Baseball hero Mays gets graceful biography
Willie Mays had it all: two Most Valuable Player awards, 12 Gold Gloves, 660 home runs, a place in the National Baseball Hall of Fame, even an honorary doctorate from Dartmouth. He had everything — except a first-rate biography.
That omission has now been addressed by James S. Hirsch, who has produced a piece of artistry worthy of Mays in center field: “Willie Mays: The Life, the Legend” is an authorized biography that doesn’t possess the whiff of disinfectant such works generally carry.
Indeed, Mays didn’t change a sentence, according to Hirsch, which was a good call. The writing here matches the grace of the feats it chronicles.
Try this: “Willie Mays’s rookie year would not be his finest or the year of his greatest celebrity, but it was his sunburst, creating a perception of athleticism, innocence, and joy that would shape the public’s view for years.”
We remember Mays for his years with the New York Giants and the San Francisco Giants (and repress our memories of his coda with the New York Mets), but his career began with the Fairfield Gray Sox, the Chattanooga Choo Choos and the Birmingham Black Barons.
It was with the Barons that he realized the game was performance art, and in the Barons’ ethos of speed and daring he found a playing style that peculiarly suited his skills. He had natural ability, to be sure, but he also had the gift of performing seemingly unnatural feats of dexterity.
Just as Mays’ experience in the Negro Leagues would shape his playing style, his life in black baseball — the long bus rides, the hanging of wet laundry in rooming houses and segregated hotels — would shape his outlook. All this, Hirsch writes, “contributed to his sense that baseball was really one big traveling family, quarrelsome at times, but beholden to the greater good of the clan.”
Mays came along at precisely the right time, when baseball ruled New York, America ruled the world, old ideas of race and class were dying, and television was changing the culture. It helped that Mays gave the Giants a star to match the Yankees’ Mickey Mantle and the Dodgers’ Jackie Robinson, and it couldn’t have been a coincidence that he was assigned to bat third and play center field, just like Joe DiMaggio.
“His skills shined brightly on a sluggish team in a plodding league,” Hirsch writes, “in a big-stage city that was about to lead a communications revolution.”
He wasn’t merely athletic. He was acrobatic. Hirsch devotes 31 paragraphs spanning four pages to a description of “The Catch” — the astonishing way Mays hauled down a ball hit by Vic Wertz in the 1954 World Series.
Mays transcended the Giants’ New York era and would excel on San Francisco Giants teams that included Orlando Cepeda, Juan Marichal, Felipe and Matty Alou and another Alabaman, Willie McCovey.
Still, this book about the good times of baseball is full of hard times. Mays had marriage problems and money problems, and racial unease (or worse) seethed just below the surface of baseball’s public face. There were, too, tensions between Mays and Robinson, and by the end of the 1960s Mays seemed hopelessly out of sync with the times.
“He was an authority figure when opposing authority was celebrated,” Hirsch writes. “He was a man of deference at a time of defiance.”
His decline, like that of so many athletes, was painful, and painful to watch. Back in New York with the Mets, he began by sculpting what Hirsch calls an “improbable return, awash in remembrance and renewal.” But in his last season, special intervention by the president of the National League was required to place him in the All Star Game.
His star had dimmed, but not his legacy. In the pages of this biography, it positively glows.
“Willie Mays: The Life, the Legend” is published by Scribner (628 pages, $30).
David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.