'Willie Mays': The life and legend of a pioneering baseball player
A review of "Willie Mays: The Life, the Legend," James Hirsch's standout biography of the dazzling baseball player.
Special to The Seattle Times
'Willie Mays: The Life, the Legend'
by James S. Hirsch
Scribner, 624 pp., $39.99
For two decades, during baseball's golden era in America in the 1950s and '60s, Willie Mays was the game's incandescent star, a marvelous natural athlete who played the game like no one had before. He hit prodigious home runs, ran down fly balls with boyish abandon and made some of the most astonishing throws in baseball history. The combination of his on-field exploits and native charm captivated the nation and transformed the young black man from the segregated South into an American icon.
In "Willie Mays: The Life, The Legend," James Hirsch, author of "Hurricane: the Miraculous Journey of Rubin Carter," has written an enormously entertaining and wide-ranging biography — a fitting tribute to Mays, the Hall of Fame ball player, and a thoughtful account of the complex and often misunderstood man. That this book got written at all is a notable accomplishment. Mays is famously prickly with reporters and refuses most requests for interviews. After seven years of trying, Hirsch finally got Mays to meet with him and talk.
Born in 1931 near Birmingham, Ala., Mays grew up watching his father play professional baseball. Willie was also a standout football and basketball player, but there were far greater opportunities in baseball, even for African Americans. In 1948, at the age of 17, Mays joined the Birmingham Black Barons of the famed Negro Leagues and soon caught the attention of Major League scouts.
In 1950, he signed with the New York Giants, and a year later made his Big League debut, four years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier with the nearby Brooklyn Dodgers. New York was the center of the baseball universe with three teams and many of the sport's stars, including an aging Joe DiMaggio and rookie Mickey Mantle. Among the luminaries was the salty, tough-talking Giants manager Leo "the Lip" Durocher, who took Mays under his wing, often coddling the young phenom, who was hypersensitive to criticism.
True baseball fans will delight in the author's edge-of-seat game reports and picture-perfect descriptions of Mays' superlative talents. He was the game's first "five-tool" player, excelling at hitting, hitting for power, base running, throwing and fielding. One special treat: Hirsch devotes an entire chapter to Mays' legendary over-the-shoulder grab of Vic Wertz's line drive — known as "the Catch" — in the first game of the 1954 World Series.
This is a superb baseball book, but it's also a riveting narrative of Mays' life and times, ranging from his penchant for fancy suits to urban development in New York City to the giddy cult of celebrity. In the mid-1950s, Willie Mays was as famous as anyone in the country, gracing the cover of Time and other magazines and appearing on numerous television shows.
More impressive — and what distinguishes this book from the run-of-the-mill sports biography — is Hirsch's extensive and cogent take on race relations and the civil-rights movement both within and outside of baseball. Mays rarely spoke out against the injustices that he endured throughout his life — including racial taunting and housing discrimination in San Francisco — and he faced withering criticism for his silence, especially from Jackie Robinson. Hirsch makes the case that Mays did care, but it just wasn't in his nature to make a scene.
This is a 600-page book that never flags and educates as it entertains. But what I'm most grateful for is the chance to "see" the player whom I've only imagined. I grew up idolizing Willie Mays but was too young to ever see him play. This book makes me feel like I have.
David Takami is the author of "Divided Destiny: A History of Japanese Americans in Seattle."
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