Mickey Mantle, America's 'Last Boy'

Mickey Mantle was everything Jane Leavy remembered when she met him. He was the Hall of Fame Yankee, with unmet potential; the great competitor, with a smile as wide as Oklahoma. But Mantle was human, and fought his own demons. Leavy tells Mantle's story, the story of her hero, in The Last Boy..

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Some who's read Jane Leavy's meticulous new biography of Mickey Mantle wonder how much we really want to know about our heroes. Her answer: The truth.

The demigod who galloped across the sunlit ballparks of our youth was also a drunk. The generous teammate who played in pain and never complained missed parts of a World Series after treatment for a venereal disease. The tireless carouser ended his life in a state of grace and helped others with the lessons of his own bad example.

In her description of 20 days in the life of Mickey Mantle, Jane Leavy also describes a period when many of our illusions fell away, and we saw more clearly, whether we wanted to or not.

How much do you want to know about a hero, about Mickey Mantle? Our phone number, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, the indignities and embarrassments of traveling while fat. But first, Jane Leavy joins us here in Studio 3A. Her new book is "The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle And The End Of America's Childhood." It's great to have you on the program today.

Ms. JANE LEAVY (Author, "The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle And The End Of America's Childhood"): Thanks, Neal.

CONAN: Are you surprised by the reaction of some people to the book, that this is more than they wanted to know?

Ms. LEAVY: Actually, you know, Neal, if there are a lot of people who are thinking that, they're not telling me, for which I'm eternally grateful. What I am surprised at, frankly, and very gratified by is the extent to which people have seen, and see in the book, the good parts of Mickey and the effort that I made - I think it's the 536 interviews - to show that he wasn't one-dimensional. He wasn't a cardboard cutout. He's not a little square, a piece of paper, you know, with a picture on it and his height and his weight and his batting average. He was a full human being.

And he has lost his human dimension. You know, tomorrow is Thanksgiving, and I don't know if you've ever done this, but I used to, when I lived in New York, go and watch them blow up the balloons for the Macy Day Parade on 81st Street, behind the Museum of Natural History.

And they've got these gigantic slabs of one-dimensional, flat, rubber Bullwinkle and the turkey. And suddenly, they take this immense size and threaten to fly away. And unless you've got, you know, a phalanx of people holding on to them, especially if it's windy, you know, they just lose contact with the earth.

And guys like Mantle, he's in a rarified class, in a sense. You know, those kind of - that kind of level of icon is like those balloons. You know, they lose all sense of human proportion. And I would argue that it's not particularly good for them, and whether it's good for us is another matter, and that's the question you raise.

But I think, you know, the job of a biographer and the job that I gave myself was to try to rescue him, redeem him from caricature.

In the Sports Illustrated story that he collaborated on after he got out of the Betty Ford Center in 1994, he said that he'd become almost a cartoon character that he didn't recognize himself. And, you know, that really resonated with me. And so I wanted to give him back his humanity.

CONAN: And he had flaws, but dishonesty was not among them. He was a person who always told a story - in fact, he always played himself off as worse than he was.

Ms. LEAVY: Yes, he did. And, you know, a lot of people went along with it. And so the fiction grew up that he was kind of, you know, just this hick, rube from a farm. Of course, he wasn't from a farm. His father was a miner, a lead and zinc miner, who occasionally kept some cows and some hens that, you know, were evil and took off after Mickey and his sister, Barbara, who was inexplicably known as Bob.

But he told the truth about himself. And while it would be too flattering of myself to say, oh, I think he would want it to be this way, you know, I don't think that by the end of his life that he was wanting to perpetuate those fictions. I think he needed and wanted to be held accountable.

I think that that's a lot of what he was doing when I met him in 1983 as a reporter for the Washington Post. You know, and his son, David, one of his two surviving sons, told me he wanted people to tell him the truth. He wanted people to be real, and nobody would be. The woman with whom he spent the last decade of his life told me a story about how, you know, she said, you know, presidents would get nervous in front of him, not just presidents, you know, of companies but presidents of United States.

