Baseball is a game of failure. The best hitters make outs almost seven times out of 10 at-bats, and the best pitchers don't win a third of their starts.
Baseball biographies and autobiographies have a similar success rate. Too many are publicity-driven hagiographies, ghost-written with hacks, batting-practice balls lobbed to worshipful fans. Others are as dry as the infield dirt of an abandoned baseball diamond, of interest only to Society for American Baseball Research metricians and scholars.
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Allen Barra's "Mickey and Willie: Mantle and Mays, the Parallel Lives of Baseball's Golden Age," hits the sweet spot in between these two extremes.
Barra approaches his subjects with a lifelong fan's enthusiasm, combined with a journalist and historian's knowledge of the game and its American cultural contexts. Barra's vivid narrative shifts back and forth between the two men organically, building a common story as tautly sewn together as a baseball: two halves, but one object for play.
In rich detail — modulated among the funny, the mundane and the mournful — Barra tells the stories of two men who might seem to share only athletic talent and enormous, albeit mitigated, success. But their lives, from their triumphs to their tragedies, exemplify an era not just in American baseball but of American history. From the beginnings of the integrated game to westward relocation and expansion, and then just before the advent of free agency and the television money that would forever alter the game's financial and fan dynamics, Mantle and Mays were central to baseball, and baseball was central to America.
Barra succeeds, through exhaustive research using a vast variety of sources, in presenting a varied cast of baseball characters, from scouts and hangers-on to Hall of Famers. Along with broad historical analysis, Barra paints detailed pictures of individual games and moments throughout each player's career. His meticulous research often refutes myths that have been spread by the players and/or their biographers, though he does admit that he has to deal with the many writers who believed that "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." In his telling of both the common myths and the likelier realities, Barra simultaneously entertains and educates in his engaging and energetic prose.
The book has its flaws. Barra makes a few dubious claims — that Mantle and Mays are the most-written-about players in baseball history after Babe Ruth, for instance. I suspect the Black Sox, Jackie Robinson and Ty Cobb probably outrank Mantle and Mays on the all-time-books-about roster, but so many baseball books are published every year that this might be an unwinnable argument.
More substantively, Barra too often wanders into facile speculation: What if Mays and Mantle had both been signed by Boston? Picture the outfield of Ted Williams, Mantle and Mays! Sure, and let's all picture the Cubs winning the World Series every once in a while too.
Yet the book's strengths outweigh its weaknesses, just as a power-hitter's home runs matter more than his strikeouts.
Barra teaches us something that most writers about the game overlook: how much African-American players and poor whites had in common. Mays grew up in segregated Birmingham, Ala., before turning pro with the Negro Leagues' Black Barons while still in high school. Mantle grew up in the bleak all-white mining town of Commerce, Okla., before playing semi-pro ball and being signed by the Yankees. Both men played in leagues sponsored by the dominant local industry, steel mills or mining companies. These industrial leagues — along with various barnstorming teams, the Negro Leagues, the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, and the low-level D-, C- and B-class minor leagues — withered and died after baseball desegregation and the advent of television. Mantle and Mays were among the last great players to come out of this many-layered baseball world.
This aspect of Barra's book speaks to more than history, or could have had Barra stretched his double into a triple. He implicitly engages contemporary concerns about the relative paucity of African-American players in the professional game today, and raises a question about class diversity as well. It's not just that football and basketball have grown in popularity and siphoned off the best black athletes. It's that opportunities to play baseball at all levels have declined.
Without omnipresent baseball, from informal sandlot games to industrial leagues and barnstorming teams where managers find and develop talent, fewer African-Americans have the chance to pick up a glove and a bat and a ball.
But it's not just African-Americans who are missing from the game: It's poor whites as well. One cannot easily look at major-league ballplayers today and guess socioeconomic status the way we can see race, but I'd wager that far more white American players come from relative privilege than from the zinc mines of the Dust Bowl.
This is the book's other weakness, a certain lack of follow-through on issues in contemporary society relevant to the story of Mantle and Mays. Had Barra tried to put the ball out of the park, this very good book would have been truly excellent. It's not a grand slam, but a bases-clearing double off the wall can win a game, and Barra hits it.
Society for American Baseball Research member Bill Savage teaches the course Baseball in American Narratives in the English department at Northwestern University.
"Mickey and Willie"
By Allen Barra, Crown Archetype, 496 pages, $27