Review: The Dark Side of a Baseball Dynasty
This article was published in the Fall 2010 Baseball Research Journal.
The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America's Childhood
by Jane Leavy
$27.99 (hardcover); $12.99 (e-book). 480 pages
Steinbrenner: The Last Lion of Baseball
by Bill Madden
$26.99 (hardcover); $12.99 (e-book). 480 pages
Roger Maris: Baseball's Reluctant Hero
by Tom Clavin and Danny Peary
$26.99 (hardcover); $12.99 (e-book). 422 pages
The Yankee Years
by Joe Torre and Tom Verducci
$16.95 (paperback); $9.89 (e-book). 528 pages
Author’s note: The New York Yankees suffered several major losses in 2010, the least of which was their ouster in the American League Championship series by the Texas Rangers. George Steinbrenner, the team’s tempestuous owner who brought them back into relevance after several years out of the limelight, passed away, as did Bob Sheppard, their longtime golden-throated public-address announcer. Shortly before he died, Steinbrenner joined a group of Yankee legends who had written or were the subject of recent books, including Joe Torre, Roger Maris, and, most recently, Mickey Mantle.
If she's not careful, Jane Leavy will earn a reputation as the Boswell of the battered ballplayer. In 2002 she published Sandy Koufax: A Lefty’s Legacy, the definitive biography (to this point) of the role model for Jewish boomers everywhere. In 2010, it’s The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America’s Childhood, the much anticipated story of another hero laid low by injury.
Whereas Koufax’s arthritic left arm dramatically shortened an amazing career at age 30, the question about Mantle is how much better he might have been had he not exacerbated his numerous injuries with his profligate ways. How many more home runs could he have powered over the outfield walls were it not for the booze and the broads? Surely he would have retired with the .300 batting average he decided was the true mark of a truly great player. Even the book jacket illustrates Mantle’s degeneration: The photo of a smiling rookie with unlimited potential is accompanied by that of a broken-down veteran, almost literally on his last legs.
“The end of America’s childhood” came not with Mantle’s death in 1995 but with his retirement almost thirty years earlier (which I suppose is a kind of death). The Yankees—indeed Boomer America itself— seemed to fall from innocence with the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Since then, the reverence that would have precluded books such as Jim Bouton’s Ball Four and Jose Canseco’s Juiced, which take the heroic figure off the pedestal and put him under the microscope, have become the norm, and the heretofore standard reverential tome has flown out the window. It was no longer enough to write about hard work and gumption; now every subject had to overcome some traumatic obstacle, whether it was substance or sexual abuse (or, as it turns out in Mantle’s case, both).
Leavy, an award-winning former sports and feature writer for the Washington Post, admits to being an unabashed Mantle fan since childhood—and the journalist’s objectivism be damned. In that, she shares his fans’ adoration and disappointment. But in demonstrating her impressive investigative skills, Leavy goes perhaps a bit overboard as she deconstructs a few of Mantle’s tape-measure home runs and provides testimonials for his considerable athletic skills. It is admirable in scope, as she discusses bat velocity, angles, and meteorological conditions with the scientific community, but does it really matter if the ball went 430 feet or 450 or 480? In the Cold War era, when for the American psyche to be the best at everything was so important, this display of power was comforting.
The author interviewed hundreds of people in the course of her research, all to turn out this most in-depth look at the Commerce Comet yet published. But the reader might wonder about the accuracy of her collective memory, as about those questionable tape-measure home runs, or even wonder about the possibility of downright fabrication for the sake of building up the impression of her personal connection to the Mick.
Leavy alternates between some of the biggest events in Mantle’s career (for better or worse) and her fateful interview in April 1983, when he was reduced to working as a glad-hander for an Atlantic City casino. Her rose-colored glasses were shattered. Who kidnapped her beloved Mick and replaced him with this boorish drunk with the foul mouth and roaming hands? Still, Leavy managed to retain her composure and professionalism to get the story done . . . which served as the impetus for this book.
There is little joy in The Last Boy. Mantle’s accomplishments were diminished in his own eyes then and in those of many baseball fans later on when they learned the extent of his boozing and womanizing. That his “live for today” attitude stemmed from his belief that he would die young or from the sexual abuse he suffered as a child (a subject that, despite all the play it got in the media, isn’t discussed until the end of the book) makes that outcome all the sadder. The description of his last days, when liver problems and cancer ravaged his once powerful body, defies the ability of even the most sangfroid reader not to get misty-eyed.
