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The Chambers Report: The Last Boy Of Summer

Roger Clemens was just acquitted of lying to Congress about using performance-enhancing drugs in the latest of so many tabloid sports stories that they no longer shock.

But it wasn't always that way, and the demarcation of public awareness about what really goes on in clubhouses is often marked as Ball Four, former pitcher Jim Bouton's rousing expose that blew the doors off the squeaky clean image of baseball and its heroes - in particular, Mickey Mantle, the subject of a biography last year by Jane Leavy called The Last Boy.

The two books together provide seminal reading for baseball fans and students of the American hero industry; links in a chain to today's sports universe.

For reasons not clear to me, I put off Ball Four (1980, updated 1990) until only last year. The initial loss was mine, but it was an error easily overcome in a 2011 blink. Despite the passage of decades, Ball Four seemed to me still entirely undated, just as fresh as it must have appeared to its millions of readers back at the end of baseball's innocent Middle Ages.

Among the central figures of Bouton's great book is, of course, Mickey Mantle, probably the most popular ballplayer of all time. Mantle's worshippers have been crossing my path through life almost since 1951, when he first came up to the Yankees as the likely heir apparent to Joe DiMaggio, the surly superstar who could brook no competition, certainly not in center field at Yankee Stadium, "The House That Ruth Built," to be sure, but by the '50s one that the isolated and moody DiMag claimed as pretty much all his own.

(The Babe retired in bitterness in 1935 and died from cancer in 1948; he lay in state for two days and nights in his hallowed Stadium, where 77,000 people filed past to pay their respects; another 75,000 watched his funeral cortege as it left St. Patrick's Cathedral a day or two later.)

Among the countless Mantle adorers who did not cross my way until last year is Jane Leavy, author of an earlier biography of Sandy Koufax and a comic novel Squeeze Play, called by Entertainment Weekly "the best novel ever written about baseball."

This claim is disputable, to be sure, but what is not in doubt is either Leavy's writing talent, her love for baseball, or her profound dedication to the Mick. Her Last Boy is a "warts-and-all" yet loving tribute to, perhaps, the least mature major leaguer ever, but one who nevertheless remains a genuinely tragic hero for many almost 20 years after his death in Dallas in 1995. To absorb her devotional pages is intimately to meet not only the legendary baseball genius from Commerce, Oklahoma, but also the gifted woman destined to be his greatest biographer ever. But first to Bouton.

* * *

Ball Four is probably the best known of all sports books and surely the most famous single volume about baseball.

Written almost 35 years ago, when it was first published in 1980 it created a furor and instantly made author Jim Bouton persona non grata to ballplayers and baseball executives everywhere.

Bouton's "crime" was to be the first to tell it like it was (and is) in the national pastime, particularly in the Big Leagues . . . from the playing field to the bullpen to "beaver shooting" from either a hole drilled in the dugout back wall or, later at night, with Mickey Mantle and the entire Yankee team atop a New York hotel roof with binoculars. This was salacious stuff three decades ago.

What is most interesting about Ball Four today, however, is that the shock factor has worn off, completely . . . and that is Bouton's gift to us.

With this one book about his experiences with the Seattle Pilots in 1968 (a team that lasted only one year), Bouton tore down all the shibboleths about youthful innocence and lovable All-American boys frolicking blithely in professional sports fields. Never again could we look at Mantle (or his fellow juveniles) as just a supremely talented, fun-loving kid from rural Oklahoma playing our favorite game.

Bouton revealed all - or almost all - of these players to be, as he put it, "fifteen-year-olds in twenty-five-year-old bodies," physically grown, well-muscled men who had been mostly spoiled and tended to all their lives . . . men who were largely uneducated do-nothings with little interest in much of anything beyond beaver, booze, and their sport (and even there the depth of interest was skin-deep); men who had never grown up - and never had to! They were still playing a game they played when they were six. And they were being paid to do it.

The world of professional sports today - controlled by obscene amounts of money, drugs, alcohol, sex, venal owners, and selfishness - is not (except for the Niagaras of cash flowing everywhere) really so different from the seeming Cro-Magnon baseball world Bouton, Mantle, and their ilk knew in the 60s. The major change is that everything in the soiled underbelly of that former world is now out in the open for all to see - every minute of every day in our sports- and media-crazed universe.

Yet somehow the game itself remains great, even so. Despite their immaturity, countless flaws, and rampant insecurities, we still admire the marvelous skills of these graceful athletes doing what they do best - hit, run, and throw.

* * *

The Last Boy is fantastically researched, smart and knowledgeable; a genuine labor of love.

Despite his multitudinous flaws, Mickey Mantle was probably the most lovable - and beloved - of all professional athletes. God-given gifts made him perhaps the best baseball player of all time, if only he hadn't squandered his talents so disastrously.

The greatest switch-hitter ever, the Mick was also, in his prime, both the strongest and the fastest of all players. He surely was the most popular player of his era. To this day - 17 years after his death by cancer and alcoholism - he remains an admired and controversial icon. One-of-a-kind.

But Leavy doesn't simply admire Mantle; she truly loves him, despite the egregious failings she so brilliantly displays - boozing, selfishness, non-stop profanity, constant womanizing (including pawing her), and so on. It's all here, beautifully put down.

Leavy demonstrates that Mantle really was "the last boy," a man-child who never grew up . . . and didn't have to. Worshipped for almost half a century, Mickey (note the child-like first name that fit so sonorously with his last, a combination unmatched in sports history) was so idolized that Everyone gave him things - alcohol, women, money, you name it. On top of this, his every move was followed by millions even well after his 1969 retirement.

Yet, despite their adoration, many of these same fans constantly wondered why one so fabulously endowed perversely persisted in destroying himself before their very eyes, both during his playing days and later.

Toward the end of his life, Mantle finally revealed a dawning self-awareness never hinted at before, as shown by a confession made at his last press conference in 1995: "God gave me a great body and an ability to play baseball. God gave me everything, and I just . . . pffttt!"

After a stay at the Betty Ford Clinic in the California desert near the end of his life, Mantle finally quit drinking, but it was too late. His totally wasted body was gone by age 64.

Leavy explores the dark side of his demise. Was his father Mutt Mantle the ultimate cause of Mick's downfall . . . or was sexual abuse? He had symptoms suggestive of a wide spectrum of psychological and physical ailments.

The Last Boy documents the end of an era when great athletes could no longer be protected by a press and public that looked the other way rather than destroy their iconic deities. Mickey, Billy, and Whitey got away with everything until their fellow Yankee Bouton finally pulled their protective curtain away.

-

Previously in Bob's Books:
* Steve Jobs vs. Jack Kennedy

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Comments welcome.



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Posted on June 21, 2012


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