And he was profane and awful at a signing, a card-signing in the Bible Belt somewhere, and afterwards, she said: Mickey, you can't talk like that around women and children in the Bible Belt. As if it would be okay in Chicago, which it wasn't. And he looked at her and said: Nobody ever told me that before.

CONAN: He was someone who you also say spent very little of his life alone.

Ms. LEAVY: Yeah, I think he was alone in an existential sense. You know, Phil Linz was a utility infielder who came to the Yankees as...

CONAN: Mr. Harmonica, we always...

Ms. LEAVY: Mr. Harmonica - in 1962. And Mickey lockered that year, my favorite baseball verb, between two rookies, Tom Tresh and Phil Linz. And Pete Sheehy, the locker room, clubhouse guy, you know, who assigned the lockers did that deliberately.

And Mickey was good to rookies. He was good to guys who came over in trades, like Bob Turley, who came over in that famous 19-player trade involving Baltimore. You know, he arrives, and there's a flower on the stool at his cubicle. Who the hell put that there? You know, that's not what baseball players are expecting.

So Linz told me that he watched very carefully that year how people talked to him, how they related to him. And he saw that when people talked to him as Mickey, in italics, Mickey in, you know, big letters, that Mantle recoiled. He wouldn't want to have anything to do with a person like that.

He said, so I was really careful how I spoke to him. And he said, after lockering next to Mickey for a season, he became convinced that he didn't want to be great, that the loneliness of greatness, that sense of isolation that comes from people wanting part of you but not to really know you, of wanting, you know, to be able to tell a story about, you know, having a conversation or making small talk but not really listen to what you have to say was something he didn't want.

CONAN: The story of your meeting with him in a hotel in Atlantic City is scattered through the book, and we learn a lot in it. But one of the little things we learn is just a passing moment where, sitting in a diner, having breakfast, and I guess the hotel coffee shop, and somebody comes up, and you say Mantle, you know, has that - squints away from the person as he realizes he's being told how much a hero he is to him.

Ms. LEAVY: Right. You know, I think that being raised in a family where work meant going deep into, you know, the center of the Earth, sometimes 350, 400 feet down, to try to claw out a living from the infrastructure of the planet, hard, back-breaking, you know, deadly work. Miners like his father died in the, you know, thousands, getting crushed by slabs of rock, getting silicosis and tuberculosis. That was work. That was real to him.

And I think that he carried around inside of him a sense that what he - not that he wasn't proud. There was no false modesty. But he was no braggadocio, either. And I think that later in his life, when he made his living signing his name, his perfectly carved signature, as somebody said to me, on the sweet spot of God knows how many baseballs, that there was a degree of shame and embarrassment.

His father made his living, you know, with a pickaxe and, you know, of 1,250-ton cans that men filled day by day by day, hundreds of pounds a day, for pennies, you know. And this is work, signing your name?

CONAN: We're talking with Jane Leavy about her new book, "The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle And The End Of America's Childhood." How much of our heroes do we really want to know? 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. We'll start with Nina(ph), and Nina's calling us from Charleston in South Carolina.

NINA (Caller): Hi. I wanted to say that I grew up - I'm 58. I grew up idolizing Mickey Mantle. One of the greatest days of my life was my dad surprising me, saying that we were going to Mickey Mantle day. And yet, you know, slightly after that, his flaws, you know, we all learned about his flaws.

But the thing about Mickey Mantle was I think he had an inner light and an inner goodness that trumped all the negative things, to me. That was my impression. And, you know, the heroic part of him, you know, playing injured, I think he made people - you never stopped believing him, even when he was broken down, like his last year, which I think was in '68 or '69, I remember the Yankees were terrible then. And when - I was watching a game, he'd come to the plate, and Phil Rizzutto would say: Here comes the Mick, as if he could still do the magical things that he could do when he was younger.

