Book review: Willie Mays – The Authorized Biography

Mays admits to few sadnesses, and won’t here, but the void is apparent.

Author James S. Hirsch, Willie Mays: The Life, the Legend, Authorized by Willie Mays, page 552.

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Willie Mays – few names burn brighter in baseball’s collective consciousness than his. Thus the fact that a new, authorized biography of him has come out is rather noteworthy. Author James S. Hirsch has written a book based on his considerable access to Mays over the past few years. He’s interviewed Mays numerous times, looked at Mays’ personal documents, photographs, and other material, and been directed by Mays on who to interview.

That said, Hirsch hasn’t relied solely on Mays for his research, but also worked on his own to conduct interviews with more than 100 people from Mays’ life and consult more than 100 books and God only knows how many articles that came out during Mays’ career. Whatever other faults one might find with this book, I don’t think lack of research will be one.

If you want to know about Mays’ career, you’ve come to the right place, as the heart of the book is an exhaustive study of his playing days. Actually, exhaustive isn’t the best word, as that makes it sound exhausting. After all, far too many baseball books get so lost in the minutia of the various games and at-bats that the larger perspective disappears, leaving one with a sense of endless, numbing repetition.

Hirsch avoids that common pitfall while still providing thorough coverage of The Say Hey Kid’s career. He achieves this in part by sheer writing ability, but also by keeping an eye out for the larger focus. By larger focus, I mean not only pennant races, but what else was going on in Mays’ life and society as a whole (most importantly with regard to race) that influenced the games.

That said, this is still a baseball biography first and foremost. In fact, the book essentially comes to an end when Mays retires from the field. The last 36 years of his life appear solely in a 24-page epilogue, a rather jarring shift from his MLB career, which Hirsch covers in 29 chapters over the previous 452 pages.

While the book describes his career, getting to know Mays the man is a bit trickier. Though Mays agreed to multiple interviews with Hirsch, that doesn’t mean he poured out his soul to the author. He’d confirm what happened, but not go into his internal emotions.

Hirsch sounds like he’s just guessing when discussing his subject’s dating and sex life, and has only a hazy sense of the problems that led to the breakup of Mays’ first marriage. He has to infer how Mays reacted to his mother’s death in 1953.

Even some more minor items, such as a scathing article Bay Area columnist Glenn Dickey wrote about Mays, or an analysis of his strained relationship in the 1960s with teammate Orlando Cepeda are tea leaf readings based on outside sources rather than any thoughts directly from Mays. The book does an excellent job covering the whos, whats, and wheres of Mays’ baseball odyssey, but is foggy on the whys. The subject of the book remains a bit of a mystery.

In a way this enigmatic quality of Mays is more appropriate than if we got to know what he really felt about all his hardships and problems in life. One of the main themes of the book is how Mays grew from being the naïve kid to a man wary of being used by outsiders (because so many people tried to get a piece of him), and that wariness led to him keeping others at arm’s length.

Strange as it might sound, his unwillingness to get into the details of some issues gives a better idea of what he’s like than if he poured his heart out to Hirsch. After all, what’s he really going to say about his mother’s death? He felt bad about it, I’m sorry. Kurt Vonnegut once said there’s nothing intelligent to say about a massacre, and that’s true of other parts of life as well. The silences let us know what bugs Mays as effectively as him saying “this bugs me” would.

In fact, Mays’ reserve with others actually plays a role in one of his most pronounced and beloved characteristics: his interest in kids. In Hirsch’s book, one of the main reasons Mays liked spending time with kids was that they were some of the only people he thought he could trust. Adults would use him, but kids just admired him. In retirement, kids, pets, and former ballplayers were among the only people he fully trusted.

While the book is primarily a life-and-times biography, it tells many interesting tales about his life along the way. These range from fascinating factoids (when he retired Mays was older than every NL park except for Wrigley Field, and is the only man in baseball history to hit a home run in every inning from one to 16) to some humorous stories (such as Mays once pretending Giants manager Leo Durocher was his chauffer).

