Once past the age of childhood hero worship, a sports fan will look for three things in a book by or about a great champion. He will demand a “voice” which authentically conveys the style and spirit of the athlete; incisive revelation about his triumphs, failures, teammates and rivals; and some sense of what it was like to play in legendary contests already etched in memory. Mickey Mantle’s story of his life and career satisfies each of these requirements without adding anything particularly distinctive to the literature of athletic achievement.
The book chronicles Mantle’s career from his youth in hardscrabble Oklahoma mining and farming country, through his meteoric rise to baseball greatness, and on past the twilight of his Yankee years to his present status as a golfer and celebrity/businessman. The heart of the book covers his years with the great Yankee teams that won twelve American League pennants and seven World Series victories, and Mantle effectively captures the energy, determination and professionalism of these teams. His brief, telling sketches capture the essential personalities of his teammates, particularly the smooth, composed Whitey Ford and the irrepressible, irascible Billy Martin, his closest friends. The dry wit, wisdom, and warmth of Casey Stengel stand behind the team’s success, and the egocentric, frigid cleverness of George Weiss, the general manager, shows how even a player of Mantle’s magnitude was exploited before the players’ successful strike.
Mantle tells the story of his life with many short incidents and anecdotes, rarely developing any scene or situation beyond its dramatic point. His tone of openness and self-effacing humor makes for easy reading, but the most interesting parts of the book occur when a thread of tragedy darkening his accomplishments (family illness, incipient alcoholism, violent temper) is confronted honestly. When he lets his quiet but fierce pride show, his greatness comes into clear focus. Mantle claims that he would like his epitaph to proclaim, “He was a team player,” but the essence of the man is his statement, justified by his record, that “At full strength I thought I was as good as Mays or Snider or anyone.”