Jane Leavy is, as she puts it, a writer who writes about sports. The author of the New York Times bestseller “Sandy Koufax: A Lefty’s Legacy,” and the comic novel “Squeeze Play,” she will appear at the Mandell JCC in West Hartford on Sunday, Oct. 30 to talk about her latest book, “The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and The End of America’s Childhood.”
Leavy was a staff writer at The Washington Post from 1979 to 1988, first in the sports section, then writing for the style section, where she wrote features about sports, politics, and pop culture. Before joining The Washington Post, she was a staff writer at womenSports and Self magazines. She has written for many publications, including The New York Times, Newsweek, Sports Illustrated, The Village Voice, and The New York Daily News. Leavy’s work has been anthologized in many collections, including Best Sportswriting, Coach: 25 Writers Reflect on People Who Made a Difference, Child of Mine: Essays on Becoming a Mother, Nike Is a Goddess: The History of Women in Sports, Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend: Women Writers on Baseball, A Kind of Grace: A Treasury of Sportswriting by Women, and Making Words Dance: Reflections on Red Smith, Journalism and Writing.
Leavy grew up on Long Island where she worshipped Mickey Mantle. She attended Barnard College and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, where she wrote her master’s essay (later published in The Village Voice) on Red Smith, the late sports columnist for The New York Times, who was her favorite sports writer.
Recently, the Ledger spoke with Leavy from her home in Washington, D.C. about her latest book and other boys of summer.
I take it you’re a Yankee fan. Does the fact that you grew up in Roslyn, on the north shore of Long Island, account for your love of the New York team?
A: Well, my grandmother lived two blocks from the stadium or, as I often say, a loud foul ball from home plate. And going to see my grandmother was like going to see the Yankees. The shul that my grandmother belonged to wasn’t big enough to accommodate the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur crowds, so those services were always held up the street in the ballroom of the Concourse Plaza Hotel. Since it was a Conservative congregation the women sat upstairs and it had big tall windows and beautiful heavy brocade drapes. My grandmother would sneak me past the front door with my baseball glove and a transistor radio, and I would drape myself in the drapes with my baseball glove, and if the radio got too loud, she would just pray louder.
What made you choose Mickey Mantle for the subject of your latest book?
A: In a way he chose me. Certainly growing up on Long Island and spending as much time as I possibly could in my grandmother’s foyer at 757 Walton Ave. Mickey was my guy. In New York you had to have a guy, and it was either going to be Willie, Mickey or the Duke. My dad’s guy was Willie. I think I identified with him in a funny kind of way. I was born in a hospital about a mile north of the stadium, which no longer exists. I was a preemie, as they used to call them, and while I obviously was well enough to survive I carried long into adulthood a sense of physical vulnerability, and I knew Mickey would understand that.
A lot of what’s been written about Mantle in recent years has been tough on him. Do you take a more compassionate look?
A: I hope so. The nicest compliment I got along the very long book tour road was from a guy named Vinny in Philly. He was sort of hovering by my elbow while I was signing books somewhere along the Main Line. And he finally said to me “Ya got behind the myth without destroying the legend.
Any particular story about Mickey that you would say defines who he was?
A: He’s one of those unique American characters where you think you know everything. Certainly, it gave me trepidation to write the biography of a man about whom presumptively everything had been written or said. The interesting thing is that there’s always new stuff. As an editor pal of mine said to me: “The well of history is never dry.”
So, somewhere along the line Mickey Mantle told somebody that he had had knee surgery at Lenox Hill Hospital in October, after he wrecked his knee in the outfield of Yankee Stadium in game two of the World Series chasing after a ball hit by New York’s other center fielder, Willie Mays. Legend has it that the next day ,when his knee had swollen so much that he couldn’t keep the splint on, his dad who had come East to see the only World Series he would see his son participate in because he was dying took him to the hospital. When they got out of the cab, Mickey put his full weight on his father’s shoulder and his father collapsed and had to be hospitalized too, and that’s how Mantle learned that his father had Hodgkin’s Disease. So, he would always tell the story about how they were in the hospital together watching the World Series, and he had his first knee operation.
