the boy from Commerce, Oklahoma, who would lead the Yankees to seven world championships, be voted the American League's Most Valuable Player three times, win the Triple Crown in 1956, and duel teammate Roger Maris for Babe Ruth's home run crown in the summer of 1961—the same boy who would never grow up.
As she did so memorably in her biography of Sandy Koufax, Jane Leavy transcends the hyperbole of hero worship to reveal the man behind the coast-to-coast smile, who grappled with a wrenching childhood, crippling injuries, and a genetic predisposition to alcoholism. In The Last Boy she chronicles her search to find out more about the person he was and, given what she discovers, to explain his mystifying hold on a generation of baseball fans, who were seduced by that lopsided, gap-toothed grin. It is an uncommon biography, with literary overtones: not only a portrait of an icon, but an investigation of memory itself. How long was the Tape Measure Home Run? Did Mantle swing the same way right-handed and left-handed? What really happened to his knee in the 1951 World Series? What happened to the red-haired, freckle-faced boy known back home as Mickey Charles?
"I believe in memory, not memorabilia," Leavy writes in her preface. But in The Last Boy, she discovers that what we remember of our heroes—and even what they remember of themselves—is only where the story begins.Amazon Q&A: Bill Madden Interviews Jane Leavy
Madden: Your best-selling biography of Sandy Koufax was a tour de force, partly because Koufax was a very private man whose life story had never really been told before. Mickey Mantle’s life is quite the opposite, it’s been in the subject of a spate of different “autobiographies,” some of which he even wrote. Under those circumstances, what made you want to take up another book about him?
Leavy: Originally, I wanted to write about Willie, Mickey and The Duke in New York in the Fifties. The publisher said, “Do The Mick. Everybody loves The Mick.” I was wary because so much had been written about him—he left a paper trail as long as the drive from Commerce, Oklahoma to the Bronx, so I didn’t expect to learn that he’d been raised by a den of Alaskan she-wolves. My challenge was to strip away all the layers of myth that had accumulated and let Mickey breathe. And he, of all people, was my worst source. For example: the knee surgery he said he had after tripping over a drain in the 1951 World Series trying not to run into Joe DiMaggio in centerfield. In fact, he didn’t have surgery until two years later. I only learned that because I went through every day of the New York Times from October 1951 to November 1953 looking for the date the knife fell! That’s why this book took five years and nearly 600 interviews. I wanted to try to understand why after all these years, and all these revelations, Mickey Mantle still means so much to so many people—including me—and the first step was to get the basic facts straight.
Madden: You make the point early on in the book that Mickey was a childhood hero, but you also have a recurring sequence in the book of your first interview with him in Atlantic City in 1983, where—at one point—he drunkenly makes a pass at you. What lingering effect did this have on how you ultimately approached your book?
Leavy: I was plenty nervous when I met him. Mickey was my hero. But, he was also a very particular kind of role model. I was born two months prematurely (in a hospital a mile from Yankee Stadium) and came with some of the flaws that afflict those who don’t incubate as long as we’re supposed to. Mickey taught me how to function with pain and without complaint—his triumphs were mine. I was devastated with how he acted. After I’d taken his hand from my knee, I called the only person I could think of still awake at that hour, a new mother, who basically told me to grow up.
The next morning, over breakfast, I vented my anger and disappointment, railing at him for, among other things, greeting my youthful autograph request with flatulence. He was stunned and remorseful, albeit in a hilariously idiosyncratic manner. He gave me an 8 x 10 glossy that said, “Sorry, I farted, your friend, Mick.” For a moment, I felt I saw behind his crude façade. I decided the only way I could write this book was to acknowledge my lack of dispassion and scrutinize him completely. That’s what happened that weekend in Atlantic City. It forced me to see the world as it was, not how I wanted it to be.
Madden: One of the people I wish I'd been able to interview for my Steinbrenner book was Mantle, if only because I detected a very strained relationship between the two of them. Steinbrenner made a point to deify DiMaggio and had memorial services for Joe, Billy Martin, Roger Maris and Mel Allen, but did nothing for Mickey when he died. In your conversations with Mickey did he ever talk about Steinbrenner and anything that might have led to ill feelings toward each other?
Leavy: When I told Mantle I’d heard the Boss was thinking of turning Monument Park in centerfield into a water park for the disadvantaged youth of the South Bronx, Mantle was completely incredulous. He told me, “It was 480 in centerfield when I played. It’s 420 now and he’s talking about bringing them in farther,” and shook his head. “I was at a banquet one time and I said to him, ‘they ought to let those boys throw the ball up and hit it.’ That pissed him off.”
