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 only 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?
I 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.
Leavy 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.
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.