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Willie's Boys: The 1948 Birmingham Black Barons, The Last Negro League World Series, and the Making of a Baseball Legend Hardcover – August 1, 2009

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

The story of Willie Mays's rookie year with the Negro American League's Birmingham Black Barons, the Last Negro World Series, and the making of a baseball legend

Baseball Hall of Famer Willie Mays is one of baseball's endearing greats, a tremendously talented and charismatic center fielder who hit 660 career homeruns, collected 3,283 hits, knocked in 1,903 runs, won 12 Gold Glove Awards and appeared in 24 All-Star games. But before Mays was the "Say Hey Kid", he was just a boy. Willie's Boys is the story of his remarkable 1948 rookie season with the Negro American League's Birmingham Black Barons, who took a risk on a raw but gifted 16-year-old and gave him the experience, confidence, and connections to escape Birmingham's segregation, navigate baseball's institutional racism, and sign with the New York Giants. Willie's Boys offers a character-rich narrative of the apprenticeship Mays had at the hands of a diverse group of savvy veterans who taught him the ways of the game and the world.

  • Sheds new light on the virtually unknown beginnings of a baseball great, not available in other books
  • Captures the first incredible steps of a baseball superstar in his first season with the Negro League's Birmingham Black Barons
  • Introduces the veteran group of Negro League players, including Piper Davis, who gave Mays an incredible apprenticeship season
  • Illuminates the Negro League's last days, drawing on in-depth research and interviews with remaining players
  • Explores the heated rivalry between Mays's Black Barons and Buck O'Neil's Kansas City Monarchs , culminating in the last Negro League World Series
  • Breaks new historical ground on what led the New York Giants to acquire Mays, and why he didn't sign with the Brooklyn Dodgers, New York Yankees, or Boston Red Sox

Packed with stories and insights, Willie's Boys takes you inside an important part of baseball history and the development of one of the all-time greats ever to play the game.

Amazon-Exclusive Interview with Author John Klima

What was Willie Mays like when you talked to him for this book?
Willie and I spoke a few times. In each case, I told him, “You’re big league career belongs to you,” and that I hoped he could help me fill in some of the long-lost pieces of the puzzle from his Negro League career with the Birmingham Black Barons. For instance, he helped me put together a key game against the Kansas City Monarchs involving his good friend, Jimmy Zapp. He also paid me a high compliment when he told me of the Negro Leagues that, “You know this stuff better than I do.”

Willie Mays, CF, Birmingham Black Barons, 1949
(Memphis and Shelby County Room, Memphis Public Library)
Is it true that the Boston Red Sox had the best chance to sign Willie Mays?
It is true that the Red Sox were one of the first major league teams to know about Mays, but they were not the first major league team from Boston to really have a good feel for him. The Red Sox had a strong presence in Birmingham because the Birmingham Barons, the white Southern Association minor league team (Boston’s Double-A team) played in Rickwood Field. What you will learn in Willie’s Boys is just how close the Red Sox really were to getting Willie Mays, and how he slipped right under their noses.

What other teams knew about Willie Mays?
The Chicago White Sox, the Boston Braves and the Cleveland Indians all had excellent information on Mays, though they wouldn’t sign him. The details are in the book, but my conclusion is that the Mays deal is one of the three most important player transactions in baseball history.

What was life like for Negro League baseball players?
It was nothing like the creature comforts major league baseball players experience today. Those players practically lived in the bus, played multiple games daily, and had to know where it was safe to travel. It was a hard life, but the players who experienced it received an education that nothing else could ever give them. You’ll also get a good feel for what it was like to attend a Negro League baseball game at Birmingham’s Rickwood Field in the late 1940s. You’ll experience the rivalries that existed on and off the field, including the one between the Birmingham Black Barons and the Kansas City Monarchs. You’ll get a feel for facing hard pitching and good hitters, for scouting these players, and for the personalities that weren’t always what they were cracked up to be.

How good was the quality of Negro League baseball?
“Negro League baseball” should be defined as the Negro American League and the Negro National League, a two-league system that existed until 1948, culminating in the last Negro League World Series Willie’s Boys describes. These players, usually only 16 to a team, played multiple positions and were the cream of the crop. There were far more talented players at the top level of Negro League baseball who were talented enough to appear in the major leagues than actually played in the major leagues. These were the top black players of the time. There were countless lower-level segregated travel teams that often played under the same name as one of the black major league teams, though these were often not affiliated with the host team and were percentage teams from which the top teams used to acquire many players.

