I tend to dismiss most baseball books that have the word "last" in the title, unless it's a reference to a last-place team. "Last" in the context of the passage of time is usually a look through the nostalgia glasses by someone saying things ain't what they used to be, and more and more these days it's used by people who have no business trying to write about the era in question in such an intimate context. It seems like it happened before those authors were even born half the time, and they're craving an era of milk-drinking ballplayers who adored their cheering masses, embraced their herodom without question, and lived their lives - both public and private - like they were role models to be looked up to so the parents wouldn't have to do too much work. I'm so biased against "last" that the only reason I picked up Jane Leavy's The Last Boy at all was because it looked like the most interesting book available, and there weren't any books around that weren't about the Yankees or Red Sox at the time.
Charles Barkley famously proclaimed that he ain't nobody's role model, and he's right. He shouldn't have to be. The pressure of having such a high public profile has to be unimaginably pressing enough as it is, because people know who you are, and it allows them to keep their eye on you at all costs, perhaps stalk you, try to imitate you, hound you for attention, and in extreme cases, take advantage of you. Through all that, anyone of big-time renown is expected to play the part of the humbled, friendly, upstanding, straight Christian citizen, no matter what may be of his background, his personal problems and flaws, his politics or religion, and in some cases, the emotion of a moment someone may or may not have baited him into. No one cares about any of it, and if the famous person in question isn't really the humbled, friendly, upstanding, straight Christian citizen but excels at wearing the mask, god forbid his facade break down for even a second. The Family Friendly cops will tear him to bits for not thinking of the precious, precious children!
Steve Garvey and Kirby Puckett were two instances of the family friendly face being turned over. Classic, great heroes, both of them, now both being kept out of the Hall of Fame because their real selves ruined the show. But the poster child of a great, all-American baseball hero preening and sheening in the spotlight while wreaking havoc off it is The Mick, Mickey Mantle, one of the greatest sluggers of all time, whose number was retired by the Yankees, thought to be a great milk-drinking, aw-shucks family man off the field because the public was blinded by his smile. In The Last Boy, Leavy, author of a classic Sandy Koufax biography, explores the myths and dark sides of Mickey Mantle.
In the Koufax bio, Leavy encloses her narrative in between stretches of Koufax's perfect game. She basically does the same in The Last Boy, but her deference point this time is a 1983 interview with Mantle that she personally conducted. At one point during this interview, The Mick apparently tried to hit on her, which according to the rest of the book wasn't exactly an out-of-character gesture for him.
It's very rare that a biography can capture all of the contradicting sides of a single man. Even the Barry Bonds biography by Jeff Pearlman that I loved so much begins placing way too much emphasis on the steroids controversy through the later chapters. But Leavy gets it exactly right in The Last Boy. Even her Koufax bio didn't cover all of Koufax's mysterious sides, but that's because Koufax is one of the most secretive ballplayers who ever lived. Mantle was thrust into the spotlight in the largest city in the country and turned into an American paragon of virtue, so he got a lot of attention which he didn't seem to want. The Last Boy covers Mantle the hero, Mantle the lost wanderer in his post-baseball years, Mantle the Copa prizefighter in one memorable night with Whitey Ford and Billy Martin, Mantle the drinker.... In short, The Last Boy is about both Mantle the image and Mantle the man.
Leavy tends to research her subjects more obsessively than any other author I've ever read. She tackles myths and figures from every conceivable angle you could possibly think of. To get an idea of just how obsessed she got with Mantle, take the chapter from The Last Boy about Mantle hitting his first-ever home run out of Washington's Griffith Stadium. She talks about the mechanics involved with hitting a home run, whether or not it was possible for that particular homer to even fly the distance Mantle myth says it did, writes about the origins of the tape measure home run, and even tracks down the person who found it in the streets, picked it up, and carried it home. She even writes about what life was like in the mines of Commerce, Oklahoma, for Mantle's pop.
Leavy writes with a mix of passion, admiration, and sorrow for Mantle. Her chapters are all based within the contexts of certain dates which represented big events in Mantle's career, but she plays loose in sticking to what happened on those dates, and so what could have been a very simple bio ends up taking some very deep and cerebral turns. She goes into some intense details about Mantle's relationship with his kids, Whitey Ford and Billy Martin, his father, and even goes into detail about The Mick being sexually abused as a kid. She writes about how his own alcoholism and depression affected his family. One of the more interesting facets of Mantle's life is how he got along with star outfielder Joe DiMaggio, who was in his final years in pinstripes when Mantle was just getting started. DiMaggio doesn't come off well at all in The Last Boy, and would apparently ignore Mantle unless Mantle spoke first. At an autograph session many years after they were both long retired, DiMaggio was rush-rush, get-'em-out while Mantle sat and happily chatted with the fans and answered their questions. DiMaggio got so fed up that he asked Mantle to switch locations, because he was making DiMaggio look bad. (Mantle's response was to basically tell the Yankee Clipper to suck it.)
The Last Boy isn't about Mantle's career. It's about his entire life, and so after getting the obligatory focus on the career Sportscenter reel highlights out of the way, Leavy proceeds to take us down the very harrowing road of Mantle's post-baseball life. If, after knowing the truth about Mantle before then doesn't convince you that he wasn't some golden boy, this is the part that blows out the idea of Mantle being Mr. All-American. Mantle needed structure in his life, and without the Yankees there to provide it, a lot of what made Mantle MICKEY MANTLE faded away. Mantle comes off as lost, confused, depressed, and angry, and he falls down an emotional spiral. The truth behind his loving father and devoted husband facade is pretty painful. Let's just say it doesn't fit what's written on his plaque at Yankee Stadium.
Among some other little bits of info that get attention are the fact that, during the famous home run chase between him and Roger Maris, Mantle basically conceded defeat after the pressure finally got to him. Much is made about his bad knees, but The Last Boy actually goes into detail about HOW his knees got to be so banged up, and it also goes into details about the Center Field Holy Trinity of New York City during the 50's: Mantle, Willie Mays of the New York Giants, and Duke Snider of the Brooklyn Dodgers. For his part, Mantle believes he had nothing on Mays.
Lots of biographies go into the details of the who and what. The Last Boy tackles the ambitious subject of the how and why. Jane Leavy is proving to be an outstanding, interesting biographer; her bio on Koufax was less about Koufax than about what he meant to the larger public and the social influence he had. It turned Koufax into one of my favorite players. The Last Boy humanizes Mickey Mantle to an ungodly extent. If you have any appreciation for ballplayers as characters and human beings, this is one to pick up.