Say Hey! There’s a new biography out about Willie Mays. It’s the first time the Hall of Famer has cooperated with a writers’ efforts to chronicle his life.
“Willie Mays: The Life, The Legend” touches on Mays’ time with the Giants, as well as his childhood and early days in the minors, as well as his role as a Black celebrity during the civil rights movement.
The author, James S Hirsch, was kind enough to answer some questions for us.
SCP: Willie Mays retired more than 35 years ago. He’s been in the hall of fame for more than 3 decades. So, why now?Â Why has he decided to cooperate with a biographer now?
JH: Willie is very private as well as modest â€“ heâ€™ll never tout his own accomplishments â€“ but over the years, his friends have urged him to sit down with a biographer who would define his legacy on and off the field. I first tried to reach Willie in 2000, but not until 2007 did he see me, and even then he was reluctant. The biggest factor in his signing on to this project may simply have been age. Willie is now 78, and he knows that if he wanted a definitive book written about him â€“ in which his point of view would be front and center â€“ he would have to do it sooner rather than later. Finally, Iâ€™d like to think my own persistence and patience were factors. While I met Willie in January of 2007, we didnâ€™t sign any contracts until the very end of December. I essentially spent an entire year, visiting with him in person and talking with him on the phone, building enough trust so he knew I would be fair in my work.
SCP: What about the personal impact of this project for you?Â Of all the great sportswriters and reporters in the country, what does it mean that Willie Mays decided to sit down with you and tell his story?
JH: I was mindful that this was a privilege â€“ that Willie occupies a unique place in sports history and even American history. I also knew it was important because Willie has led such a guarded life, very few people know anything about him, beyond his baseball accomplishments. Itâ€™s also true that Iâ€™ve never written a book in which friends of mine volunteered to travel with me as my personal valet. That said, once the work begins â€“ the foraging for documents, the search for long-lost teammates, the transcribing of notes, the long nights of actual writing â€“ well, the â€œglamourâ€ of the project fades. But now that the book is about to be released, Iâ€™m starting to get emails from strangers who are sharing with me their wonderful memories of Willie Mays, and Iâ€™m reminded again why this project was special.
SCP: All baseball fans know the numbers and the highlights about Willie Mays (The 660 home runs, the catch in 1954,) but we don’t necessarily know his personal story. This book includes some interesting anecdotes about what it was like for Willie to come up through the minors during segregation, and his life in New York as a young star.Â Can you share some of them?
JH: Until he went to the minor leagues, Willie had always been surrounded by African Americans in his home town outside of Birmingham, Ala. Now, suddenly, heâ€™s in Trenton, N.J., heâ€™s 19, and heâ€™s the only person on his team or even in the league whoâ€™s black. His â€œwhite canvassâ€ doesnâ€™t change much the next year, when he starts in Minneapolis and is then promoted to the New York Giants. Willie, of course, was petrified, but who wouldnâ€™t be? Baseball was his salvation â€“ not only in providing him a career and making him famous, but in giving him a family. His first night in the minor leagues, in Hagerstown, Md., the team bus dropped him off at the Negro hotel while taking everyone else to the white hotel. But around midnight, three of his teammates knocked on the window, snuck inside, and slept on the floor â€“ a bold demonstration of unity. But thatâ€™s what families do. They stick together.
SCP: Along the same lines, though Willie Mays is considered by many to be the greatest player of all time, he doesn’t always garner the same adulation and adoration as other stars, like Mickey Mantle, Joe DiMaggio or Stan Musial. Why is that? Is it a question of race or the fact that he split his career between two coasts? Or is it simply the fact that he couldn’t outshine Mantle when both were in their primes?
JH: As a native of St. Louis, I would say a strong case can be made that Musial hasnâ€™t received his due either, and indeed geography is part of the answer. New York players â€“ Ruth, DiMaggio, Mantle â€“ had far more media exposure. As a pop-cult figure, Willie peaked in 1954 â€“ still in New York, he had his MVP season and made â€œthe Catch.â€ San Francisco isnâ€™t Siberia, but once the Giants moved West, Willieâ€™s exposure was reduced. Nowadays, cable TV ensures that the best hits and catches are seen every night across the country. In Willieâ€™s day, relatively few people actually saw him play on a regular basis. All that said, race was certainly a factor. Black and Latin players did not have the commercial opportunities that their white counterparts had. Finally, Willie himself has always preferred a low profile and â€“ unlike Babe Ruth â€“ never hired a publicist to create an image or to tout his accomplishments.
SCP: What about Mays’ role in the civil rights movement?
JH: Itâ€™s the most controversial part of his legacy because he was severely criticized by others â€“ most notably, Jackie Robinson â€“ for refusing to speak out. But the criticism is unfair. Mays, as one of the most prominent blacks in America during that period, made a huge contribution. White fans, at home or on the road, loved Willie because he played the game with such skill, intelligence, and bravado. He didnâ€™t have to give speeches or march to show white Americans that blacks deserved equal rights and were worthy of respect. Jim Bouton, the Yankee pitcher and author of â€œBall Four,â€ grew up watching Willie, and as he said, â€œWe learned to love Willie before anyone told us we couldnâ€™t.â€ Bill Clinton, growing up in Arkansas in the 1950s, noted that segregationists would stay home on Saturday afternoons to watch Willie on TV â€“ â€œhe made a mockery of all forms of bigotry,â€ Clinton told me. And a sports writer in San Francisco in the 1960s said he understood Willieâ€™s contributions to America when he was watching a Little League game in Texas, and in center field, the grandson of Ku Klux Klansman was yelling, â€œLook at me! Look at me! Iâ€™m Willie Mays!â€
SCP: Is Barry Bonds a black mark on the reputation of Willie Mays?
JH: Not at all. Bonds, when chasing Aaronâ€™s home run record, put Willie in an impossible spot. If Willie supported Bonds, he would be accused of legitimizing a juicer. If he disowned Bonds, he would be accused of turning his back on his own godson. He could have waffled, but that just would have fed the media frenzy. The fact is, Willie Mays would no more criticize another baseball player â€“ Barry Bonds or anyone else â€“ than he would criticize his own mother or father. Baseball players, retired or playing, are his family, and he supports them unconditionally. I donâ€™t see how his loyalty, his respect, and even his love for the game and for those who play it will ever be considered a â€œblack mark.â€
SCP: What does Willie Mays believe to be the most impressive thing about Willie Mays?
JH: Willie is quite aware of the trajectory of his life â€“ from a poor, Depression-era black kid from the Deep South, to an American icon who rides on Air Force One with the president. As he told me, â€œI could not have dreamt the life Iâ€™ve lived.â€