So somehow that magic and that smile, I guess it was just a dichotomy, but it doesn't make me not want to know the negative. I think that just was part of what made him who he was.

CONAN: It's interesting, Jane, and you describe the sense that every time Mantle came to the plate, people looked because you didn't know what was going to happen. Anything could happen.

Ms. LEAVY: He brought expectation and imagination to the plate every time. You didn't know whether you were going to see something so astonishingly great that you couldn't believe your eyes, you know, the ball that caromed off the fa�ade in Yankee Stadium, or whether you were going to see something so terribly awful, like the game in 1962.

He had started out that year having lost the home-run race to Roger Maris. In a state of unexpected grace, all of a sudden, Mickey was finally beloved in New York for having become the underdog, and that, you know, legacy of DiMaggio was finally off his back. Now we could really love him.

And, you know, he started out a better season than anybody thought, and then here he is, in a game against the Minnesota Twins, and he bounces a ball to shortstop, hard-hit ball. It knocks the shortstop, (unintelligible), backwards, hits off his shoulder.

Mickey sees out of the corner of his eye that he's bobbled the ball, and he reaches for a gear that he no longer possessed and tore the adductor muscle in his leg and wrecked his other knee, the good knee.

I was there that night, Neal. He told me, Mickey said, I never heard a big place get that quiet that fast.

CONAN: Nina, thanks very much for the phone call.

NINA: Thank you.

CONAN: How much do we want to know about our heroes, in this case, Mickey Mantle? 800-989-8255. Or drop us an email, talk@npr.org. More with Jane Leavy in just a moment. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Sunday, June 8, 1969, officially Mickey Mantle Day in New York City. Joe DiMaggio took the podium at Yankee Stadium to introduce a fellow Hall of Famer. Mickey Mantle, he said, Yankee Stadium is all yours. Here's the Mick.

(Soundbite of archived recording)

Mr. MICKEY MANTLE (Baseball Player): To think that the Yankees are retiring my number seven with numbers three, four and five tops off everything that I could ever wish for. I've often wondered how a man who knew he was going to die could stand here and say that he was the luckiest man in the world, but now I think I know how Lou Gehrig felt. God bless you all, and thank you very much.

(Soundbite of applause)

CONAN: We learn much more about the Mick in a new book by Jane Leavy, "The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle And The End Of America's Childhood." How much do you want to know about a hero, about Mickey Mantle? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And obviously Mickey Mantle there, Jane Leavy, referring to Lou Gehrig and I'm the luckiest man speech, yet planning his own funeral at the same time.

Ms. LEAVY: Yeah, I was really struck by that, when I went back and looked at it and I thought, my God, you know, he thinks he's dead already. And, you know, he always said he thought he would never live to 40 because of the legacy of disease in his family, which it turns out was not quite as prevalent or as lethal, as you put it, as he made it sound.

I mean, for example, his grandfather Charlie, you know, Mutt's(ph) father, died a month short of his 61st birthday. But in many ways athletes die twice, and to be a Mickey Mantle and not have anything else to do except to go on living on your name and off your name in a culture where, at least at that point, there was no big memorabilia market - he got 500 bucks for his first appearance after he retired. And so I think it's not so much that he didn't, you know, think he'd live to 40. I'm not sure he wanted, you know, after being Mickey Mantle, to keep living.

CONAN: Just make it to Cooperstown and then shuffle off the stage.

Ms. LEAVY: He told somebody that when he was enshrined in 1974, you know, when it was over: Get me out of here. It feels like, you know, it feels like a funeral to me. It feels like a cemetery. You know, it was like being buried alive.

And it was in 1969 that he first asked Roy Clarke, the country-Western singer, to sing that song, you know, "Yesterday When I was Young" at his funeral. And every time after that they met for the next 20-plus years, he would say, now, don't forget, I want you sing "Yesterday When I was Young," which is, of course, a lament for someone who wishes they had lived their lives differently.

