A few months ago I read Richard Ben Cramer’s
magnificent book, “Joe DiMaggio: The Hero’s Life.” This week, I took in Tony Castro’s
“Mickey Mantle: America’s Prodigal Son.” As Mantle was saddled with the great challenge of following DiMaggio, at least in my favorite reader’s mind, Mantle’s biographer faced the literary equivalent. I opened “Mickey Mantle” dubious I would find another “Joe DiMaggio.” Whereas the debate is inconclusive about which was the better Yankee center fielder, there’s no doubt about which is the better book on a Yankee center fielder.
Castro’s work very much mirrors his subject — touches of greatness overshadowed by thoughts of what might have been. Cramer’s work is exhaustive and artful. His subject more closely guarded his privacy and presented Cramer with greater obstacles as a reporter. Castro did less with more.
At times loosely organized, imprecise and repetitive, Castro’s book is one in which subject wins over substance. Mickey Mantle
is a baseball player who went into a phone booth and turned into an American super hero. It’s easy to become engrossed in his story. Perhaps more than any athlete, Mantle personified the expectations of 20th century America. He was the all-American boy with golden hair and a high school sweetheart wife who was plucked from the heartland and brought to the quintessential American city to hit balls farther than anyone had ever seen them hit — from the right side or the left, take your pick — and somehow also was the fastest runner in the American League.
Mantle was going to be the next Babe Ruth
and he was the rightful successor to Joe DiMaggio. With his speed and power, by the time his career would end he might very well own all of the meaningful records. That’s what his manager, the “Old Perfessor” Casey Stengel, said — and he said it before Mantle was 20 years old. Most of America and all of New York listened and then they watched, as Mantle was the first sports star of the television age. His fans expected everything from Mantle and he could not deliver on Stengel’s promissory note. Who could? Even Ruth did not have to play in the shadow of Ruth. Because of his talent, Mantle was both loved and loathed by Yankees fans.
Castro, a former staff writer for Sports Illustrated who did graduate work on socio-psychology in American studies while a Nieman Fellow at Harvard, provides a great amount of compelling information in this book. If you are a Mantle fan and you have predominantly read Mickey’s many autobiographies — “The Mick” is the most popular among them — then you certainly should read this book. In general, I don’t place a lot of importance on books written or co-written by ballplayers. By nature they are self-serving and very often they are superficial. There’s no doubt Castro’s work is a cut above that standard.
“Mickey Mantle” contains new insight into Mantle’s relationships with DiMaggio, Roger Maris, Billy Martin, Whitey Ford, Casey Stengel
and other baseball legends. This is, though, foremost a story about Mickey’s bond with his father, which was unwavering, even decades after Mutt Mantle’s death. Mutt didn’t teach his son the game so much as run a daily training camp for a willing baseball soldier. Mickey, for example, became a switch hitter because his father knew — well before platooning was fashionable or switching commonplace — it would give his son a greater chance to play when he reached the majors.
Mutt’s grip on Mickey was so strong that Mantle married his wife, Merlyn, expressly because his father told him it was what he should do (never mind that Mickey was sleeping with someone else at the time). Mickey was resigned to the fact he would live a short life because his father died of the family disease — Hodgin’s — at age 39. He turned to alcohol, in part because when his father passed Mickey lost his moral compass, in part because of guilt and depression over his father’s death, and in part because he didn’t think he’d live past his 40th birthday anyway.
Mantle would be a Hall of Fame drinker for more than four decades. One cannot get far into a discussion about the Commerce Comet’s career without bringing up his alcoholism. This was not a sensational part of his life or the book; it was as much a part of his life as was his clubbing a ball with a bat. There is no doubt the disease took its toll on Mantle’s career and his numbers — as impressive as they are — were diminished compared to his potential marks. He very well could have hit 800 home runs instead of 536. He could have won multiple Triple Crowns
instead of his one in 1956. Although he began enduring leg injuries before he was a serious drinker, when he was hurt Mantle often went to the bar instead of the training table. The knee problems that so plagued his career were at least in part a prolonged function of his drinking.
“There is no doubt in my mind that alcohol hurt my career terribly,” said Mantle in Castro’s book. “In the end, all you really have are the memories and the numbers on paper. The numbers are important because baseball is built on them, and this is the way you are measured. And the point is, I played in more than 2,400 games, more than any Yankee player in history, and I hit 536 home runs, and I shouldn’t be griping about my career. But I know it should have been so much better, and the big reason it wasn’t is the lifestyle I chose, the late nights and too many empty glasses.”
Castro devotes a lot of attention to Mantle’s drinking, carousing and his many extramarital affairs, but often while using broad strokes. He provides a few telling, embarrassing scenes that played out while Mantle was in drunken stupors — for example, Mantle used to sally up to his country club bar in the nude; he once cussed out a priest in public — but most of them are offered in general statements.
In “Joe DiMaggio,” by contrast, Cramer provides so much color a reader feels as though he’s at Yankee Stadium or at Toot Shor’s. Castro tells us about one time when Mantle blasted a pinch-hit home run when he was blasted; he was hardly able to see straight (or run around the bases afterward) because he was so hung over. That scene says so much about the dichotomy between Mantle’s hero status and his irresponsible choices. I would have appreciated a greater amount of that type of detail about Mantle — whether those details were snapshots of glory or wart-revealing illustrations — especially when in regards to his on-the-field exploits. Instead, some of the game-by-game highlights were simply told facts.
Mantle’s life, which appeared a dream to millions of baseball fans, was one of many extraordinary personal and emotional problems. Mantle lived through childhood sexual abuse, chronic bed-wetting, osteomyelitis, alcoholism and the destruction of his family and marriage. In the years before his death Mantle sought sobriety and redemption from friends, family and teammates. That, too, was a struggle.
In “Mickey Mantle: America’s Prodigal Son,” Mantle fans will find truth and admiration. There are a lot of stories baseball readers already knew about and a few many likely do not. Mantle is a figure with which any student of the game should be familiar. He was not a black-and-white figure, as he is so often portrayed, but one with a past colored by shades of gray. The book is worth a baseball fan’s time. But as so many wanted something more from Mantle’s career, I wanted a little something more from this biography.