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Remembering ‘The Mick’

Jane Leavy Lectures on Mantle Biography

In game four of the 1963 World Series, Sandy Koufax of the Los Angeles Dodgers held a 1-0 lead over the New York Yankees. The Dodgers were up three games to none and on their way to a four-game sweep of the defending World Champions. But in the fifth inning, Mickey Mantle tied the game with one swing of the bat, delivering a patented tape measure blast to the left field bleachers at Chavez Ravine.

The Dodgers would go on and win the game and the series, but the moment has real significance to Roslyn native Jane Leavy. In 2002, Ms. Leavy published an acclaimed biography of the reclusive Dodger great, Koufax: A Lefty’s Legacy. Eight years later, Ms. Leavy has published another biography, this one on the more public of the two principals of that October 1963 encounter.

On Sunday, Nov. 21, Ms. Leavy returned to her hometown to give the 27th Annual William Cullen Bryant Lecture. The subject was her latest book, The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America’s Childhood.

After the Koufax biography, Ms. Leavy, a former staff writer for The Washington Post, had considered writing a book about the famed centerfield trio from the baseball Golden Age of the 1950s: Mantle, Duke Snider of the Brooklyn Dodgers, and Willie Mays of the New York Giants. But editors told her that it is books on Mickey Mantle that the public still craves for. And so, Ms. Leavy had her subject. But it was inevitable that Ms. Leavy would write about Mantle. Although Ms. Leavy grew up in Roslyn, she also witnessed the Mantle phenomenon up close, watching him play from the second-floor ballroom in the Concourse Plaza Hotel where her grandmother’s synagogue held services on the High Holidays, a vista that gave the young Jane Leavy a full view of the action across the street.

“He was my guy,” Ms. Leavy told the Bryant Library audience. “In the 1950s, you had to have a guy, even if you were a little girl.”

Ms. Leavy recalled that her father, a former waterboy for the New York Giants football squad, was a Willie Mays fan. The two engaged in good-natured banter throughout that Golden Age, but a shared love of sports led to Ms. Leavy’s successful career, first, as a sportswriter and now as a best-selling sports biographer.

Ms. Leavy’s talk centered around the private Mantle, a condition that eventually became public to all the world as the latter faced his own death in 1995, and also the public Mantle, the ballplayer that carried on the great Yankee tradition of Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and Joe DiMaggio: Clutch sluggers who led the Yankees to pennants and World Series wins. The purpose of the biography, she said, was to unlock the secrets of Mantle’s great athleticism (he had more tape measure home runs than anyone in the game’s history), plus to analyze the tragedy of Mantle’s brief life: Namely, as she put it, what is it that makes us, the public, compliant in allowing our heroes to destroy themselves.

Two Sides of Mickey Mantle

Ms. Leavy’s first encounter with Mantle was in a 1983 interview for The Washington Post. Mantle was in Atlantic City, promoting a golf tournament for the coming spring. The interview was destined to go bad as Mantle, in winter weather, was forced to play all 18 holes of golf, while dutifully being followed by a small army of reporters. Ms. Leavy had to deal with her childhood hero while he was in a state of inebriation. But even that interview had its moments: Mantle offered Ms. Leavy a sweater to help her make it through the miserable day. “It was a gesture of authentic warmth,” a thankful Ms. Leavy said.

Mantle also had Ms. Leavy take a look at his battered knees. As Ms. Leavy recalled, the great man’s right knee felt like a mushy tomato with a little ball in the middle. It was a condition that Mantle played with his entire career as the injury took place while playing high school football in Oklahoma. It was that courage that made Mantle a hero not only to millions of fans and even more intimately, to his teammates.

And so, Ms. Leavy preferred to dwell on Mantle in his glory. She read a passage from the book on the day when the Mantle legend was born. On March 26, 1951, the Yankees played an exhibition game at the campus of the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. Already, the teenaged Mantle was a favorite of legendary Yankee manager, Casey Stengel, so much so that DiMaggio, during spring training, announced his intention to retire after the coming year only as a way, as Ms. Leavy speculated, to draw attention away from this rookie speedster.

In the game against the USC squad, Mantle hit two tape measure home runs, a bases clearing triple and an infield hit. Speed and power, the Mantle trademark was on full display. One of Mantle’s home runs landed beyond the centerfield fence and onto the football field where the Trojans and their own budding star, Frank Gifford, were practicing. Gifford even claimed that Mantle’s blast bounced off his foot. The national media took notice of his blonde phenom, as did Mantle’s teammates. Or as Ms. Leavy related, Ralph Houk turned to Yogi Berra and said: “My God, what have we got here?” What they had was the star that would help the Yankees continue to dominate baseball in the coming decade and into the early 1960s, as well.

The USC batboy, son of that team’s legendary coach, Rod Dedeaux summed up the exhibition. “That was the day the whole world opened up,” recalled Justin Dedeaux. Decades later, fans still walk the land area where the baseball field once stood, trying to measure just how far those March 26, 1951 Mickey Mantle home runs actually traveled.