"Mays would have made a splash no matter when he entered the major leagues, but 1951 served him unusually well. His skills shined brightly on a sluggish team in a plodding league in a big-stage city that was about to lead a communications revolution. He was a game-changing catalyst in a storied rivalry about to embark on a historic pennant race, a radiant contributor to an era forever consecrated as the golden age of baseball."
- James S. Hirsch, from Willie Mays - The Life, the Legend, p. 100
The eponymous subject of James Hirsch's new book is quite possibly the greatest player in baseball history. You can argue for Ruth, Aaron, Mantle, Cobb or even Barry Bonds or A-Rod—if you can look past the steroid thing—but there's no question that The Say Hey Kid is right in the thick of that conversation.
It stands to reason, then, that a book about such a player as Mays, especially a landmark work given the unprecedented access the author had to Mays the person, should be pretty darn interesting at the least. And the potential is there for this to be a truly great work, wouldn't you say?
Well, don't hold your breath.
I don't mean to disparage either Mays the man or Hirsch the writer, as this book makes it clear that both men are excellent at their respective professions. But somehow the combination of the two leaves me wanting.
It's not the writing, per se. As you can see from the above quote, Hirsch is a wonderfully eloquent writer when the situation calls for eloquence, and he's no slouch at simply getting his facts across when brevity is the order of the day. He tells the story beautifully, thoroughly and very well.
From Mays' humble beginnings in Alabama, through his school days, his travails in the waning Negro Leagues, to the minor leagues and eventually the majors, then to the Army, then back to the majors and an incredible career and a life of superstardom, Hirsch doesn't miss a beat.
Because of the "authorized" nature of the book, we also get an unprecedented look into Mays' personal life, his relationships with family, mentors, teammates, friends and of course women, including both of his wives.
But Mays himself is hardly the only source of material for the book, as is clear by the 25 pages of end notes and five pages of bibliographical references. There were two previous biographies of Mays, as I understand it, but neither could boast the opportunity to have compared notes with the man himself, who has always been reticent to talk to anyone he doesn't know, especially reporters and writers.
But there's the rub, perhaps.
Because it's an authorized biography, Hirsch had to get the approval of Mays for whatever he wrote. He boasts, in the epilogue, that Mays asked him to change only one thing in the entire tome—all 628 pages of it (he wanted Hirsch to include the fact that after a fight with teammate Orlando Cepeda they made up. Well isn't that special?). But then after reading those 628 pages, I can kind of see why Mays didn't feel the need to squelch anything; according to Hirsch, the man almost never did anything wrong.
Not that Hirsch says he's perfect, just that even his "faults" were sort of strengths in disguise, like saying that you "work too hard" or "care too much" at a job interview.
His bouts of exhaustion that sometimes required hospitalization, for example, were because he tried too hard—not because he didn't have the discipline and self-awareness needed to pace himself when the situation called for moderation.
His inability to hold down a regular job as a teenager to help support his poor family gets spun as his father's sacrifice to help him concentrate on baseball, rather than his own selfishness.
His dismissal of the advice of friends who warned him not to marry the older, twice-divorced, more-worldly woman who would surely take him for all he was worth—which she did, by the way—well, he doesn't even bother to explain that one.
His refusal to support— or even try to understand—Curt Flood's case against the MLB owners and the Reserve Clause is billed as "not wanting to get involved" rather than an acknowledgment that Willie Mays clearly didn't care about anyone who wasn't, well, Willie Mays.
To his credit, Hirsch does explain that Mays' famous "Say hey" catch phrase had more to do with his inability to remember his teammates' names than with some kind of giddy schoolboy enthusiasm. But really, when you compose 600+ pages on a man who's been in the public eye for more than six decades, who was famously curt and often sulky with the news media, got himself into an ill-advised marriage, couldn't manage his own finances, rarely gave any real credit to his contemporaries like Hank Aaron and Mickey Mantle, well, somehow you shouldn't close the back cover of the book feeling like this guy was just a victim of his circumstances—you know?
I wish I could explain it better than that, but I can't. Somehow the book just left me feeling used, or like there was more to the story, but I couldn't scratch below the surface of the facade that Mays allowed Hirsch to create.
None of this is to disparage Mays' incredible talents, which were many, nor his accomplishments—which were great and are given their due in this work—but Mays the man comes off as something less than admirable, if you can sift through Hirsch's prose a little.
In any case, it is an interesting book, and I recommend reading it. But I also recommend trying to read between the lines, because I think you can learn almost as much from what Hirsch doesn't tell you as from what he does.