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Monday, May 11, 2009

7: The Mickey Mantle Novel

Mickey Mantle was one of my childhood heroes. Because Major League baseball did not arrive in Texas until 1962, kids in my part of the world looked elsewhere for their baseball heroes and The Mick was exactly the made-to-order living legend we craved. It was a different world, a time when sportswriters largely ignored the private lives of professional athletes until their personal habits began to affect them on the field. It was only after Mantle retired, in fact, that most of us learned how addictions to alcohol and sex made a complete shambles of Mantle’s personal life – the very things that Peter Golenbock emphasizes in his “Mickey Mantle novel.”

Golenbock is a fine baseball writer and I have read many of his nonfiction accounts over the years, books about Davey Johnson, Graig Nettles, Ron Guidry and Billy Martin, among them. This time he tries to have it both ways, on the one hand emphasizing that the book is an “inventive memoir,” while on the other claiming that Mantle’s closest friends “swear that the incidents in this book are true.” And I suppose that is not impossible if Golenbock means that he embellished a bunch of true stories with details know one could know but Mantle and, in some cases, Billy Martin.

I also agree with Golenbock that it would be difficult to write a novel about Mickey Mantle that did not include numerous segments on his boozing and womanizing since, along with baseball, those were probably the most important things in the world to Mantle. What surprised me, though, considering my familiarity with Golenbock’s other baseball books is how boring he was able to make Mantle’s sex life sound. Rather than simply hinting at the intimate details of Mantle’s sex habits, Golenbock has imagined them in a way that fits every tenth-grade boy’s dreams. I suppose that is the “inventive” part of his “inventive memoir.”

My problem with that approach is that sex scenes (and almost nothing else) consume at least the first half of the book and had me wondering whether Golenbock really had anything to say about Mickey Mantle that mattered. It turns out that he did, and that the patient reader is rewarded for not having earlier abandoned the book out of boredom. Most Mantle fans know what Mantle and the Yankees accomplished in the fifties and sixties but not so much about Mantle’s life after baseball. This is the real heart (and justification) for a book like “The Mickey Mantle Novel,” an account of Mantle’s last years, his fears, and his ultimate despair that will deeply touch all Mantle fans.

Keep in mind, too, that this book was part of publisher Judith Regan’s undoing at Regan Books. It was thought to be so controversial, in fact, that HarperCollins, parent company of Regan Books, dropped the book and it was ultimately published by The Lyons Press, with a first printing of 250,000 copies – many of which, like the copy I bought, are today on bookstore bargain tables all across the country.

Rated at: 2.5

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