Willie Mays plays life like he played ball

A new best-selling book tells the story of a man who had jaw-dropping baseball skills in his time, battled racism, and still can catch attention with his wisdom and intelligence.
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Willie Mays visits with President Barack Obama aboard Air Force One on the way to the 2009 All-Star Game in St. Louis.

A new best-selling book tells the story of a man who had jaw-dropping baseball skills in his time, battled racism, and still can catch attention with his wisdom and intelligence.

A somewhat surprising best-selling book this spring has been Willie Mays: The Life, The Legend, by James Hirsch (Scribner).

Surprising because the book is an "authorized" biography — and authorized books often are pale, adulatory products — and also because Mays, perhaps our greatest, all-around baseball player, is not as well known today as he was in his mid-20th century heyday.

The book is no puff job. It is honest and opens windows not only into the life of the driven, talented Alabama kid, one of the first black stars in Major League Baseball, but also into the history of a transforming era in American society.

As many others of my generation, I was stunned to watch on TV "The Catch," Mays' running, back-to-the-plate catch in deepest centerfield off Cleveland's Vic Wertz in the 1954 World Series. The catch was the highlight of the underdog New York Giants' Series sweep of the Indians. It was one of those events that we remember later in every detail. I saw it standing at the lunch hour in the living room of my University of Washington Delta Upsilon fraternity house. The 20-30 of us watching let out an involuntary "Oh!" as Mays caught the ball and, then, in one motion whirled to throw it back to a waiting infielder.

A year later, as a Columbia University graduate student, I went often to the Polo Grounds to watch Mays in person and to Yankee Stadium to watch Mickey Mantle and Ebbets Field to watch the Dodgers' Duke Snider — "Willie, Mickey, and the Duke," according to the popular song title of the time, and rated the three best centerfielders of their time. It was more than 500 feet to dead centerfield in the Polo Grounds and Mays made catches there, and in other major-league parks, that were just as spectacular as The Catch. He also carried the team with his brilliant hitting, throwing, and competitive spirit.

Mays played so hard that, through his career, he periodically was forced by physical and mental exhaustion into several-day hospital stays. Although portrayed in the media as a carefree, happy spirit with great natural talent, Mays actually had higher intelligence than most of his teammates and mastered the thinking side of the game.

The Dodgers' Jackie Robinson had broken baseball's color line ahead of Mays. He was fierce and outpoken, not only on the field but on behalf of civil-rights causes. He asked and gave no quarter. Mays, by contrast, led more quietly and by example. (Perhaps it was the difference in their origins; Robinson came from Pasadena, Calif., Mays from segregated Birmingham). Robinson praised Mays' baseball talents but openly criticized his lack of outspokenness on racial issues. Mays turned the other cheek and continued to lead by example, not only on the field but in his life.

When the Giants moved to San Francisco — which, then as now, considered itself a cosmopolitan, socially progressive city — Mays ran into raw racism. He and his wife could not buy a home in the neighborhood they desired. Public officials gave him the keys to the city but took a dive when it came to opposing the discriminatory acts Mays encountered in daily life. Several local sportwriters made denigrating, racist references to Mays. For several years he was frequently and unfavorably compared to Joe DiMaggio, the San Francisco-born centerfielder of the city's dreams.

Mays drew what were big sports salaries of his time, although tiny by today's standards. At the end of his career, he was nearly broke and was told by big-league baseball that he could not accept a greeter's job at an Atlantic City casino. Mays' final season, as that of so many other great stars (including, now, Ken Griffey Jr. in Seattle), was painful for him and for his fans.

In May 1972, the Giants, with whom he had spent his entire career, sent him back to New York — this time to the Mets. He entered the 1973 season with leather-and-steel braces on both knees. He required cortisone shots in his throwing arm. As the team trained in St. Petersburg that spring he was denied a condominium rental because of his race.

He smashed into a wall early in the season. His arm became so bad that he had to throw underhanded from centerfield, allowing runners to take an extra base. He injured his ribs. In August, he would hit the last and 660th home run of his career.

At his retirement ceremony, Mays said he had played a final season only for the New York fans. He teared up. His remarks made it sound as if he were departing life — and, to the degree that baseball had been his life, he was.

Mays during his playing career was characterized as a brilliant player, and one who loved his teammates, but also as a bit of a loner who always stood somewhat apart. It is that way for great ones, not only in sports but in other parts of life. Their own talents are so large that they are, in fact, apart. (It is for that reason that many star players, in many sports, fail as managers and coaches. They cannot understand why their players cannot do, even with great effort, what they did easily).

Willie Mays came up in a time of raw Alabama racism, played in the Negro Leagues, fought racism again among many fellow major-leaguers, and rose to become a leader among his peers in all respects.

Mays, now 79, is making the TV talk-show rounds these days, wearing a Giants baseball cap. If you listen to him closely, you will hear wisdom not only about baseball but about life. It takes little imagination to see in the mind's eye Willie Mays perfoming heroically not only on a baseball field but, if called upon, in any place where dedication, intensity, and a purity of heart could lift those around him. Not educated or learned but a great man who did things beyond the reach of the rest of us.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk has been active in national policy and politics since 1961, serving in the White House and State Department and as policy director of several Democratic presidential campaigns. He is author of Heroes, Hacks and Fools and numerous essays in national publications. You can reach him in care of editor@crosscut.com.