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Willie Mays: The Life, The Legend
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19 of 23 people found the following review helpful
on February 11, 2010
Format: Hardcover
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.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
Format: Hardcover
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.
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12 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on April 13, 2010
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
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.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on January 7, 2011
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
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.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
Format: Hardcover
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.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on June 4, 2010
Format: Hardcover
There have been dozens of books about Mickey Mantle, Babe Ruth and Jackie Robinson. Amazingly, there have been but a handful of adult biographies about Willie Mays, a couple in which he purportedly participated (most notably WILLIE'S TIME: Baseball's Golden Age, written with Charles Einstein. Legend has it that the collaborators met at a function, and Einstein had to introduce himself to the Hall of Famer.)

Mays, worried about how he would come across, constantly refused importunings by authors. Until James S. Hirsch came along. He was nothing if not persistent, and the long-anticipated biography of the Say Hey Kid was worth the wait.

Hirsch, a former journalist for The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, certainly didn't have an easy time getting the gig. He had been after Mays for almost seven years before Mays finally relented. In the meantime, he wrote such books as TWO SOULS INDIVISIBLE: The Friendship That Saved Two POWs in Vietnam, and RIOT AND REMEMBRANCE: The Tulsa Race War and Its Legacy. Perhaps it was Hirsch's high level of writing that convinced Mays, or maybe it was the fact that the ex-ballplayer turns 79 in May. Whatever the reason, a lot of his fans say, "It's about time."

WILLIE MAYS: THE LIFE, THE LEGEND may follow a straightforward biographic route, but that's the kind of player and man he was, so it seems quite fitting that there is little in the way of theatrics in the telling. Hirsch portrays Mays as brilliant at his craft, even if he wasn't always the friendly guy people expected him to be.

Mays began his Major League career with the New York Giants in 1951 and became a darling of the city, albeit not in the same manner as the Yankees' Mickey Mantle, who played his home games just across the Harlem River. Despite living in the media capital of the world, Mays was able to garner only a fraction of the commercials and endorsements that supplemented Mantle's salary. Then again, this was America in the 1950s, where blond and blue-eyed won over "negro" any day of the week.

When the Giants moved to the West Coast after the 1957 season, San Franciscans, at first thrilled to have a Major League team, soon cooled to Mays and his fellow transplants, preferring the new batch of "homegrown" players like Orlando Cepeda, Willie McCovey, and the Alou brothers (one of the few cases where race was not the main issue). Even the newspapermen of northern California seemed indifferent, if not downright, claiming that Mays wasn't all he had been cracked up to be and/or that he was past his prime. Such revelations lead the reader to scratch his head: What more did they want from him? Wasn't it enough to have power, speed, a graceful glove, and a strong and accurate arm?

Rather than brood overmuch, Mays made his presence felt on the ball field for several more years, until the wear and tear of trying to be a superhero on a daily basis finally took their toll. His final years as a player were a sad coda to an otherwise brilliant career, made necessary in part because, quite simply, Mays needed the paycheck. As good as he was with the bat and glove, he was that deficient when it came to properly managing his finances.

The Giants had moved from the cavernous Polo Grounds to the windswept confines of Candlestick Park (with Seals Stadium as an interim host), which leads to an interesting observation: the impact the field can have on a player's career. One of the iconic images in Major League history is "The Catch" in the 1954 World Series against the powerhouse Cleveland Indians, to which Hirsch devotes an entire chapter. Had Vic Wertz's wallop taken place almost anywhere else, the ball would have been out of the ballpark or off the wall. Instead, we still see video of Mays running, running, running, making the over-the-shoulder catch, followed by an equally amazing throw back to the infield. Hirsch's rendition of the play could easily stand on its own, comparable to Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu, John Updike's essay tribute to Ted Williams in his last game. What would Mays's career have been like without that defining moment?

A book like WILLIE MAYS: THE LIFE, THE LEGEND has implications beyond baseball readers. For that reason, I didn't mind the exposition that Hirsch offers on a few occasions, describing people, places and events that most serious fans of the game should already know. Rather, the book should be considered not within the narrow label of "baseball biography" but in the broader arena of America in the Boomer Generation.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on July 17, 2010
Format: Hardcover
This is an interesting book, at times exciting, but the book could have been at least 20% shorter. There is some repetitious material which gets boring. But overall it is a good read.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on August 2, 2010
Format: Hardcover
I know Mays's numbers pretty well, so Hirsch's point that you couldn't really appreciate Mays by his numbers alone spoke to me and I did learn quite a bit from the book.

-- The Arm: Hirsch emphasizes Mays's great arm and his many spectacular assists and double-plays from the outfield. I was surprised that I hadn't heard more about that before: I had assumed that the Golden Gloves were for catches. Throwing is also something that the most commonly cited statistics don't reflect.

-- Hard Work: Mays's having to fight through slumps and periods of serious exhaustion was admirable.

-- Positioning: Mays's hard work on positioning in the outfield was an eye-opener.

-- Shyness: Hirsch portrays Mays as sticking to baseball to the exclusion of practically everything else and being modest and reticent about most other things in life.

-- Team Player: Mays's outstanding role in supporting or guiding his team-mates was new and interesting to me.

-- Family Background: Hirsch seems to treat Mays's family background with revealing objectivity, making it interesting without romanticizing anything.

One comment kept popping to mind at various times as I was reading: in the frequent comparisons with other all-time great players, Honus Wagner's name never comes up. Wagner is no secret: he was the National League's best hitter for average and for power, best baserunner, and at shortstop best defensive player for a long era. He played with championship teams and I have never heard that he was hard to deal with (unless you were trying to beat the Pirates). As Hirsch notes, Wagner was a charter member of the Hall of Fame, being picked in preference to Speaker, Alexander, and others. If you were choosing up sides, you wouldn't go far wrong picking Wagner first. It seems to me that as Hirsch was putting Joe DiMaggio on his short list he could have mentioned Hans Wagner too.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on December 27, 2010
Format: Hardcover
This book chronicles the life of Willie Mays, perhaps the best baseball player ever to play the game, from his boyhood years in Alabama to stardom on the grand stage of major league baseball in New York and San Francisco. Author James S. Hirsch gives readers a close-up of a man who was always an enigma, even to his peers, teammates and sportswriters who covered him during his career. Especially interesting was Mays' determination to be as good if not better than New York's two other premier centerfielders of that time, Mickey Mantle of the Yankees and Duke Snider of the rival National League Brooklyn Dodgers. Mays' strengths and weaknesses, professionally and personally, are noted throughout the book, although the author, while sympathetic to his subject, is fair and accurate almost to a fault. May's relationship with manager Leo Durocher is explained in great detail and how the manager guided the insecure youngster when he was promoted the big leagues. This book is a great history of modern baseball and one of the game's enduring stars.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on April 19, 2010
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
Five-hundred-sixty pages on Willie Mays? This is what James S. Hirsch has produced with, "Willie Mays, the Life, the Legend." Of course, Willie Mays is (probably) the greatest of all the great baseball players. Willie's active years were the years of racial integration of major league baseball and the years when the leagues came to span the continental nation - Willie's Giants moved from the Polo Grounds in New York City to San Francisco. And then: Willie Mays is a singular, magnetic person/personality who defines charisma better then - well, maybe even better than John F. Kennedy. Hirsch work never lags. Amazon Verified Purchase.
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