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Book review

‘Mickey and Willie’ by Allen Barra

Courtesy of the Topps Company

Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays both emerged on the New York baseball scene in 1951 and had their heydays as the game’s best center fielders well into the 1960s. If theirs was the sport’s Golden Age, as many baseball aficionados believe, it is largely because these two were its most transcendent figures. As Allen Barra writes in “Mickey and Willie,” if they, in their prime, “lined up together to compete against all other players in the record books at the same age and under exactly the same conditions, it would be obvious that they are the two greatest players in the history of the game.”

They are also, as Barra notes, “the two most written-about players in baseball history, or at least two of the top three, along with Babe Ruth.” There have been almost 60 years’ worth of biographies, ghostwritten autobiographies, memoirs, and exposés by both journalists and former teammates, along with accounts of specific seasons or decades, and books about New York baseball during the Mantle-Mays years. In 2010, massive biographies were published by Jane Leavy (about Mantle) and James Hirsch (about Mays). So as Barra’s lengthy book appears just three years later, one of its challenges is to offer readers something new.

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What is new about “Mickey and Willie” is its effort “to try to trace their remarkably parallel lives.” Barra, a veteran sportswriter who has published a biography of Yogi Berra and an account of America’s oldest ballpark, Rickwood Field, feels that “there has always been one major element missing from the many books on Mantle and Mays: each other,” and his strategy is to show “how much they had in common and how each man’s image reflected the other.”

BARRA ALSO ADMITS TO A MORE PERSONAL MOTIVE: TO REVIVE MEMORIES OF A PAST ERA. “TO ME AND, AND I FIRMLY BELIEVE TO MILLIONS OF OTHER AMERICANS, MICKEY AND WILLIE SIGNIFY A SIMPLER TIME. NOT . . . A MORE INNOCENT TIME, BUT A SIMPLER TIME . . . AN AMERICA TO BE FOUND NOW ONLY IN OLD BASEBALL CARDS, YELLOWING NEWSPAPERS, AND MOLDY SPORTS MAGAZINES.’’

Both Mantle and Mays were born in 1931, came to the majors in the same season 20 years later, were nearly the same height and weight, and were talked about in the same terms: so fast, so powerful, so extravagantly talented across every skill-set needed to be a star. Their early careers were interrupted by injury (Mantle) or military service (Mays). They both batted over .300 ten times and hit more than 50 home runs in a season twice. They were Southerners from poor backgrounds “dominated by their fathers, who saw baseball as a way for their sons to escape a life of brutal manual labor” in steel mills (Mays) or zinc mines (Mantle). Both had trouble in relationships with women, with their children, with money, and with the way they handled their extraordinary fame. Both failed to have significant post-retirement connections to baseball and were banned from it for ties to gambling.

As Barra tracks them from their childhoods to the present day (Mantle died in 1995 but Mays is still alive), the parallels can be illuminating, such as his discussion of how it wasn’t until the 1970s that Mantle and Mays could regularly appear together in commercials and on television shows, owing to the prevalent racial climate in America, or their respective problems with alcohol (Mantle) and anxiety (Mays). One of the book’s most moving sentences occurs when Barra reaches the simple, acute conclusion, based on his study of parallels, that both ballplayers “grew into manhood without maturing into men.”

But the parallels can also feel strained, as when Barra notes that they “both loved Westerns,” which was true of most young men of their era. The quest for correspondences can lead Barra into speculative irrelevancies, as in this elaboration of Mantle and Mays watching Westerns in New York: “[S]ince Willie’s favorite spot was the balcony, and since many uptown New York movie theaters were integrated by the early 1950s, Mickey might well have been sitting close to Willie in the dark without knowing it.”

“Mickey and Willie” is packed with good stories from inside and outside baseball. It is a colorful, absorbing account of men who became idolized without being known, who were “a bit bewildered that the world had passed them by while leaving them as famous as they had been in their playing days.”

Barra has written a close study of two ballplayers who were heroes to him when he (and they) were younger. In the end, his heart goes out to Mantle, who admitted his failings as death neared, who became more knowable. Barra has a harder time with an irascible, less open, elderly Mays. Barra’s mind goes out to Mantle too, using statistical analysis to perform the ultimate comparison, finding him in his prime “a better ballplayer than Willie Mays in his prime.” But you do not have to agree with this to find “Mickey and Willie” a worthy reminder of how remarkable these two players were — together and separately.

Floyd Skloot is a three-time Pushcart Prize winner and the author of sixteen books of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. His “Revertigo: An Off-Kilter Memoir’’ is slated to be released in February.
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