Saturday, January 24, 2015

"The Last Boy", Jane Leavy's biography of Mickey Mantle

Jane Leavy's biography of Mickey Mantle is well-researched, and includes much useful new material on Mantle's life. What I want to focus on here is the new information about his relationship with Joe DiMaggio, whose center field position Mantle took over after DiMaggio's retirement following the 1951 season.

DiMaggio had some nagging injuries which limited his effectiveness in 1951, the year Mantle came up from the minors to join the Yankees. And yet, Joe wouldn't hear of giving up his center field position to some upstart rookie. When a writer asked him if he would consider moving to left to make room for Mantle in center, Joe replied "There's nobody taking center from me until I give it up."

This sort of arrogant, me-first attitude was typical of the negative portrait of DiMaggio depicted in this book. Although they had a locker next to each other for at least part of the year, DiMaggio never once spoke to Mantle the whole year, until his World Series injury in October. Contrast this with Hank Bauer, who took Mantle under his wing, and taught him how to act and survive as a country boy in the big city. Now who is the hero here, DiMaggio or Bauer?

During Spring Training in 1951 Mantle was an absolute sensation, wowing everyone with his power-hitting, his speed, and his incredible fielding plays. Joe was used to being the center of attention, and his jealousy was palpable.

The whole story of how Mantle hurt his knee during that fall's World Series plays into the narrative of DiMaggio as a self-centered jerk. Mantle, of course, was still playing right field, since Joe insisted on playing center. In the fifth inning of the second game against the Giants, a fly ball was hit between Mantle in right and Joe in center. Manager Casey Stengel had instructed Mantle to go hard for anything he could reach, telling him "The dago's heel is hurtin'. Go for everything".

So, Mantle was going all out for a ball when, at the last minute, he heard Joe say 'I got it". Mantle had been chastised earlier in the year for catching a ball that Joe could have caught, so he obediently tried to stop suddenly, and in the process he caught his foot in a drain and went down with a serious injury. As he lay hurt, Joe whispered to him, "They're coming with the stretcher, kid". Mantle said it was the first Joe had talked to him all year. Mantle played in pain every game for the whole rest of his career, because DiMaggio was too proud to relinquish his center fielder's prerogative of catching every ball he could get to.

DiMaggio did not give his version of what happened until 1973, twenty-two years later, when he claimed that he had said, "Go ahead. Mickey. You take it".  This is patently false, for why would Mantle have been trying to stop at the last second, if Joe had not called him off the ball? It should be noted that Mantle had the class to never blame DiMaggio publicly. He confided it in private to the author (and to his wife, who the writer interviewed), who only published it in this book after Mantle had died.

After Mantle retired, the snubs kept coming from DiMaggio. At Mickey Mantle day at Yankee Stadium in 1969, he presented Mantle with a plaque and made a graceless comment about it. At Old Timers days, Mantle would regularly get a greater ovation than Joe, which irritated Joe to no end. At one such ceremony, Joe actually punched Billy Crystal in the stomach because Crystal had failed to introduce Joe as "baseball's greatest living player", an introduction that Joe insisted upon as a condition of his making any public appearance.

At the opening of Mickey Mantle's Restaurant, practically every celebrity in New York showed up, but DiMaggio refused to come. His jealously of Mickey had never abated. At an autograph-signing event in 1995, the two of them shared a room. Mantle was being friendly and spending time with the visitors, which irritated Joe, who sent a representative over to Mantle's table with the message, "Joe D. wants you to quit shaking hands and being nice." By this time Mantle had grown up and lost his awe of DiMaggio, and he responded, "Tell Joe to get another room."

When Mantle died later in 1995, DiMaggio did not attend the funeral, instead issuing a statement which gracelessly made reference to Mantle's being sent down to the minors during his rookie year.

Mantle certainly had his flaws. His drinking and womanizing are legendary, and are not sugar-coated in this book. However, he had endearing human qualities as well, a generosity and friendliness which dwarfs the haughty, spoiled picture that emerges of Joe DiMaggio. Mantle was a true hero, while DiMaggio was a haughty, self-centered jerk who had to be the center of attention wherever he went, and who would throw a fit if he wasn't.

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