Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Day 22: The Last Boy

It's Day 22 in our 24 Days of Books, and our minds are mostly on football (especially a certain upcoming bowl game) and a little bit on basketball (for instance, the University of Connecticut women's basketball team, which just set a record for longest win streak -- they haven't lost since April 6, 2008, or the Trail Blazers, who keep finding ways to win despite injuries to half the team. I have three friends who in the past week have had, respectively knee surgery, ankle surgery, and hip surgery; perhaps they could be named honorary Blazers!). But today we're going to talk baseball -- and not my poor hapless Seattle Mariners, who can't seem to climb out of their seasons-long slump (talk about your bad case of S.A.D.) -- specifically, Mickey Mantle, the childhood hero of thousands of young girls and boys (and, let's just admit it, lots of grown-up ones as well), as we present The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America's Childhood, by Jane Leavy.

Mickey Mantle, who died of cancer in 1995 at age 63, was a baseball legend. He played in twelve World Series in his first fourteen seasons and still holds World Series records for home runs, RBIs, runs, walks, extra-base hits, and total bases. In her new biography of "The Mick," Jane Leavy tackles the legend and the man. "So how do you write about a man you want to love the way you did as a child but whose actions were often unlovable? How do you reclaim a human being from caricature without allowing him to be fully human?"  Drawing on more than five hundred interviews with friends and family, teammates and opponents, and weaving in a weekend she spent interviewing Mantle for the Washington Post in 1983 (during which he wasn't on his best behavior), Leavy has produced the definitive biography of the man and the athlete, written from the mixed perspective of fan, journalist, and personal acquaintance.

Mantle led the New York Yankees to seven world championships and was voted the American League's Most Valuable Player three times. "'His aura had an aura,' said his teammate Eli Grba." Beset with injuries and an unbelievable level of expectations, his not-unfamiliar mode of "coping" was with the aid the alcohol and sexual profligacy.

Leavy, who spent much of her childhood in the shadow of Yankee Stadium, is an award-winning former sportswriter and feature writer for the Washington Post and the author of the New York Times bestseller Sandy Koufax

Reviewers have this to say about her book: "Leavy comes as close as perhaps anyone ever has to answering 'What makes Mantle Mantle?'” "A masterpiece of sports biography." "She's hit a long home run." (you knew that cliche was coming, right?) Here's a review that Steve Duin wrote in the Oregonian about the book.

It's definitely the season of the Big Boy Biography. If sports isn't your bag, we've got biographies of George Washington, T.E. Lawrence (as in of Arabia), Teddy Roosevelt, Bob Dylan, Ken Kesey, Grant Wood, and Jim Thorpe (ok, we're back to sports again), among others, and the biography of Raymond Carver by Carol Sklenica just came out in paperback. Any would make a wonderful gift.

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