Recommended. I sat on this for a couple of weeks, partly to let things settle after the bizarre review in the New York Times Book Review, partly out of laziness, partly because I like to think things through. This is a baseball biography — not just in the sense that it’s a biography of a baseball player, but in the sense that it focuses very heavily on Mays’ baseball career to the exclusion of other things. There’s some material about his early life; his life after his retirement is confined to a longish epilogue. This may be a disappointment to some; Mays’ baseball career is well known, but he’s been private since he stopped playing. On the other hand, his withdrawal from public life means that there really isn’t much to tell. It is, nonetheless, a fine and entertaining book, and worth reading.
From here on out, I’m going to talk about Willie Mays the player, with Willie Mays, the book, coming up as needed. So it’s not a standard book review; I don’t really want to write one.
The shadow that haunts Willie Mays is, I feel comfortable in saying, Birmingham. It probably isn’t news to most of you that Birmingham was a pretty horrible place to be black in the middle of the last century. My guess is that it was probably the worst place to be black in the country; the standard Jim Crow practices, which were bad enough, were only enhanced in a city known as “Bombingham” well before the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church was attacked. Black-owned businesses and homes were frequently targeted, and of course the authorities had little interest in solving these crimes. If you were black, and you put your head up, you were fair game to be attacked, or killed.
Mays was not from Birmingham proper; he was born in a US Steel company town, Westfield, that no longer really exists (it’s just a name on the map) and grew up in Fairfield, the main USS company town in the area, dominated by the massive USS works. (One of the major images of my own childhood — even then, they were mostly shut down, but I well remember riding by the huge buildings, which are still there, still visible from the Interstate.) But the aura of Birmingham pervaded his childhood, and it was made clear to him that whatever he did, he better not anger the white people.
A story from the book… soon after Mays made the majors, and became one of baseball’s brightest stars, there was going to be a Willie Mays Day in Birmingham, complete with a parade and and exhibition game at Rickwood Field. It never happened. Bull Connor, who needs no introduction, cancelled the parade permit, and apparently also killed the game (at least Mays doesn’t remember it, and there’s no record of it being played). Connor couldn’t so much as accept the idea of a black man being honored in his home city, and Mays — a man so popular at the time that as a New York Giant he had a day held for him in Philadelphia — was shown, in no uncertain terms, what his place was in Birmingham’s grand scheme.
And that, basically, is I think the first major reason Willie Mays would not get involved in the Civil Rights movement, a decision that made him the target of criticism, particularly from Jackie Robinson. There was only one Jackie Robinson, which I think is something that the man himself couldn’t accept. People are the result of their experiences, and Robinson’s Pasadena — or even Hank Aaron’s Mobile — were far cries from Mays’ Birmingham.
The other part of it is that Mays wants to be liked. I think that’s nearly universal, but it’s a particularly strong feeling for him. And since he was well-liked, he didn’t want to do anything to disrupt it. This may not be a particularly admirable trait, though there are a lot of things much worse.
Related to this… Mays may be the only person, at least the only person in public life, I’ve ever heard of who really does follow the idea that if you can’t say something nice, you shouldn’t say anything at all. It’s not necessarily a good thing for a book (though author Hirsch works around it, he repeatedly notes when Mays won’t talk about someone he had problems with) but it’s a trait I have to respect. Mays won’t say anything bad about Connor, though it’s not like that’s going to get him in trouble at this point. He won’t say anything bad about Yogi Berra, his manager with the Mets, who spent two years attacking him in the newspapers and has never really stopped. He won’t say anything bad about Alvin Dark, his teammate and later manager, who is widely considered a racist, feuded with his Latin stars Cepeda and Marichal, and cost himself a Hall of Fame managerial career due to his congenital inability to keep his mouth shut. Mays won’t discuss the later life of OJ Simpson, whom he mentored as a teenager when Simpson’s life was on the verge of going off the rails long before it actually did. And that’s Willie Mays for you. He will praise someone he likes all day — this book is probably the greatest collection of nice things said about Leo Durocher that will ever exist — but he will remain silent on those who hurt him. And he would never say anything bad about Jackie Robinson, even as Robinson was calling him an Uncle Tom.
As for Willie Mays, the player… well, I don’t have to tell you that he was something. Mays was probably the closest thing to a perfect player that there has ever been. (Well, maybe Honus Wagner, but that was a long time ago in a very different game.) I’ve seen it written — I want to say by Bill James, but it might have been someone else — that Mays so affected the way that outfielders were thought of that instead of having any number of different standards for outfielders there was only one standard, Mays, and all outfielders became compared to how they measured up to him, and were in some way found wanting. It was definitely James who wrote that in the sixties and seventies the Giants, who were producing a huge amount of talent and not doing that much with it, had a “Willie Mays standard” for their outfielders. Every outfielder was supposed to be Willie Mays, and when it turned out that they weren’t, the Giants would deal them.
Hirsch writes a couple of times about Mays as the first “five-tool” player. (To be fair, some of that’s a result of time and place. Dimaggio certainly could have stolen a lot of bases if he had played in a basestealing era, and while Cobb played in a low homer era, he led the league in slugging eight times.) Leaving aside that I thought we’d gotten beyond the five tools idea, that’s basically what I’m talking about. Mays was the player who could do everything, and did them all pretty much better than everyone else.
Was Willie Mays the greatest player of all time? He’s on the short list. Statistically, you probably get Babe Ruth, with Ted Williams and Mays’ godson Barry Bonds as the other main candidates. Of course, we’re mostly talking about hitting when we talk about statistics (and Ruth’s pitching) but as the years go by we learn more about defense, and how much of “pitching” was in fact defense, and Mays was, of course, a phenomenal defensive player. Moreover, I have a mystical/traditionalist enough streak in me to think that “greatest” also includes a certain idea of completeness to it that Mays, as stated above, came closer to than anyone. If pressed, I think I would say that Willie Mays was the greatest player of all time, though I reserve the right to change my mind.
Could Willie Mays have set the career home run record? Well, certainly, given the right circumstances, say spending his entire career with the Cubs or something. The idea that he was particularly hurt by Candlestick Park doesn’t really hold up, but there’s another circumstance to take into account. Mays missed all but 34 games in 1952, his second season in the majors, and the whole season in 1953, because he was in the Army. (He was playing baseball for the Army, but it was wartime. For some reason, he doesn’t get the sort of credit for serving that those who served in World War II did, even the many who didn’t see combat.) He’d hit 20 homers as a rookie in 1951, and would hit 41 in 1954. Split the difference, give him an average of 30 each year, take out the four he actually hit while trying to get a draft exemption in 1952, that gives him 56 more homers. Add that to the 660 he actually hit, and you get… 716 homers. Mays retired in 1973, when Hank Aaron finished at 713. It certainly would have been interesting.