If you are a baby boomer, and you grew up a Yankee fan, then allow yourself to go back in time via Buzz Bissinger’s new homage to Mickey Mantle.
Turning pages laced with powerful photos, you remember your first visit to Yankee Stadium when you were 9 years old. You can see your parents’ delight in your cheers as the Yankee slugger wearing No. 7 strode to the plate. You remember another day he cracked his ninth career grand slam to beat the Los Angeles Angels. And you recall still another Stadium outing when you summoned all your 10-year-old courage to yell “Hiya, Mick!” from behind the first base dugout during batting practice.
Then you remember how your hero replied with a big grin.
But even adoring baby boomers know that the kid from Commerce, Okla., evolved into a complicated and flawed human being. To learn that one of the all-time greats was a womanizer and a drunk who failed his family became a disappointing part of growing up for adoring baby boomers.
Bissinger, an acclaimed sportswriter who previously authored “Friday Night Lights,” has given us a deeply personal view of Mickey Mantle. Sure, Jane Leavey a couple of years ago produced an exceptional and revealing biography – “The Last Boy.” And New York sports writer Peter Golenbock earlier wrote “7 – The Mickey Mantle Novel.”
But take Bissinger’s work exactly for what it is – a baby boomer’s view of a time when baseball was the biggest thing in American sports and Mantle was its greatest name.
The author gives us plenty of statistics, but from the perspective of a youthful fan. (It all recalls Roger Angell’s observation in his 1970s classic – “The Summer Game” – that “only baseball is so intensely remembered because only baseball is so intensely watched”).
But if you really remember Mantle, you relate to descriptions like this:
“Power hitters in the big leagues were typically big, hefty, lumbering. Mantle was all compaction, as if every muscle worked in perfect and optimal unison.”
“You can still see the monstrous back-to-front swing, where nothing was ever left out. And you can still see those home runs like the instant formation of the biggest rainbow, flying into the sky to shove aside the Big Dipper.”
Yeah, Mantle was that good.
Bissinger explores now familiar slices into Mantle’s life, including the complicated relationship with his father – Mutt – and how it dictated the course of so much of his life on and off the field.
And he provides wonderful insights into those championship years, Mantle’s friendships with Yankee greats like Whitey Ford, Yogi Berra and Roger Maris, as well as how manager Casey Stengel rode him mercilessly – all to make him a better player.
Bissinger spares nothing in relating the Mantle that “might have been.” Part of growing up and learning everything about the real Mickey Mantle was that he drank and caroused with guys like Billy Martin most of his career. And while he still hit prodigious homers while sporting major league hangovers, the question persists: what if he had taken care of himself?
And of course, through no fault of his own, what if he had been healthy?
Like Golenbock’s novel, Bissinger delves deeply into the complex Mantle. He was often surly with fans, he practically disregarded his wife and four sons while either playing ball or carousing. And a sense of fatalism inherited from Mutt ultimately molded his complicated persona.
Bissinger portrays Mantle’s decline from greatness, his frustration in playing for bad Yankee teams at the end of his career, and the pitiful descent into alcoholism that marked the end of his life.
“From that instant of retirement, Mantle could not find purpose,” Bissinger writes. “He could not find peace. Booze became his salve and balm and medication, slowly destroying his liver. It was almost as if you could see, minute by minute, the disintegration of a man who had once seemed immortal in the way that all great athletes seem immortal, until the very second they stop playing and become wanderers, nomads.”
Still, the author sees enough good even in such a flawed figure to chronicle the redemption Mantle sought in his last years. He quit drinking, repaired the troubled relationship with his wife and sons, and made sure every kid in America – including adoring baby boomers – knew the real score.
“I’d like to say to the kids out there,” Mantle said, “if you’re looking for a role model, this is a role model. Don’t be like me.”
It was part of the final reparations, Bissinger writes, that still make Mantle a hero.
No review of this book is complete without praising Marvin E. Newman’s stunning photographs. A longtime specialist in Yankee photography, his shots of the mostly young Mantle – especially in that classic, power swing – are overwhelming. His candids, meanwhile, make you think of the Hall of Famer as just a big kid.
Even if you’re a Yankee hater, you can’t help but love this book – and Mickey Mantle. As Bissinger concludes: “There will never be another like him. Never.”
The Classic Mantle
By Buzz Bissinger; Photographs by Marvin E. Newman
Stewart, Chabori and Chang
141 pages, $19.95
News political reporter Bob McCarthy is both a baby boomer and lifelong Yankee fan.