Some of the most memorable moments come when the book addresses the times when America’s racial problems directly affected Mays’ life. I suppose this shouldn’t be too surprising. Not only did Mays play during the height of the civil rights movement, but author Hirsch’s previous books, ranging from a biography of boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter to a look at the deadly 1921 Tulsa race riot, show an interest in this most volatile of American subjects.

Hirsch spends a chapter on Mays’ efforts to buy a house in San Francisco, and how some of the residents in the area fought like hell against it because they were sure a black man in the area would ruin property values. Other, similar anecdotes appear in the book (even in 1973 Mays had trouble renting the condo he wanted during spring training while the owner let whites in with ease). That said, it’s worth noting the only stories included are ones that had been previously published. As was normally the case with sensitive subjects, Mays confirms what happened, but won’t offer up much beyond that.

One issue I ought to address is how objective or accurate any authorized biography can be toward its subject matter. Such a book brings to mind the image of a one-sided, sanitized version of a player’s history instead of what actually was. In fact, one report notes that Mays signed on with this project versus others vying for an authorized biography at least in part because he’s getting a cut of the proceeds.

In this case, I don’t think the nature of the book causes any serious problems. It’s primarily a life-and-times history and it does a brilliant job on that. Is it largely positive toward Mays the person and ballplayer? Certainly, but that’s hardly the sign of a whitewashing. Most things written about Mays are positive, after all. Hirsch notes criticisms of Mays ranging from accusations that he was an Uncle Tom to grumpiness as he aged. Hirsch disagrees with them, and his reasons seem understandable, even if one disagrees with his interpretation.

Also, Hirsch includes some criticism of his own, perhaps most notably later in the book saying that Mays isn’t a very good friend. Probably the biggest problem with Hirsch’s interpretations come when he exaggerates Mays’ greatness, something for which Rob Neyer took the book to task. Regardless, Hirsch is far from a knee jerk Mays apologist.

At any rate, I don’t put too much stock in the notion of objectivity as we all approach a subject through our own points of view. Pretending otherwise is dishonest, not objective. With an authorized biography, you don’t expect an especially critical appraisal of the subject. Hirsch notes the interpretations were his, and that’s easy to believe. Mays had the manuscript read to him (glaucoma prevents him from reading it personally) and he only offered one minor change. Actually, the money issue can give Hirsch more authority in the book, as Mays gets something other than final editorial control.

In all, it’s a fine baseball biography of Willie Mays, but I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s the Willie Mays of baseball biographies. Then again, that’s hardly an insult.

Random sidenote: Willie Mays tracer

One random bit of research inspired by the book: Back when he was an assistant for Bill James, Neyer used to look up “tracers” – take an anecdote and do the digging to see if it holds up. Neyer even wrote an entire book of these tracers not so long ago.

Anyhow, that leads to the following story on page 326:

It cannot be said that Mays hustled on every play during the year, but his individual effort was memorable. Twice in 1960, for example, he scored from first base on a single, though neither time was he running with the pitch. The Giants won both games by a single run. In one instance, against Chicago, Mays took advantage of the right fielder’s lackadaisical throw into second base to score in the ninth.

Looking it up, the Giants won 23 games by one-run in 1960. Mays scored in eight of them.

Sure enough, just as the book says, twice he scored from first on a single. The first came on April 25 against the Cardinals in the seventh inning. When Willie McCovey singled, Mays motored home to cut a Cardinals lead to one run. The Giants went ahead for good in the next inning.

On May 30, in the second game of a doubleheader, came the incident Hirsch described in more detail. He scored against the Cubs with one out in the bottom of the ninth to give the Giants a 5-4 win. The Retrosheet gamelog doesn’t mention where the throw came from, but second baseman Jerry Kindall got an error on the play.

References & Resources
The book itself was obviously my main resource.

I used Retrosheet for the end bit.

Kurt Vonnegut’s massacre line comes from Slaughterhouse Five.

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Comments

  1. Jonathan Fellows said...

    It might be interesting to do a “compare and contrast” between Mays’ two autobiographies (one with Charles Einstein written in 1966 and updated in 1972, the other with Lou Sahadi written in 1988) and this book.

