In Part III of this three-part interview, Jane Leavy, the author of The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America’s Childhood, talks about why Mantle fell short in the 1961 home-run chase, how his life was similar to Babe Ruth’s, and the one question a minor-league teammate would ask him if he were still alive today. In case you missed them, here is Part I and Part II
Jane Leavy: They were larger than life. They had larger-than-life personas and appetites and generated the sort of mythology that doesn’t attend to the ordinary ballplayer. Part of that was because of who they were, when they played, and the attendant exposure they got because they played center field for the New York Yankees when New York was the center of the baseball world if not the whole world. There was an openness to them, and it radiated from their faces. They might have been self-destructive in their behavior but they weren’t mean.
People talk about the joy de vivre that they saw in Willie Mays’ body language. Mantle had that in his smile. Think about Babe Ruth’s wink every time that a camera came anywhere near. These guys loved being who they were.
DL: In the book, you quote Howard Cosell as saying, “Mickey Mantle should be in jail. He’s a drunken whoremonger.” To what degree was that statement hyperbole?
JL: I think that was a very harsh way to say that he had a drinking problem—that he was an alcoholic—and that he was very reckless. People don't get incarcerated for being alcoholics or for being womanizers. I didn’t come across any criminal behavior that said to me, in any way, “Gee, he should have been in jail,” other than the stories I was told about him and Billy Martin getting locked up overnight for being disorderly or for shooting birds from their car while joyriding around Commerce in the off-season. Locals call it “hot shooting.”
DL: How does the 1961 Mantle-Maris home-run chase compare to the 1998 McGwire-Sosa home-run chase?
JL: I think that the McGwire-Sosa race has been exposed as a competition between poseurs. Both of them were emperors who needed new clothes—five sizes smaller. McGwire and Sosa used steroids to make themselves larger than life. Mantle and Maris were the real deal. As I said in the book, Mantle had honest muscles. If he was juiced, it was in the old-fashioned sense of the word—and by the way none of his teammates thought he came to the ballpark drunk; hung over perhaps but not inebriated. There was nothing juiced about his bat. Given what we now know about the “enhancements” of McGwire-Sosa race, I look back at what Mantle and Maris did with even more awe. It was extraordinary.
I also think that it is an absolute crime that Maris isn’t in the Hall of Fame. I don’t have a vote, but I think it’s shameful that he’s not in. I think he looks better and better as the years go by. Mantle always said that he was the best right fielder he had ever seen.
DL: While Maris obviously eclipsed Ruth’s record, Mantle hit only four home runs after Labor Day and fell short. In the book you explain one of the reasons why.
JL: Yes, Mantle missed a lot of time in September, and I found the great, unwritten story. The legend was that he got a bad cold, which became a head cold, which became a chest cold, which became a cold in his eye, and then, according to the New York Post, “lodged in his buttock.” Which is hilarious and untrue. What I learned from several people, first Clete Boyer, is that after spending the majority of the summer in Queens with Maris and Bob Cerv, and having the best summer of his life since 1956 and 1957, he came to Labor Day and self-destructed. He’d had enough of the straight-and-narrow and said, “I’m going back to the city,” which to him meant Manhattan. Cerv said a few weeks later he was so messed up he couldn’t play in the World Series. Mel Allen sent him to see “Dr. Feel Good,” Max Jacobson, who was treating President Kennedy, Eddie Fischer, and Billy Crystal’s grandmother, among others. They were getting shot up with a ghastly mixture of amphetamines and eel placenta. Boyer was incredulous at the credulousness of reporters who bought the story. “Why would he go to someone other than the team doctor?” he said. I said, “Because he didn’t want the team doctor to know what was wrong.” Clete thought I was some kind of genius for figuring that out. “The clap,” he said. “C-L-A-P.”
Some people have read that passage in the book and concluded that Max Jacobson gave him amphetamines. I don’t believe that and did not write that—in fact, Jacobson’s son, also a doctor, told me he didn’t think Mantle received anything of the kind. I think Mantle went and got a big shot of penicillin in his tuchus, which resulted in a festering wound in the buttock. Whether the needle was dirty, as Mantle often said, or whether the needle wasn’t put in right and hit a bone, or both, we’ll never know. Mantle said he never knew what was in [the syringe], but he did know that the pain was immediate and extraordinary.
He had to be hospitalized, and surgery was performed to open up the wound. They didn’t close it because it had to drain. His teammates described a saucer-sized incision with flaps of skin peeled back. Joe DeMaestri told me Mantle would lie down on the trainer’s table in the clubhouse and wiggle his toes, and you could see the cords of muscle and tendon moving there. That’s an amazing image and another case, sadly, of him self-destructing. It led to the iconic scene of Mantle trying to run the bases in the World Series in Cincinnati—Jim Brosnan and Jim Maloney said the whole pitching staff knew the story before the series began—and blood seeping through his uniform. When Ralph Houk said he was taking him out of the game, Mantle actually undid his belt and dropped his drawers in the dugout in order to see what they could see. The irony is—and he said this to me later—losing the home run race to Maris made him an even bigger hero. Maris was the bad guy who took away Babe’s record and took it away from Mantle, his rightful heir. Mantle said all he had to do was walk out of the dugout to get a standing O. In becoming the also-ran, he finally became beloved.
DL: Would it be fair to say that the Mickey Mantle story is, to a large degree, one of greatness intertwined with self-destruction?
JL: Yes, but you have to understand that the self-destructiveness was rooted in his experiences and a gene pool that he didn’t really have any way of understanding and issues that no one in America was ready to discuss. He wouldn’t have understood, and nobody in the country understood, that alcoholism was genetic. There wasn’t anyone to say, “Hey kiddo, you better be careful because there is a predisposition in your family, and we don’t know how this is going to affect you.” There was nobody to say, “You better talk to somebody about what happened to you and your half older sister.” There was no one to talk to. When you don’t talk about things like that, they fester, just as the infection festered in his backside. There was no place for him to go with any of it, so he just kept it inside. And it ate at him, and it ate at him some more.
Among the most touching of the 563 interviews I did was one with his minor-league teammate, Cromer Smotherman, who was asked by manager Harry Craft to be Mantle’s minder during the 1950 season in Joplin, Missouri. I asked him if he could speak to Mickey today, what would be the one question he would want to ask. Cromer choked up a bit and then said, “Mickey, what happened? Why did you choose to live the life you did? Because you were not that kind of person. That was not you.”
I took those as my marching orders. I wanted to find out what happened to him—as a physical being who deteriorated before America's eyes and as a human being. As Bob Costas said in his eulogy, we could sense the poignancy in him even before we knew what the word meant. That famously injured right knee—hurt in the outfield during the 1951 World Series because fate conspired with a groundskeeper who forgot to close the cover on the drain embedded in the turf—became the locus for pathos. It turned out that injury was only the beginning, only skin and bone and soft tissue deep.