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November 23, 2010

Prospectus Q&A

Jane Leavy, Part II

by David Laurila

In Part II, Jane Leavy, the author of The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America’s Childhood, talks about Mantle’s relationship with Joe DiMaggio, the mechanics of his swing from both sides of the plate, the cultural meaning of “Willie, Mickey, and the Duke,”—including the question “What if Mantle were black and Mays white?”—and more. You may view Part I of the interview here.

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David Laurila: The Yankees signed Mantle in 1949. How was he discovered?

Jane Leavy: That’s a subject of some dispute. The myth is that it happened at a baseball field in Baxter Springs, Kansas when a scout, Tom Greenwade, just happened to driving by and saw the lights burning late one night. The lights were bought and paid for by a man named Barney Barnett, who worked in the mines with Mutt Mantle and ran what was a very, very high quality [semi-pro] team called the Whiz Kids.

The other version is that Greenwade went to see a third baseman by the name of Billy Johnson—with whom he never spoke until he saw him pitching for the Air Force. The locals, including Cloyd Boyer—Clete and Kenny’s brother—say that Greenwade didn’t really think too much of Mantle, and that it was really Johnny Sturm, a manager in the minor-league system, who saw his potential but never got any credit. They say Sturm had to go over Greenwade’s head to get the Yankees to pay attention. Greenwade’s family says, “No, no, no; he was just playing possum because he didn’t want other people to know of his interest.”

There are probably elements of truth in all of that, but one thing is for sure: When Mantle played his first games for the Whiz Kids in the summer of 1947 he was still a little runt. They didn’t have a uniform small enough to fit him. After his last hospitalization for osteomyletis, he seemed to grow up overnight. Greenwade saw him for the first time in 1948, asked if he’d like to play for the New York Yankees and promised to come and see him after he graduated from high school. Bunch Greenwade, Tom’s son, said his father went back to see him continuously despite the rule against speaking to high school players. Lee MacPhail told me that he went and visited the family house when they were looking at Mickey. How much of it is fiction because they didn’t want to be caught tampering with someone underage, or how much of Sturm’s influence there was there… I’ve heard it every which way. But Greenwade saw him the night he graduated against a team from Coffeyville, Kansas. Mutt and Greenwade arranged for him to get his diploma early that afternoon from the superintendent of schools. “Here, you graduated.” Johnny Lingo, the Commerce baseball coach, had to buy him a pair of spikes because he had to return the school equipment once he got his diploma.

DL: According to the book, Mantle got very little money to sign with the Yankees.

JL: He got bupkis. He got a $,1150 signing bonus, $400 on signing and the rest on June 30, 1949 if he stuck with the Class D Independence Yankees in the K-O-M League. His first roommate, Bob Mallon, told me Mantle was scared that they were going to cut him. It wasn’t until later that they knew that they really had something.

He certainly couldn’t play shortstop, which everybody seemed to know; manager Harry Craft said he wasn’t a major-league prospect at short. Yet he wasn’t moved to the outfield until the spring of 1951. Casey [Stengel] chased him away from shortstop in 1950, but Craft had him back playing shortstop in ‘51 in Class C Joplin where he led the league with a .383 batting average and made 55 errors.

DL: Mantle became Joe DiMaggio's teammate in 1951 and then replaced him as the Yankees' center fielder in 1952. What was their relationship?

JL: The only thing harder than relinquishing center stage is seizing it. So this was not going to be an easy transition for either of them. Jerry Coleman’s line was, “How would you like to follow the father of your country?” So you had this kid who shows up in spring training and has maybe the best spring training anybody has ever had, and DiMaggio and everyone else was taken by surprise.

Stengel wanted desperately to have his own person to mold. He wanted to be known as somebody who deserved the name “Ol’ Perfesser.” Much as Mutt had treated his son as ore, a natural resource to mine, forge, and shape, Stengel wanted to produce a great player the way John McGraw produced Mel Ott. Stengel was ready for Joe D. to get gone. Mantle thought he was going back, wanted to go back, to Triple-A to play for Harry Craft for another year. Suddenly, here he is, pushed to play a position he wasn’t ready to play [right field] in a world that had to be as alien to him as New York would be to someone in the third world.

It was a situation fraught with opportunity for misunderstanding and distance. There is the photo taken on Opening Day in 1951 that shows DiMaggio standing over this kid in the locker room. Mickey’s pants are too short to cover his white socks, and DiMaggio is all glistening and moisturized, with his braces and his Countess Mara tie. Mantle had to feel small. He had to feel intimidated. Conversely, DiMaggio had to feel threatened.

In his Opening Day column in the New York Herald Tribune, Red Smith told about the Boston Red Sox and Ted Williams arriving at the Stadium. This photographer poses the three of them, Mantle, DiMaggio, and Williams, together for a picture. DiMaggio declined to introduce Mantle to Williams. Williams had to do it himself: “Hi, I’m Ted Williams.”

The mythology is that because DiMaggio treated him so poorly Mantle resolved that he would be different and that he would always be DiMaggio's opposite in the clubhouse. He would be welcoming to rookies; he would be “the best guy” as opposed to an aloof guy. But people like Tony Kubek and Gene Michael, both of whom I respect a lot, say—and I believe them—that Mickey would have been that way anyway. It was just his nature. He would have wanted to fit in and be that great teammate.