And you know, the other thing about that day is there was a plaque revealed, unveiled for DiMaggio as well as Mantle. And Mantle told the PR guy, Marty Apell(ph), to make sure to hang Joe D's a quarter of an inch higher than his own, that Joe D's had to be higher. And they did hang it a quarter of an inch higher. Marty made sure of it.

When they were taken down to be bronzed or re-bronzed, the Yankees hung them at the same height.

CONAN: And now, of course, they're all eclipsed by George Steinbrenner's in the new ballpark.

Ms. LEAVY: Ah, the mausoleum, yes.

CONAN: That's another story. Let's see, we can go next to Odette(ph). Odette's with us from Russellville in Arkansas.

ODETTE (Caller): Hi, thank you for taking my call. I'm so excited. I can't wait to read your book. I was a big fan of the Yankees when I was growing up in the '50s and was a huge fan of Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle.

And I'm interested in knowing what the author thought of the movie "61." Was it accurate to their relationship?

Ms. LEAVY: That's a great question. Yes, it was. I think Billy Crystal's movie did a really, you know, good job in dramatizing what went on that summer. What I learned was a few additional facts, but Mickey was already drinking more than he ought to have been.

Now, alcoholism is a progressive disease, and as Sam McDowell(ph), the great hurler who later became a drug counselor, told me, you know, in the '50s you wouldn't have known that he had a problem. He would have just appeared irresponsible.

CONAN: High-functioning alcoholic.

Ms. LEAVY: Yeah, we didn't have those words then. We didn't even know what an alcoholic was. We barely knew it was, you know, a disease, much less a genetic inheritance.

So by '61, you know, Sam said, it would have been noticeable that the amount he was drinking, which may not have been any more than anybody else, it had a different biochemical effect.

So the Yankees were worried about him. In fact, Yogi Berra organized a little retreat out at his house in Montclair and had Tony Kubek(ph) and Joe DeMesri(ph) come out. They thought they would dry him out a little bit. And Ralph Hout(ph), the new manager, said yeah, that would be a good idea.

And when he came back, he'd been living by himself in a suite in New York, in a hotel, as he often did. His wife, Merlyn, had decided to stay home that summer. And either he asked, or it was suggested by Maris, that he come out and live in this apartment on the Van Wyck Expressway, with Bob Serve(ph) and Roger Maris.

And he did go out there. He said: I'd like to have a summer like that. And he proceeded to have, you know, one of the greatest summers of his baseball life, until...

CONAN: The last couple of weeks.

Ms. LEAVY: Until the last couple of weeks, and what Bob Serve told me was that when it got to Labor Day, Mickey said: I've had enough of this life. I'm going back to the city. And what that meant, of course, was Manhattan, and it meant the high life. And then Bob said: And two weeks later, he was so screwed up - I guess you can say that on NPR.

CONAN: I think so, yeah.

Ms. LEAVY: He couldn't play in the World Series. And he - the famous cold, you remember the lead(ph), Frank Sinatra had a cold? Well, the whole story of, you know, September for the Yankees, the '61 Yankees, was Mickey Mantle had a cold that started in his chest, it went to his throat, it went to his eye, that believe it or not, according to the New York Post, lodged in his buttock.

And the real story revealed to me by Clete Boyer and all the members of the Cincinnati Reds pitching staff was that he contracted a venereal disease. And that's why he went to Dr. Max Jacobson(ph), the famous Dr. Feelgood, on a referral by Mel Allen(ph), got a shot in his tuckus that became infected, and they had - it was so infected, he had such a high temperature, they had to operate.

They folded back flaps of skin. They couldn't close it because it needed to drain. He would lie on the clubhouse table, believe it or not, Joe DeMesri told me this, and wiggle his toes for the enjoyment of his teammates, and they could see the cords of muscle and tendon moving inside the wound.

CONAN: Odette, thanks very much for the call.