  2. Gilbert said...

    Scoring from 1st on a 7th inning single (presumably McCovey wasn’t as slow in 1960 as in his later years) is more impressive than in the bottom of the 9th since the ball could have been hit hard enough for a double and the batter was just cruising enough to get to 2nd if there was an out at home, and the scorer called it a single.

  3. DrBGiantsfan said...

    I’ve just started reading the book.  A couple of things strike me so far:

    1.  Despite being born to unwed teenagers and essentially abandoned by his mother, Willie Mays father, in his own way, took responsibility for him and was the dominant force in creating the man and ballplayer he would become.

    2.  Despite having all the “tools” in the world, his future success in baseball was helped immensely by being taught the “skills” almost from the time he was born.

    3.  His father’s philosophy, passed on to his son, of surviving, and even prospering, in the face of racial repression, reminds me very much of a Chinese language movie I saw a long time ago call Ju Dou(or something like that), “To Live” about a Chinese man who survived several revolutions by finding ways to adapt to whoever happened to be in power at the moment.

  4. Jon said...

    The only void is the part of his career where he drank “red juice” and never had the media come down on him the way they did Bonds, McGwire, et al.

    A cheat is a cheat. If I have to hear the incessant complaining about those guys, I think the whole world should know about Mays.

  5. allly said...

    Doesnt seem like Mays needed any special circumstances to go 1st to home on a single – he probably did it over 30 times in his career. In 1966 he did it twice in one game, and he did it twice in one game in 1956. He also went 1st to home on a single to left in 1961 and 1968. Picked this off the Mays thread in Baseball Fever

    On May 18, 1966 its Mays baserunning – he goes first to home on an error in the 1st and first to home on a single in the 8th
    GIANTS 1ST: Fuentes singled to second; Davenport struck out;
    Mays reached on an error by Gilliam [Fuentes to second]; Hart
    reached on an error by Osteen [Fuentes scored (unearned), Mays
    scored (unearned), Hart to second]; Peterson was called out on
    strikes; Alou made an out to second; 2 R (0 ER), 1 H, 2 E, 1
    LOB. Giants 2, Dodgers 0.

    0 R, 0 H, 0 E, 0 LOB. Giants 2, Dodgers 3.

    GIANTS 8TH: Barton grounded out (pitcher to first); LANDRUM
    BATTED FOR MCDANIEL; Landrum walked; Fuentes singled to left
    [Landrum to second]; Lanier singled to center [Landrum scored,
    Fuentes scored (error by Lefebvre), Lanier to second]; MOELLER
    REPLACED OSTEEN (PITCHING); Mays was walked intentionally; Hart
    singled to right [Lanier scored, Mays scored (error by Fairly)
    (unearned) (no RBI), Hart to second]; Peterson struck out; Alou
    grounded out (shortstop to first); 4 R (3 ER), 3 H, 2 E, 1 LOB.
    Giants 6, Dodgers 3.

    Of course, Mays did something similiar ten years earlier –

    Retrosheet recently put up 1956 play by plays. 13/13 steals of 3rd base is impressive, but hardly the whole base running story for Mays.
    On May 8th against the Reds, Mays went from 1st to home on singles TWICE in the game.
    Then he did it again on May 11th against my Dodgers…so he went 1st to home on singles(to right) 3 times in a week.
    He does it again on September 4th against the Phillies on a single to center.
    Last edited by sandy1; 02-12-2010 at 04:02 PM.

  6. SharksRog said...

    I understand the comment about the run Willie Mays scored from first on a single perhaps stemming from Willie McCovey’s thinking that Mays would stop at third and that McCovey didn’t want to take any chances of making the second out of the inning at second base, thereby taking away the sacrifice fly possiblity.

    But four other factors strike me that might augur against that.

    First, since there was one out, McCovey’s stopping at first base left the possibility of an inning-ending double play in order.

    Second, if McCovey thought Mays was going to try to score, he likely would have tried to go to second base as a diversion, if nothing else.

