If you think you know everything there is to know about Mickey Mantle, well think again — that is unless you’ve read “The Last Boy,” Jane Leavy’s comprehensive biography of the great Yankee slugger, the magnificent Number Seven.
Leavy shows us a side of Mantle we’ve never seen before, a great ballplayer and magnificent teammate but also a flawed man with a fractured family life and a problems with alcohol that eventually led to his death in 1995.
In addition to her own personal experiences, Leavy spoke with more than 500 people — friends, teammates, girlfriends, writers and others — to get a clear picture of The Mick.
As Leavy describes him, “Mickey Mantle was the Last Boy venerated by the last generation of Baby Boomer boys, whose unshakeable bond with their hero is the obdurate refusal to grow up. Maintaining the fond illusions of adolescence is the ultimate Boomer entitlement.”
And the biography chronicles the changes in Mantle’s personality from his years patrolling center field in Yankee Stadium to life after baseball.
“The transformation of The Mick over the course of eighteen years in the majors and forty-four years in the public eye parallels the transformation of American culture from willful innocence to knowing cynicism,” Leavy writes.
Tape Measure Home Runs
“The Last Boy” charts some of Mantle’s tape measure home runs, starting with the ones he hit in spring training his rookie year, 1951. at the University of Southern California. One of those home runs cleared the fence at the 439-foot sign and landed in the middle of the football field beyond, where it bounced into the huddle of the practicing Trojans and hit Frank Gifford in the foot.
To the day he died, Rod Dedeaux, legendary USC baseball coach, swore he saw Mantle hit two 500-foot home runs that day, one from each side of the plate.
Leavy chased down Donald Dunaway, who caught up to Mantle’s legendary 565-foot home run hit out of Washington’s Griffith Stadium in 1953.
And when Mantle hit a walk-off home run against the Kansas City in 1963 that struck the facade and came as close to leaving Yankee Stadium as any ball ever hit, Joe Pepitone recalls “It hit so hard to you could hear boom!”
Mantle often joked about the number of times he actually hit the ball over the course of his career, considering his 1,734 career walks and 1,710 career strikeouts. “Figure 500 at bats a season, and that means I played seven years in the majors without hitting the ball,” he said
Mantle was well known for his incredible pain threshold. and teammates and trainers marvelled at his ability to play ball every day. “Mickey Mantle has a greater capacity to withstand pain than any man I’ve ever seen. Some doctors have seen x-rays of his legs and won’t believe they are the legs of an athlete still active,” Yankee trainer Joe Soares said in 1968, The Mick’s final season.
In “The Last Boy” we learn that Mantle took in homeless teammates like strays, was always good for a loan, and picked up every tab. But he was often surly with the media.
In 1988, Mickey Mantle’s Restaurant on Central Park South opened. The first night’s guest list reads like a who’s who of celebrities — Yogi Berra, Billy Martin and Whitey Ford of course, but also Phil Rizzuto and George Steinbrenner, Sylvester Stallone, Frank Gifford, Dan Rather and Walter Cronkite, Raquel Welch and Angie Dickinson, Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Bruce Willis, Barbra Streisand, Bob Costas and Howard Cosell, who reminded everyone that “without me, there would be no Mickey Mantle”
“In the last years of his life, Mantle morphed into an avatar of the confessional Nineties,” says Leavy. The Mick confronted his alcoholism, but it was too late, and shortly after a liver transplant he died in 1995, just 63 years old.
Thanks to Jane Leavy — who also authored “Sandy Koufax” — we now know the full, inside story of Mickey Mantle.
After winning four World Series in five years between 1996 to 2000, the Yankees and their fans expect to win the Series every year.
After reading “The Yankee Years” by Joe Torre and Tom Verducci, it’s a wonder they even made the playoffs with some of the flawed teams they’ve fielded since 2002..
Joe Torre’s reign in the Bronx is easily pared into two distinct eras — the first six years, where the Yankees won four World Series and lost the seventh game of another, and the second six years, where in spite of making the playoffs every year, the team won a single American League pennant and no championships.
In those first six years, Torre went from being “Clueless Joe” to one of the most popular managers in New York history. Until he came to the Yankees, Torre had never been to a World Series as a player or a manager. His first Yankee team won the World Series in 1996, breaking an 18-year drought for the Bombers. He then won three World Series in a row from 1998 through 2000, before losing a heartbreaker to Arizona in 2001.
Those Yankee teams had talent for sure, but they weren’t overloaded with superstars. Like Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams, Mariano Rivera, David Cone and others, Paul O’Neill epitomized the grit and will to win of those championship squads.
‘Passion for Success’
“He wanted to get his hits, but his hits were important to him because of the success of the team.” is how Torre described O’Neill in “The Yankee Years. ” There are a lot of guys who want a hit every at-bat, but this guy, it was more about not letting the other 24 guys down. If he didn’t do enough to help the team win the game, he felt like he let everyone down. And I think people fed off that, that his passion for success and how that translated to the team’s success was what was important to him.”
As the Yankees entered the second six years, the back nine of the Torre era, things suddenly changed. The Yankees stopped winning the big games. They dropped a World Series to an overmatched Florida team in 2003, then blew a 3-0 lead to the Red Sox in the 2004 ALCS. In Torre’s last three years, the Yanks had to battle to make the playoffs — and each year lost in the first round.
In 2004, the Yankees signed Alex Rodriguez to the biggest contract in baseball history. The attitude of the team changed beyond the band-of-brothers mentality of the championship clubs. Roles were reversed. The Yankees under Torre would never be the same.
“When Alex came over it became strained in the clubhouse,” said Torre in “The Yankee Years.” “I can’t tell your for sure who you can put a finger on there, or if it was just one of those things that was pretty much unavoidable with the strong personalities.”
Failing in the Clutch
Most alarming of all was A-Rod’s lack of production in the clutch, and in the post-season in particular.
“When it comes to a key situation,” said Torre, “he can’t get himself to concern himself with getting the job done, instead of how it looks…..There’s a sort of trust, a trust and commitment thing that has to allow yourself to fail. Allow yourself to be embarrassed. Allow yourself to be vulnerable. And sometimes players aren’t willing to do that. They have a reputation to uphold. They have to have answer for it. It’s an ego thing.”
Even though he’s the lightning rod, it’s unfair to pin all the blame on Rodriguez. There’s also the issue of front office judgement, of over-paying for pitchers who didn’t get the job done in pinstripes.
Beginning in 2003, the Yankees brought in 12 pitchers from outside the organization….none of who pitched three straight years with the Yankees. The dirty dozen — Kevin Brown, Randy Johnson, Jaret Wright, Jeff Weaver, Steve Karsay, Esteban Loaiza, Kyle Farnsworth, Jose Contreras, Javier Vazquez, Kei Igawa, Carl Pavano, Roger Clemens (the older version) — combined for a 125-105 record, 3-7 in the post-season. The cost per win was $2.04 million if you do the math. That pretty much sums it up.
Whether you love the Yankees or hate ‘em, “The Yankee Years” is a must read for all baseball fans