Review: The Last Boy

The Last Boy

The Last BoyJane Leavy. New York: HarperCollins, 2010.

Summary: A biography of the life of Mickey Mantle, covering his family roots, baseball career, and post-career life, including his injuries, alcoholism, affairs, and something of a redemption at the end of his life.

Every summer, I read at least one baseball book, and so when I received this book as a gift earlier this year, I knew what my book would be this year, not that I would need much persuading. Mickey Mantle was one of my childhood heroes, even though, as an Indians fan, he played for the hated Yankees. We all followed the rivalry between him and Roger Maris to see if either could break Ruth’s record of 60 home runs. We all tried to switch hit when we played baseball, something most of us did very badly. We debated, as this book explores, whether Mickey Mantle or Willie Mays was the better player.

I was also pleased to see this was written by Jane Leavy. I had thoroughly enjoyed her biography of another childhood hero, Sandy Koufax. Mantle, it turns out was a far more complicated person, a mix of the great and the tragic and the tawdry wrapped into a single individual.

She tells Mantle’s story around twenty key dates in his life, which sometimes involves some back and forth between the key date and events prior and following. She begins with his family, and the powerful influence of his father, Mutt, who did not want his son to spend his life in the mines, taught him to bat from both sides, and guided him just long enough for him to get a contract with the Yankees before he died at an early age from the cancer that seemed to run through the family. Long enough to push him to the edge of greatness, but not long enough to help him deal with that greatness.

We learn of Mantle the athlete and his incredible speed and power and the tantalizing “what ifs” of just how great he could have been. In his first season with the Yankees, in 1951, running for a fly ball in the World Series, he caught a cleat in a drain in the outfield left uncovered, and blew out his right knee before there was such a thing as ACL surgery. He was never the same, and part of the story was how he could play at such a high level despite the physical problems that multiplied over the years. Leavy chronicles in detail the home run out of Griffith stadium in 1953 and enlists physicists and witnesses to figure out how far it actually traveled. She even includes analyses of his swings from both sides of the plate, and the near perfect form Mantle had at his best. She recounts his last at bat.

One of the great “what ifs” has to do with how Mantle lived off the field, something sportswriters in the Fifties and Sixties kept hush-hush, at least until a Yankee brawl at the Copacabana. Mantle was a high-functioning alcoholic in these years, at some points even hitting home runs when he wasn’t completely sober. Only in the Sixties, did this begin to tell on his body, combined with his injuries. She also doesn’t shy away from his womanizing and the complicated relationship he and Merlyn Mantle had throughout his life,

After baseball, he was unable to find something to do with his life. He was troubled by thoughts of an early death, which ran in his family. The drinking and affairs continue. He doesn’t listen to the few who try to warn him. “Sudden” Sam McDowell, former Indians fastballer and a reformed alcoholic tried to organize an intervention, only to have it aborted after a “friend” tips off Mantle. He tried and failed at a number of ventures, went into the memorabilia business with one of his lovers, and even was banned from baseball for a period because of an association with an Atlantic City casino, where he was paid simply to appear so guests could say they met Mantle.

It is in this context that Leavy met Mantle in 1983 for an interview that shattered her own image of Mantle. She unfolds this weekend encounter through the course of the book, from his gentlemanly effort to get her a sweater to keep her warm on the golf course, to his drunken efforts to pick her up that end with him slumping over asleep in her lap.

The book ends with Mantle experiencing a sort of redemption. Late in life, he began the work of facing his inner demons, including childhood incidents of sexual abuse that might have influenced his sexual proclivities. With serious liver problems looming, he checks into the Betty Ford Clinic and manages to stay sober for the rest of his life. He makes efforts to reconcile with his sons and make amends with others. He experiences what seems like a genuine death bed conversion as former teammate Bobby Richardson ministers to him.

