erik lundegaard

Talkin’ Leeea-vy, Bryant and Jim Hirsch

In the 1950s, the question among baseball fans was “Willie, Mickey or the Duke?”

It turned out to be the wrong question. It was circumscribed by time and place—1950s, New York, center field—and anyway Duke Snider, who led the 1950s in homers, faded in the LA sun, and Mantle crumpled under bad knees, leaving Willie Mays: The Life, The Legend by James Hirschonly Willie and his .302 batting average and 660 career homeruns in the discussion—even if modern stats such as OBP and OPS have resurrected Mantle back into it.

No, the true argument was Willie, Mickey or the Hammer, as in Henry Aaron, another kid who arrived in the bigs in the early 1950s and rewrote the record books. They were the best of their era.

And in the last two years we’ve had well-received biographies on all three: “Willie Mays: The Life, the Legend” by James Hirsch; “The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America’s Childhood” by Jane Leavy; and “The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron” by Howard Bryant. I’ve now read all three.

Leaving aside the publishing industry’s awful penchant for titular absolutes (Aaron wasn’t the last hero and Mantle certainly wasn’t the last boy), and ignoring, for the moment, which of the three was the better player (OK, I still choose Mays), a new question emerges: Leavy, Bryant or Hirsch?

"The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron" by Howard BryantI can’t go Bryant, which is too bad. Hank Aaron’s life and career, more than Mays’ (who was more insulated), spanned the great racial divide of our country. He began playing in the Deep South in an era of segregation and lynchings, and came to true national prominence in a post-civil-rights era of Wheaties commercials and Jesse Jackson press conferences. He's also the underdog: the great player left out of the discussion until everyone suddenly realized he was the guy who was going to break the game's greatest record. It should be a fascinating story. Part of it is. But Bryant spends too much time pushing us toward a specific viewpoint, his “last hero” viewpoint. He spends so much time trying to make us like Henry Aaron—which shouldn't be a problem—that I actually began to dislike Henry Aaron.

James Hirsch isn’t pushing us toward a particular viewpoint with his subject. But “Willie Mays: The Life, The Legend” is still a monumental book in the sense that we view Mays from a distance. It’s an authorized biography but apparently that didn’t mean greater access. It meant, Yeah, go ahead, whatever. It’s a fine baseball book, and the chapter “Miraloma Drive,” about the difficulty Mays had buying a home in San Francisco in the late 1950s, should be made into a movie—either HBO or theatrical. But I still don’t get a true sense of the man.

"The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America's Childhood" by Jane LeavyLeavy is the best writer of the bunch, and she gets closest to her subject—colonoscopy close. Mantle was dead by the time she began writing but she did interview him in 1983 and gives us a scene of Mantle making a late-night, drunken pass, hand up her skirt, then passing out on top of her. It’s pretty sad. She gives us Mantle’s positives and negatives but lets us make up our own minds. She’s basically saying: This is the way some people saw him; this is the way other people saw him. Here’s some good he did. This is destruction he left in his wake. This is how he acknowledged that destruction.

Some folks want to prop up our heroes; they want us to return to the era of ghost-written hagiographies. They miss the point. I keep returning to something actor Philip Seymour Hoffman told critic David Edelstein in 2005. He was talking as an actor toward his character but he could have been a biographer, or any writer really, talking about his subject:

The way toward empathy is actually to be as hard as possible on this character. The harder you are, the more empathy you'll gain, ultimately, by the end. ... I think deep down inside, people understand how flawed they are. I think the more benign you make somebody, the less truthful it is.

The Aaron bio is benign and thus other. The Mays bio is distant and thus other. The Mantle bio gives us the flaws and joys and horrible, horrible moments but what feels like the whole man. I always thought Mantle was a dull boy: stolid and strong and sun-bleached and stupid. I came away from “The Last Boy” with admiration and empathy.

Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, and Henry Aaron, at Fulton County Stadium in Atlanta, 1969

Is this the only photo of the three of them together? It's the only one I could find--and Mantle was retired by the time it was taken. Surely someone out there, some newspaper, some magazine, some photographer, has a better shot. I know it.

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Posted at 07:58 AM on Sun. Feb 05, 2012 in category Baseball  


Jerry Grillo wrote:

Mays always was my favorite player. But I've actually met Mantle and Aaron several times. Mantle could come across like fraternity lout, but he was Mantle and could also be charming and funny, but was like a walking wound, very aware of his fame and protective in a way. Aaron, for me, was very gracious, more gregarious than I expected, very at ease, almost unimpressed, yet respectful, of who he was and what he has accomplished. Looking forward to reading all three of these. Great review (and Hoffman is right on).

Comment posted on Sun. Feb 05, 2012 at 08:24 AM

Bob Lundegaard wrote:

Very interesting. God, the cover picture of the Mantle bio is priceless. Central casting couldn't have come up with a better specimen for the All-American cornfed boy.

Did I ever tell you the first time I saw him play? A Memorial Day twin bill at Fenway in his rookie year. As I recall, he struck out three times in each game and was yanked for a pinch hitter both times. Needless to say, I didn't foresee greatness. Just a ferocious swing.

My fondest memory of Mays: He's on second in a late-inning tie game at Shibe Park during an intentional walk. When the Phillies catcher drops one of the throws, he darts for third. A minute later he scores the eventual winning run. I remember thinking, that guy really had his head in the game.

Comment posted on Sun. Feb 05, 2012 at 09:58 AM
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