Falkner's 'Mickey Mantel, his own executioner

January 07, 1996|By John Steadman | John Steadman,Sun Staff

"The Last Hero: The Life of Mickey Mantle," by David Falkner. Illustrated. Simon & Schuster. 255 pages. $24

There's no attempt to alter the reputation or rework the imagof Mickey Mantle, who, like the line in one of those country and western ballads he so much enjoyed and sometimes personified, "lived fast, loved hard, died young and left a beautiful memory." jTC The latest book about him, in the lexicon of a game he once dominated with such natural effusion, is an absolute Grand Slam winner.

The material is extensively researched and written in an unencumbered style, allowing the reader to understand what made Mickey an earthy and uncomplicated boy and man. Additionally, the story is told with a sensitivity that makes his often hell-raising lifestyle understandable, even if it shakesout to be something less than exemplary.

From the roots of a humble Oklahoma beginning to crashing New York and becoming a headline celebrity, Mickey established himself as one of baseball's storied performers. He hit pitches into infinity from both sides of the plate, ran with the speed of a streaking projectile, and possessed a body so strong it didn't self-destruct until he asked it to do too much physically - the way a throughbred breaks down when it gives more than it's capable of doing.

Mantle's drinking problems preceded his death last August at age 63. Decades of abuse created conditions that led to a liver transplant and, subsequently, detection of cancer.

As a high school football player, he suffered a leg injury that developed into osteomyelitis that not once but four times found the Army rejecting him for service. While a young teenager, he was seen by specialists who thought amputation was necessary, but his mother, Lovell, wouldn't agree. A boyhood chum, Nick Ferguson, wonders if drugs he received for the disease, possibly some form of steroids, gave him added strength and accelerated early muscular development. We'll never know.

The making of Mantle into a baseball wonder was the result of his father's and grandfather's tutoring. He was a natural right-handed batter but was turned into a switch-hitter, the best there ever was in generating power from both sides of the plate.

Two seasons after signing for a bonus of $1,100, he was in the national spotlight, following such legendary New York Yankees as Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Joe DiMaggio. Not exactly a hayseed but far from sophisticated, Mickey drank as a cover-up for lack of self-confidence and to blur the experience of having to meet people. It became a habit.

Author Falkner writes, "He was not DiMaggio, with fire that was really ice, with a magisterial aloofness. Mantle's failures - like his successes - were out in the open, plainly visible. He was as present in his misery, his sensitivity and his childishness as he ever was in his success. Mantle was, from day one with the Yankees, like a condemned man who was also his own executioner."

The description of Mantle and his times is an exceptional piece of work.

John Steadman has been a sports columnist for The Sun for nine years. Before that he was sports editor at the News-American for 28 years. He knew Mickey Mantle on a professional and personal basis.

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