I really like the new, beautifully written and researched biography of Mickey Mantle, by Jane Leavy. But the title is so annoying that I can’t get that negativity out of my head. Maybe writing about just the title will get the nastiness out of my system, so I can enjoy the book and write about it later.
The title is The Last Boy, and the End of America’s Childhood.
I think Mantle was the last boy — in the sense that he came from so far off the beaten track in rural Oklahoma that he didn’t even know there was a beaten track.
He came from a family of lead and zinc miners, and would have been one himself if he could not make a living playing ball. He and his family knew from the start that he’d go right into the mines if he failed in pro ball.
He arrived at his first spring training in bumpkin clothes that didn’t even pretend to fit. His pants were so short they showed his white socks. He had one sport jacket that looked like something a vaudeville clown might wear on stage.
One of the veterans, Hank Bauer, took him shopping, and started teaching him how to act like a big league player. Mantle was so naive and trusting he was an easy mark for fast women and hustlers.
Mantle signed for no bonus, and at first, he was “just glad to be there.” Modern players use that expression a lot — as the punchline of a joke.
Mantle was like a lot of older generation players, who came from the mines, mills and farms. They also knew they’d go back where they came from if they failed as ball players. They were making more money in baseball than they could at home, but were underpaid. Many were unschooled and vulnerable to hustlers and fast women in the cities.
Players aren’t like that any more, except the ones from the Dominican Republic, and most of them have agents.
A lot of today’s players come from suburbs in the Sunbelt, where they play more games against good competition, and gain experience and polish faster than kids from the Rust Belt. All these kids have agents, and most begin working toward a career in pro baseball very young, because great baseball talent usually shows at a young age.
Many of them go to college before they sign a pro contract, or go into the amateur draft. Good college baseball programs, like Arizona State, are about as competitive as the low minor leagues.
It’s the second part of the title — The End of America’s Childhood – that bothers me. New Yorkers have an annoying habit of universalizing their New York-specific experience. I did it myself when I lived there.
Mickey may have been the hero of every kid in New York — maybe they all wanted to be him — but I grew up in Baltimore. I admired Mantle’s ability, and hated what he did to my Orioles, but my heroes were Brooks Robinson of the Orioles, and John Unitas and Gino Marchetti, of the Baltimore Colts.
I knew I could never play like them, but they were the kind of people I’d want to be like, or have my children emulate.
I was never exposed to the false Mantle projected in the New York media early in his career. I didn’t see the New York media until after they started writing about his drinking and womanizing. If the real Mantle ever came around, I would have hidden my children.
The end of my childhood, when it came, had nothing to do with Mickey Mantle. It came when the Baltimore Colts let John Unitas find out he’d been released from a reporter who called him for a comment on his release.