Mantle was interested in Yankee history—he grilled a friend who saw Babe Ruth lying in state in the rotunda at the Stadium about what it was like to be there that day. But I don’t think he had a whole lot of patience with “Yankeeography.” It was a quick disillusionment. When he signed with the Yankees, reporters asked which Yankee had been his childhood hero. He said, “Stan Musial.” George Weiss, the general manager, immediately “corrected” his memory and from then on Joe D. was his hero. Furthermore, I think he was deeply disappointed with the baseball community’s response—or lack of response—when commissioner Bowie Kuhn banned him in 1983 because of his affiliation with the Claridge Hotel and Casino, a job he had taken to pay for his son Billy’s treatment for non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. He told me, “I feel really kind of bad no one took up for me.” By “no one” I was pretty sure he meant Steinbrenner. The Yankees did little more than observe a moment of silence when Mantle died.
Madden: It would seem that most everybody pertinent to the book cooperated with you, especially the Mantle family. I was grateful for the cooperation I had from George Steinbrenner’s friends and associates when I wrote Steinbrenner, but I had an advantage that you didn’t in that most of them knew me personally and, I suppose, trusted me. As a stranger, did you meet any significant resistance?
Leavy: Danny and David Mantle—Mickey’s sons—and their late mother, Merlyn—were extremely generous with their recollections and insights. Their openness about their lives and their relationship with their father was extraordinary. Like him, they are extremely honest. There’s no put on, as folks in Commerce, Oklahoma like to say. I hope they’ll come away from the book with a deeper understanding of the forces that formed him and contributed to his downfall, but I don’t know how they’ll react.
Madden: This is the definitive “warts and all” biography of Mickey, with heavy emphasis on all of his demons. How do you think Mickey himself would feel about the book?
Leavy: I think it’s an honest book and Mantle was a very honest man. I don’t see this is as a dark book. I hope it’s enlightening in the most literal sense of the word and I hope that critics—and readers at large—will agree. I think the tragedy of Mantle is that he had so little time, at the beginning of his baseball career, and at the beginning of his sober life, to be his best self. He was a decent man who was genetically pre-disposed to alcoholism and enabled his whole life by the trappings of his celebrity. That’s his story. As Billy Crystal told me about his movie, 61*, Mickey wouldn’t have wanted the sugar coat.
His late wife, Merlyn, wrote about the sexual abuse he suffered as a young boy in the family memoir, “A Hero All His Life” and she elaborated on it when we spoke, as did several of his close friends. It turned out that his half sister wasn’t his only abuser and experts tell me that many of the destructive behaviors he manifested are seen in victims of childhood sexual abuse. So, I came away with enormous compassion for him and, I hope, with an answer to the question posed by one of his minor league teammates: “Mickey, what happened?”
Award-winning sports writer Jane Leavy follows her New York Times runaway bestseller Sandy Koufax with the definitive biography of baseball icon Mickey Mantle. The legendary Hall-of-Fame outfielder was a national hero during his record-setting career with the New York Yankees, but public revelations of alcoholism, infidelity, and family strife badly tarnished the ballplayer's reputation in his latter years. In The Last Boy, Leavy plumbs the depths of the complex athlete, using copious first-hand research as well as her own memories, to show why The Mick remains the most beloved and misunderstood Yankee slugger of all time.
A Shovel Biography
By Nicholas Puner on Nov 16, 2011
I wish I could say something nice about Jane Leavy's The Last Boy. Believe me, I do. I grew up a Yankee fan and saw Mickey Mantle play. He was a hero. I also wonder how I can have had such a negative reaction when so many opinion makers/blurbers have gushed with rhapsodic praise. Let me see if I can explain. Have you ever had the experience of reading a book that, as you progress through it, you feel more and more pages are being added? Didn't she say that before? Will I ever get to the end? This is the feeling The Last Boy engendered for me. Leavy may or may not be a great sports writer, as the blurbocracy avers, but she has produced here what I call a "shovel" biography: if it's a "fact" of the subject's life, alleged, putative, speculative, or attested to, include it without calibrating its importance. The result is a huge slurry of episodes, interviews, quotations rather than a sharply edged authorial portrait. The Last Boy lacks narrative drive. It just goes on. And on. Throw in some armchair psychology along the way. Elicit quotations from subjective observers years after the events. Stir and repeat. Belabor. Then, having reached page 400 and not wanting to make another paper run to Staples, stop typing. I was prepared to love The Last Boy. I'm very sorry that I didn't even like it.
