Book review: Willie Mays - The Authorized Biographyby Chris Jaffe
March 01, 2010
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.
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 and 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.
History instructor by day, statnerd by night, Chris Jaffe leads one of the most exciting double lives imaginable; with the exception of every other double life possible to imagine. Despite his lack of comic-book-hero-worthiness, Chris enjoys farting around with this stuff. His new book, Evaluating Baseball's Managers is available for order. Chris welcomes responses to his articles via e-mail. Oh, and now he's on twitter.
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