- A Season in the Sun: The Rise of Mickey Mantle by Randy Roberts and Johnny Smith
In the opening pages of A Season in the Sun, authors Roberts and Smith propose to answer three questions: “How did Mickey Mantle come to be seen as a hero? Why did it happen in 1956? And what did he mean to America?” (xvi). While these questions suggest a critical contextualization of the Mantle legend, the book often functions more as a biography of Mantle, occasionally slipping into the hagiography that it attributes to sports writers of the 1950s. The result is an uneven volume that is likely to be satisfying to baseball fans of a certain age but has less to offer historians.
For a baseball aficionado, there are many behind-the-scenes stories from Mantle’s career, pulled from a wide range of contemporaneous sources. Highlights include the September challenges from Ted Williams and Al Kaline to Mantle’s triple-crown run, and Don Larsen’s perfect game. Throughout the book, ample game descriptions give glimpses of non-Yankee players like Herb Score, Hank Greenberg, and Roy Campanella.
The book shines in presenting the larger-than-life personalities of New York in 1956, both inside and outside baseball. Manhattan saloon owner Toots Shor, a man who capitalized [End Page 127] on the celebrity of his customers and dropped them when their stardom began to wane, rises three-dimensionally from the page. Less fully rendered but equally important is Mantle’s agent, Frank Scott, whose story shows the politics of player endorsements.
As a social history, however, A Season in the Sun is more suggestive than satisfying. This seems a product of the authors’ effort to recuperate the Mantle myth, “lost” after the cynical reporting of the Viet Nam era (241). The focus on Mantle and the “youthful innocence” (244) of 1956 detracts from more unsavory aspects of the 1950s illustrated by Roberts and Smith’s research.
The most fully developed historical theme in the book is Mantle as a brand (115). Mantle represents the birth of a new kind of celebrity that continues into the twenty-first century. Promoted by both the spread of television and the pens of sports writers, Mickey Mantle was suited to the rise of an “age of instant gratification and consumerism” (132). He fed the demand for “bigger television sets—and longer home runs” (132–33), even if it required cleaning up his public image to match his hitting prowess. We get to see the ways his public image was polished to reinforce baseball as American, effectively re-creating Muscular Christianity in patriotic trappings. However, the larger story of the McCarthy era appears not at all, leaving the reader to fill in the blanks about the story baseball needed to sell in the Cold War.
Roberts and Smith reveal that Mantle’s usefulness to narratives of instant gratification and muscular Americanism relied heavily on two factors: his whiteness and the code of masculine silence that surrounded baseball in the 1950s. Unfortunately, the authors seem more romantic than analytic about the culture that spawned the Mantle myth. In fairness, they do report a teammate’s assertion that “maybe Mickey was a great white hope” (73) in the face of an era dominated by excellent black players. They also report on Frank Scott’s effort to get sponsorship deals for leading black players to the horror of an advertising executive, who “demanded four white players” (120). But within this context of racism, Roberts and Smith paint Mantle as a “victim” (241), a man who was easily influenced (238), shaped into the hero “whether he liked it or not” (234).
Whether he liked it or not, Mantle, “led the league in manhood every year” (113), and that manhood was especially toxic. It included wild nights of drinking and violence, playing hurt, and womanizing. It was informed by the silent suffering of Mantle’s father, dying of Hodgkin’s disease after years of working in the mines...