Randy Roberts never felt like he had a handle on Mickey Mantle until he visited the baseball legend’s hometown, Commerce, Oklahoma.
The old zinc- and coal-mining center is now a ghost town, run down by years of pollution and depression.
“If you’ve ever shoveled snow, you do it about a half-hour and you’re tired, you’re exhausted,” said Roberts, a 150th Anniversary Professor and distinguished professor of history. “Well, if you’re doing it in the mine, those shovels are 75, 80 pounds that you’re pulling and you’re doing it eight hours a day. These guys wore out fast and they died young. They came back and they drank hard. It was a tough life, and that’s the world Mickey came from.”
Mantle also embraced that hard-living philosophy, as had many relatives who died before reaching the age of 40. But unlike the many miners in his family, Mickey didn’t wilt away in a mine. Exceptional athletic ability carried him from Oklahoma to center stage of the 1950s baseball universe: New York City, where he patrolled the outfield for the Yankees.
Roberts’ new book co-written with Johnny Smith, A Season in the Sun: The Rise of Mickey Mantle (Basic Books), examines the 1956 baseball season where Mantle asserted himself as the sport’s leading man. In 1956, the future Hall of Famer achieved the coveted Triple Crown – leading the American League in batting average, home runs, and runs batted in – and won the first of three AL Most Valuable Player awards.
“There was great expectation on him to be the next Joe DiMaggio, to be the next Babe Ruth, and it wasn’t until 1956 that he really fulfilled those expectations,” Smith said. “But in the process, 1956 was the season where he became the face of baseball. So we wanted to explore how Mickey Mantle was packaged by the media, by advertisers, television executives, the Yankees’ publicists, so he could be embraced by the American public.”
This is Roberts and Smith’s second book, following their 2016 collaboration, Blood Brothers: The Fatal Friendship between Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X (Basic Books). It’s Roberts’ first baseball book, joining a vast collection of writings about sports and pop culture icons like boxers Joe Louis, Jack Dempsey, and Jack Johnson, football coach Bear Bryant, and actor John Wayne.
But by focusing on Mantle’s highly visible role in 1950s America, Roberts and Smith were able to examine the connections that existed between baseball the greater society before football surpassed it as the nation’s favorite sport.
“What we wanted to do is return back to Mickey Mantle’s world in the 1950s and try to understand what did he mean to America,” Smith said. “This is a guy who comes from rural Oklahoma, he’s the son of a miner and he’s transplanted to New York City. It’s the capitol of everything. It’s the capitol of baseball, it’s the capitol of television, publishing, the media, and how does he get transformed.”