Mickey and Willie: Mantle and Mays, the Parallel Lives of Baseball’s Golden Age

by Allen Barra

(Crown Archetype, $27, 496 pages)

Who is this author?

Those of you who used to read the book review pages in The Courant from 202 to 2008, when I was Books Editor, may recall seeing reviews of sports books by Allen Barra. I was always happy to present his intelligent appraisals. Born in Alabama and now living in New Jersey, Barra is a journalist and author of a dozen or so books, specializing in, but not limited to, sports. He’s written essay collections and biographies of Yogi Berra, Paul “Bear” Bryant and Wyatt Earp and books on baseball and football. His writing appears in the Village Voice, the Wall Street Journal and TheAtlantic.com  and he’s written for the Daily Beast and Salon.

What is this book about?

It’s about Mickey and Willie and the parallels Barra sees in their personal lives and legendary baseball careers with the Yankees and Giants, respectively.

In an interview in the San Francisco Examiner, Barra says he “remembers the exact moment that eventually spurred him to write “Mickey and Willie,” when he was a young boy in New Jersey. “I got a Topps package of baseball cards which had both Mantle and Mays in it,” he said, in a telephone conversation. “I thought it was a natural pairing, and I still do.”

The two centerfielders were longtime friends, similar in age and physicality, and from Southern backgrounds. They entered the New York sports world at around the same time, and they both had private lives their fans did not know much about. And they had to live up to their fans’ grandiose expectations.

Barra digs deep into their triumphs on the field and travails in life in this deeply researched book.

Why you’ll like it:

Barra writes with authority, having spent a long career expressing his opinions and researching facts about various sports and the colorful characters who play them. He tells his stories with the appealing enthusiasm of a fan and the knowledge of a historian, producing a book that most reviewers are calling a solid hit.

What others are saying:

Publishers Weekly says:  “In these elegant and touching fan notes, acclaimed sportswriter Barra carries us back to baseball’s golden days, when two giants—Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays—dominated the game through their skill and prodigious talent. Giving a fast-paced, season-by-season account of the lives of these players, whose careers developed along parallel lines and sometimes intersected, Barra recreates the excitement, the adoration, and the adulation that Mantle and Mays inspired in their fans—as well as the occasional disappointments. Barra notes the many similarities in the players’ lives: both hailed from the South and both were talented all-around athletes who played football, baseball, and basketball; both had fathers who encouraged them, though Mays’s let his son follow his talents to center field naturally, while Mantle’s groomed his son for center field from the start. Alike as they were, the differences were stark: Mays came from a broken home and Mantle from a large, close-knit family. Barra pulls no punches as he candidly portrays Mantle’s struggles with alcohol and Mays’s anxiety attacks off the field. …Drawing on his conversations with Mantle and Mays, Barra offers illuminating insights into their views of success and failure as well as into the ways that we often create larger-than-life heroes out of individuals who sometimes cannot carry the burdens of our dreams and hopes.

Says Library Journal: “Barra traces the rise of these two baseball icons of the Yankees and Giants, respectively, the two greatest players, he believes, from roughly 1951 through 1964. In that era the sports world centered on baseball more than it does today, especially on crosstown rivals. Barra recounts his one-time hero worship of both Mantle and Mays, and his coming to terms with the fact that prodigious athletic talent does not necessarily translate into personal heroism. He portrays Mantle, once referred to by a teammate as “a blond god,” and Mays, the “Say Hey Kid,” as virtually unsurpassed Hall of Fame talents with tortured souls and complex legacies. …but Barra discusses their lives off the field (doomed marriages, financial failure, individual eccentricities). VERDICT Part memoir, part baseball history, part biography, this book is sure to be a winner with multiple audiences: fans, historians, and nonspecialists alike. Highly recommended.”

“Veteran sports journalist and biographer Barra (Yogi Berra, 2009, etc.) returns with a dual biography of two of baseball’s all-time greats. …Throughout his well-researched and generous tale, he continually alludes to the similarities of these Hall of Fame centerfielders. From their baseball-playing fathers to their eerie physical resemblances to their remarkable multiple talents (hitting, power, speed, throwing arms), Barra highlights the enormous improbability of two such gifted athletes arriving simultaneously. Of course, there were differences. Mays, an African-American, always had to contend with race; there were critics who thought he did not do enough for civil rights. Mantle was an alcoholic (Mays never drank), a weakness that tarnished his image and limited his still-remarkable achievements. …Ages are “golden” only in misty-eyed retrospect, but Barra excels at showing these athletes’ superhuman abilities and all-too-human frailties,” says Kirkus Reviews.

When is it available?

This book is on the roster at the Downtown Hartford Public Library now.

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