on April 13, 2010
This is more than a baseball book. It is a history of Jim Crow America from the 20's through the 60's. For those who have no experience, memory or knowledge of a segregated America, this book will be quite an eye opener. In addition, Willie Mays is someone who little has been written about, other than his great baseball talent. He helped open the gates for a quota free desegregation of baseball. And he did it his way: with a smile on his face and the thickest of skin. Bravo to James Hirsch for a well-written and sell-researched book.
on December 1, 2010
He does so in this book.
I feel a bit of sadness about Willie, having read this book, the same sadness I had as a 9-year-old in 1973, watching him stumble when rounding second, trying to go from first to third on a single, in the 1973 World Series, and having to crawl back to second.
Whether due more to innate personality tendencies, his own reactions to segregation in his native Alabama in general, or associated with baseball, his family of origin, or a combination of this and more, it's sad that he doesn't open up even more.
And while I, being Caucasian, am in no position to judge Willie on his activism in civil rights, and agree with him that we don't all have the same temperament, Hirsch does show how Robinson and Aaron could wish so hard for more from him and be frustrated he didn't give that.
But, Mays ultimately lived for baseball above all else. And Hirsch shows that, too.
Speaking of that, I'm sure Bowie Kuhn's ban on Mays' associating with baseball while doing casino work had to kill him. Something else it would have been nice to have him open up more about.
But, the not opening up is itself part of Mays. Hirsch also does a good job of showing how Mays, in his own quiet way, refuted or rejected various stereotypes.
A good sports bio.
on February 11, 2010
The first thing that I feel is beneficial to point out to all potential readers is that it doesn't matter who your favorite team is... if you're an old school baseball fan you will absolutely love this book! The author covers in excruciatingly tantalizing detail the world of baseball in the 1940's... 50's... 60's... and 70's. This is the time period that has lovingly been described as both the "GOLDEN-AGE-OF-BASEBALL"... and also been blessed with the poetic ribbon of admiration as the period when "BASEBALL-WAS-STILL-A-GAME!" And no one before or since played with such youthful uninhibited exuberance as Willie "THE-SAY-HEY-KID" Mays. The author leads you from Willie's childhood days in Birmingham Alabama and sheds an informative affectionate light on Willie's Father Cat Mays who was also a good ballplayer and also the young woman... actually just a young girl... his thirteen-year-old Aunt Sarah who was the main female/mother presence in his daily life. Young Willie was so talented that he played professional baseball when he was fifteen-years-old thus giving up his high school baseball eligibility. Willie played in the final years of the Negro League and of course he idolized Jackie Robinson. His favorite player was Joe DiMaggio and Joltin' Joe is who he patterned his batting stance after. He also enjoyed following Stan Musial and Ted Williams. When Willie was ten-years-old he even told people to call him "DiMag".
When he signed with the New York Giants he had a meteoric rise through the minors and when the Giants promoted him from Minneapolis to New York the fans loved him so much in Minneapolis the Giants owner placed an ad in the Minneapolis paper apologizing for taking Willie away from them. Where this intensely dogged story explodes into an even higher gear (in this old-school-fanatics opinion) is when he gets to New York and plays for the man who would become his mentor... protector... Father figure... and PR staff... the inimitable Leo "THE LIP" Durocher. No stone is left unturned and none of the course language on the field and in the locker room is spared. Having been a fan of Durocher from his Dodger days I had to laugh and acknowledge the authenticity of "The-LIP'S" words when after Willie started his big league career off with an 0 for 12 slump at the plate... and then got his first hit... a home run off of future Hall Of Fame pitcher Warren Spahn... Durocher was quoted as saying: "I NEVER SAW A *darn* BALL LEAVE A *darn* PARK SO *darn* FAST IN MY *darn* LIFE." "The savior had arrived."
Another refreshing ability in the author's work is that he does not hesitate for a second in sharing Willie's weaknesses as well as his Superman like strengths. When documenting the famous comeback in the 1951 pennant chase when the Giants overcame the Dodgers "insurmountable" lead to force a 2 out of 3 playoff series... which of course led to Bobby Thompson's "SHOT HEARD ROUND THE WORLD" that won the pennant... it so happened that Mays was on deck. Willie admits to praying while he was on deck: "PLEASE DON'T LET IT BE ME. DON'T MAKE ME COME TO BAT NOW, G-D." This surprising weakness in Mays's self-confidence became pivotal in Mays future. "HE WAS EMBARRASSED BY HIS TIMIDITY, ASHAMED THAT HE DID NOT WANT TO BE THE MAN AT THE PLATE WITH THE GAME ON THE LINE. HE WAS DETERMINED TO CHANGE THAT."
This book has encyclopedic power as it delivers FIVE-HUNDRED-SIXTY-SIX-PAGES of hypnotic information ranging from Willie battling Hall Of Famer centerfielders Duke Snider of the Brooklyn Dodgers and Mickey Mantle of the New York Yankees for supremacy of a city... let alone the world. And the magical 1954 World Series which of course included one of the greatest catches in the history of baseball... and is the last time the Giants whether in New York or San Francisco ever won a world championship. It also includes Willie going in the Army despite his trying to... and failing to get out through legal challenges. Again the author and Willie pull no punches when they write: "BUT TO HIS CREDIT HE NEVER EXAGGERATED HIS MILITARY SERVICE OR MADE HIMSELF OUT TO BE A FALSE HERO. AS HE SAID IN AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY, I HAVE NO PRIDE IN MY ARMY CAREER, BUT I HAVE NO APOLOGIES FOR IT EITHER. I DID WHAT THE MAN SAID." Like I said a beautifully documented *true*-life story. There are also SIXTY-FIVE PAGES OF ACKNOWLEDGMENTS... NOTES... BIBLIOGRAPHY... and INDEX. It's all here including the heated hatred-fueled rivalry between the Dodgers and Giants (It should be noted that Willie was one player who the Dodger fans applauded at Ebbets Field)... to Willie's reaching the pinnacle of national success and adoration which ranged from national magazine covers to actress Tallulah Bankhead stating: "THERE HAVE BEEN TWO GENIUSES, WILLIE MAYS AND WILLIE SHAKESPEARE." And of course there was the decline of the once great Mays as he stayed too long and finished his career with the Mets. Note: The author made a historical statistical mistake on page 189 when he said Willie finished second in the league in home runs behind Gil Hodges in 1954. Actually Willie was third. "Big" Ted Kluszewski of the Cincinnati Reds led the league with forty-nine home runs... Hodges was second with forty-two... and Willie was third with forty-one.
You won't be able to read this SIX-HUNDRED-PAGE-BOOK in one sitting... but you'll be glad you can't... because every page is a gift to true baseball fans.
on November 24, 2011
Take it from a baseball fan of over 50 years and a baseball historian of some note: This is a great book and one of the best baseball biographies I've ever read. The author has done an outstanding job of capturing the essence of the man, Willie Mays, and the magnificant yet tragically flawed era, the 1950's and 60's, in which he played. Don't pay any attention to the any of the low rated reviews (I'm wondering if they actually read the same book I did!) If you love baseball and baseball history, you're going to love this one.
Some reviewers say the author spends too much time on the Civil Rights era and not enough time on Mays himself. Huh?? Here's a quote from one:
"...what the reader gets is a history of Civil Rights, Jim Crow Laws, and a period in American that most people would soon forget. Less than 25% of book is devoted to the story behind Willie Mays, his fellow ball players, and the game itself."
To me, this is a totally unjustified criticism. How could one possibly write a definitive biography about an African-American superstar, agruably the greatest player of all time, who broke into the Major Leagues in 1951 just a few years after Jackie Robinson, and ignore this important topic, or fail to develop it fully. What credible author would produce a biography like that? Can you imagine the criticism? A major part of Willie Mays' career and personality was formed by the racial context of the America in which he lived and played, and how he reacted to that context. It's an important part of his story.
My favorite part of the book is the description of the relationship between Mays and manager Leo Durocher, developed beautifully by the author. We learn that the affection was mutual and was most definitely real. Durocher, a Hall of Fame manager, and his wife, the lovely actress Lorraine Day, loved Mays like a son. This in itself was quite progressive in the racially-charged 1950's. I'm quite certain that Durocher's greatest contribution to baseball was taking a young, naive Willie Mays under his wing when he was the most vulnerable - at the very beginning of his career, when his success at the Major League level was very much in doubt. He knew when to massage Willie's fragile ego and how to build his confidence, inserting himself into Mays' life as surrogate father, and allowing him to develop into one of the game's all-time greats.
Read this wonderful exchange between Mays and Durocher when Leo found Mays crying, after starting out his career 1 for 24:
"Mr. Leo," Mays said, "I can't help you. I can't even get a hit. I know I can't play up here, and you're gonna send me back to Minneapolis. That's where I belong. I don't belong up here. I can't play up here..."
"What do you mean you can't hit? You're going to be a great ballplayer! Look son. I brought you up here to do one thing. That's to play center field. You're the best center fielder I've ever looked at. Willie, see what's printed across my jersy? (Mays nodded). It says Giants. As long as I'm the manager of the Giants, you're my center fielder. Today, tomorrow, next week, next month. You're here to stay."
It's hard to imagine what may have happened to Willie Mays had Durocher not been there to guide him as he made the difficult transition to the Majors. Durocher would never hesitate to proclaim that Mays was the greatest player he ever saw (and he saw a lot - his career went all the way back to the Yankees of Babe Ruth in 1925). This led to one of my all-time favorite baseball quotes. Extolling Mays' virtues, Leo once blurted out (paraphrasing):
"He can run, he can hit, he can hit with power, he can throw, he can catch...if he could cook, I'd marry him!"
To say that this book doesn't cover Willie's negatives as well as his positives (as some reviewers have said) is again just not accurate. Actually just the opposite is much closer to the truth. I felt that I came to know Willie Mays the man - warts and all. Like all of us, Willie Mays had his flaws and was far from perfect. I'm much more aware of that now after reading this book. To me, that's the making of an excellent biography. I don't want a sanitized version...I want the truth.
Other reviewers imply that the book is too long. That criticism may have some justification. But I found myself enjoying the book more and more as I went along. I don't feel any topic was overplayed, and I can't imagine editing out any sections.
Overall, this is an excellent biography. I'm glad that I read all 556 pages, and I would heartily recommend it to all.
on July 13, 2010
I was one of those kids of the late 50s and early 60s fortunate to grow up in the Bay Area, old enough to be a Giants fan, and lucky enough to have a dad who took me to several games at Candlestick. So I got to see Mays in action numerous times, as well as his amazing teammates of that era: Willie McCovey, Juan Marichal, Orlando Cepeda, Jim Davenport, et al. My dad and I even got to sit in a third base box for the sixth game of the 1962 World Series. I was in heaven, especially when the Giants won.
I was one of those who grew up and into my adulthood thinking that Willie Mays was the best ballplayer of all time. This book confirms that. Now I know for sure that he was. Not only was a genuine, all-around, complete ballplayer, but he was a gentleman, modest, and a very kind man. He was and still is my hero. God Bless Willie Mays. And God Bless James Hirsch for writing this wonderful biography.
on November 4, 2013
Utilizing over one hundred interviews, several thousand articles in magazines and newspapers, documentaries about Mays, and the cooperation of Mays himself, James Hirsch has produced the first major biography of the great Giant centerfielder. It is well-written, engaging, and entertaining. Beginning with his early years in Birmingham, Alabama, moving to Mays’ time in the black major leagues, focusing on his major league career in New York and San Francisco, and ending with his life after baseball, the author presents a portrait of a complex individual who needed praise and encouragement, not criticism, to perform at his best. Leo Durocher, his first manager, understood this, but not all of his successors did.
Hirsch thoroughly covers Mays’ career. There is “the catch” in the 1954 World Series, the daring base running (e.g., scoring from second twice on groundouts to first base and scoring from first on a bunt), the throws from the outfield that cut down runners at third base and home plate, the four homers in one game, the 1962 pennant race, his role as peacemaker in the Juan Marichal-John Roseboro incident, and his return to New York in a Mets uniform. We see Mays being mentored by Monte Irvin early in Willie’s career, only later to serve the same role to Jim Ray Hart and Bobby Bonds. Hirsch brings out Mays’ not wanting to face Ralph Branca as Willie waited in the on-deck circle with Bobby Thomson at the plate in the crucial third playoff game with the Dodgers in 1951. Mays would soon overcome this fear and relish the role of being at the plate when the game and/or the season were on the line.
Hirsch does not overlook the troubled times in the life of Mays. He discusses Jackie Robinson’s criticism of Mays for not using his high profile position to publicly speak out for civil rights. Whenever Mays experienced discrimination, he did not publicize the incident, not wanting to draw attention to himself. He let his play on the field win white fans over to his side. The author also deals with the years of struggle it took Mays to win over the fans in San Francisco. Nevertheless, some in the press continued to attack him as an overpaid, underproductive ball player, especially during crunch time. Mays had a rocky road with the reporters, not trusting them and refusing to reveal his inner self to them. He also suffered from a disastrous first marriage, faced bankruptcy in the early 1960s despite being the highest paid player in the game, and was ostracized from baseball from 1979 to 1984 when he became a greeter at an Atlantic City casino. Hirsch also does not neglect Mays’ relationship with his godson, Barry Bonds, and the issue of steroids. After his career ended, Mays even faced the innuendo that he had used amphetamines during his playing days.
Mays the human being is shown by his love for children and teenagers. He would constantly visit hospitals to see the sick, giving boys and girls autographed baseballs or pictures as well as words of encouragement. He would speak to youth groups, telling them not to smoke or drink (neither of which he did) and providing community groups with sports equipment. He even reached out to troubled youth, including a teenage O. J. Simpson, who was running with a gang, but he refused to testify as a character witness at Simpson’s murder trial. He would help friends without asking for anything in return.
The author concludes that “Ruth was baseball’s most dominant player; Mays was its greatest master.” (553) Not only could Mays run, field, throw, hit, and hit for power, he was one of the most intelligent men to play baseball. Before there were pitching and hitting charts, Mays studied pitchers to see what they would throw in certain situations and hitters in order to correctly position himself in the outfield. Some of his greatest catches were made because of where he positioned himself in the outfield prior to the pitch. His endurance is seen in an unequalled streak of 13 seasons of playing in 150 or more games. Among his records are for at-bats, hits, total bases, and runs scored in the All-Star game. Unfortunately, like many other superstars, he stayed in the game too long, and the last memory of this great defensive outfielder was his misjudging a fly ball and pleading on his knees of an umpire’s call at home plate in the second game of the 1973 World Series.
This is a must read for those interested in baseball biography and baseball in the 1950s and 1960s.
on September 27, 2015
This is the definitive bio on perhaps the greatest all around ballplayer ever (As a huge Henry Aaron fan it pains me to say that but I must). Hirsch's book is very researched and thorough and never boring.This is a must read for all baseball fans.
on January 6, 2011
While we all know Willie Mays is one of the best baseball players ever, Mr. Hirsch also wrote one of the best biographers ever too. Mr. Hirsch captures the reader's attention and never let's go. The book includes details of baseball while also capturing personal moments. After reading the book, I have a greater appreciation of Willie Mays and others who played during his time. This book is not just for baseball fans, it is for all those can appreciate a story about someone who worked their way to the top of their profession.
There's no doubt that Willie is one of the greatest all-around players in baseball history. He was a tremendous player and set dozens of records that still stand. However, in many of these sports stories, all the player has is 'the game' and hasn't prepared for the life after the sport. I know the managers and friends are all making money from the player, but along the line, you would think that a counselor or colleague would take the player aside and ask, "What's your plans after your knees give out? Or your eyes and hearing?" The book is long and somewhat tiresome after the author describes in great detail certain games, and who was doing what, or thinking what. I look forward to the abbreviated edition in large print, and more photos.
on April 11, 2011
This is the best sports biography I've read in years. Very readable and without pointless digressions, it's a fascinating look at the legend on and off the field. Having been a child when Mays was ending his career, it was interesting for me to read of the early and middle years. And of his years with the Mets Hirsch gives a balanced, unhyped portrayal. With a fine eye for the telling detail, this book is a deserved bestseller.