Book Review: Willie Mays

Willie Mays: The Life, the Legend

By James S. Hirsch

Scribner, 2010

List Price: $30

For those who never got to see him play—an ever-growing segment that now includes a couple of generations of fans—the legend of Willie Mays is built on grainy film of “The Catch” in the 1954 World Series, maybe a shot or two of him zipping around the bases, and numbers like 660 (home runs), 338 (stolen bases), and 2,062 (runs scored). We accept his greatness because it’s always been there, a standard for the heroes of our times to be measured against. He shows up on any credible all-time all-star team, and stands among the truly elite in Baseball’s Hall of Fame.

But most of us don’t really know him. We, who began watching baseball when Reggie Jackson and George Brett and Mike Schmidt were the gate attractions, can typically store what we know about Mays in a thimble. Sure numerous books, including a couple of autobiographies, have been penned on the Say Hey Kid. Most are the type that belong in elementary school libraries, where they might find their way off the shelf for an occasional Black History Month report.

For all Mays did, on the field and off, no one ever captured the breadth of his contributions. Until now. James S. Hirsch’s “Willie Mays: The Life, the Legend” is the first authorized biography of baseball’s most complete player, and it builds on everything that has come before it. Here is Mays as a youngster growing up in starkly segregated Alabama, as an anxious rookie convinced he doesn’t belong in the big leagues, and as a reluctant superstar, skeptical of the motives of everyone who approaches him.

This lack of trust, well-founded in some cases, has helped to shroud Mays’ legacy over the past four decades. His reticence with reporters, especially after his Giants moved to San Francisco, and sensitivity to critical stories fed off each other. If not for the financial difficulties that plagued him throughout most of his adult life, Mays might have been even more reclusive. Ironically, the need for money that caused him to take a job at Bally’s International casino in Atlantic City led to his temporary banishment from baseball in the 1980s, dropping him further out of the public view.

Mays’ wariness delayed this release by nearly a decade. Hirsch, a former reporter for the New York Times, approached him originally in 2000 about collaborating on a biography. He was hardly the first to ask, and Mays declined as he had all previous such requests. Hirsch instead wrote another book. He asked again a couple years later. Again Mays was uninterested. But as time passed he warmed to the idea, and when Hirsch asked a fourth time in 2007 they struck a deal.

Mays helped open doors for Hirsch, who interviewed 130 people, from former teammates to playmates back in Fairfield, Ala., the segregated company town in which Mays grew up. He also dug into newspaper and magazine archives as well as more than 135 books. While most of the stories have been documented elsewhere over the years, Hirsch has molded them all into a definitive life story, set in the context of Mays’ time.

That context is essential in understanding Mays’ place not just in baseball history, but American history. Though Jackie Robinson broke the game’s color barrier four years prior to Mays’ rookie year, the game was hardly integrated. Mays had learned as a child to go along to get along, an approach that earned him the rebukes of more outspoken African-American players such as Robinson and Hank Aaron. But Mays, who began playing in the Negro Leagues while still in high school, felt he did his part over time to break down barriers. Hirsch details his efforts to buy a home in an all-white neighborhood in San Francisco in 1957. Mays was later the first black member at the Concordia-Argonaut men’s club, and though he faced discrimination his entire career, he preferred to keep these episodes quiet whenever possible.

His play on the field was never quiet, of course. Mays brought a flair for showmanship with him from his time with the Birmingham Black Barons. His amazing range in center field and daring feats on the bases earned him attention, if not respect, almost immediately. His arrival helped spark a rebirth for the Giants in 1951, the season noted for Bobby Thomson’s Shot Heard ‘Round the World which ended a three-game playoff against the Dodgers. Three years later Mays’ defense stole the show, when he made his famous catch of a deep drive by Cleveland’s Vic Wertz in Game One of the World Series. Hirsch devotes an entire chapter to the game, in which Mays made another play later that he felt was as good if not better than his immortal grab.

There’s plenty more baseball, including Mays’ offseason barn-storming tours, his second MVP season in 1965, his repeated bouts with exhaustion, and the 1972 trade that returned him to New York, this time with the Mets.

This is a major accomplishment by Hirsch, whose persistence and years of research brought one of the game’s greats back into the limelight. It requires some effort, however, and persistence on the part of the reader. At 628 pages, “Willie Mays” is thicker than a bible. There’s nearly a page for each of Mays’ home runs. After a certain point some of the season recaps begin to blend together and the differences in approach to discrimination with Robinson border on redundant.

Readers haven’t been intimidated, however. The book has held on to the top spot in sales rankings for baseball titles since it became available in February. It’s certain to go down as one of the best-selling sports releases this year, and as complete as it is, it should take its place among baseball’s important biographies.

James Bailey is a former associate editor at Baseball America. He can be reached via e-mail at