In your book, you say Alabama produced more Negro League baseball players than anywhere else. Why?
Largely because Birmingham was a rich source of baseball talent for generations. What North Beach in San Francisco was for white players – an area that produced players like Joe DiMaggio – Birmingham was for black players. The Birmingham Industrial League was loaded with talent. These forgotten teams, like ACIPCO and the T.C.I. 24th street Red Sox, sent forth talented players by the dozens. Black players would come from all over the South to get a factory job and play ball in Birmingham. The Black Barons drew their talent from there. Mays’s father and grandfather were both industrial league players.

On the book jacket, it says Willie Mays is “The baseball legend that might have never been.” Why?
Because Willie was lucky to be talented enough to navigate the segregation that existed in Birmingham and also the discrimination that existed in white professional baseball. In Willie’s Boys, you’ll discover one of the greatest stories in baseball history.

What does the title, Willie’s Boys? mean?
It’s a phrase that reflects the camaraderie that existed on this team. When you read the book, you’ll be on the bus right next to the guys.

Who were some of Willie’s boys?
You’ll meet a team that each guy considered to be the most special team he ever played on, in terms of talent and of personalities meshing. Anyone who has been around any sport at any level knows that sports are primarily individual driven. It’s so rare to have a group of individuals together who genuinely care about one another as much as they care about themselves. Willie Mays was the teenager on this team. Piper Davis is a central character in Willie’s Boys. Willie grew up playing with shortstop Artie Wilson. Right-handed pitcher Bill Greason, who later pitched for the St. Louis Cardinals, was a fellow rookie on this team. Players like Alonzo Perry, Jehosie Heard, Pepper Bassett, Bill Powell, Jimmy Newberry were extremely talented players. Even the ball boy on this team is a player a lot of baseball fans will remember.

Piper Davis, 2B

Pepper Bassett, C

Artie Wilson, SS
How did you research Willie’s Boys?
I spent two years engrossed in exhaustive research for Willie’s Boys, canvassing the country in search of former players, long-lost documents and scouting reports, archived materials and period newspapers. I placed a special emphasis on African-American periodicals, which is something that has generally been grossly overlooked in baseball narrative history. I did the majority of my research in Birmingham, Memphis and Kansas.

What was the most rewarding part of the experience of writing Willie’s Boys?
One of the things I am most proud of is the wide cross-section of readers who have picked this book up. With a lot of baseball books, you get baseball readers and that’s all. This book is for baseball readers, but it is also for history readers of various subjects. This story is larger than sports. The integration period of major league baseball was not as smooth and painless as it’s commonly assumed. There was a lot of heartache and triumph in this period that occurred outside of what Jackie Robinson went through. I’m proud that this book is a very clear portrait of a very difficult time that baseball would prefer to illustrate with rose-colored glasses. I’m proud of what Jonathan Eig called “hard nosed research and reporting” and for David Maraniss to have complimented me for “digging deep.” I’m proud people who have bought this book have also bought books that include subjects ranging from World War II, jazz, African-American history, historical fiction, political biographies, policy books, and books about Alabama history. I owe it all to Willie. Only a baseball player, and only a truly dominating major league player, could have allowed me to reach so many readers.


* Willie's Boys adds to baseball lore by recounting Willie Mays's service with the 1948 Birmingham Black Barons, which led to the Black Barons' participation in black baseball's final World Series. Baseball writer Klima (Pitched Battle: 35 of Baseball's Greatest Duels from the Mound) repeatedly delivers quotes from Black Barons, their adversaries, scouts, and other baseball figures regarding Mays's preternatural skills, particularly in the field and on the base paths. The hitting prowess, for both average and distance, came a bit later, but the raw talent and the drive were immediately present. Mays's personality, somewhat surprisingly, does not come through as clearly, unlike that of the other star of Klima's story, Willie's teammate, mentor, and first professional manager, Piper Davis. Even more than Mays's story, those of Davis and players such as the great third baseman Ray Dandridge demonstrate the strengths and weaknesses of black baseball, along with the hurdles even brilliant players had to overcome to enter organized baseball. Klima refutes long-standing notions regarding the supposed refusal of teams like the Yankees and Red Sox to sign black players, as both sought to sign Mays. Verdict Recommended for all interested readers.
—Robert C. Cottrell, California State Univ., Chico (Library Journal, December 2009)

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Wiley; 1 edition (August 1, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0470400137
  • ISBN-13: 978-0470400135
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (15 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,344,483 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Barry Sparks VINE VOICE on October 24, 2009
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Hall of Fame pitcher Carl Hubbell scouted Willie Mays as an 18-year-old outfielder with the Birmingham Black Barons in 1948. Hubbell's assessment was, "He's the best goddamned player I ever saw."

