American Hero

An absorbing biography of Mickey Mantle gives a raw portrait of a damaged life

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Mantle: John Dominis-TIME & LIFE Pictures / Getty Images

Mantle chucks a helmet in 1965. Injuries and alcohol plagued his career.

Some biographers study their subject through microfilm and chatty college roommates. Others have their protagonist pass out drunk in their lap. In her new book, The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America's Childhood, Jane Leavy takes the reader back to 1983, when the then Washington Post sportswriter was assigned to interview Mantle at an Atlantic City, N.J., casino. The Claridge Hotel near the boardwalk was paying the Mick $100,000 a year to mingle with gamblers; this "job" got him banned from baseball. But Mantle needed the money and, apparently, something more. At 2 a.m., the New York Yankee legend, who wanted to put off his talk with Leavy till "brefffasss," slipped his hand along the inside of the author's thigh. Before Leavy could retreat, Mantle dropped; she "was pinned in a modular love seat beneath two hundred pounds of Grade A American Hero."

Mickey Mantle holds an outsize grip on the American imagination. Credit his action-star name, boyish good looks—even Mantle's teammates, Leavy reveals, had major man crushes on him—and a sportswriting culture that ignored his indiscretions. The guy smacked the ball out of stadiums too.

Mantle's flaws, which included alcohol abuse, serial womanizing and cruel disregard for his family, have long been documented. His late-life self-flagellation—"Don't be like me," he said before his death at 63 from liver cancer in 1995—is not news. But through her exhaustive, sometimes exhausting reporting, Leavy shows Mantle at his unfathomable worst and unrecognized best. For even the most ardent Mantleologist, The Last Boy is an education.

Leavy's scoops are won with shoe leather. She tracks down people like a doorman at the Claridge who details Mantle's discomfort with the job, finds an elderly gent who as a kid retrieved a Mantle home-run ball in a house yard and even gets a Nobel Prize—winning scientist to explain Mantle's muscle memory. She peppers the narrative with appetizing snippets from her surreal weekend with the self-loathing star, who was her childhood idol.

At times the chronology is mildly confusing, and the author succumbs to the occasional cliché. ("Men wanted to be him. Women wanted to be with him.") But Leavy, whose 2002 bio of Sandy Koufax was a best seller, atones for these mishaps. Her description of Mantle's native corner of Oklahoma, a region where "a century of mining lead and zinc from the ancient bedrock had left the ground as hollowed out as the faces of the men who worked it," acutely extracts the man's DNA.

When she's not constructing such enviable sentences, Leavy lets others write the zingers. "His aura had an aura," one of Mantle's teammates remembers. Country singer Roy Clark, a Mantle friend, compares the athlete's injury-ravaged body to "a statue by Michelangelo that somebody had just started chopping at."

Mantle could be generous. He once left $50 for a 50¢ cup of coffee, and he took less luminary teammates with him to memorabilia shows so they could make some money. But the many women in his life suffered. Mantle didn't even invite his wife Merlyn, who died in 2009, to his father's funeral. He did take her to Mickey Mantle Day at Yankee Stadium—along with his mistress. Despite her husband's open extramarital affairs, Merlyn never divorced Mick, and she was at his bedside when he died. The Last Boy includes a letter Mantle sent his wife while he was off playing ball. "He wrote like he loved me," Merlyn tells Leavy.

A more innocent era enabled both Mantle's legend and, to an extent, his self-destructiveness. "In 1983, it would have been a firing offense to write what really happened," Leavy notes of Mantle's nap in her lap. "Today it would be a firing offense not to." If the true Mantle had emerged sooner, perhaps he would have sobered up in time to enjoy a productive later life. In Atlantic City, Mantle also told Leavy he had cirrhosis of the liver. She honored his request to keep the ailment off the record. "I wondered if I'd done the right thing," she writes. Her wretched encounter with the grade-A hero adds new pain to Mantle's tale. And gives us all the more reason to rethink the Mick.