Just a few generations back, many professional clubs were family-run operations that were in business for the long haul. Now there is just one (at least in baseball), and the end of an era is in sight, according to Bill Madden, the award-winning sports columnist and author of Steinbrenner: The Last Lion of Baseball.
There were many adjectives used to describe George Michael Steinbrenner III, principal owner and chair of the New York Yankees, and most were not complimentary. Since he took over the team in the early 1970s, there has been no shortage of fodder for the local press, including Madden, who has followed the game for the New York Daily News. “Der Boss” (one of Steinbrenner’s many nicknames) was famous for his fiery temper; before Joe Torre, the Bronx Bombers went through twenty managerial changes between 1973 and 1995, including several repeat performances, most notably by the late Billy Martin. And that doesn’t even take into account front-office personnel. He would order his underlings to handle a task or acquire a certain player, often disregarding the objections of those far more knowledgeable in such matters, and then explode when things didn’t work out his way. He would fire, then rehire, at the drop of a pin, often excusing the hasty behavior with “I didn’t really mean it” or “I’ll let it go, this time.”
Yankees fans and haters were well aware of Steinbrenner’s mercurial nature. His apologists point to his success while his detractors note the distractions and bad feelings among the team’s personnel. Forget the infamous quote from Reggie Jackson about his being “the straw that stirs the drink,” that sobriquet should go to Steinbrenner. In fact, one has to wonder: Does such drama like this occur on other clubs (Frank and Jamie McCourt’s messy divorce notwithstanding), or did we hear more about Steinbrenner’s antics because his team played in the media capital of the world?
Did his megalomania come from some deep-rooted desire to both win the approval of his father—a strict, hardworking, successful businessman—and yet prove himself to be his own man? Hard to say, although Madden certainly pushes the reader in that direction, albeit without the psychological profiling. Citing one example after another, he chronicles the Yankees’ chief as a bully and a liar, who could be incalculably mean while at the same time setting up a foundation to make sure that children of deceased New York City police and firefighters were able to go to college. Madden includes the praise as well as the lash, but the former was far-between or generally underreported throughout the years; for all his penchant for being the center of attention, Steinbrenner didn’t court the press to promote his good deeds.
A recipient of the Baseball Hall of Fame’s annual Spink Award for outstanding career accomplishments as a writer, Madden strives to be even-handed. His role for the New York papers put him in a position to write a first-hand account, but he uses that relationship with a light hand, relying on his skills as a journalist rather than employing his personal observations. While dutifully covering Steinbrenner’s rightful banishment from the game in the 1970s because of his illegal campaign contributions to Richard Nixon’s presidential campaign, Madden goes to great lengths to show that his subject was unfairly treated by Commissioner Fay Vincent, who kicked him out of the game in 1990 for giving $40,000 to Howard Spira, a two-bit hustler, for his role in digging up dirt on Yankees outfielder Dave Winfield, with whom Steinbrenner was feuding over financial matters. Baseball, it seems, is not a law unto itself, and even Steinbrenner had rights of due process.
Sadly, the last few years were not kind to the Yankees’ leader. Ill health rendered him a shell of his former, larger-than-life persona. Madden reports this with a mix of professional objectivity and personal sadness. After all, the two had had a working relationship and had even been fairly close at one point.
Are there elements in the book that might offend the Steinbrenner family? Perhaps. But as Madden relates in the introduction, he undertook the project at their suggestion. And judging by all accounts, he seems to have done a fair and balanced job.
It's fitting that books on both of the M&M Boys were published in 2010. While not carrying the same level of notoriety as The Last Boy—given the pecking order of the players involved—Tom Clavin and Danny Peary’s Roger Maris: Baseball’s Reluctant Hero is a similarly insightful and welcome profile that looks into the soul of another troubled Yankee great.
Peary has noted in interviews that Maris—who like his buddy Mantle was a small-town boy thrust into the spotlight—was perhaps the least-prepared person to deal with the success and pressure that came when he challenged Babe Ruth’s single-season home-run record of 60 in 1961.