DL: The famous question is, “Who is better, Mantle or Mays?” but was Mantle as good or better than DiMaggio?

JL: I don’t know that I’d be the best person to answer that, but I think you’d be very hard pressed to say that Mantle was as good as DiMaggio, either statistically or defensively. They were so endemic to their eras, so different in the ways that they carried themselves, and where they came from. But I think that what distinguished Mantle—always—was the sense of possibility that he brought to each at-bat. You might see something impossibly great or something impossibly awful. You just didn’t know. As Justin Dedeaux, the batboy said in that [exhibition] game against USC: “What’s in that bat?” There was an extra dimension of drama appended to him that was different than production or quality.

DL: Mantle hit some of the longest home runs in baseball history, and he did so from both sides of the plate. How was a man his size able to do that?

JL: That’s one of the things I really wanted to find out, which is why I took all of the footage that I could find and gave it to a distinguished hitting coach in Atlanta, Preston Peavy. I wanted to explain how someone 5-foot-10 ½ and 195 pounds—which was about Mays’ size—could generate such power. He took the footage and produced a set of kinematics, moving, digital stick figures that show each part of Mantle’s body as it moves through space. You can go on Peavy’s website, www.peavynet.com, and see them. They show the difference between him right-handed and left-handed, which was very pronounced despite what DiMaggio said in Mantle’s rookie year, that his swings were the same lefty and righty.

They also help explain how his left-handed swing contributed to his physical deterioration. He put so much weight, and so much force, on that front, locked right leg—that damaged right leg. His swing from the right side was like a hatchet, but from the left side it was like a violent prairie updraft. It was a force of nature, yet it was constructed, studied, as opposed to his right-handed swing, which was natural to him.

Everybody I spoke to said that he hit the ball harder right-handed. Everybody. And he also hit the ball more often, on a percentage basis, right-handed. Of course, he batted left-handed two thirds of the time, and there are people who will argue that he would have been better off had he batted only right-handed for his entire career. We’ll never know, but it’s an interesting thing to consider.

One time in 1963 he decided to bat right-handed against Tom Sturdivant because he wanted to see if he could hit the ball completely out of the Stadium, to complete what he didn’t quite do earlier that year against Bill Fischer, when he hit one off the right-field facade. Sturdivant agreed to try to help him do it and told him what was coming in defiance of his manager, Eddie Lopat. Mantle drove the ball to the monuments in center field. Sturdivant, who was his very close friend, laughed and said, “You can’t hit me.”

DL: What did the trio of “Willie, Mickey, and the Duke” personify within the social context of their era?

JL: Each had a constituency. A college professor of mine, a psychiatrist named Ethel Person, wrote a book called “Feeling Strong,” in which she discusses all these “who’s better?” debates and the psychological importance of them in young boys’ lives. Basically, she says, that arguing on behalf of one of these guys is the equivalent of trying on your mother’s high heels. It’s about how you were going to look as a grownup and what kind of grownup you wanted to be.

Duke was, as Carl Erskine said, the perfect emblem of overlooked, underdog Brooklyn. What more do you have to say other than that his first day in the majors was the same as Jackie Robinson’s? So he was fated to be overlooked.

As for Willie, Mantle said that he was the greatest everyday player he ever saw and he did play every day. Mays stayed healthy. He had longevity. And he had a GPS system in his neurological wiring. Don Newcomb told me a story about Mays playing a game in the Mexican League where there was, believe it or not, a railroad track that ran through the middle of center field. A ball went over Willie’s head, he ran across the railroad track, and came back with the ball. Mantle never claimed to be the defensive player that Mays was. But, he did say, that when he felt good, he felt he was as good an offensive player, maybe better.

Willie had a kind of joie de vivre, a freedom, that was the opposite of the stodgy, white, station-to-station baseball that was played prior to Mays and Robinson. There was an element of jazz to him. He had an almost improvisational appeal.

Mantle appealed to those who feared the loss of white hegemony in baseball. That was part of the “this is our guy” ethos. Everybody could see the handwriting on the wall with the great influx of African-American talent that was about to transform baseball. Mickey was this white kid from Middle America who could do everything. He was a white boy who ran black. He had the kind of power that reminded us that we were great. He reminded us of the incredible natural resources on the American continent. He had it all. He had speed, power, power from both sides. And I also really think that he appealed to that myth that if you’re good enough in America somebody will discover you, the notion that this is a meritocracy, and if you’re good enough, somebody will recognize you.

DL: In the book, you pose the question: What if Mantle were black and Mays white?

JL: That was a question I asked a lot of people, and nobody wanted to answer it with the exception of Reginald Martinez Jackson and Monte Irvin. What I was trying to ask was: how much did Mantle benefit from what we used to call “white school privilege” back in the ‘60s? How much of our attachment to him, and how much of our evaluation of him, was augmented by the fact that he was a white guy, because white guys want to see the white guy be so great? How much does that explain his enduring purchase on the American imagination?

Monte Irvin said [Mantle] would not have been quite as adored and loved had he been black. And Monte Irvin loved and adored him; there wouldn’t have been a debate about who was better. Willie McCovey said, and Monte agreed, that if their races had been reversed there wouldn’t have been as much willingness to cover up some of the off-the-field things.

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To be continued Wednesday. In Part III, Leavy talks about why Mantle fell short in the 1961 home run chase, how his life was similar to Babe Ruth’s, and more.

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