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23 april 2007
Peter Golenbock's 7 was much derided before its publication. Championed by editor Judith Regan, 7 seemed to promise a new nadir of taste in baseball fiction, and possibly would have been seen as the nadir of American publishing history if Regan hadn't been simultaneously touting O.J. Simpson's If I Did It. Golenbock insists that 7 "is the closest you will ever get to the reality of Mickey [Mantle]'s life" (viii). But he cannot call 7 a biography, because it is based not on documentary research but on tall tales from Mantle's drinking buddies. "I couldn't make this stuff up," says Golenbock (286), but since there is no way of telling where his informants' facts end and their fabulation begins, the book remains that irritating artifact: a sensational novel that insists it's all true.
Or rather, a conventional memoir that insists it's fiction. For most of its length, 7 is pretty much a straight up and down as-told-to. Except that the teller is a decade-dead Mickey Mantle and his tellee is an even deader Leonard Shecter, brought together by Golenbock in Heaven to write the as-told-to that no-one would publish while they were alive. But 7, for all its bluster, pulls too many punches to shock anyone.
Every formula of the baseball as-told-to is here. The hardscrabble, emotionally thwarted childhood with the hard-driving father and the saintly mother. The busher beset by the temptations of the City. The crusty manager who is basically Dad Redux. The litany, stultifying to the non-fan, of pennants won and innocence lost. The athlete's life closing long before its close, as retirement brings nothing but the shell of celebrity, which our hero can fill only with booze and autographs.
Golenbock seems to think that an extended imaginary catalog of Mantle's possible sexual exploits, delivered in the manner of the anonymous Victorian author of My Secret Life (but with an Oklahoma accent), will scandalize prudish readers. Or rather, he wishes it were 1970 again, when Jim Bouton's Ball Four was young and its readers were shockable. By using Shecter (Bouton's co-author) as his surrogate, Golenbock seems to wish that he himself had written Ball Four, as he wrote several imitations thereof with ballplayers of the 1970s and 80s.
The problem is, nobody in 2007 is particularly shocked by imagining Mickey Mantle in bed with a woman not his wife. Or even two women not his wife, or a woman who would later become Joe DiMaggio's wife. To eke out the scandal, Golenbock prints several filthy jokes which are evidently Mantle's own favorites: woman-hating, scatological, obscene. The jokes are an interesting example of having something both ways. Golenbock gets to use them as an example of Mantle's embittered, misogynist personality, but he also gets to tell them for their own sake, and to dare the reader to object to them (if you do, you are a women's-libber or a stuffed shirt).
For all its raunch, 7 is anything but cynical, though. Golenbock's Mantle regrets treating his wife, sons, and fans badly. He loves playing baseball; he loves Casey Stengel. He exults in minute descriptions of the many World Series his Yankees played in, dwelling on oft-told moments he was somewhat tangential to, like Don Larsen's perfect game or the bad-hop ground ball that hit Tony Kubek in the throat. The bulk of the book is a trite "and then we won that" narrative of the kind that baseball autobiographies have been serving up for a century or more. Not only is there nothing new to see here, but there is much that is so old that you can almost hear 7 creak as you turn the pages.
There is a novel somewhere in this material, but 7 isn't it. There is a potential novel here about a great alienated sport hero, someone who truly doesn't like his family or his public. That unwritten novel would take place not in Yankee Stadium or in some big Toots Shor's in the sky, but out on the post-retirement card-show and rubber-chicken circuit that Golenbock evokes too briefly. A good Mantle novel would find its roots in pathos, alienation, and shame – not in sentimentality, family values, and affected prurience.
Golenbock, Peter. 7: The Mickey Mantle novel. Guilford, CT: Lyons Press, 2007.