ODETTE: Thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Bye. Here's an email from Brad in Garrettsville, Ohio: My dad grew up on the Dust Bowl side of Oklahoma. Mickey Mantle was always the baseball player he first mentioned in our conversations. He loved not only Mickey's baseball prowess but also his good humor and humanity. Hearing this segment today brings back a lot of memories. I know I will bring it up when I talk with my dad tomorrow.

Wes(ph) in Goodlettsville, I think I got that right, Tennessee: I want to know the truth because true heroes are made by their accomplishments, by how they overcome their failings.

And that is another big part of the story that you tell. Mantle eventually did sober up. Mantle learned a lot. It's interesting, though. There was lingering resentment over the fact that he was not eligible for the draft or medically disqualified from the draft during the Korean War and that later in life people thought he fixed, somehow, and jumped the queue and got a liver.

Ms. LEAVY: Yeah, he had osteomyelitis as a teenager, which is an infection of bone, a disease known back to antiquity. And up until the invention of penicillin, in the early '40s, treated only with maggots and amputation.

And Mickey always made his disease sound like it was, you know, no big deal. His daddy said there ain't no place in the world for a one-legged man, and his mom said like hell you are when the doctors threatened to cut off his leg.

And he said: I got antibiotics. I got better. End of story. Come to find out he was hospitalized five times for a period of 40 days over 13 months, including his 16th birthday. And the only reason that he survived is that by some unlikely chance, they had penicillin in 1946 in Picher, Oklahoma.

And he received only seven percent of what you would get today. So it's a miracle he got better. He - you know, osteomyelitis does not go away. It recedes. There's no cure. And the Army was actually, you know, general policy, they didn't want to get stuck paying, you know, medical bills in perpetuity for somebody if it came back.

So, you know, he was cleared honestly. You know, there was no strings pulled. You know, there's a reason they didn't want him in the draft. But when people complained to the White House, the Army tested, you know, reviewed the case again and again, and the last time they cleared him not on the basis of the osteomyelitis but on the knee injury that occurred in 1951.

And later, at the end of his life, and you referred to this, there was great skepticism and a huge howl of protest at the presumption that he skipped the queue and got a liver unfairly. And every doctor I spoke to, including ones, you know, who performed the surgery, and bioethicists like Art Caplan(ph) at University of Pennsylvania...

CONAN: A guest on this program from time to time.

Ms. LEAVY: Yeah, great guy, and brilliant man - you know, said no, he didn't skip the queue. He had the right blood type. He was the right-sized person. The waiting - you know, the waiting time in that part of Texas was actually, you know, a reasonable amount of time. Baylor University Hospital was so advanced in doing transplantation, and the metropolitan area of Dallas was such a big area for getting organs - it was on the level. The question is was he too sick to get it, not whether he deserved to get it.

CONAN: Let's go next to Cliff(ph). Cliff's on the line from Long Island.

CLIFF (Caller): Hi. This whole (unintelligible) is so true for me, the question being how much do you want to know about your own hero? For me, it's really nothing at all. And it kind of - it reminds me so much of years ago visiting my parents in California, going back to the hometown and seeing this large strange car parked across the street and finding out it was Willie Mays meeting a -staying with a friend across the road who was a local coach.

And after about an hour, my brother, who was also across the street, came back and said that Willie Mays was being driven up to a Giant game, and if I wanted I could ride along with him and then watch the game with him. And it - as a local San Francisco fan, it took me all of two seconds to say, no, I couldn't. That, you know, having - he was always my childhood hero, and I wanted him to stay that way. I mean, the thing that always comes to mind is that it's - we ask so much of these people, and sometimes we ask them to be more than human, and they can't.

CONAN: Hmm. It's interesting, Cliff, I take it you didn't grow up to be a reporter.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CLIFF: No, I didn't.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the phone call, appreciate it.

CLIFF: Thank you for this show. Bye.

