Mickey Mantle is an American icon, but the Hall of Fame outfielder is also, in many ways, a tragic figure. The “Commerce Comet” was baseball’s golden boy during the 1950s and early 1960s, but his life was far more complex and troubled than the well-chronicled injuries and alcoholism that go with the 536 home runs and 172 adjusted OPS.
Mantle’s story is told—in painstakingly great depth—by author Jane Leavy in The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America’s Childhood. Leavy talked about the Yankees legend’s life, both on and off the field, in a three-part interview for Baseball Prospectus.
David Laurila: The book is called “The Last Boy.” What does that title signify?
Jane Leavy: It was inspired by a photograph that you can see on the last page of the book’s black-and-white insert. It was taken by Fredrich Cantor, who shot a whole series of photographs at an Old-Timers’ Day at Shea Stadium when the Yankees were tenant farmers there in the mid-‘70s. Mantle is sitting between Whitey Ford and Billy Martin in the dugout. His pinstripes are gapping at a widening midriff, his crab grass muttonchops are graying; he’s got his cap tipped back the way a boy would, and the same Mickey Mantle ham-hock arms and forearms but he’s got this goofy Jerry Lewis smile on his face, like a kid aping Jerry Lewis on the blacktop at recess.
I looked at the dissonance between the way he portrayed himself, that boyhood playground ethos, and the spreading middle, the crow’s feet and the muttonchops, and thought, “he was the last boy,” the last guy, in my view, to be able to play by the old “boys will be boys” playbook. He was a product of the “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” and certainly write no evil 1950s. Whatever people might have seen, or known, or suspected back then, players knew it would either be kept quiet or winked at and laughed off, because after all, boys will be boys. Those rules don’t pertain anymore. The transgressions catch up with you. Brett Favre and Tiger Woods could only get away with it so long.
I’m not arguing that the pendulum hasn’t swung way too far to the other extreme, of knowing and seeing too much, but Mickey Mantle was the end of that era. Having survived as a public personage into the current era, albeit not the cyber lunacy of today, he was continually surprised, even offended, when people quoted him fully and accurately. I tried to explain the new rules of engagement to him. But he couldn’t accept that things weren’t the same. “How come she wrote that?” he would say. “Because she was trying to give a flavor of the way you are,” I would reply. “But, she didn’t say I was joking!” You know, he just didn’t get it.
I would argue that he might have been better off had he lived in a generation and an era when everyone carried cell phones. It might have kept some of the recklessness in check, and if it didn’t actually change his behavior—after all, the only person who can change somebody’s behavior is that person—it certainly would have changed how we looked at him, and what we laughed at and laughed off.
DL: Mantle grew up in Commerce, Oklahoma. What impact did that have on his life?
JL: I’m really glad you asked that. I think that unless you understand the world he came out of you can’t understand Mickey Mantle. That’s true of pretty much of any biography and any biographer, but I don’t think anybody in New York understood—I certainly didn’t understand—where Mantle came from and just how otherworldly Commerce, Oklahoma really was. The late Maury Allen, who covered the Yankees for the New York Post, made a joking remark to me: “We all thought Commerce was a made-up name.” It sounded too good to be true. But it was anything but too good to be true. Commerce was in the center of the zinc and lead mining territory in the United States. The lead that made the bullets to fight the Hun in World War I came out of that ground, and the zinc to make the first batteries.
I deliberately juxtaposed the accident, and by accident I mean Mantle’s knee injury in right-center field in Game Two of the 1951 World Series when the world gave way beneath his feet, with a chapter about Commerce, which I called “Undermined,” because I think he always felt life was precarious. He came out of a world suffused with the expectation of uncertainty. If anything was a certainty—and this wasn’t particular to the Mantles—it was that the world was an uncertain place and you were not likely to live a full life if you worked in those mines as his father did. The number of stories I heard from people, saying, “My uncle was driving down Route 66 one day and the earth just gave way beneath him,” was astonishing.