One of the worst biographies you'll ever come across
By Angeleno on Mar 06, 2011
Jane Leavy's latest piece of drivel is a poorly written, disjointed piece of piffle. Her goal is to trash the legacy of Mickey Mantle, no matter how outrageous and questionable the charges. According to Leavey, Mantle was a dyslexic, racist, bed wetter, "facts" she points out with great relish. Seemingly, the main purpose of this book is to float every negative item that has ever been attached to Mickey Mantle. That anyone would spend a portion of their life working on such an stupid endeavor is simply jaw dropping. Throughout the book Leavy's writing emphasizes her recent purchase of a thesaurus, using the longest, most inappropriate adjectives she can find. That alone makes this book a painful read, but it's made all the worse by the writer's decision to trash her subject at every opportunity. Leavy is a muckraker whose goal is to tear down an icon while putting herself front and center into Mantle's biography. The story is as much about her investigation of Mantle's legacy as it is about the subject. Even the subtitle, "the end of America's childhood" is a ridiculous statement. This era of the 1950s and 1960s was hardly America's childhood. Rather, Mantle's career spanned the end of Leavy's own childhood, whose boring family stories are injected ad nauseum. In short, this is a badly written book and I found reading it to be a waste of time. I learned nothing new about Mickey Mantle other than a hodgepodge of rumors, innuendos and half-truths that were magically transformed into cold hard "facts." Don't waste your time with this nonsense.
A sad tale poorly written
By J. Myers on Dec 24, 2010
Have you ever seen a picture of a friend or famous person and said: "My God, what happened to him/her?" That's what we have here: 400 pages that force us to look at something rather hideous -- a great man that we'd rather remember in the most positive ways. Like the picture on the front cover. Parts of this book are simply unreadable given the poor writing. It's hard to think Ms. Leavy actually makes a good living stringing nouns, verbs, adverbs and adjectives together. The book is littered with gaps in flow and logic. In some sections she talks about multiple people and then refers to "he" and you have no idea about who she is writing. Sentence fragments abound. The overall arc of the story is a very bumpy, jagged trip. By the way...you'll see common complaints about the poor writing skills of the author by the people who have given this book 1 or 2 stars: that it is poorly/awkwardly structured; lots of obfuscating language and logic flow; and more than a few facts that are just plain wrong. Many quotes are poorly set up (as to who's speaking and why) and are at times only barely relevant to the subject matter being discussed. It all makes for really awkward reading. I strongly urge to you to take note of these observations as well as the fact that the 5-star reviews are almost exclusively from people who (like me) idolize The Mick but simply have opted to read through the miserable writing. I just wish I had that skill... it would have been a far better, more enjoyable experience! There are some nice nuggets in the book but so much of it is rehashed from the obvious and well known; several prior biographies of Mick, especially the one by the family, are constantly cited and quoted. And then there is the running narration about the star-struck author's meeting with Mick. The epicenter of that story is that Mick hit on her before passing out. The rest of the book feels like a story propped up around that episode so she could share it with everyone. And we never do learn how all this ended America's childhood, as the subtitle suggests. There are clearly other books out there about the Mick. They're all better. This one will depress you due to its unrelenting focus on Mick's drinking and health issues. And the fifth-grade writing style. I wish I had better news to report. Especially since I shelled out the $ to buy the damned thing. I suggest you not repeat that mistake. Borrow it from some other sucker if you must.
Did the Author Really Need to Tell Me Where Her Mother Lost Her Virginity?
By Ewl on Sep 17, 2011
I certainly didn't need to know the answer to that question. And, I didn't certainly didn't expect to find it in a biography about Mickey Mantle. Yet, this author inexplicably felt compelled to share that information with the reader in the first sentence of the first chapter of the book. Rather than simply tell the story of Mickey's life, this author felt the need to make herself part of the story, by periodically interjecting her recollections (more than 30 pages worth) of an interview weekend she spent with Mickey at the Claridge Hotel in Atlantic City (the answer to the question posed by the title of this review) in April of 1983. If it weren't for the off-putting nature of the author's intrusion into the narrative, I would probably give the book 2-3 stars. It isn't the most favorable of treatment of Mantle, which would be a very difficult book to write at this point, but it isn't the most negative account either. It just isn't very good, although the author's interviews of Mantle's teammates and rivals yields interesting, if somewhat repetitive behind the scenes insights. On balance, I would recommend that you look for another book if you want to read about Mantle, but if you choose to read Leavy's, you may want to consider passing on the italicized passages about her Atlantic City weekend.
