Baseball Books Reviewed: Willie Mays

Willie Mays: The Life, The Legend by James S. Hirsch (Scribner, 640 pg., $30). HB, 2010.

In the world of baseball biography Willie Mays has been a strangely neglected subject, without doubt the most neglected of those superstars occupying the game’s rarefied heights. Fewer major biographies have been written about Mays than any other comparable baseball figure. Charlie Einstein’s Willie’s Time: A Memoir (1979) stood out as the only one of those books to rank as first-rate; and when my own book on Mays, a companion to the art show assembled to celebrate Willie’s 75th birthday, was published in 2007, it was the first book written about him for adults to be released in 20 years. As odd as this situation seemed, the causes of it were to be found in the subject himself: most notably Mays’ reputation as a person difficult and expensive to elicit cooperation from on such a project, as well as the notion that the major events of Mays’ baseball career had been chronicled well enough to need no further explication. These challenges were in addition to the normal ones facing any author attempting to write a comprehensive biography on any worthwhile subject, and they must have seemed imposing indeed. Fortunately, for all baseball literature fans and especially for the millions of us Mays aficionados, James S. Hirsch, the author of Willie Mays: The Life, The Legend, has proven himself to be up to the task, and brilliantly so.

The biggest hurdle facing Hirsch, of course, was overcoming Mays’ resistance, his suspicion of outsiders, his tendency to guard his privacy and innermost thoughts and feelings. In one of the most interesting and revealing “Author’s Notes” you will ever read, Hirsch explains that it took him seven years to get Mays to agree to do the book, and that was with one of Willie’s best, long-time friends running interference for him. The publisher’s brandishing “Authorized by Willie Mays” below the author’s name on the gold-banded cover is meant as a mark of licensing imprimatur from Mays’ point of view, no doubt, but it also promises (as does the book’s impressive thickness) that the book contains the parts of Willie that have remained previously hidden or inadequately explained.

Given the subjects’ cooperation and the length at which the author holds forth it is fair to expect him to provide new information, even for readers already very familiar with Mays’ life; and here Hirsch comes through repeatedly. Some of these bits of information simply move along the story while providing a glimpse of Mays’ personality, such as the funny crack he made when he entered the Giants spring training clubhouse for the first time upon returning from the army. Seeing naked and wet pitcher Sal Maglie toweling himself off, Willie asked him where he’d been. When Maglie replied “In the showers,” Mays said, “That’s just what I thought. Knocked out again.” Far more often, they fill in important blanks or reveal meaning. Hirsch clears up (as much as possible) Mays’ childhood family relationships; explains how the death of his boyhood bed-mate gave him a phobia of funeral homes and funerals; covers Mays’ military service and the controversy his preferential treatment caused; credits The Catch (in the ’54 World Series) with shaping Mays’ legacy as the brightest star of baseball’s beloved pre-modern era; documents Mays’ winter ball and barnstorming experiences (the Giants arranged for Willie to play in Puerto Rico to protect him from a media crush in the states); describes Mays as the “new archetype” who combined the abilities and styles of Cobb and Ruth; demonstrates what Mays risked by running the bases and sliding so aggressively; clarifies that Mays’ repeated fainting spells were the result of the exhausting way he played and lived; reminds the reader of how streaky Mays was as a hitter and how often he was knocked down by pitchers attempting to intimidate him; details his lukewarm welcome to San Francisco and the scandalous problems he had in buying the house of his choice; reviews Mays’ financial problems and his relationships with the people who tried to help him overcome them; recounts the effects on Mays of the failure of his first marriage; elucidates how Mays handled the downward side of his career; reveals how Mays really felt about his trade to the Mets; and on and on.

At least one other reviewer has complained about the space Hirsch gives to the civil rights movement, but this is nonsensical. Mays was criticized by prominent people for not doing his share in that arena, and in a book such as this he deserves his defense (mainly that confrontation was something that Mays was simply not comfortable with or suited for). The ground was also covered in Willie’s Time, but Hirsch could hardly have left it out; and his deft handling of Mays’ roles in the Roseboro-Marichal incident as well as the post-M. L. King assassination riots unequivocally establishes Willie’s stature as a peace-maker and compassionate human being.

Even more important than the little known factual information uncovered by Hirsch is the portrait of the man that slowly emerges on the canvas, brush stroke by brush stroke. Mays, of course, was not able to retain either his youth or the infectious innocence he displayed during his New York Giant years; but his innate goodness -highlighted by his generosity, modesty, refusal to criticize others, and love of children- is something that has never diminished or even been fully appreciated. Willie Mays, it turns out, has been as great a person as he was a ballplayer.

The unsatisfying part of this book is the “Epilogue” in which the author covers Mays’ life since his retirement. Here, the Say Hey Kid no one likes to be reminded of is dealt with; the distrustful, sometimes rude Mays who resents having been taken advantage of in the past. Here too are described the sad demise of Willie’s beloved second wife, Mae, and his own health problems. Yet, even as the reader can sense the need to begin to mentally prepare for life without the hero of this biography, Hirsch provides in these final pages glimpses and assessments that will help to cushion the blow. “His (Mays’) legacy, ultimately,” Hirsch writes, “will never be about his numbers, his records, or how he helped his team to win. It will be about the pure joy that he brought to fans and the loving memories that have been passed to future generations so they might know the magic and beauty of the game.”

Reviewed by: Mike Shannon (March 25, 2010)

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