It was Maris’s misfortune, and obviously not of his own doing, to come along in an era when the schedule had expanded from 154 games to 162, thereby giving “haters” (including baseball commissioner and former Ruth confidant Ford Frick) an opportunity to denigrate the Yankee slugger’s accomplishments. Add to that a new generation of iconoclastic journalists who refused to kowtow to athletes as their predecessors did, and you have a confluence of events that turned the loving family man into a taciturn, short-tempered, and uncooperative subject, as he was besieged daily by reporters looking for a fresh story or an original quote.
Peary and Clavin maintain that his employers were derelict in not helping him deal with the media crush. (These days, all the questions would be addressed in pregame and postgame press conferences.) Add to that the team’s mishandling of a hand injury Maris suffered and you have a sad situation that was only barely alleviated by his trade in 1967 to the St. Louis Cardinals, a team he helped lead to two National League pennants and a World Series even while on the downside of his career.
In The Yankee Years, former manager Joe Torre teams up with Sports Illustrated’s senior baseball writer Tom Verducci for a unique and somewhat baffling presentation.
Although Torre gets star billing, the reader will get the impression that Verducci is telling the story, since the narrative is written in the third person.
Torre was an All-Star and a Most Valuable Player during his 18-year career. He also managed the New York Mets, Atlanta Braves, and St. Louis Cardinals before taking over the Yankee reins. His considerable lack of success in those previous go-arounds made him a curious candidate in the eyes of the press and the fans.
For the most part, this is a standard baseball tale of hard work, success, and frustration. The last element is especially salient when you consider that Torre’s employer, George Steinbrenner, was one of the most hands-on (or meddlesome, depending on your point of view) owners in the history of the game, going through managers like a cold-sufferer going through boxes of tissues.
But Torre gave the club a stability it hadn’t known since Casey Stengel led the Yankees to a constant stream of pennants and world championships from 1949 through 1960. From the very beginning, he took control over a mix of veterans and rookies and molded them into a team, as trite as that might sound: The Yankees ran off a string of three consecutive World Series titles and four in five years.
Ultimately, The Yankee Years is a sad tale on the natural order of things in the sports world. Athletes grow older, their skills diminish, and they are replaced by others who may be better or worse, with different drives and agendas. That was part of Torre’s downfall. In his first few seasons he was surrounded by the likes of Paul O’Neill, Bernie Williams, Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, and others who meshed so well together, working for that common goal. But the ones who followed seemed less interested in Yankee tradition and more in individual performances. Some—David Wells, Kyle Farnsworth, Carl Pavano, and Kevin Brown, to name a few—were a constant source of disappointment. The Yankees kept winning, but for Torre the spark and joy were missing.
Working for Steinbrenner and his front-office minions presented its own set of difficulties, constant scrutiny and job insecurity being two of them. Despite thirteen consecutive postseason appearances, someone was always looking over Torre’s shoulder, quick to criticize if some bit of strategy backfired or if things weren’t running smoothly. After an initial euphoria, the tone of the book becomes more forlorn with every chapter. Baseball fans know the inevitable outcome— Torre was not retained following the 2007 season and was named manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers (which he led to the postseason in his first season)— but Verducci hammers the point home anyway: “It was,” he writes, “the 1,294th win with the Yankees for Torre, including postseason play, over 12 seasons. It would be the last.” And: “He showered, dressed and left his office and the clubhouse believing this would be the final time he would do so as manager of the New York Yankees. He did not look back.” It is fitting that the book jacket features a picture of Torre walking away from the camera.
There was a great gnashing of teeth in the run-up to the publication of The Yankee Years, with promises of dirt to be dished and secrets to be revealed, but Torre’s autobiography/memoir can be summed up with a title from Shakespeare: Much Ado About Nothing. Like the trailer of a two-star movie, the media— many members of which admitted to not having read the book in its entirety when they made their comments—cherry-picked parts for maximum bang. In particular, they focused on Torre’s remarks about Alex Rodriguez, whom he characterized as high-maintenance, more concerned with how he looked and performed than with his contributions to the team’s success. They failed to mention that Torre also praised Rodriguez: “Nobody has ever worked harder in my memory than this guy,” he wrote.
Torre also expressed disappointment in his deteriorating relationship with Brian Cashman, the Yankees’ general manager, whom he accused of not supporting him when the chips were down.
Taken as a whole, The Yankee Years is a standard bit of baseball memoir, no worse and perhaps better than others that have been published in recent years. Too bad it couldn’t have had a happier ending.