Johnny Smith is an assistant professor of history at Georgia Tech, where he has won numerous teaching awards. His research investigates the history of American sports, and he is especially interested in sports icons who have left imprints on American culture. His first book, The Sons of Westwood: John Wooden, UCLA, and the Dynasty that Changed College Basketball (2013), explores the emergence of college basketball as a national pastime and the political conflicts in college athletics during the 1960s and 1970s. Most recently, he is a coauthor, with Randy Roberts, of Blood Brothers: The Fatal Friendship between Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X (2016)—named one of Amazon's best history books of the year—and A Season in the Sun: The Rise of Mickey Mantle (2018).
Mickey Mantle's biographers have woven a mythology that he played during a more innocent time, "when everyday life was much less complicated." Yet romanticizing Mantle’s place in the “Golden Age” of baseball and the “happy days” of the fifties distorts the reality of his times and reduces his importance at a crucial moment in history. Only when we ask how the Cold War and the culture of New York influenced his place in America can we begin to understand why baseball needed a hero like him. In the making of Mickey Mantle context was as important as his talent. How did Mickey Mantle become an icon? Why did it happen in 1956? And what did he mean to America? In this lecture I will explain how his emergence as a hero—a symbol of the American Way—was a product of a particular moment when the country confronted the Cold War and baseball faced an array of problems.