CONAN: There's a wonderful moment in your book. Your previous biography was Sandy Koufax - book did okay. And there's a moment, of course, where they - he meets Mantle: Koufax, at the height of his powers, and Mantle, though we don't realize it, about to prove to us all that his are waning.

Ms. LEAVY: Ah, you're talking about the 1963 World Series. The first game was at Yankee Stadium. And that was the day Koufax struck out 15 people and that I decided I hated him...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LEAVY: ...for what he did to Mickey. And, in fact, when I first spoke to Sandy in an effort to elicit his help for that book, I told him I hated his guts because of what he did to Mickey. I think that's why we got along because, you know, people ask me all the time, does it - oh, they're so different. They have nothing in common. Actually, I think there was a similarity; one, in terms of their ability, willingness to play in pain, and also in that modesty that they both had.

You know, Mickey Mantle was as futile against Sandy Koufax in that game as the rest of the Yankees. Game four, the last game in Los Angeles, when the Dodgers inexplicably swept the New York Yankees away...

CONAN: I was crushed.

Ms. LEAVY: ...and tilted the perceptions of, you know, culture and the power of American popular culture forever to the West Coast. At the last minute, John Roseboro, the catcher, wiggled his fingers. So they have an 0-2 count, I think it was, on Mickey. And it was a very close game. I mean, remember, Ford pitched a great game also. And Sandy always pitched on a razor-thin margin. He would say, you know, just get me one. And that's really about all the Dodgers could get him.

CONAN: (Unintelligible).

Ms. LEAVY: And so Rosy wiggles his fingers. And he and Koufax were in such syncopation at that point that, you know, Sandy knew what he meant. And he threw him a curveball. Now, Koufax's curveball was better than anybody's 12 to 6, I mean, you know, if you could be 17-3, is - was what it would be. And so they took something off the curveball and it folded like a cheap folding chair. And Mantle walked away from the plate. And I assume I have to clean this up, so I will.

CONAN: Yeah.

Ms. LEAVY: How in the bleep are you supposed to hit that bleep?

CONAN: We're talking with Jane Leavy. Her new book is "The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America's Childhood." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Let's go to Norm(ph), Norm with us from Bonney Lake in Washington.

NORM (Caller): Yeah, thanks for taking my call. I've got sort of a two-parter. One is in your interviews, did he ever get fresh with you? That's one. And the other one was about Billy Martin, because from what I understand, they were real drinking buddies. And it - was that all they had in common was the booze? Or were they people - did they have a friendship where they could really confide in each other?

Ms. LEAVY: Whoa. That's a good question. Fresh? Yes. What happened to me in my weekend with the Mick at the Claridge Hotel in April 1983, the Claridge Hotel being the place where my parents had their one-night honeymoon on December 25, 1941, the only night they could get a rabbi in the city of New York before my father shipped out, was that at 2 o'clock in the morning when it was finally my turn to have what reporters call a one-on-one, which means you get to talk to the guy by yourself, I felt Mickey's right - his hand on my right knee. Now, his - he had taking my hand earlier in the day and put it on his famously damaged right knee and said, feel this. It felt like an aspic, a tomato aspic my mother would have made.

But now, here we are, you know, 12, 14 hours later, and suddenly I feel his hand on my knee, and my heart sank. And, you know, there was this competition between Jane the reporter and Jane the fan who just wanted to get away and not let this happen. He said, let's go sit on the loveseat. Well, that was trouble, I knew right there. So I got my tape recorder, you know, out, and got it to spinning so my intentions would be clear.

And by this point, he was quite in his cups and he mumbled something and slurred it about. Let's have this interview at breakfast. And just as he was saying that, I felt his hand moving up the inside of my leg. And we were right over the casino, and I could hear the bells and the sirens of - and the change pouring out of one-armed bandits. And as he said - as he started to reach for the proverbial jackpot, he fell face first, passed out, dead drunk in my lap. And I sat there under 200 pounds of American icon, my hero, thinking what do I do? And in some ways, the - you know, the point of the book was to find out how did my hero end up dead drunk, passed out, face down in my lap? How did this happen?

