Telling the stories they once could not
When Tiger Woods had trouble with his putter, he became a national conversation. Brett Favre made an off-field pass, and we reveled via Twitter. After Cameron Diaz fed popcorn to Alex Rodriguez at the Super Bowl, America feasted.
It's easy to forget that it wasn't always like this.
Just as the reporters covering FDR overlooked his debilitating condition and JFK was given a pass in the media for his dalliances, sports figures too were once immune to the post-Watergate world of invasive coverage.
Jane Leavy, author of "Sandy Koufax: A Lefty's Legacy" and more recently "The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America's Childhood," knows both eras well.
In 1983, the Washington Post dispatched Leavy to interview Mantle after he was hired as a greeter at the Claridge Hotel & Casino in Atlantic City. She'll never forget their first encounter.
"Hi, I'm Mick."
"Hi, I'm nervous," she responded.
"Why? Scared I was going to pull on your t--?" said her childhood hero.
That exchange never made her story. Neither did the fact that during the three-day adventure, a drunken Mantle made a pass at her. Or that he regaled her with tales such as the habit he and Billy Martin had of using an open window in the clubhouse to shoot water up the skirts of women in the ticket line.
Among the mementos from her trip down the Shore are a Mantle sweater and a photograph he signed for her reading: "To Jane, Sorry I farted. Your friend, Mick." She didn't write about that, either.
But things changed in the intervening three decades, after which she wrote her best-seller.
"Just as I was about to ask about his son Billy, I felt his hand on my knee, then on the inside of my thigh," she wrote in "Last Boy." It was another detail not broached in the Post piece, published at the end of a different era — the one in which Mantle thrived playing in the 1950s and '60s.
Back then, Leavy wrote in the book, baseball teams paid for beat writers' meals, drinks, and travel. "You couldn't write one word of it, the debauchery," Leavy quoted Jack Lang, the executive secretary for the Baseball Writers Association of America, as saying. "It wasn't just liquor. It was the women."
Like the coverage of politicians, the way we scrutinize our athletes has changed. Leavy told me that was partly due to a new generation of sportswriters.
"They were '60s kids who were not going to abide by the old mantra that it's all off limits," she said.
One milestone she mentioned: "When Yankees pitcher Ralph Terry had a baby, Stan Isaacs of Newsday said, 'Breast or bottle?' and Terry was irate. Think about that."
It was what Leavy called the new "counterculture of writers," combined with television's taking over the play by play, that changed sportswriting.
"When TV made off with those jobs, and the question became what was going to fill (the) void with the sports page, we all became personality journalists. It became about feelings and the pressing issue of the day. You couldn't ignore (the) massacre in Munich. Or John Carlos in Mexico City. Or Marvin Miller in free agency.
"Our attention became broader-based even as the job got smaller."
Which explains why Leavy's initial writing about her 1983 weekend with Mantle left much on the editing floor.
Missing was Mantle's description of his pain when he injured his knee in his rookie year trying to avert a collision with Joe DiMaggio. ("I s--- my pants. Are you going to print that, Jane?") In 1983, the closest Leavy came to outing the tortured side of Mantle was to write: "He can be vulgar one moment and eloquent the next. The contrast was startling, disconcerting. Mickey Mantle is still the greatest switch hitter baseball has ever known."
While researching her book she learned that the reason Mantle never caught Roger Maris in their 1961 home-run derby was that Mantle had a sexually transmitted disease. When told this, a thunderstruck Billy Crystal asked her, "You're not going to print that, are you?"
By the time "Last Boy" was published, the standards had changed: "This time the account is full and unexpurgated," Leavy wrote.
Raising the question: Which version would the public prefer?
In Leavy's case, the choice was made more difficult by her subject.
"Mickey Mantle was an extremely honest man, just not always with himself."
Leavy argues that given the wealth of material about Mantle, she was judicious in what she chose to write.
"You don't have to write everything you know to tell the truth, and I don't feel compelled as a writer to tell everything I know."