Every winter I try to read at least one baseball book, just to satisfy my baseball cravings. I recently finished The Last Boy, a biography of the great Mickey Mantle, and I highly recommend it. Any baseball fan would enjoy it. More than that, though, I think it should be required reading for any baseball player.
I was initially hesitant to read the book, which was given to me. I already knew what it was going to be, because I had read a few reviews. An exposé highlighting the lowlights of The Mick’s life, right? Well, yes that was in there, but that wasn’t the purpose nor was it the main arc of the book. It encompassed the great and the terrible, but it simultaneously humanized a legend and put me in awe of one of the most superhuman athletes ever.
As someone who follows the Nationals closely, it is hard to not think of Bryce Harper when The Mick is described. The speed that Mantle had his first season (which he never regained after famously blowing out his knee) is not quite Bryce, but the tales of his power send chills up your spine. When they talk about the mammoth home runs he hits starting at age 19, you cannot help but think of the young Nats outfielder.
The way his home runs are discussed in the book, the way his contemporaries describe it… it’s as if they’ve never seen baseballs travel that far and that fast. Putting it in scouting terms, The Mick had an 80 power, so does Harper and a handful of other players in MLB right now. But Harper’s the only one right now who was in the bigs at age 19 displaying it, just like Mantle. The way they describe his biggest home runs make you hope you can think of something poetic to say to your grandkids when you get to tell them stories of the inevitable time when Harper hit it over the RF scoreboard (or whatever feat of monstrous power he’ll do that will become legendary).
It’s also, as with anything with Mantle, a tale of caution that all modern athletes should see. Some of what happened to Mantle could not be controlled. His knee injury was horrible luck, and modern medicine wasn’t that modern, so his incredible career was hampered by that. But his famous drinking certainly played a big part in making him less of a player than he could have been. And at some point during the reading of this books it dawns on you that everyone was way too caught up in making Mickey happy than making him right. It would have been tough to be the NYC cop that was responsible for giving him a DUI, but maybe if someone actually had done something to scare him, he would have realized how bad he was doing.
Everything was a big secret, or at the very least an open secret, so he didn’t have to worry about his image. His teammates were hard drinkers, too, and had problems of their own, but they encouraged his wildness at every turn. Even his wife, who suffered greatly because of his lifestyle, could have gotten over being “Mrs. Mickey Mantle” and stood up and done something. Part of that was just the way things were at the time, but part of it was intimidation.
I put the book down thinking that if not for the knee issues and the drinking and the need for real psychiatric counseling, he truly could have been the best player of all time. Seriously, the best ever. If his peak was not for 4 seasons but for 10, well, he would’ve been in that discussion.
That’s because even at his worst he was great. In 1968, his final season, he only hit .237 – but his OBP was .385 (3rd in the league), he managed “only” 18 home runs, his ISO was still .161 and his OPS+ was 143. Even with everything bad, it’s hard to argue with his greatness. The book dives into it a bit, but sabrmetrics definitely help us realize how great he truly was. When I was a kid I’d look at his numbers and go, “oh too bad he hit .298, he was so close to being a .300 hitter.” We know better than that now. According to Baseball Reference, he lead the AL in offensive WAR ten times. Yes, he hurt himself from being the best ever, but he was still one of the absolute best.
ESPN ranked him as the 9th best player of all time, and when I first saw that, I thought it was a bit high. After reading about just how good he was, and saw what his contemporaries thought, I wonder if we have underestimated him a bit. The stories of the drinking and the narrative of “what he could have been” are true, but they didn’t stop him from being a transcendent player. He didn’t have the career that Mays had, everyone knows that. But even so, he had one of the best careers ever. And I am convinced that at his best (’55-’56, ’61-’62) he was better than anyone playing at the time.
Maybe we don’t need to put Mickey as the best CF of all time, because he probably wasn’t. But maybe (just like maybe someone like Koufax) he’s the guy you’d fill in your imaginary lineup when you say “if I have to pick a guy for one game, and I can get him at his best, he’s the guy I’d want.”
There are a few other cool tidbits of the era that sneak into the book. You leave feeling like Joe DiMaggio was a terrible snob and Howard Cosell was a conceited buffoon. Despite the horrible toll it took on Mantle, the social life of a Yankees baseball star is enviable and hearing about the night’s at Toots Shor’s harken back to an era that seems almost foreign. The introduction of the tape measure home run is a great story, although I am not sure if it lead us down the path to the HR worshiping that we have today.
A Bonus for Nats Fans
The story of Mantle’s home run that he hit out of Griffith Stadium, and the subsequent search for the landing spot, is a must read for any fan of DC baseball history. It details the neighborhood, a little something about life in DC at the time, and as a reminder of how Washington baseball was for most of its history.
Besides that, I don’t want to oversell the comparisons between Harper and Mantle. Obviously their personalities seem very different, and it’s not just with the drinking. Harper is a student of the game, Mantle was aw shucks just happy to be here. Both moved positions, but Harper is a good fielder and has decent speed whereas Mantle started as a bad shortstop who moved to CF because he could absolutely fly. But the power, the description of what the ball did when they made contact, really does seem spot on. And with that caveat I’ll finish with this: