Recently I was contacted by a publisher and asked if I would read and review James S. Hirsch’s authorized biography of Willie Mays. Jumping at the prospect of not just a free book but a sensational read, I of course accepted the request.
As a fairly young Giants fan, the legends of my time have been of the Barry Bonds mold–amazing ballplayer, surly, and universally hated by everyone outside of San Francisco (the same mold applies to Jeff Kent). That being so, it would be no bold statement to say that Willie Mays played in the golden era of Giants history, alongside Hall-of-Famers such as Willie McCovey, Juan Marichal, and Orlando Cepeda. Try naming a team today that can boast four players bound for the Hall and I’m willing to bet you’d come up short.
Reading a book recounting the intimate details of the Say Hey Kid’s life further cemented in my mind the shear magnitude of the Mays legacy. In an interview I did with the author last Friday, an interesting point came up, namely that no other player’s career had “overlapped as many eras, cultures, and communities.” His professional baseball career began “at the height of the Negro Leagues,” and continued on in New York in the mid-50’s, an era considered to be the height of baseball’s popularity. After New York, the Giants moved out to California where the age of West Coast baseball began, with Willie Mays as the poster child. You’d be hard-pressed to find another ballplayer who transcended so many eras over the course of a career, making this all the more impressive.
As a fan of the game today, my point of reference for a “Mays-esque” ballplayer is in seeing Andruw Jones patrol centerfield in the early 00’s. Or seeing Barry Bonds hit a ball off a wall over the fence in straightaway center with a label stating that “It’s 491 feet to this sign.” The term “5-tool player” is commonly used to describe the greats of today. James Hirsch makes the observation though that Willie Mays was “the first 5-tool player.” Hirsch goes on to say that Willie “became the benchmark for all future players who would presume to be complete players.” In that way, it’s hard not to see the massive effect he has on the modern came we know today. Coming out of the bulked-up “Steroids Era” where the bodybuilder-sized Jose Canseco’s of baseball reigned supreme, we’re seeing a resurgence of the focus on the elusive complete package for a ballplayer.
From his childhood days playing for his father Cat Mays’ company team, to his days in the Negro Leagues, to his eventual call-up to the New York Giants, Willie Mays: The Life, The Legend is about as comprehensive as a biography can get. As a reader you get a unique perspective of the Mays that no one really knows. Beneath the “Say Hey Kid” persona that he projected, Willie was largely a shy, private figure loved the spotlight that his stardom brought, but hated the scrutiny that seemed to come hand-in-hand with being a national icon. Hirsch summed it up by stating simply that “Willie doesn’t trust people.”
My own personal experience of Mays, while contemporary, is still significant. My most prominent memory of him is at the 2007 All-Star Game. Having been lucky enough to be in attendance, I was able to watch firsthand as the Giants held a moving tribute to Willie accompanied by a scoreboard-sized picture of his famous catch in the 1954 World Series against Vic Wertz of the Cleveland Indians. Even having not watched Mays in his playing days, it was hard not to feel an enduring sense of reverence. What’s amazing about Mays is that even to those who didn’t see him play, he still possesses a cultural resonance that seems to transcend the generation gap. This is something James Hirsch, as his officially biographer, got to experience firsthand.
From cover to cover, this is a book that will offer up a point of view never before seen of an iconic figure in baseball lore and Giants history. Hirsch sums it up perfectly in his author’s note:
“When I went back outside, I saw that there were now twenty people waiting to have their photos taken next to the Mays statue. I realized then that it was my job to tell those people what was inside that bronze sculpture. It was worth the wait.”
And indeed it was worth the wait. If you’re a Giants fan or a simply a baseball fan, this biography is a must-read if you want to begin to understand how one man completely shaped America’s past-time.