12/26/10

Annual Baseball Book Review Cont: The Top Five: #1 and #1???

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By David Rubin

First, Merry Christmas to our readers- I hope everyone received some awesome presents this year, and hopefully some of them were Met-related, too! I'm also hoping that some of you opened your gifts to find some great baseball books under your tree or in your stockings; if you haven't, but you DID receive a gift card from someplace like Amazon, Barnes & Noble or Borders, then I hope you'll consider purchasing one of the great baseball books we've reviewed these past few weeks.


Continuing our countdown, today we finish our reviews with our 2 #1 picks- wait- 2??? What happened to #2? Well, if you'll recall, the #3 book was Howard Bryant's "The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron" - but what happened to #2? Well, quite frankly, there were two books that, for entirely different reasons, were equally incredible, and ranking either of them as #2 just wouldn't do them justice. Therefore, without further ado, we introduce our 2 top baseball books of 2010.



#1-B - "The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America's Childhood" - Jane Leavy


In 1978, my dad decided to take my brother and I to a baseball card convention at Hofstra University in Uniondale, Long Island. My brother was 10 and I was 14, and we were very excited to go. We were all huge baseball fans, and there was going to be a special guest signing autographs, one Mickey Mantle! Although my dad has always hated the Yankees, he did meet Babe Ruth when he was a youngster (although the Babe was a coach with the Braves at the time), and that meant a lot to him; therefore, if there was ever a chance for his baseball-crazy sons to meet a legend of the game, he would try his best to arrange something for us.


Before leaving for the show, I dug through my book-shelf and grabbed 2 well-worn Mantle books, "The Quality of Courage" and "The Baseball Life of Mickey Mantle," both purchased from a used book sale at the school my dad taught at. With books in hand, we arrived at Hofstra only to wait on a very long line, at the end of which sat Mantle, pen in hand, looking down, signing either the ticket stub from the show or one of the items for sale from the show proprietors - that was it!

As we got closer to Mantle, I noticed that he didn't really look like a "superstar" - he looked just like any other dad on my block, except he was a bit bigger, and a bit more grizzled-looking, but he was still very handsome, and had an air of dignity around him, perhaps part swagger and part reaction to the idol worship he had been subjected to for so many years. The long lines seemed to make him weary- perhaps it was the heat of the gymnasium, or perhaps it was having to hear the same platitudes over and over again. Either way, "The Mick" had a long day of idol worship ahead of him.


When our turn to get autographs came, I held out my ticket stub, as did my brother, and Mickey signed both of them with a smile.



Both my brother and I became shy in the shadow of a legend, and said nothing, happy to watch Mickey sign and then walk away. To my surprise, Mickey noticed the books I had forgotten, which were still under my arm, and asked me if he could see them. I gave them to him, and he smiled the smile of legend, and, to use the cliche (because to me, that day, it was the truth), I could see "clouds part and angels hum," as a bright light seemed to shine down on Mickey as he said to me "Son, these books have seen some better days. Have you read them?" I told him that I had, many times, to which my dad smiled and my brother came out from behind me. "Son, let me shake your hand," he said, and I looked to my dad for approval. He nodded, and the Mick's hand enveloped mine, and our faces were inches apart. He put his arm around my small shoulders, and told me to "keep reading, keep studying, and get some better-written books!" He laughed, I laughed, my dad and brother laughed, and in that moment, I got it! I saw the charisma first hand of someone who had spent the past nearly 30 years under a spotlight- but this charisma didn't come from fielding questions about his knee or his personal life- it came from his heart, which, we would later find out, was truly that of a champion!

Mickey took the book and signed the inside cover, "To David, Best Wishes To A Big Fan, Mickey Mantle", (which you can see a photo of) in spite of the fact that I had already received his autograph on the event ticket, and in spite of the fact that he wasn't personalizing anything that day, and in spite of the fact that the show rep started getting angry that Mickey was holding up the line. Mickey didn't care- he was reaching out to a kid, and in doing so, he created a magical memory that would last a lifetime.


It was therefore with great interest (and anticipation) that I read Jane Leavy's book about "The Mick," "The Last Boy" - Leavy herself had a far more substantial encounter with Mantle, and had also authored one of my all-time favorite books, "Sandy Koufax: A Lefty's Legacy" that shed light on the life of the reclusive pitching great. While there have been numerous books written about Mantle over the years, the combination of the author's love of her subject, as well as her personal encounters with her idol and the amazing amount of in-depth research she completed which combine to make this not only the most interesting Mantle book of all, but the most poignant as well.