By Doctor Moss on Dec 29, 2010
I think the most interesting thing about Jane Leavy's book is the play between Mickey Mantle, the real person, and Mickey Mantle, the hero, and how that play involves us, his admirers. Mantle was Jane Leavy's hero when she was a child. She is a year older than me, so I can relate to the time of her childhood. Mantle was everybody's hero. To us as kids, in the early 60s, he really was that "All American" character -- he had that big, innocent looking smile that just said everything was great! He played a game for a living, everybody loved him, and he was a winner. Even if you weren't a Yankees fan, you still loved Mantle. And on top of all the rest he had that storybook bashful modesty. Who wouldn't want to be Mickey Mantle? Well, it turns out, Mickey Mantle probably didn't especially want to be Mickey Mantle. Leavy's title refers to "the end of America's childhood". We believed in Mickey, and that was pretty much what made Mickey. We believed he was that perfect hero, and we (his admirers, the press, his teammates, . . . . everyone who influenced his popular image) made him the perfect hero. But of course, our belief was naive, especially so in Mickey's case. We're accustomed now to the fall of heroes -- we've been through Watergate, presidential infidelities, the OJ trial, Pete Rose's gambling, the Tiger Woods revelations, . . . . So, at the "end of America's childhood" Leavy, like the rest of us, is ready for the real Mickey Mantle. And Leavy presents him in full color -- his self-destructive alcoholism, his almost equally self-destructive disregard for his health in general, his paranoia about an early death, and maybe most of all his really astonishingly crude disrespect for women. Mantle has been described as a "sex addict", but that doesn't begin to tell the story of his verbal disrespect for virtually every woman in his life (there's no mention in Leavy's book of anything like violent abuse of women, except through his nonchalant sexual encounters and invasive attempts themselves). Mickey, by then deep into his declining years, even hit clumsily on Leavy as she interviewed him. Leavy resists the temptation to over-analyze Mantle. It would be easy to do -- he's a sitting duck. His modesty seems to have been truly a matter of his thinking that he just wasn't anybody to be admired. He knew he wasn't Mickey Mantle the hero. And he reacted sometimes with loathing toward the public that admired him. Incidents in his childhood support common etiologies of adult sexual disturbances. But, in a way, I think Leavy gives the real Mickey the respect due someone who is at fault for many things, but probably not for the burden we put on him as the creators of Mickey the hero. At the end, she likes him, just as most of the people in his life did. Even his wife, so thoroughly the victim of his infidelity and his array of humiliations, never wanted a divorce. To the end, she wanted to be "Mickey Mantle's wife." And the real Mickey had some tremendously positive virtues -- he had an anonymous, spontaneous generosity toward his friends and toward total strangers. He realized his influence, and he knew that just a word from him, from Mickey the hero, could mean so much to anyone struggling, anyone in need of a little confidence. The most interesting part of the story of Mickey Mantle, I think, is how we (his admirers) made Mickey the hero out of Mickey the real person. Among those close to him, who knew the real person, it was almost a conspiracy -- rewriting the quotes to make him more articulate, withholding the truth about his sexual indiscretions and his alcoholism, painting him as even more heroic for playing through debilitating though self-inflicted pain. And those who didn't know him but admired him anyway, like us kids, no doubt turned a deaf ear to anything that would diminish him. We just wanted so badly to have someone we wanted to be.
a mishmash of sports cliches
By G. Russell Miller on Mar 22, 2013
Few sports writers write well; this book confirms that bias. The book as a jumble of sports cliches and obsessive treatments of certain events in Mantle's life, presenting each from multiple points of view with no authorial viewpoint given, other than that Mantle was a nice man because he gave the writer a sweater (on which she dwells ad nauseum).