    Third, given Mays’ speed and running instincts, it would seem that McCovey might have made a try for second with the idea of getting into a rundown and allowing Mays to score.

    And finally, since second baseman Jerry Kindall was given an error on the play, it would appear that Mays likely anticipated the possibility of a bobble by Kendall and beat the throw home.  Perhaps it might even have been Kindall’s knowledge that Willie might indeed try such an unorthodox play that contributed to his bobble.

    One of Willie’s many strengths on the bases was his great anticipation.  Another was his ability to slide hard into home plate, often causing the catcher to drop the throw home even if it beat Willie.

    If not for the error charge to Kindall I could understand that McCovey might have settle for first base, since he knew Mays was going to score anyway.  But the error to Kindall strongly indicates either that Mays was going to stop at third until a bobble or possibly even that the throw beat Willie home but was wild.  It is even conceivable that Kindall throw home to make sure Mays didn’t try to score—and threw wildly.

    As for McCovey’s speed, he never was a burner by any means, but until age and bad knees really slowed him up, he was a slow starter who could actually get moving at an above-average speed once he got going.

    This probably comes as a surprise to many, but it was McCovey in left-center field who actually made the only difficult play in Juan Marichal’s no-hitter over Houston.  In the top of the 7th Carl Warwick blasted a ball deep to left-center field.

    All eyes were on Mays, racing back and to his right.  Mays may well have made the catch, but the ball never quite got to him.  McCovey, who didn’t seem to even be in the play—perhaps because of the ballhawking ability of Mays and/or due to McCovey’s perceived lack of speed—picked the ball off on the high backhand before it could get to Willie.

    I can’t honestly say if Mays would have made the catch or not.  In a way it is hard to imagine that he wouldn’t have found SOME way to do so, but at some point there are laws of physics involved. Mays played a very shallow center field, so it is a virtual certainty that McCovey was playing deeper than Mays.  That McCovey made an unexpected play meant that Marichal didn’t have to rely on a stretching Mays speeding to save the no-hitter.

    It might also be noted that while Marichal had only five strikeouts in the game, he didn’t allow a ball in fair territory in the 9th inning of the no-hitter, finishing the game with a foul pop to first base and then two strikeouts.

    In addition to the no-hitter tension, the game itself was a very close affair.  Neither team was able to score until Chuck Hiller brought Jim Davenport home with a two-out double in the bottom of the 8th.

  7. SharksRog said...

    I doubt this is literally true, but when Willie Mays was called out at third base by Jocko Conlan on a very close play in the 1962 playoffs against the Dodgers, that was said to be the first time Mays had been thrown out at third base in his career.

    I saw Willie thrown out at third base on a throw from Roberto Clemente to Maury Wills late in the decade on another bang-bang play.  It is the only time I saw Willie thrown out among the scores of times he intentionally slowed down rounding a base in order to DRAW a throw so that a runner or runners behind could take an extra base.

    That ability was noticed and admired by Tom Seaver even when Willie went to the Mets late in his career and the two became teammates.

  8. ally said...

    Nicked this from the Baseball Fever Willie Mays thread again – describes the 1st to home play in 1960. The same thread also has Mays going 2nd to home on bunts in 1960 and scoring from 2nd on infield singles….maybe the next book on Mays should be exclusively on his baserunning

    “ In the ninth inning, Mays worked pitcher Seth Morehead for a walk with one out. Willie McCovey hit a ground ball between first and second into right field, and Mays sped merrily around to third base. Right fielder Bob Will – who has a fine arm – saw he had no play on Mays, so he nonchalantly threw the ball to Jerry Kindall, the Cub second baseman.
    Mays kept right on running, and scored – all the way from first on a routine single – with the tie-breaking run.
    Joshed Mays later : “ It was getting cold out there on the bases.” But more soberly he revealed that he had decided to keep running if Will threw to Kindall, as Mays suspected he might. But how, a reporter wanted to know, did Mays – with his back to the play as he steamed into third – know where Will was throwing the ball?
    Mays grinned. He just knew.

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