For Leavy, it was Mantle who bridged the gap from the quiet, milquetoast 50's to the wild and tumultuous 60's; it was Mantle who drove her to attend games and worship at the center-fielder's alter; and it was Mantle who would win the ages-old argument of who was the best New York center-fielder, Willie, Mickey or The Duke. It was Mantle the hero, then, upon meeting and interacting with her idol, it became Mantle, the man, who, in Leavy's words, was "beautiful, flawed, damaged and gifted." The same man who noted tight-wad, Branch Rickey, once said he would "agree to pay any price for" should the Yankees agree to sell him. The same man who made fans swoon, knees go weak and hearts beat faster, unless of course you happened to root for one of New York's other teams - and even then, fan appreciation of Mantle's immense talents seemed to know no boundaries.

Leavy paints Mantle in all his incarnations, and does so in a fresh manner- by breaking up his life into a series of days, and painting around them, the legend that was Mantle's facade is shed and the little boy inside, always seeking his late father Mutt's approval, is exposed in a way that is both poignant and revelatory. Mantle was his own worst enemy - he even says of himself "the only thing I was ever good at was destroying myself." As the layers are shed, and Mantle's alcoholism, fatalism, philandering and self-destructive behavior are laid bare, we are left with someone who, at heart, was indeed, as Leavy said, "the last boy."


It's extremely hard to write about someone you idolize, and it's to Leavy's ever-lasting credit that not only did she not shy away from sharing Mantle's frailties, but she also allowed us to see Mantle from her childhood eyes, as the hero he was to so many millions of people, as well as from her adult eyes, as the lush who tried to hit on her during a golf outing. However, it's the heroic aspect, the kind aspect, that reverberated most loudly through the din of Mantle's foibles, and in spite of said flaws, the overwhelming impression of "The Last Boy" is one of a heroic man who played through pain that would have sidelined anyone else, who, in the end, faced with his own mortality, finally became the man many wished he was all along.

In the end, I'm left with sadness...first, because the book had to end, just as I was getting to truly know Mickey Mantle, the man...and second, because even after a few dozen books have been written about Mantle, there will never be one as touching, as fair, and as poignant as "The Last Boy" is. Kudos, Ms. Leavy...and I guess I'll just have to re-read this book every so often, to re-visit his life and to renew acquaintances with one of the greatest heroes the modern world has known.






#1-A - "Fifty-Nine in '84: Old Hoss Radbourn, Barehanded Baseball, and the Greatest Season a Pitcher Ever Had" - Ed Achorn


Statistics surround us - imagine turning on the computer and NOT seeing your teams' winning percentage; the unemployment rate; the stock market daily gain or loss; or interest rates for mortgages no one can afford. In sports, statistics have become the greatest measuring tool we have, enabling us to compare players' from one generation to another. With all of this "statistical fanfare" surrounding us, particularly in baseball, it's hard to imagine that one of the greatest statistical seasons any pitcher ever had- heck, that any player PERIOD has ever had- was barely a blip on any fans' radar-screens. Thankfully, Ed Achorn, an editor with the "Providence Journal" and life-long baseball fan, has rectified this major oversight with one of the best-written, best-researched and most compelling books you'll ever have the pleasure to read- "Fifty-Nine in '84" - our 2010 BASEBALL BOOK OF THE YEAR!!! Author Achorn has taken what is, arguably, both the most incredible season any pitcher in baseball has ever had as well as the least heralded feat in a game where statistics are legend, and shed light and life to a most remarkable story- especially since it's 100% true!!


Charles "Big Hoss" Radbourn (or Radbourne, as the Baseball Hall-of-Fame spells it- and no one can even agree as to how his NAME is spelled) won 59 games in 1884, hence the name of the book, as well as why said accomplishment isn't top-of-mind, as pre-1900 baseball stats tend to get the short end of the stick (all pun intended!). With this remarkable biography, Achorn brings light to one of the most fascinating characters the game of baseball has ever known, the raconteur Radbourn, tough as nails and a member of both the Hall-of-Fame & the "300 Win Club" ; the love of his life, Carrie Stanhope, a former brothel madam; the most remarkable season any pitcher has ever known (imagine- winning 59 games in one season- that would be a 6-year career for many starters today); and, finally, an amazingly vivid portrait of not just baseball but LIFE as it was before the turn of the last century, when the Civil War was still fresh on the minds of men, and where baseball was a brutally-played, bare-handed game without any of the luxuries we know of today.


Every ballplayer who complains about the conditions they face today should be forced to read this book and learn how tough things REALLY used to be; no mitts, only 2 pitchers on your team at once, partial umpires, rough travel, not to mention overall corruption, harassment and even attempted murders were standard practice.


This is one book you won't be able to put down, and the only negative I can think of is that it had to end...but have no fear- Hollywood is on the case and the book has already been optioned and a screenplay is on the way..it can't outdo it's source material but it's gratifying to know that this remarkable story will continue. Kudos, Mr. Achorn, and this is a MUST-READ for everyone who loves baseball, a great romance, history or just damn good reading!!!


(Incidentally- this is the second time I've reviewed this book this season- the first was for Ed Ryan's Mets Fever, which you can read by clicking here.

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