Willie Mays: The Life, The Legend
By James S. Hirsch
Authorized by Willie Mays
Published by Scribner
Copyright © 2010
Review: “The Catch”. A black and white moving image right out of the 1950’s. That is about all people know about Willie Mays. Is there anything else to know? For years there has been little written about him, but there has been so much to tell.
Willie Mays’ exploits on the diamond are well documented. The wonderful thing about baseball is that everything is quantified. But Willie Mays’ impact on the field can only be partially seen in the numbers. Hirsch gives us a glimpse into Mays’ passion for the game and his baseball intellect in a way that really helps you to see that he was the most complete player to ever grace the field. He hit for power, he hit for average, he had great base running ability, he had few equals in centerfield, and he had a cannon for an arm.
He brought the intangibles as well: knowledge, presence of mind, guile, and calmness among other things. He respected the game. That was one of the most important things to him. He brought the clubhouse together, or on many occasions, kept it from falling apart. He was a peacemaker; he protected players not just his teammates. And he never brought politics into baseball.
On the latter point, Willie Mays suffered many indignities as an African American, but he wasn’t much for confrontation. He would often suffer in silence. Many of his peers, other African American Athletes, thought he should rail against the system, that he should speak out for all African Americans, that he should use his baseball stardom as a means to publicize a civil rights agenda. Willie knew that he was helping the African American cause in his own way. Some people shout it out and tackle the issues head on, and some people just lead by example. Willie Mays fought prejudice one person at a time. He fought for civil rights not by being provocative but by being conciliatory, by promoting understanding not by making demands. Protesting was just not his way. Any cause needs both types of people.
What was really wonderful to see was his affinity for children. Willie knew too many adults could not be trusted. He knew that they would take advantage of him if they could, so he guarded himself with adults. But with children it was a different story. In his early years, playing for the New York Giants, he could be found in the streets playing stick ball with the neighborhood kids. Without any publicity he could be found in a children’s hospital ward trying to cheer up those who had bigger problems than him. He gave children as much attention as he possible could.
At 564 pages this is quite a hefty book. But it never drags. Never do you feel compelled to skip ahead. This a wonderful book that the amateur baseball historian will love. In the end though Hirsch has not just given us a book about a baseball, but rather a book about a great human being, and that should appeal to many more people.