photo & text by nacrowe
the interesting thing about MICKEY MANTLE on the field is that the guy never reached his full potential and yet still had a singular HALL OF FAME career. in the 1951 WORLD SERIES while getting out of JOE DIMAGGIO's way during a fly ball he suffered a terrible knee injury after tripping on an exposed drain pipe in a freak accident. this was before modern medicine and it insured he played in pain the rest of his career. this was all during his rookie season.
so when i think of MANTLE on the field i think of endurance and pain tolerance. in her excellent biography THE LAST BOY: MICKEY MANTLE AND THE END OF AMERICA'S CHILDHOOD (HARPER PERENNIAL, 2011), WASHINGTON POST baseball reporter JANE LEAVY showcases that a similar argument can be made for a man that was broken spiritually long before he stepped on a major league diamond. its an enlightening yet sober assessment of an AMERICAN icon.
essentially MANTLE was famously groomed from an early age by his father to be a switch hitter, making him hit the metal side of a barn over and over in their rural OKLAHOMA property for much of his youth. his father ELVIN basically nurtured his talent, but at a price. his love for his son was more or less conditioned by his on-field play, such was the vicarious nature of their relationship. the concept of being a potential breadwinner for your family as a child is a damaging to the psyche, just as it was later for MICHAEL JACKSON and others, and it relayed a concept of self-worth that was conditioned on external factors. it lay the groundwork for later womanizing and extreme behavior that was internally rationalized because of his athletic performance.
the other major point given by LEAVY was the previously under-reported fact that MANTLE was sexually abused as a young child (4-5 years old) by his older teenage half-sister. the humiliation endured and internalized over the years informed his sense of self and sexuality, which partly explains his later behavior throughout his adult life.
the idea of being celebrated as the paragon of masculinity during your prime yet feeling inadequate based on actions taken against you for which you have no control is beyond compelling. his life was one of endurance and pain management both on and off the field, and the fact that he was trapped from discussing such pain because such would shatter his public image by discussing a taboo subject like CHILD ABUSE seems to me a uniquely AMERICAN story.
why is it that we can't deal with reality? why do we love our myths? what does that say about AMERICAN culture?
THE LAST BOY is a great read whether you appreciate baseball or sports in general or not. if anything this book is great because the subject under scrutiny is not MANTLE himself but rather our collective needs as AMERICANS to hoist up athletes and public figures as ICONS and DEMIGODS, depriving them of their own humanity. MANTLE is a case in point.