Riveting, is what I wrote in my notebook as I read this biography of Mickey Mantle, my boyhood hero. (My first serious writing, in 1964, was a report on Mickey Mantle in which I documented that he was “the greatest ballplayer today … and a fine gentleman.”). It has been said, that each generation develops its own heroes, that they are unique to that generation, and heroes from the past have little interest to persons living in the present. I think the story of Mantle, as told by Leavy, is an exception. No one, not before or after has ever hit a baseball farther or harder than Mantle, who played centerfield (mostly) for the New York Yankees from 1950 through 1968. He was not a particularly large man, just under six feet tall and two hundred pounds. No one before or after has ever run faster, either. (This holds for today’s athletes, with or without performance enhancing drugs, special diets and vitamins, personal trainers, sports psychologists, video technology, science fiction-like medical procedures, and every other advantage the modern world has to offer.) Mantle played his entire career with a torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL); which holds the knee in place. Joe Soares, the team trainer, said “Mickey has a greater capacity to withstand pain than any man I’ve seen.” (p. 111)
A few words here about Leavy’s methodology and style – it’s important – this is a crime scene investigation. (Mantle’s life is the crime.) She conducted interviews with over 500 people who had personal knowledge and interactions with him. She used some 26 books written by and about him as references and cross-references. (The bibliography contains some 260 books.) And finally, interspersed throughout the book is a personal encounter and interview with him in 1983. Her account is interpretative. Interpretations are subject to bias, education, training, and every other mental process known. I agree with hers. Reading the accounts of his baseball prowess made my nerve endings tingle. It took me back to when I watched him play, in person and on television, and why I, and many others, wanted to be just like The Mick. Reading about his life off the field made me cringe and recoil. Reading about his death made my eyes water and my throat constrict. You do not want to die of alcoholism. Leavy’s writing defines great writing!
Mantle, besides being arguably the greatest baseball player ever, was the archetypal alcoholic all his life, until he quit drinking with the help of The Betty Ford Clinic just prior to his death at age 64. He was also sexually abused as a young boy by his half-sister, repeatedly; and emotionally and psychologically bullied and abused by his father. AND, he was everyone’s hero and hope from almost the beginning of his life!
Everyone has an opinion as to why he drank so much and self-destructed,. He was an open womanizer and drunk (Even while he smashed baseballs to oblivion as well as after.) He was a terrible father to his four sons, all who went into the “family business” — drinking, and the selling of the legend that was Mickey Mantle. He was a terrible husband to his wife, who also fell into the business of The Mick. They all became wealthy, as did countless others who bought and sold pieces of him. He was the reason for the memorabilia phenomena that persists today. He was the genesis of the multi-billion dollar sport industry! Here are some of the reasons given as to why he drank so much.
Everybody did. (Think “Mad Men,” the AMC TV series about Madison Avenue in the 1960’s.)
He was good at it.
He got paid to do it.
He had nothing else to do.
To go to sleep.
To wake up.
Because that’s what alcoholics do.
Because people expected him to.
Because he was lonely.
So he could talk to people.
I think they are all true. There is not much written documentation of what was going on inside of Mickey Mantle’s mind until the end. At the clinic, writing is a part of the therapy towards quitting and Mantle wrote, but almost all of his writings are protected by confidentiality laws or were destroyed, but some words leaked out: “Embarrassed, angry with myself, angry, humiliated, foolish, ashamed, stupidity, inadequate, exasperated.” (p. 346)
This is a book worth reading by everyone. I recently read Eric Clapton’s autobiography, who was also alcoholic, and George W. Bush’s memoir, where Bush says he doesn’t know if he was, or is, an alcoholic. (He says he has a “habitual personality.” Whatever that means!?!) I also just read a transcribed five-day interview with David Foster Wallace, a writer and professor, who drank heavily for a few years before he published. All three men, as well as Mantle, reached the pinnacle of their professions. (Cause for wonder.) Clapton, a guitarist and songwriter, was called God. He got sober when he was forty-three by attending Hazelden clinic. After that, his music wasn’t what it once was. Bush got sober at age forty, with the help of the famous evangelical reverend, Billy Graham, and went on to become the 43rd president of the United States, and is by some accounts, responsible for the deaths and ruined lives of tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of people. Wallace, after getting sober, published the critically acclaimed Infinite Jest in 1996. He did not finish another novel and hanged himself twelve years later.
One person in Mantle’s orbit says, “Mickey Mantle was not destroyed by alcohol. He was destroyed by celebrity.” (p.326) I don’t agree with that wholly. I think a confluence of factors is always what determines what happens in a person’s life. Life is always a “perfect storm” unique to the individual. Mantle was not very smart, it seems, but he was gifted with an incredible body, and a skill set of mind and body coordination for crushing a baseball and running fast. His anger and shame and humiliation probably contributed to his baseball prowess as much as biology and genetics. He was a freak—a perfect storm. If he had been smarter, or gotten some help when he was younger, things probably would have taken a different tack. He might have been a much better husband and father—not a drunk, not a womanizer, and not so great a ballplayer. Those are unanswered questions, but ones worth thinking about. In fact, riveting.