Mays called the best in praise-filled book
Willie Mays, 1973
Willie Mays is shown just before he played his first game in the majors, May 25, 1951, as a member of the New York Giants.
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For the many millions who consider Willie Mays the greatest baseball player of their lifetimes, this reviewer being one of them, there's nothing in James S. Hirsch's authorized biography that will invite reappraisal.
Not that there should be.
Nonetheless, the reader is forewarned of an impending 560-page love letter before we even meet the singular subject in the small-town Alabama of the mid-1930s. In his prologue, Mr. Hirsch laments the steroid-tainted modern game, comforting us with an odd attempt at a foundational first pitch:
"No one ever doubted Willie Mays. He not only played the game as well as anyone who has ever taken the field but he also played it the right way."
That second sentence will probably hold up to history, but the first is simply not true.
Fairly or not, Mr. Mays had doubters who told stories of amphetamine use, the so-called red juice, in the years after he retired in 1973. Those stories were generally told inside baseball with a nonjudgmental wink and were not for publication, but former Pirate John Milner broke the embargo when the government put him on the stand in the Pittsburgh drug trials in 1985.
Asked how he got greenies (amphetamine pills), he said they were placed in his locker anonymously, adding that he had seen some "red juice," a fruit juice amphetamine mix, in the locker of Willie Mays when both played for the New York Mets in the early 1970s.
Mr. Mays denied it and produced a doctor to say the red juice was cough medicine. "It's a shame a man can be crucified [in] one statement," he said at that time.
The Hall-of-Famer was hardly crucified, and his polished image as likely the game's greatest and most joyous performance artist has survived for decades with barely a paint chip.
Mr. Hirsch nails the reason for that reputation perfectly as he describes the outfielder's return to New York in 1962 to play the then new New York Mets after the Giants abandoned Manhattan for San Francisco in 1958.
"It matters not that he is in alien uniform," Mr. Hirsch quotes Arthur Daley, the New York Times sports writer, "here is the unforgettable hero from the past, the darling of the gallery gods. They loved him then and that deep affection, smoldering during his absence, blazed into full flame at his return."
Pretty much everyone has this reaction to the memories of Willie Mays, just as pretty much everyone who's interested will have a similar reaction to his biographer's work. Mr. Hirsch is not a stylist, but his substance is robust and his ambition to show Mr. Mays not only as baseball's brightest jewel, but a real American icon at the height of the civil-rights struggle is admirable if not always conclusively persuasive.
It's well known that Jackie Robinson criticized Mr. Mays bitterly for not being more involved, or even rhetorical, in that movement, particularly as it related to the combustible epicenter of Birmingham in Mr. Mays' home state. But the player, Mr. Hirsch explains, wasn't terribly vocal about anything and might have done more for desegregation by his humble interpersonal examples than Mr. Robinson did with his strident courage.
In this regard and in many others, the book practically overflows with irony.
As a child, Mr. Mays listened to the radio broadcasts of minor league baseball games, the play-by-play handled by one Eugene Connor. Some 30 years later, when Birmingham scheduled Willie Mays Day, the plug was pulled on the parade and all attendant ceremonies by that same Eugene "Bull" Connor, the notorious city sheriff who fire-hosed and unleashed attack dogs on civil rights demonstrators in the early 1960s.
"Bull Connor," Mr. Hirsch writes, "was not about to let his city honor a black man."
Much later in life, Mr. Mays became a golfing buddy of Bill Clinton, who, the author writes, knew there was something unique about the ballplayer when he watched him as an Arkansas school boy.
"He had that personality that drew people to him," said the former president. Mr. Hirsch adds that Mr. Clinton suggested that Mr. Mays did something important, beyond the scorecard, each time he took the field. "When you see someone doing something you admire," Mr. Clinton said, "the image of that makes a mockery of all forms of bigotry."
If it doesn't fully succeed on every level, Mr. Hirsch's book is certainly a triumph of baseball texturing. His work on Mr. Mays' greatest moments is some of the richest, best-layered prose ever put together on those topics, and Pirate fans will find plenty to enjoy in the text's evocative history. Willie Mays' visit to the Western Pennsylvania School for the Blind in Oakland is just one of those elements.
Even if you didn't need James Hirsch, especially by way of the always suspect authorized biography, to convince you that Willie Mays is the best ballplayer of the past 60 years, you'll probably be pleased you let him take a whack at it anyway.
First Published May 3, 2010 12:00 am