The book: “Willie Mays: The Life, The Legend”
The author: James S. Hirsch
The vital stats: Simon and Schuster, 628 pages, $30
The pitch: Because of the effort Hirsch took in just getting Mays to agree to this book — and he documents well here in the the final chapter — this was worth our effort to plow through the 600-plus pages and do this one right.
The persistence of Hirsch, who also wrote “Hurricane: The Miraculous Journey of Rubin Carter,” allows Mays’ story get told in total — starting with his young, unmarried parent’s discovery that they were having him (she was 16, he was 19), raised mostly by his aunt, with his father’s guidance into sports … all the way to his mentoring of Barry Bonds and consulting with him on how to handle his steroid issues.
There is plenty of paragraph worship in Hirsch’s prose — which is how most of America has also embraced the Mays’ legacy. So that can’t be so much denied. Still, included are lesser investigation into Mays’ darker sides, addressing the public attacks made on him by Jackie Robinson in the 1960s for his lack of political activism, his probable use of amphetamines as a player, his often brisque demeanor around people.
Because the book is authorized by Mays, there seems to be a little holding back, so as to not worry that he would shut down the project. In a way, it would almost be better if Hirsch had the same approach to this as David Maraniss had with his 2006 classic “Clemente” — without the player around, there’s more freedom to dig into darker matters.
Hirsch explains that he may have been at a disadvantage doing this: He’d never seen Mays play, doesn’t live in either New York or San Francisco, and isn’t a Giants fan. Nor did he know anyone associated with the Giants of Major League Baseball.
Again, going back to the theory that people want to revisit their heroes of the past, Hirsch writes:
“If Mays’s skills are underappreciated, his achievements have been given a boost by the Steroid Era, which has caused fans to pine for a game that they could still associated with honesty and innocence. Baseball has always been an imperfect institution, but as much as anyone, Mays evokes its highest ideals. His legacy, ultimately, will never be about 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.”
In the process of Hirsch’s research, we learn new things about Mays that we didn’t from previous works, including the 1988 “Say Hey: The Autobiography of Willie Mays” with Lou Sahadi, and the 1966 “Willie Mays: My Life In and Out of Baseball” with Charles Einstein.
All of this made us wander back to the day in 1971, a Giants-Dodgers game at Dodger Stadium, when we went out and saw the Dodgers celebrate Mays’ 40th birthday with a giant cake set out behind home plate with all the candles blazing. It was a strange experience for me, having lived through the Dodgers’ hated rivalry with the Giants. Would San Francisco ever do this for Don Drysdale?
But then, in this book, it recounts Mays’ role in the John Roseboro-Juan Marichal fight in 1965 — why do all the books in this series seem to rehash that bloody scene? Mays was the peacekeeper, leading Roseboro off the field, surrounded by Dodger players, with a famous picture taken of that scene (and included in the book).
The book, on page 463, recounts a Dodgers-Giants game a year later. In an extra inning game at Dodger Stadium — Mays started in right field because he was nursing an injury — he limped to first on a walk, went to third on a single to right and, when Lou Johnson’s throw went into second base, took off for home plate. Jim Lefebvre threw home to Roseboro. Mays crashed into him. Umpire Tony Venzon called Mays out. Mays pointed to the dirt where the ball laid. Venzon changed his call to safe.
The Dodgers fans “applauded Mays as he limped to the dugout,” Hirsch wrote. Really? Did those same fans cheer when the Giants won the game on that unearned run (Roseboro was charged with an error).
A Dodger fan couldn’t help but appreciate what Mays did on the field. In 1971, the Giants edged out the Dodgers for the NL West title. Mays still had a couple of years left in the tank. That was worth seeing.
Just as this book was worth the effort to get through.
How it goes down in the scorebook: “I’m a ballplayer,” Mays was once quoted as saying during a time in 1968 when he was being challenged about his beliefs on the hot topics of that volatile time. “I’m not a politician or a writer or a historian. I can do best for my people by doing what I do best.” Just as Hirsch did best with what he did best — research and write this epic research paper. Those who want to judge Mays’ contribution to society and beyond can’t really use Hirsch’s commentary beyond the source. Hirsch did a fine job; let others who saw Mays play and are much closer to him have the final call on his legacy.
Also: Please don’t overlook “Willie’s Boys: The 1948 Birmingham Black Barons, The Last Negro League World Series, and the Making of a Baseball Legend” by John Klima (linked here). Amazon has a Q-and-A with Klima for more background on how he got the information from Mays and other players about that team.