When I first went to Commerce, and I went twice, I couldn’t quite put my finger on what made it so uncomfortable to be there. There was some really strange feeling about it. I kept looking up at those bleached dunes of mining waste, and finally it hit me: If all of that stuff is up there, what’s beneath your feet? The answer is nothing. Literally nothing, in many places. His world was literally undermined.
There was one mine underneath Picher, Oklahoma, which was [Mantle’s wife] Merlyn’s hometown, and it was as big as the Houston Astrodome. So, people were accustomed to men dying young. His best friend’s father was blown up one afternoon when he went to light the charges for the next day’s work, which they did every day at a quarter of four. The earth would shake and everybody would hold their breath for just an instant. That day Bill Mosely’s father didn’t get out in time.
Miners were killed by falling slabs of rock and they were killed by silicosis and tuberculosis. Little bits of debris would get in their lungs and form lesions and when they coughed the lesions broke and bled. They literally choked on their own blood. Mark Osborne is a doctor in nearby Miami, Oklahoma, whose grandfather, a miner, died of silicosis and who does research on the health issues in the Tri-State Mining District. He recalled watching men disappear from front porches. They all had these same little houses, these little mining shacks, like Mantle’s house in Commerce, and you would walk by one day and there’d be a guy coughing up blood into a handkerchief, and two weeks later you’d walk by and he’d be gone and there would be a different guy coughing up blood into a handkerchief.
To me this was revelatory, because so much of the Mantle mythology is tied up with his refrain, “I’ll never make it to 40. None of the Mantle men live past 40,” which he ascribed to non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, the cancer that killed Mutt Mantle. This fundamentally changed my sense of him and the scope of the story, because he inherited this fatalism from the world that produced him. It was a birthright in that part of the country.
That was compounded by the osteomyelitis he contracted as a teenager, which was far worse than Mantle ever let on. The treatment was far more extensive than he ever let on. He always made it sound like, “well, I got kicked in the shin at football practice one day, and my daddy said ‘there’s no place in the world for a one-legged man’ and my mama said ‘like hell you are’ when they wanted to cut off my leg, so they gave me some penicillin and I was OK.” But when I found that he had actually been hospitalized five times over a period of 13 months, and spent 40 days in the hospital, including his 16th birthday, I started realizing that there was this nexus of death. His own life, and certainly the life and livelihood that his father envisioned for him, was in great jeopardy. People died of osteomyelitis all the time. It is an infection of the bone, which people in Commerce called “TB of the bone" or "cancer of the bone.” Until the invention of penicillin, the only treatment was maggots or amputation. It was a miracle that they had any penicillin in Picher, Oklahoma in 1946 when Mantle was first hospitalized and it was even more miraculous that he got better while receiving only seven percent of the dosage that you get today. It’s easy to understand why it took so long to stem the infection, because he was getting a fraction of what he really needed to get rid of it.
He was in the hospital when Mutt’s brother, Tunney, died at age 34, two years after Mutt’s father, grandpa Charlie. His uncle Emmett also died at age 34 but not until the mid-‘50s. But what Mantle was telling people, including teammates, by the late ‘40s was, “I won’t make it to 40; none of the Mantle men do.”
It was pure happenstance that I noticed his grandpa Charlie made it to almost age 61, and I was astonished by that because the whole “none of the Mantle men make it to 40” thing was so well established in the mythology. I almost didn’t believe my own eyes. I said, “That can’t be!” His cousin Max volunteered to drive down to Adair, Oklahoma and check the headstones for me, and he did.
So, what I think happened—and I know this is a really long answer, but I really appreciate the question—is that there was this baseline sense of life’s uncertainty that was compounded by his own illness, and then what he saw in his family and the other men who worked with Mutt and died with Mutt. He created a narrative to impose structure on the fear. It became a kind of emotional shorthand for him. I think it was a very fraught boyhood, even without the genetic load of alcoholism in his mother’s family, and even without the sexual abuse by his half older sister. When I put all that together, and step back and look at it, the guy suddenly makes sense.
To be continued on Tuesday. In Part II, Leavy 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.