2012-06-14 / Opinions

Book Review

Willie Mays: The Life, the Legend
By James S. Hirsch
Reviewed by
Pegy Barnet

Willie Mays, one of baseball’s great figures, is a private person. He disliked interviews and making speeches. What he liked was playing baseball. Writer James Hirsch persuaded him to cooperate with this “authorized biography” because it would be an opportunity to define his legacy on and off the field. “I promised to keep his point of view front and center, but the conclusions and interpretations are my own.”

Growing up in rural Alabama near Birmingham, Mays knew poverty and difficulties, but his father “Cat” Mays trained him to be a ball player and to do the right thing. He says that both his friends and his teachers recognized that he had special talent and protected him “from a lot of things that ordinary people get in trouble with.”

While still in high school, he played ball with the Black Barons, a team in the Negro League. Hirsch says that his exciting style of play can be traced to those days. “The black game placed greater emphasis on speed, creativity, and daring…” The teams played to win, but also to entertain. Mays’ manager there was Piper Davis, the first of the older players (after Willie’s father) who guided and protected the young star. Many of the men he played with made it to the major leagues later, including Satchel Paige. When Willie faced Paige for the first and only time, he hit a double. Paige let him know that was to be all, and it was.

As the scouts began to take notice, Willie signed with the New York Giants to play in their minor league team in Trenton, N. J. He was the first black player in the league, and the owners hoped that there would be less hostility there than in some of the Southern towns. He had some struggles at the plate and endured many racial insults which he was able to ignore. He had to live alone in a boarding house because his white teammates lived in housing which refused black residents. But his teammates appreciated his skill and his engaging personality and stood up for him when needed. In later life, Mays acknowledged that ballplayers were the only people he really trusted.

The Giant management intended for Mays to spend a season in Minneapolis, his next minor team. However, he was so successful, and the Giants were struggling so, that he was called up to New York that summer, 1951. “Leo Durocher regaled reporters as well as his own players with stories about this young marvel he had seen in spring training.” Durocher, famous for being loud, profane, and obnoxious, loved and guided Mays in his early career. He knew that he responded to praise and kindness, and it paid off for both of them.

“Baseball reigned supreme in 1951, with games generating $55.4 million in ticket sales, more money than all the other sports combined.” The teams were concentrated in the Northeast, with no teams west of St. Louis and Chicago. Soon baseball and the new medium of television would be inseparable. It was during those years that Mays became famous for his amazing fielding and good hitting. Although later Mays and other stars would earn big salaries (for the times), the players had few rights and low earnings. Mays said famously, though, that he would have played for nothing.

He didn’t smoke or drink alcohol, and his friends helped him avoid bad situations, with fans wanting “a piece of him”. He has an adopted son; his first marriage ended in divorce, and his beloved second wife died several years ago. Mays lives on, spending time with children whenever he can. He probably never said, “Say hey!”, but it reflects his happy, friendly attitude that won him friends and fans. He played in 2,992 games, hit 660 career home runs, but is remembered best for his amazing performance in center field.

Willie Mays: The Life, the Legend is available at the Mary Willis Library.

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