I’m not sure Mantle really was the last boy. The image in part is one of America losing its illusions in the late Sixties. But the truth is that athletes continue to reach the peak of their physical powers long before they mature as people, and while they can perform on the field, they are unprepared for the hangers-on, the fast lifestyle, and the sudden affluence that comes their way. Like others with power, they often have no one to hold up a mirror to help them see their true selves, no one who will tell them what they do not want to hear. Certainly Mantle bore responsibility for this, and more and more toward the end of his life he acknowledged it. What the “last boy” title fails to capture is that our culture of adulation towards sports heroes still celebrates the physical gifts of youth while failing to affirm the character qualities of maturity that distinguish men and women from boys and girls. Perhaps the most tragic figure in this story is neither Mickey nor his boys, but Mutt, who pushed his boy to succeed, and only realized when he was dying that no one had prepared him to handle success.

 

The Rest of the Best 2015

The title for this post reflects an odd reality of this blog. This is that the most viewed posts on the blog are all in the “On Youngstown” category. Last Saturday’s post lists the top ten Youngstown posts of the year. Strictly speaking, they were the top ten posts period, with a post on kolachi, a kind of nut roll taking top honors. My friends from Youngstown are a loyal bunch!

The list below reflects the top ten posts from categories other than “On Youngstown”. Curiously, only one of the top ten posts was a book review. Equally curious, the second place post was a bookstore review. Two were on topics related to reading and books, and the others came from the “on life” category. All this sort of makes me wonder if I should be doing a book blog, but I’m not sure what the focus might be otherwise, and frankly, I like writing about books and reading and all the trappings that surround a love of reading.

So, without further ado, here is the list (links are to the full post):

Redeeming Sex10. Review: Redeeming Sex. The only book to make the top ten (I wonder why this one made it?!). At any rate, it is an important book and glad it received a good deal of attention.

9. Is It Time For Stricter “Man Control”? I muse on the fact that the bulk of gun and sexual violence is by men, especially young men and consider what we might do to better address the process by which boys become men.

8. How I Save Money on Books. What it says, my tips for getting more books for less money! The idea for the post came from another blogger, but all the money-saving tips are mine!

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Stone Bridge (c)2015, Bob Trube

7. First Attempts at Painting. Was the interest here one of seeing how bad a beginner would do? Still trying to find time to paint more. My artist friends would probably say “blog less.”

6. Jesus Was a Refugee. One of the fundamental realities of my faith that I have to take into account in thinking about our stance on refugees.

5. Books I Wish I Had Read Sooner. Have you ever read a book where you say “I wish I had read that 10, 20, 30 years sooner?”

4. Do We Need More Than Lament? Reflections after the shootings in San Bernardino.

3. “I Don’t Have a Problem”. I consider the proliferation of craft brews, pubs and the increasing comfort with drinking in our culture and wonder if it’s time for a renewed awareness of the signs and dangers of alcoholism.

IMG_23612. Bookstore Review: Paperback Exchange. This was a review of a clean, well-stocked store in downtown Lancaster, Ohio. Wonder if all their customers took a look!

And the top (non-Youngstown) post?

1. Memories of the Blizzard of ’78. Written on the 37th anniversary of what was the most memorable winter storm for many in my generation living in the Midwest. Includes memories of being stranded for five days in a dorm in Bowling Green, Ohio!

An eclectic assortment to be sure. But these are the posts you considered best, if amount of interest is the measure. Enjoy!

“I Don’t Have a Problem”

beerOne of the trends in the past several years that I’ve observed is the growth of micro-breweries, brew pubs, sports bars and other drinking establishments. I’m not a teetotaler. My son and I like to meet up at a sports bar most weeks and solve the problems of the world. Occasionally we’ve visited some local wineries to taste different wines and educate ourselves about the differences. When I visit different cities, I like to try the local brews.

It is interesting that alcohol use has become far more accepted even in many Christian communities that once would have been dry. I have friends who have phone apps on which they log the different beers they drink and rate them and compete to see who can log the most. Most of us have concluded that the Bible doesn’t prohibit drinking, only excessive drinking or drunkenness.

But, I wonder, in shaking off the abstinent ways of a conservative past, do we laugh off the warnings?

  • Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit, (Ephesians 5:18)
  • “Be careful, or your hearts will be weighed down with carousing, drunkenness and the anxieties of life, and that day will close on you suddenly like a trap.” (Luke 21:34)
  • Wine is a mocker and beer a brawler;whoever is led astray by them is not wise. (Proverbs 20:1)
  • Woe to those who are heroes at drinking wine and champions at mixing drinks (Isaiah 5:22)

I could go on but this is probably more Bible than some of you want. But these verses call attention to the dangers of drunkenness leading to debauchery or the excessive indulgence in sensual pleasures. Alcohol is a factor in most sexual assaults on campuses. Excessive alcohol use can weigh down the heart and depress. It can inflame tempers. The last passage is a warning against binge drinking.

But many would say they don’t drink to excess. What is interesting is to ask the question, what constitutes excess?

  • The Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010 recommend no more than one drink a day for women, two for men and that drinking above this can lead to increased risks of many harmful health conditions
  • Excessive drinking then is defined as having 8 or more drinks a week as a woman, 15 or more as a man.
  • Many may not exceed these limits but still binge drink in which women drink more than 4 drinks in 2 hours, men more than 5 drinks in the same time at least once in 30 days. Drinking in this amount raises blood alcohol content above .08, or the legal limit for driving in most states.
  • Drinking to this level 5 or more times in 30 days qualifies as heavy drinking.

(Sources for this are the Center for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism).

We know the risks of drinking and driving but have we taken on the risks to health, and also the risks we take in the form of risky behaviors when alcohol impairs our judgment? Perhaps more profoundly, do we consider the risks to relationships where we say or do those things we might later regret when sober, when we act with violence in word or action?

More serious yet is Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD), a more precise way of speaking of alcoholism. There is a list of questions that the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism proposes to assess if you or a loved one may have an AUD:

  • Had times when you ended up drinking more, or longer than you intended?
  • More than once wanted to cut down or stop drinking, or tried to, but couldn’t?
  • Spent a lot of time drinking? Or being sick or getting over the aftereffects?
  • Experienced craving — a strong need, or urge, to drink?
  • Found that drinking — or being sick from drinking — often interfered with taking care of your home or family? Or caused job troubles? Or school problems?
  • Continued to drink even though it was causing trouble with your family or friends?
  • Given up or cut back on activities that were important or interesting to you, or gave you pleasure, in order to drink?
  • More than once gotten into situations while or after drinking that increased your chances of getting hurt (such as driving, swimming, using machinery, walking in a dangerous area, or having unsafe sex)?
  • Continued to drink even though it was making you feel depressed or anxious or adding to another health problem? Or after having had a memory blackout?
  • Had to drink much more than you once did to get the effect you want? Or found that your usual number of drinks had much less effect than before?
  • Found that when the effects of alcohol were wearing off, you had withdrawal symptoms, such as trouble sleeping, shakiness, irritability, anxiety, depression, restlessness, nausea, or sweating? Or sensed things that were not there?

Alcohol abuse and alcoholism affect roughly ten percent of the American population. It touches people of every walk of life including those in ministry and other professions. The American Bar Association has identified this as an important concern for lawyers whose incidence of alcohol abuse or alcoholism may be double that of the general population.

Why this departure from my usual blogging on books? It is because I’ve been reminded recently of the destructive consequences of alcohol abuse in the life of an acquaintance who seems in the process of destroying his life.  It called back memories of a brilliant and talented man I knew who sacrificed marriage, family, and work and drank himself to death. I’ve seen alcohol abuse contribute to suicide. I think of others whose alcohol abuse fueled family violence. Sometimes I’ve been involved in helping their children face the brokenness and pain and break that cycle in their own lives.

So for all of us who drink, and particularly if we find ourselves drinking more than we did in the past, I would encourage us to measure our drinking against the benchmarks and questions in this post, or ask someone we love to be honest with us. Don’t be that person who gets lost in the lie of saying “I don’t have a problem.”