Was there ever another baseball hero quite like Mickey Mantle? He had that swing, that sense of style. He could bat from both the right and the left. And he had the shattering tragedy of his World Series knee injury.
Even his name was magic -- “soft, flowing sounds that conveyed his grace, alternating with hard, tough consonants that suggested his power,’’ Jane Leavy writes in “The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America’s Childhood” (Harper, $27.99), a classic biography of an iconic figure.
“With his aura of limitless potential, Mantle was America incarnate,’’ Leavy says. “His raw talent, the unprecedented alloy of speed and power, spoke directly to our postwar optimism.’’ Plus he could hit; six of his World Series records still stand, including 18 home runs and 42 runs batted in.
Mantle’s was a great American story -- his father was a miner who scratched the earth, Mantle himself a star who soared to great heights -- with a sad, even tragic ending, caused mostly by women and drink and his inability to resist either.
Leavy portrayed another hero of the time, Sandy Koufax, in an unforgettable 2002 biography, and in some ways her Mantle is even more affecting. Like Koufax, he is an innocent, touched with magical gifts, tortured by fateful vulnerabilities. And like Koufax, Mantle (who “wrote’’ several autobiographies) will be remembered not only for what he did on the field but also by what Leavy wrote on the page.
‘Say It Loud’
Mantle never had it easy, but at least he didn’t have a racial barrier to overcome. Josh Gibson, Bill Russell, the Harlem Globetrotters -- they excelled in an era when the black athlete’s obstacles weren’t only on the field and in the court. Which is why Roxanne Jones’s and Jessie Paolucci’s “Say it Loud: An Illustrated History of the Black Athlete’’ (Ballantine/ESPN, $35) is such a necessary reminder.
In addition to the usual sports, this volume covers horse racing (black jockey Jimmy Winkfield won the Kentucky Derby in 1901 and 1902) and track and field (Alice Coachman’s 1948 gold medal in the high jump was the first by a black woman Olympian).
Other unexpected entries include John Shippen Jr., born in 1879 and likely the first black golf pro, and Lucy Diggs Slowe, a tennis pioneer and one of the visionaries behind the creation of the National Council of Negro Women. Heroes all -- and enthralling stories.
Olney on Meyer
If you’ve been thinking that the basketball heroics of such universities as Hamline, Lipscomb and Northern State have been unfairly neglected in the literature of sport, your moment of redemption has come, thanks to the efforts of Buster Olney, one of the great students of modern sport. His subject in “How Lucky You Can Be’’ (Ballantine/ESPN, $25) is Don Meyer, who coached at all three schools and is known to the cognoscenti as the winningest coach in National Collegiate Athletic Association history.
On the surface, Meyer’s last few years haven’t been all that lucky, crammed as they have been with an automobile accident which led to the amputation of his left leg below the knee and the discovery that he had cancer. This is a morality tale about a man discovering his improbable fate.
But in South Dakota, all that travail taught the hard-charging coach a lesson about winning and losing. Meyers was tough, demanding and intense, but not very good at showing his emotions to his wife and children. His troubles changed him, and his family.
In his last game (his 324th loss, as against 923 wins), Meyer was able to express his thanks for “the family I have, and the teams and players and coaches I’ve been able to work with.’’ The man who watched so many wins had finally realized that in life, points matter a lot less than assists.
(David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The opinions expressed are his own.)