* RK Review: Willie Mays

February 25, 2010

The Life, The Legend, by James. S. Hirsch. Scribner, 2010.

The long-anticipated (authorized) 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 in getting the gig. He had been after Mays for almost seven years before finally getting approval. 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, among others. Perhaps it was such a high-level of writing that convinced Mays. Perhaps it was his advanced age (Mays will be 79 in May). Regardless, a lot of his fans say “It’s about time.”

Willie Mays may follow a straightforward route, but then 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 in New York in 1951 and became a darling of the city, albeit not in the same manner as the Commerce Comet across the river, better known as Mickey Mantle. Despite living in the media capital of the world, Mays was only able to garner 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 beats “negro” any day of the week.

When the Giants went to the West Coast for the 1958 season, San Franciscans, at first thrilled by having a major league team, soon cooled to Mays and his fellow transplants, preferring the new batch of “home grown” 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 down and out hostile, 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 ballfield for several more years, until the wear and tear of trying to be a super hero on a daily basis finally took their toll. His last years 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 wind-swept 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 he over-the-should catch, followed by an equally-amazing throw back to the infield. Hirsch’s rendition of the play could easily stand on it’s own, comparable to Updike’s tribute to Ted Williams in his last game. (By the way, the Library of America is publishing Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu: John Updike on Ted Williams, an annotated version of the famous essay, in May). What would May’s career been like without that defining moment?

A book like this 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 Willie Mays should be considered not with the narrow frame of a baseball biography, but in the broader arena of American life during the post-War years.

You can read more about the book from the author’s website and the publisher’s site.

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