Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris may have been “the M&M boys” for a summer or two in the early 1960s, but Mantle, aka the “Commerce Comet,” and the “Say Hey Kid” (Willie Mays) were partners in the boomer baseball iconography for more than a generation. Allen Barra does a marvelous job blending facts and sentiment in this dual biography that chronicles the ballplayers’ similar experiences on the playing field and totally dissimilar lives away from the diamond.
Both Hall of Famers were born in impoverished circumstances during the Depression, and both had maternal issues (Mantle’s mother was aloof, May’s totally out of the picture). They were outstanding athletes since childhood, spurred by strong fathers. Neither was a serious student. Mays, however, had the extra burden of growing up as an African-American in Jim Crow Alabama.
"Barra sets his project apart from the standard biography by supplementing facts with personal anecdotes about his encounters with both ballplayers over the years, and not always with the most satisfying of results."
There have been a lot of myths about Mantle and Mays that Barra --- whose previous titles include YOGI BERRA: Eternal Yankee and CLEARING THE BASES: The Greatest Baseball Debates of the Last Half Century --- takes great pains to refute. Contrary to the public opinion of the time, neither player had an especially easy go of it. Mantle played in constant pain, exacerbated by alcoholism and an excessive lifestyle; Mays, a darling of Giants followers while the team called New York home, did not find the same adulation when the ball club relocated to San Francisco. How much better might his numbers have been in more hitter-friendly stadiums?
Such speculation is a favorite topic of fans and writers: What if? What if Mays didn’t lose almost two prime years to the military during the Korean War? What if Mantle --- excused from military service due to osteomyelitis and yet scorned as a draft dodger in some circles --- had been healthier? Barra takes that all into account in two appendices that employ the latest statistical metrics in projecting what might have been.
An athlete’s decline normally comes about much earlier than that of the average person, and we get to witness it in MICKEY AND WILLIE. Mantle recognized this early on. (Then again, as he always said, he never expected to live as long as he did, earlier mortality being a trait for the men of his family.) Mays, on the other hand, probably played longer than he should have, wanting to remain in the spotlight as well as pulling down a large paycheck. They were ill-equipped to deal with a post-playing career and bore financial scars through various failed business endeavors.
Of particular interest to this reviewer was the manner in which Barra parses the numerous biographies and autobiographies of Mantle and Mays, as versions of events change with each new edition and contradict previous tellings. Despite their fame, their lives away from the clubhouse and teammates come across as quite sad, with home lives disrupted, relationships with family and children woefully unfulfilling, and countless regrets expressed.
There is no pretense of journalistic objectivity here; the author is firmly in the camps of Mantle and Mays, with an emphasis on the latter. Perhaps that’s why, in writing of Mays’ final days with the Mets, he fails to mention details of his stumbling in the outfield during the 1973 World Series against the Oakland Athletics, or the image of him on his knees at home plate, seemingly begging the home plate umpire to change an out call against teammate Bud Harrelson. Who wants to remember a hero that way?
Like Jane Leavy, who published THE LAST BOY: Mickey Mantle and the End of America’s Childhood (2010), Barra sets his project apart from the standard biography by supplementing facts with personal anecdotes about his encounters with both ballplayers over the years, and not always with the most satisfying of results. Still, and for whatever reasons, fans forgive almost anything and are eternally hungry for more stories about Mantle and Mays as representative of youth and a more carefree era.
Reviewed by Ron Kaplan on June 28, 2013