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: And the next morning, he does talk to you and tells you, among other things, about the nightmares that woke him every morning.

Ms. LEAVY: Yeah, My heart thawed. I was - I arrived at breakfast quite angry, indignant. You know, how could you do this to me? What adult talks like this? I called him on it, which I was taking a huge reportorial risk, because if he had gotten, you know, annoyed and stalked off, I would have gone back with no story. And believe me, George Solomon, the sports editor of The Washington Post, would not have been thrilled. But I was so disappointed.

You know, I said, you know what you did to me when I was seven? No, what did I do when I was seven? He told me passed gas while I was waiting for him. But then he started to tell me about how he couldn't sleep at night because of recurring nightmares of failure and the end of dreams every night in nightmares, and my heart melted.

CONAN: Norm, you'll have to get to the book to get to the stories about Billy Martin and their relationship. It goes into quite considerable detail. Thank you very much for the call. Jane Leavy, thank you very much for your time today.

Ms. LEAVY: That's it?

CONAN: That's it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LEAVY: I'm sorry.

CONAN: This is NPR News.

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Excerpt: 'The Last Boy'

Cover of 'The Last Boy'
The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle And The End Of America's Childhood
By Jane Leavy
Hardcover, 480 pages
Harper
List price: $27.99

Innocence Lost

Atlantic City, April 1983

My grandmother's apartment, 2A, faced east toward the Concourse, away from the Stadium. During home stands, the roar of the crowd threatened the kibitzing in her parlor, ricocheting off the buildings on 157th Street, past the candy store and the greengrocer on the corner of Gerard Avenue, past Nick, the shoemaker, and Mr. Kerlan, the kosher butcher, and through her double-hung windows. Crouched beneath the grand piano — with a damaged right leg as precarious as The Mick's — I listened to Mel Allen's honeysuckle baritone, punctuated by the crack of the bat. And then the roar came again as the sound waves vibrated up the street. It was my own primitive version of surround sound and it rattled the glass. I turned up the volume when Mickey was on deck.

In my worldview, Celia Zelda Fellenbaum and Mickey Charles Mantle were linked by something far deeper than mere proximity. Both were stoic in the face of pain and selfless in pursuit of pleasing others. My diabetic grandmother injected her thigh daily with the insulin she kept in the icebox along with the sweets she stocked for me and my cousins: six-packs of Pepsi, platters piled high with homemade rugelach, and her own seven-layer chocolate cake. How different was it, really — Mantle's insistence upon being in the lineup no matter how much he hurt and her risky determination to fast on Yom Kippur? Weren't they both team players?

"Who's better, Dad? Mickey or Willie?"

My father grew up on the other side of the Harlem River in a tenement hovering above Coogan's Bluff. In the winter of 1927, he patrolled the Polo Grounds as a water boy for the New York football Giants. "Willie," he replied firmly, citing the latest box score.

Mickey was my guy. Or: I was a Mickey guy. Either way you put it, the relationship was proprietary and somehow essential. Like Mick, who had to be sent down to the minors three months after his major league debut, I had arrived prematurely. Conceived the week — perhaps the day — he hit his first home run at the Stadium, I was born two months too soon in a Bronx hospital twenty city blocks from where that ball landed. Like Mick, I had a sense of being physically flawed. Other kids practiced his swing; I practiced his limp and aped his grimace.

My grandmother gave me permission to be who I was, a little girl who liked to play boys' games. One fine spring day, opening day of the baseball season, we took the CC train downtown to Saks Fifth Avenue to buy a baseball glove. The cars still had those old straw seats and the bristles caught in my tights and we almost missed the stop while trying to untangle me. I often got tangled up when I tried to be a proper girl.

We bought me a mitt, the only one they had, a Sam Esposito model, which was firmly attached to the glove hand of a mannequin in the Saks Fifth Avenue window. "I' ll have that for my granddaughter," she told the flummoxed salesman.

