|Book Review: Willie Mays - The Life, The Legend|
Written by Owen McGivern (Contact & Archive) on May 09, 2010
Full disclosure: This reviewer has the essential advantage of having seen Willie play at the old Polo Grounds in Harlem. (For the record, it was on the "D" line at 155th Street, one stop before Yankee Stadium). This observer would challenge any fan of that era to identify a more exciting player. Willie was made for the Polo Grounds. Whether patrolling the huge expanse of centerfield in that lovingly misshapen ball yard, running the bases or just standing still, the guy had no peers. This reviewer witnessed a 257-foot Willie triple, the distance down the right field line. Those who picked up Willie's career in San Francisco simply missed a critical part of the guy's career.
"Willie Mays: The Life, The Legend" is a leisurely, almost elegant bio of the former centerfielder for the New York/San Francisco Giants and New York Mets. One is reminded of "The Boys of Summer," Roger Kahn's paean to the old Brooklyn Dodgers. Author James Hirsch cogently observes that Willie's career spans two key eras in baseball history: Major League baseball arguably reached a peak in the 1950s before expansion, the rise of pro football and the competition from other sports. The Negro Leagues reached their apex in the 1940s, followed by the talent drain of the integration of the Major Leagues by Jackie Robinson, Larry Doby and so many other pioneers. (Doby was the first Black to play in the American League).
Mays stands astride both these developments. Also, the sheer length and breadth of Mays' career makes this book a mini-history of pro baseball from the late '40s to the early '70s, a wonderful trip back in time. The book follows Willie through his hardscrabble days with the Birmingham Black Barons, a boy playing among men. Many Big League teams were appallingly slow to integrate, but the Giants were more progressive than most. Mays joined fellow blacks Monte Irvin, Hank Thompson, and Ray Noble. Many thought there was a silent quota of 4 blacks per team. (The Yankees and Red Sox waited until 1955 and 1959 to integrate). Willie and Irvin moved to the outfield, replacing the "trio of morticians" Whitey Lockman, Bobby Thomson and Don Mueller. (This reviewer was familiar with those guys.) Irvin and Willie must have stirred up the pot!
Hirsh treats us to great recaps of the 1951 and 1954 pennant races and World Series. Had not Mays been drafted, one suspects the Giants might have captured the flag in '52 and '53 as well. Hirsch gives a fine account of "The Catch": that would be Mays' defensive gem in the eighth inning of the first game of the '54 Series. The victim was Indians slugger Vic Wertz.*
* I saw Willie top that. In a night game early in the '57 season, the Dodgers' Gil Hodges hit one further than Wertz. This ball went into the alley twixt the Polo Grounds bleachers. Willie glided into the gap and made an over the shoulder catch, losing his cap, some 475 feet from home plate. Since the game was only on local TV, few noticed. The Wertz catch was on National TV before a capacity crowd.
Hirsch capably covers the demise of the Giants in New York. How many people knew that Joan Whitney Payson, minority owner of the Giants and original owner of the Mets, tried to buy the franchise to keep the team in New York? (So too did a wealthy banker, power broker and former Police Commissioner, George V. McLaughlin). Both were turned down by owner Horace Stoneham. Only one public official, Manhattan Borough President Hulan E. Jack, made any serious attempt to keep the franchise in Gotham. Mr. Jack wanted to build a stadium over (New York Central?) rail yards on the Hudson River.
It was too late. The switch to San Francisco was final. When challenged that he was letting down the youth of New York, Stoneham's classic response was "it's too bad their fathers didn't take them to the Polo Grounds more often."
It is no reflection on author Hirsch to state that readers "of a certain age" may view the San Francisco chapters at arms length. There is still fine coverage of Willie and the team. We New Yorkers stayed in touch via excitingly recreated games on station WINS with announcer Les Keiter. Tapping a pencil on the mike signified a hit.
There is excellent coverage of the race for the 1962 flag. Do we remember Willie McCovey's line drive to Bobby Richardson? The author could have devoted more space to the magic of the Giants visits to New York to play the Mets. For years those were a guaranteed sellout at the Polo Grounds and Shea Stadium, with Willie the main attraction.
The author quite capably covers the baseball strike of 1972 and the continuing tension between the Dodgers and the Giants. The author notes that "neither distance nor time could eliminate the bad blood, the bean balls or the history." There is a thorough blow by blow rundown of the 1965 bat swinging brawl twixt Giants Juan Marichal and the Dodgers' Johnny Roseboro. Skipper Al Dark is portrayed as a colorful character. A kinder description the Louisiana native was that he had the "look of a Confederate Army captain." Hirsch also tells of the Giants travails at Candlestick Park. Following the Mets through a few Frisco games each year failed to give the Stick the notoriety it deserve red.
True enough, Willie returned home in 1972. This fanatical -- at the time -- Met fan remembers the '72-'73 seasons more fondly then does the author. After all, the '73 Mets were the greatest of over achievers. They stole the pennant from a stronger Reds team and came within an eye lash of doing the same in the Series against the As. Willie was right at home with that "You Gotta Believe" crew. It is true that Willie stayed too long at the dance but so too did such luminaries as Mickey Mantle and Duke Snider.
This book is a feast for serious baseball aficionados and a veritable banquet for Giants fans. The sheer heft should not matter to those folks. They should plunge right in, especially those who remember the young Willie. A subtitle could be "Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Willie Mays," but if there is interest in the subject matter, where is the problem?
While I felt a minor downdraft reading about the Frisco years, it does not warrant lowering any ratings. Hirsch had done his homework. There are 30 pages of bibliography and end notes, affirming his extensive research. Hirsch also conducted 123 interviews. Just reading that list brings back memories. That group even includes Country singer Charlie Pride. The former member of the Memphis Red Sox barnstormed against Willie after the '56 season. Sadly roll of the now departed names the aforementioned Whitey Lockman (who I met on my eighth birthday) and the hero of the '54 Series, and pride of Mathews, Ala., James Lamar "Dusty" Rhodes. "Willie Mays" will remind us anew that the heroes of our youth are passing. More happily, the author reports that Juan Marichal attended Johnny Roseboro's funeral.
Given that AHP is a baseball website, the only possible rating is a solid 4 Balls. (The nature of AHP accounts for the length of this review). "Willie Mays" should develop into a baseball classic in the "Boys of Summer" tradition. That New York based statement is the ultimate compliment.
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