There have been dozens of books about Mickey Mantle, Babe Ruth and Jackie Robinson. Amazingly, there have been but a handful of adult biographies about Willie Mays, a couple in which he purportedly participated (most notably WILLIE’S TIME: Baseball’s Golden Age, written with Charles Einstein. Legend has it that the collaborators met at a function, and Einstein had to introduce himself to the Hall of Famer.)
Mays, worried about how he would come across, constantly refused importunings by authors. Until James S. Hirsch came along. He was nothing if not persistent, and the long-anticipated biography of the Say Hey Kid was worth the wait.
Hirsch, a former journalist for The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, certainly didn’t have an easy time getting the gig. He had been after Mays for almost seven years before Mays finally relented. In the meantime, he wrote such books as TWO SOULS INDIVISIBLE: The Friendship That Saved Two POWs in Vietnam, and RIOT AND REMEMBRANCE: The Tulsa Race War and Its Legacy. Perhaps it was Hirsch’s high level of writing that convinced Mays, or maybe it was the fact that the ex-ballplayer turns 79 in May. Whatever the reason, a lot of his fans say, “It’s about time.”
WILLIE MAYS: THE LIFE, THE LEGEND may follow a straightforward biographic route, but that’s the kind of player and man he was, so it seems quite fitting that there is little in the way of theatrics in the telling. Hirsch portrays Mays as brilliant at his craft, even if he wasn’t always the friendly guy people expected him to be.
Mays began his Major League career with the New York Giants in 1951 and became a darling of the city, albeit not in the same manner as the Yankees’ Mickey Mantle, who played his home games just across the Harlem River. Despite living in the media capital of the world, Mays was able to garner only a fraction of the commercials and endorsements that supplemented Mantle’s salary. Then again, this was America in the 1950s, where blond and blue-eyed won over “negro” any day of the week.
When the Giants moved to the West Coast after the 1957 season, San Franciscans, at first thrilled to have a Major League team, soon cooled to Mays and his fellow transplants, preferring the new batch of “homegrown” players like Orlando Cepeda, Willie McCovey, and the Alou brothers (one of the few cases where race was not the main issue). Even the newspapermen of northern California seemed indifferent, if not downright, claiming that Mays wasn’t all he had been cracked up to be and/or that he was past his prime. Such revelations lead the reader to scratch his head: What more did they want from him? Wasn’t it enough to have power, speed, a graceful glove, and a strong and accurate arm?
Rather than brood overmuch, Mays made his presence felt on the ball field for several more years, until the wear and tear of trying to be a superhero on a daily basis finally took their toll. His final years as a player were a sad coda to an otherwise brilliant career, made necessary in part because, quite simply, Mays needed the paycheck. As good as he was with the bat and glove, he was that deficient when it came to properly managing his finances.
The Giants had moved from the cavernous Polo Grounds to the windswept confines of Candlestick Park (with Seals Stadium as an interim host), which leads to an interesting observation: the impact the field can have on a player’s career. One of the iconic images in Major League history is “The Catch” in the 1954 World Series against the powerhouse Cleveland Indians, to which Hirsch devotes an entire chapter. Had Vic Wertz’s wallop taken place almost anywhere else, the ball would have been out of the ballpark or off the wall. Instead, we still see video of Mays running, running, running, making the over-the-shoulder catch, followed by an equally amazing throw back to the infield. Hirsch’s rendition of the play could easily stand on its own, comparable to Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu, John Updike’s essay tribute to Ted Williams in his last game. What would Mays’s career have been like without that defining moment?
A book like WILLIE MAYS: THE LIFE, THE LEGEND has implications beyond baseball readers. For that reason, I didn’t mind the exposition that Hirsch offers on a few occasions, describing people, places and events that most serious fans of the game should already know. Rather, the book should be considered not within the narrow label of “baseball biography” but in the broader arena of America in the Boomer Generation.
Reviewed by Ron Kaplan on January 24, 2011