No matter how many times he demurred — "Madam, it's not for sale" — she would not be deterred. I took Sammy home with me and everywhere else until my mother disposed of the glove in an unhappy spring purge. I told my grandmother that Sam was a Yankee. She had no reason to know better. In the twenty-five years she lived at 751 Walton Avenue, she never once felt compelled to cross the threshold of the cathedral of baseball.

She celebrated the Jewish High Holy Days in the ballroom of the Concourse Plaza Hotel at the corner of 161st Street, where Mickey and Merlyn Mantle spent their first year as newlyweds. No matter what the temperature, she wore her mink coat to shul. It had a shawl collar and no buttons and was big enough to keep her and several grandchildren warm. In fact, her coat was two sizes too large — marked down, wholesale. She didn't wear it to temple on sweltering fall afternoons of prayer to show off. That would have required a mere stole. It was to accommodate me, Sammy, and my red, plastic transistor radio with a tinny gold flower-shaped speaker at its center. She greeted the New Year, waiting for me by a bench in front of Franz Siegel Park, arms spread wide, an expanse of mink catching me in a satin embrace.

Services were held in the sumptuous ballroom of the hotel, which opened for business the same year as Yankee Stadium. With its vast onlookers' balcony, the ballroom was well suited to my grandmother's Conservative congregation, in which men and women worshiped in sacred isolation. The women sat upstairs in the gallery in ballroom chairs facing toward Jerusalem. I faced the opposite direction, called to prayer by the large, green, looming presence of the outfield wall at the bottom of 161st Street. Just down the hill, past Joyce Kilmer Park, where African-American men sold towers of undulating marbleized balloons, past Addie Vallens, the ice cream parlor where Joe DiMaggio enjoyed an ice cream soda between ends of a doubleheader. Mickey was so close, and so far away.

While my grandmother listened for the sound of the shofar, I listened to Red Barber inside a cocoon of heavy red velvet drapery that concealed his voice and my apostasy. While she prayed for my future, I prayed that no one would ever humiliate Mickey again, the way Sandy Koufax did in the 1963 World Series.

The 1964 World Series was my last opportunity to pray with her and for him. Mickey got old fast, and so did my grandmother. I was sitting in my parents' maroon-on-black Dodge sedan with the push-button transmission in the parking lot of Montefiore Hospital when she suffered the stroke that precipitated her death at age seventy-four. The night she died, Monday, May 2, 1965, the Yankees did not play.

I didn't go back to Yankee Stadium until September 1968. This time, it was to pay homage to The Mick. It had been an awful year of abrupt and tragic goodbyes. Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., were assassinated. The cover of Time magazine asked if God was dead too. And Mickey Mantle was playing his last season.

The particulars of the game are hazy. Was it a Sunday? A doubleheader against the Senators, perhaps?

Memory returns in shards: traffic whizzing by the pigeons loitering on the median dividing the Concourse; the rumble of the D train below tar-patched macadam; a steel girder buttoned with bolts, blocking the view from our seats in the lower deck behind and to the left of home plate. The netting cut the batter's box into tidy rectangles of time and space. I don't remember what Mickey did that day. But then, my view was obstructed.

Just how little I'd really seen of him became apparent when he agreed to meet me for breakfast in Atlantic City fifteen years later. I was sitting at my desk in the sports department at The Washington Post when he called. "Hi, this is Mickey," he drawled. "Mickey Lipschitz."

"I didn't know you were Jewish."

"Let me tell you something a guy told me when I first come to New York," Mickey said. "When you're going good, you're Jewish. When you're going bad, you're Eye-talian."

He said he'd meet me at 11 a.m.

Excerpted from The Last Boy by Jane Leavy. Copyright 2010 by Jane Leavy. Excerpted with permission by HarperCollins Publishers.

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Mickey Mantle and the End of America's Childhood

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