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NINE: A Journal of Baseball History and Culture 12.2 (2004) 166-168
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Tony Castro. Mickey Mantle: America's Prodigal Son. Washington DC: Brassey's, 2002. 343 pp. Cloth, $26.95.
To baby boomer generation baseball fans, such as writer Tony Castro, Mickey Mantle remains the quintessential hero. Adult men of this generation do not find it strange when Bob Costas confesses that he placed a Mantle baseball card in his wallet, nor do they consider it embarrassing when Castro admits to weeping upon learning of Mantle's death. But why has Mantle attained this heroic status? Castro attempts to answer this question by portraying the New York Yankee great as representative of an era. According to Castro, Mantle had no desire to be the next Babe Ruth or Joe DiMaggio. The Yankee outfielder was "like the generation that grew up looking to him as one of its heroes while at the same time thumbing its nose at the mores and values of the society that bred it. All Mickey Mantle ever wanted was to be allowed to be himself" (p.228).
In Castro's biography Mantle is the tragic hero, but he does not achieve this status because he is a gifted athlete struggling against injury and disease. Instead, Castro argues that Mantle's promise as a ballplayer and person was cut short by psychological problems, which, in turn, explain his alcohol abuse and premature death. Castro asserts that Mantle's childhood was hardly the idyllic life often associated with the affluent society of the post-World War II period. [End Page 166] The Mantle family of Commerce, Oklahoma, struggled economically, dependent on hard work and meager wages in the zinc mines. Mantle's mother, Lovell, was cold and aloof; his stepsister sexually abused him; his paternal grandfather, with whom he was close, died from Hodgkin's disease; and the young Mantle grappled with bedwetting into his teen years.
The major source of Mantle's discontent, however, was his father, Mutt, who placed tremendous pressure on his son. After working a long day at the mines, Mutt would put his son through grueling switch-hitting exercises until dusk, expecting that the boy would fulfill his dreams of becoming a Major League baseball player. Castro acknowledges that the father deserves some credit for developing Mantle as a ballplayer, but his effort to manage his son's career prevented Mantle from accepting a University of Oklahoma football scholarship or obtaining a better initial contract offer from the Yankees.
In addition to affecting his son's baseball career, Castro maintains, Mutt Mantle controlled his son's personal life, disapproving of Mantle's relationship with showgirl Holly Brooke and insisting that he marry his high school sweetheart Merlyn Johnson. Mantle was never able to reconcile the complicated relationship with his father, who died at age thirty-nine from Hodgkin's disease, furthering his son's fears of an early death. In fact, Castro argues that Mutt continued to cast a looming shadow over his son for the remainder of Mantle's life. Castro writes: "He would never be able to untangle this complex relationship that began and ended as a one-way dialogue—Mutt speaking, asking, demanding; Mickey with the obedience of a child, never speaking his own mind. For Mickey to challenge his father or second guess what he had taught him, especially after his death, was unthinkable" (p.125).
Castro maintains that Mutt failed to prepare his son adequately for adult life, further suggesting that Mantle's insecurities were manifested in a panic disorder. Nor did someone like Casey Stengel serve as a father figure for Mantle, as some biographers have claimed. The Yankee manager encouraged an antagonism between Mantle and DiMaggio, and Stengel was disappointed that Mantle never reached the manager's expectations. Exaggerated predictions of greatness for Mantle led to hostility from fans who tended to focus on his strikeouts rather than his home runs. However, this situation changed during the 1961 season when the Yankee nation rooted for Mantle rather than the moody Roger Maris...