Out of pure stubbornness, I decided I had to have the date of the surgery. So I went through every piece of the New York Time’s file and couldn’t find any mention of any surgery. I thought, well, maybe they were keeping it a secret. So, I did it again. Still no mention of the surgery. I checked another newspaper. Still no surgery. Finally, I found a very small story buried somewhere saying that the Yankees were still concerned about his knee on Oct. 9 and they sent him to Johns Hopkins, which had the best orthopedists, because it was certainly a rudimentary art at that time. And the doctors at Johns Hopkins said ‘you’re fine, no surgery needed, go home and rest.’
And so, the whole story of this knee surgery and this life-altering event had gotten reinforced, because I’m sure even the team doctor started saying he had to have that surgery. So you know what happens – one reporter writes it originally; other reporters repeat it…and it became presumptive. In fact, he didn’t have any knee surgery until 1953. When they did operate on him it was just to remove the cartilage, which precipitated the beginning of arthritic degeneration in his knee. It doesn’t mean that the injury was less significant; in fact, it means the opposite. It means that he played on an unstable, untreated knee for two years. During those two years he was sort of deemed a disappointment; he was supposed to be Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig and he wasn’t. Well, nobody knew – not the Yankees and not Mantle himself just how large the disability was that he was playing with, and how playing with it would contribute to continued erosion of his right knee.
I wouldn’t be a Jewish journalist if I didn’t ask you about Sandy Koufax. Does he really get that he’s the ultimate Jewish hero?
A: He didn’t pitch in the opening game of the 1965 World Series in Minneapolis. In fact, though, he had never pitched on any of the Jewish holidays. Occasionally, the manager of the Dodgers might schedule him to start in a game that began after sundown and sometimes he might start on a day that was Erev Rosh Hashanah, but he always observed the Jewish holidays and he often would always juggle the rotation if need be. It only attracted this much attention because it was the World Series. So, in his thinking it wasn’t a really big deal and I don’t think he was particularly comfortable with it becoming such a big deal. He’s not somebody who would have wanted to be the poster boy for the American Jewish experience. He’s also not a particularly observant Jew, yet, as his dear old friend Fred Wilpon said to me, he is a very Jewish being and when I got to know him I certainly came to understand the wisdom of that statement. Over time he has come to understand why it mattered to so many people and the significance it had to so many people, even if it didn’t have such significance to him.
One of his pals, Tom Valenti who worked for the Dodgers, told me that years later they were at an event in Florida and a woman comes up and began shaking his hand profusely saying “I can’t believe I’m here with Sandy Kofax. I can’t believe I’m shaking your hand.” And Tommy looked at the lady and said, “Well, you know he did a lot more with the other one.” Then Tom said to me, “He really does now have an understanding of what it means to other people and he accepts it.”
It seems that he didn’t give too many interviews.
A: Well, you know in the days he played, the standards of what was considered worth reporting were very different. You know, Sandy Kofax never went and hid in the training room rather than answer questions after a game; he didn’t have any handler say he’s not taking questions today or he’ll only speak on days that he pitches. He always answered questions. It’s just that the questions that were asked at the time pertained only to baseball and not to anything else. During his playing career he was a stand-up guy in the clubhouse.
Do you think baseball has changed a lot since those days – for better or worse?
A: Sure. But I don’t want to be one of those people who says it was always better way back when. It’s easy to ascribe the deterioration of professional sports to the influx of money. Certainly that has changed how teams are built and how teams conduct themselves and how players conduct themselves. But we live in a capitalist society and, you know, it’s not the players’ responsibility to say to an owner ‘don’t pay me this much, I’m only a short stop.’ Are the salaries excessive? Does it make any sense that a .237 hitter makes more than a high school English teacher? No, of course it makes no sense. But it’s not the job of the hitter to say please give this to an English teacher instead. And no one puts a gun to the owner’s head and says you must do it.
Jane Leavy will speak and sign copies of her new book on Mickey Mantle at a brunch to be held on Sunday, Oct. 30, 10 a.m. at the Mandell JCC, 335 Bloomfield Ave. Tickets: $20.
The event also includes an exclusive look at the private vintage New York Yankees’ collection owned by former JCC president Howard Siegal, which will be on display in the JCC’s Chase Family Gallery.