Roberts (History/Purdue Univ.) and Smith (American History/Georgia Tech Univ.) follow their previous collaboration (Blood Brothers: The Fatal Friendship Between Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X, 2016) with a hybrid book about baseball legend Mickey Mantle (1931-1995).
The hybrid consists of a spotty biography of Mantle’s journey from small-town Oklahoma to the New York Yankees, a deep dive into the nature of American-style celebrity, and fascinating cameos by the men and women who influenced the impressionable Mantle as he rose to fame. The authors suggest that the task of upholding Yankee hegemony while being compared to Babe Ruth and Joe DiMaggio placed unbearable pressures on the 20-something Mantle. Predisposed to late-night partying and excessive alcohol consumption, Mantle often struggled to report to the baseball diamond. The serious physical injuries wracking his seemingly godlike physique also compromised his ability to reach maximum performance on a regular basis. One year in particular, 1956, was his finest, as Mantle led Major League Baseball in batting average, home runs, and runs batted in—the almost never achieved triple crown. Though the authors recount the 1956 season in detail that might bore those uninterested in baseball history, their narrative of off-field controversies should have no trouble holding the interest of all readers. Most sports journalists and other baseball insiders covered up for the naïve Mantle, feeling that dishonesty by omission served their audiences’ desire for hero worship. After 1956, as Mantle’s stardom peaked and then declined, revelations about his less-than-sterling behaviors seeped out. The publication of Ball Four (1970), the classic memoir by pitcher Jim Bouton, ended any remaining illusion of Mantle as a golden boy. When Mantle died relatively young in 1995, few who knew the real Mantle expressed shock.
A brisk account of a career and a culture that presages much of our current-day obsession with celebrity.