Books: The Classic Mantle

The Classic Mantle (Photo  / Stewart, Tabori & Chang)

New York – The worst baseball decision I ever made, I made early. It was the summer of 1972, I was six, and I thought it a fine idea to take some of my older brother’s best baseball cards and glue them into my self-styled “scrapbook.”

I didn’t quite understand the premise of scrapbooks, but I knew mine was going to include some great baseball cards. Among the victims was a 1966 Mickey Mantle. 1966 was late in the career of Mantle – he retired after the 1968 season – but with the baseball card hyperinflation of the 1990’s all things Mantle later took on significant value.

One of my better baseball decisions in recent years thankfully also involved the Mick. I picked up a copy of The Classic Mantle by Buzz Bissinger & Marvin E. Newman. Bissinger contributes the text and Newman’s adds a collection of his nearly-perfect vintage photographs of Mantle from his playing days.

The photographs are stunning and describing that at length would do little to convey the notion. Newman, now 87, contributed to many publications during his career, including Sports Illustrated, Life, Newsweek, Look and Smithsonian. He attended Brooklyn College at the age of 16 to study photography and took his lessons well.

Bissinger’s words are compelling. He writes concisely – The Classic Mantle is a 144-page affair with 50 of Newman’s photos – and somehow manages to be sentimentally detached. There are no efforts to smooth over Mantle’s dual vices of alcoholism and infidelity, but there is a conveyance of Mantle’s often pervading self-disdain that clearly contributed to them.

A great strength of the book is Bissinger’s access to the considerable time that sportscaster Bob Costas spent with Mick in the last years of Mantle’s life. Costas conveys, via Bissinger, Mantle’s feelings about himself in a passage in the latter part of the book.

One night Mantle went to Costas’s house in St. Louis for dinner. Cardinal Hall of Famer Stan Musial was there. Mickey had not entered the Betty Ford Clinic yet, and out of deference to Musial, he had maybe one drink. It was one of those wonderful evenings of baseball storytelling between two baseball immortals. After Musial left, Mantle remarked on what a great person Musial was, but Mantle believed he was the one with more natural ability. “Stan had a better career than me because he’s a better man than me,” he told Costas that night. The shivering acknowledgement of that couldn’t help but permeate the toughest bones of the most suspicious and cynical, except for the few who would always propagate Mantle’s lost potential.

The Friday Night Lights author handles the topic at an appropriate depth to accompany the pictures without rehashing game-by-game accounts that are the undoing of many a baseball book. This is not a definitive history of the slugger’s life nor is it intended to be.

A disproportionate number of Newman’s stellar photos are from the earliest years of Mantle’s 18-season career. While Bissinger describes Mick’s potential as realized, yet blunted by injury and personal behavior, we see a constant series of photos of Mantle in the bloom of youth to poignantly suggest that which was lost.

With each spring, a flood tide of new baseball books rolls in and I typically let it roll back out and stick to those I already own. Although I found it three years after publication, it was worth wading in to pluck this gem out of the wash. – T. Flynn