By Gail Erb on Apr 04, 2012
Let me preface my review by saying that I am not a lifelong Mickey Mantle fan. Now that my family is grown and gone, I am searching for new hobbies, and one of them is watching baseball. I knew nothing about Mantle before I picked up this book at the library, except that he is very famous. The most engaging thing about The Last Boy is its cover. The author interviewed several hundred people in preparation for the writing of this book including family, friends, former teammates, and news writers as well as dozens of medical experts. The bibliography alone is 18 pages. Ms. Leavy also "interviewed" Mr. Mantle herself. It seems that the author spent more time and attention on interviews and research than the writing of the book. Unfortunately, this book is poorly organized, and that makes the reading of it frustrating to the point of irritation. The Last Boy is 20 chapters long, and the title of each chapter is a date that represents an event in the life of Mickey Mantle. It is too bad that at times it is hard to tell what it was that happened on the date in question, as the telling is often vague. Many of the chapters have sub-sections that supposedly expound on the theme, but here the text loses focus, becoming either off subject or redundant. Scattered amongst the chapters are the five separate sections that summarize the observations Ms. Leavy made during her personal interview with the hero. Throughout the text, there are vague references to "he," it being unclear which "he" the author refers to. The composition is disjointed and hard to follow. Jane Leavy did not learn very much about Mickey Mantle during her interview sessions. One of the five sections devoted to her interview deals almost entirely with Ms. Leavy's own life and family, and it adds nothing to the story. I deduce that Ms. Leavy wanted to include details of her interview simply because Mr. Mantle made a pass at her, and it was important for her to let us know about it. In the final section of the interview, Leavy seems rather proud that she caused Mickey to shed tears. She confesses that she was just looking for a scoop and wanted a sensational story from him, hence her prying questions. Ms. Leavy had promised to send Mantle a copy of her story but does not remember if she did so. (Is that really likely?) Later, she wondered if she had done the right thing in sharing his comments, even though he said they were off the record. I say maybe not. The photos that accompany the narrative are especially disappointing. Some are so small that they are made irrelevant. The captions do not add clarity. There is only one picture of Mantle with his wife, perhaps taken on their wedding day but not labeled as such, and the photo is so small that the features of the couple cannot be seen. Another photo at the top of the same page might be Mickey's father, but we don't know. There is one extremely small photo of Mantle with his four sons; she says they rarely saw him, but now you can't see them either. Included also are several much larger photos of various injury situations that steal the focus of the photo section. Considering how many pictures must have been taken of Mantle during his lifetime, the collection is a poor representation. The first review I posted about this book on Amazon was rejected, because I quoted something directly from the book, and it was "inappropriate." There were lots of other parts in this book that Amazon would not have liked to print in the review section, and so you can guess the tone of the book. Mickey Mantle would not have appreciated The Last Boy, and I didn't appreciate it very much either. I hope I can find a better book about this baseball icon.
Mantle bio jumps around too much
By Lindapanzo on Oct 30, 2013
I've read Jane Leavy's bio of Sandy Koufax and thought it was one of the best baseball bios I'd read for quite awhile. I was expecting similar great things from her bio of Mickey Mantle but I was greatly disappointed. One key problem: She chose a number of significant events from Mantle's life and highlighted those. This meant that she jumped around often and sometimes repeated herself. Very confusing. Another, lesser, problem, for me at least. She focused way too much on his personal life (all the womanizing, drinking, and even the abuse he faced) and far too little on his baseball career. The authors writes really well and her stuff is interesting. I also appreciated how she tried to prove (or disprove) certain stories/events from his life. These seemed to crop up as to illnesses but sometimes other things, too. If she writes another baseball bio, no doubt I'll read it. However, I certainly do hope it's better than this one.
Depressing and Repetitious
By A. Cohen on Apr 11, 2011
I was looking forward to reading this acclaimed biography. When I bother to write a review, I usually save it for the stuff I enjoy. I made an exception for one of the few books of any kind that really annoyed me. What are the 5 star people seeing that I didn't? Why did I get the feeling that the author was getting even with Mickey for falling asleep on her when she thought he was becoming amorous? I pushed myself to finish it. I'd love to know where she came up with the self-centered profanities that he "muttered" on every occasion, such as when acting as Maris' pall bearer. Even if accurate, major over-kill and one of too many "Oh brother" moments for me. She could have reduced this biography to two paragraphs. He was a great player with a lot of crappy injuries and many emotional hang-ups. He was a profane, womanizing alcoholic who was also a better guy than DiMaggio. End of story. A book called "The Last Yankee" about Billy Martin, who was undoubtedly more of a creep than Mantle ever was, comes out making Martin a lot more interesting and sympathetic than this single-minded image of the Mick. I honestly tried to ask myself if it wasn't my own youthful idolatry of Mickey that was getting in my way. But I read a lot and all sorts of stuff, and there is no doubt in my mind that this book should be low on anyone's list.