Top positive review
7 people found this helpful
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.