Author John Klima describes the young Mays as "baseball's Mozart, a child prodigy." In Willie's Boys, Klima traces Mays' early years with the Black Barons and his signing with the New York Giants. As the title aptly implies, Klima pays a great deal of attention to the players who mentored Mays and were his teammates with the Black Barons.

The first third of the book is about Piper Davis and the Black Barons. Davis was a legendary player with the Black Barons who was a candidate to break the color barrier, but was snubbed by scouts and deemed too old at 28. Davis, "Mays' baseball godfather," became the Black Barons' manager in 1948 and mentored Mays, who was still in high school.

According to Klima, Mays came along at the right time. "What Negro baseball needed most (in 1948, one year after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier) was a new star, someone who could play at such a high level that the ground below could not contain him, and the glass ceiling above could not limit him," writes Klima.

Mays, who looked 12 or 13, played for the Black Barons unofficially in May and June of 1948. He signed a contract with the club on July 4, 1948. Despite his age, Mays' extraordinary talents were evident.

Mays had "the raw natural resource of a ballplayer who lacked polish but was too gifted to spend his career playing in the Negro American League," writes Klima.

Mays stole the spotlight in Game 3 of the Negro World Series in 1948 as he won the game "with his legs, arm, bat and glove.
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A few random thoughts that don't necessarily pertain to the story itself, but sum up most of what you need to know about the book.

-This book feels very long. There is a lot of content, which is OK. But it just feels long. Part of that is that the title says "1948" but you get to the end of the 1948 season and the book is only 60% done. The book continues into the 1949 season and even beyond, in order to track the Barons and Willie Mays further down the road. It makes sense that it works that way, it was just a bit strange at first.

-This is as much a book about Piper Davis as it is about Willie Mays. That's fine; it might actually be a good thing since there are other books about Mays and Piper might actually be a more interesting character. The book is at its best when it is talking about Piper and his relationships with his players.

-Klima spends a lot of time speculating about what might have happened behind the scenes, or describing the back-alley transactions that did happen. Some of this is interesting, a lot of it isn't; some of it has been described in other places, some of it hasn't. This book is intended to be about everything that happened to get Mays to the major leagues. But the book is stronger when it talks about the players than when it talks about the front office.

-A lot of the book's content is just a compilation of other interviews and other stories. It's great that someone did it, and put together the story of Willie Mays. I just feel like the book could have been more focused, and maybe the wide variety of source material made it difficult to hone in on the key story.

Overall, I enjoyed the book.
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As a Willie Mays fan since 1955 (timing, folks, timing!), I truly enjoyed this ride back to 1948 and Willie's subsequent formative years. The research itself makes for a wonderful mystery ride, and the reader truly gets the feel and sights and sounds and smells of a bygone era. I salute John Klima's debunking of some popular myths (e.g., concerning Mays's signing and his being scouted. I also discovered some unsavory facts about the popular Kansas City Monarchs and their apparently racist owner. As an editor myself, I could not help noticing that the book suffered from some sloppy editing. There were too many passages like this one, on page 167: "Alonzo Perry went to the mound for the Black Barons in Game 5 during a steady drizzle and surrendered runs in the first and third innings to fall behind, 1-0." That just doesn't make sense. This sort of clumsiness occurs more than once. Still, the research over all is adventurous to read and detective-like in its diligence. Even the footnotes are worth perusing.
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I live in Birmingham and absolutely adore Rickwood Field. I bought this book last month, mainly because any book which features Rickwood as one of the settings, is an easy sell for me. I was also fortunate to meet John Klima at the Birmingham Public Library to get my copy signed. (Unfortunately, I was late and missed his speech and the Q&A, but I found him to be very nice and engaging).

As for the book, my comments will echo the other reviews. The book was meticulously well-researched; I particularly like the quotations from the Black newspapers -- Kansas City's "The Call" and Birmingham's "The World" -- throughout the book. After all, these newspapers, and not their white counterparts, told the stories of the Negro Leagues day after day. These papers gave the book a contemporary feel, as opposed to merely relying on the often fuzzy and exaggerated memories of players 60 years later (as many other books do). I also liked how the papers were often contrasted with one another to show the very real rivalry between Birmingham and Kansas City based on how the games were retold by the beat reporters.

In fact, I got the sense that Mr. Klima must have zig-zagged across the United States visiting as many libraries as he did interviewing players. Any reader will appreciate this kind of attention to detail.

The book is also extremely well written (with a pace that varied intentionally -- the game descriptions moved very quickly, as if to capture the frenetic speed game of the Negro Leagues, while the stories outside the actual games slowed a bit more to mirror the slow pace at which young black men escaped, or sadly did not escape, the hot-box of segregation). Finally, even for a serious fan, Mr. Klima's book is highly educational.
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