I saw Willie Mays play once. It was 1973, and Mays was a sad, broken-down shell of the great player he once was, playing out his final season in the big leagues as a New York Met. It wasn't the Mays I would love to have seen.
With that backdrop, I have had really two impressions of Mays throughout my life as a sports fan.
- The maker of 'The Catch,' captured in grainy, black-and-white film that does not come close to doing the play justice. This is the guy who many feel is the most graceful, athletically-gifted player to ever done a baseball uniform.
- The other is the surly old man. The guy who was gruff with the media, or ignored them altogether. Had a reputation after he retired for not being fan-friendly. The guy who defiantly defended God-son Barry Bonds from all manner of allegations.
Today, though, I have a much deeper appreciation for -- and understanding of -- Mays. That is thanks to James S. Hirsch's terrific book 'Willie Mays: The Life, The Legend."
I was fortunate to be granted an advance copy of the book, and found the nearly 600 pages filled with things about Mays that I never knew.
Hirsch tells the entire story of Mays' life. There have been many tomes written about Mays, but none with his permission or cooperation. This is the first work which Mays authorized, contributing photographs and stories heretofore only speculated about or unknown.
The one constant that struck me throughout the book was one that I found incredibly surprising. Despite his incredible talents, Mays seems a very insecure superstar. Always protected by those around him who knew what he could be, always encouraged, propped up and often coddled. Stories of the lengths to which Leo Durocher, Mays' first big-league manager, went to in order to build Mays up struck me as amazing.
The book tells the story of Mays' baseball life. From how he was raised to be a ballplayer from a very early age by his father, all the way to the much overdue and sad ending of his illustrious career with the New York Mets in 1973. It details the pressures he felt, which often left him hospitalized due to exhaustion, and his struggle to be accepted by San Francisco fans once the Giants moved from New York.
The book details how Mays is the player who truly ties the old days of baseball barnstorming and a time when African-Americans were struggling for a place in the game to the more modern era of television and big money. It delves into an often-strained relationship with Jackie Robinson, who did not appreciate Mays' inability or lack of desire to be outspoken in pushing race relations forward.
In all, it is a fascinating story well worth the time it will take you to read. When you finish it, you will know more about Mays and have a deeper appreciation for him. You will also know more about an important era in America.