More Hardball would like to thank the generous people of Press Box Publicity for allowing us the opportunity to preview a copy of James S. Hirsch's authorized biography of the great Willie Mays, entitled Willie Mays, The Life, The Legend. The book itself was made available to the public on February 9, 2010. It is the first biography of Mays to go beyond 'The Catch' and the statistics to paint a portrait of the often enigmatic and complex man behind the smile that won the hearts of an entire nation. Willie Mays played baseball with a passion that is unmatched, and a talent no superlative could adequately capture.
First and foremost, this is the story of a man. We in this society, tend to overlook the humanity of those we raise to a godlike stature, and neglect to draw lessons from formative moments in the lives of those we esteem. What makes this book unique among other biographies of Mays, is that Hirsch was given access to dozens of people who knew and know Mays best. Childhood friends, teammates, opponents, and family all contribute unique anecdotes that provide a well-rounded and accurate portrayal. Hirsch takes care to describe Mays as honestly and unapologetically as possible. Mays himself makes no apologies to his critics and detractors. He is who he is, and for the first time, readers can get more than a passing glimpse of the pragmatic, and deeply thoughtful character of Willie Mays.
The book itself reads less like a biography, and more like a fast-paced novel. Hirsch masterfully edited what could have been a cumbersome amount of data and material down to a succinct narrative of an extraordinary life. I was immediately engrossed upon reading the prologue, and within minutes had completed the first four chapters. The book maintains this pace throughout, and it is an enjoyable ride. His strengths as a writer are evident in that it is not his voice that comes through, but those of his subjects. He brings an added dimension to Mays' story by breathing life the people who helped shape him, like his father 'Cat' Mays, his Aunt Sarah, and his many coaches and colleagues. Hirsch also handles the racial themes that served as an undercurrent to both Mays' life and life in America without glossing over any realities, or being too inflammatory.
Mays' legacy as baseball's first five-tool player is well documented in this book. From the apocryphal tale of his birth - where the doctor exclaimed "My God, look at those hands!" - to the very early training received from his father (himself a semi-professional baseball player) Mays seemed destined to be a phenomenal baseball player. While with the Birmingham Black Barons, his precociousness was humbled a bit by his more athletic teammates and his tough-as-nails coach, Piper Davis. Despite his obvious natural talents, Mays saw himself as an entertainer, and made sure to put on a show for the audience. It was this and his love for the game that propelled him at the young age of 20 to a brief stint in Triple-A, where he was almost immediately catapulted into the Major Leagues with the New York Giants.
His skills and passion helped him to become a public figure upon his arrival in New York, a reality that was often too much for the very private Mays to deal with. As a black baseball player, he was compared to Jackie Robinson, Hank Aaron, and Roberto Clemente and was all too often criticized for his apparent lack of political activism during the tumultuous Civil Rights Movement. Mays himself believed that by being the best person and baseball player he could be would do more to promote racial tolerance than being confrontational and adversarial. Despite being called an Uncle Tom on many occasions, Mays stuck to his own personal ethic and persevered. Mays unintentionally irritated some black players by making the sport appear effortless. Few people knew the physical toll Mays' exuberance and skill would have on him. Several times throughout his career, Mays was hospitalized after working himself into sheer exhaustion.
I never had the privilege of watching Mays play, but his legacy is such that many interviews with the talents of today acknowledge the astounding abilities of this great baseball player. After reading Hirsch's Willie Mays: The Life, The Legacy I feel as if I have not only been able to witness the rise of Mays' star, but I also came away with an understanding of who the man himself is. This book is encyclopedic in scope, but arresting in content and execution. It is an exemplary acknowledgement of a truly transcendental figure in baseball's history.