For a man who has spent so much of his life in the public eye, Willie Mays is a very private person, but author James S. Hirsch has gotten past his public veil in a remarkable biography, “Willie Mays: The Life, The Legend.”
Mays’ life since 1951 when he came to the Giants, then based in New York, has been chronicled before, but Hirsch went back to Mays’ childhood roots in Alabama to learn about a boy who was a sports wunderkind from a very early age.
“I don’t like to say this too much,” Mays told Hirsch, “but I was something special and all the young kids I ran around with, they knew that. So, they protected me from a lot of things that ordinary people get in trouble with.”
It wasn’t just his friends. His teachers adored him and his doctor, Dr. Drake, would make house calls and not charge the family.
“He was one of the guys who said I was going to be a great, great athlete.”
Others who knew Mays did, too, and everybody took care of him.
“They knew I had a chance of doing something better than they did, so life wasn’t too hard for me,” Mays said.
That may be seen as the subtext for his clash with Jackie Robinson during his major league career. Robinson wanted Mays (and Hank Aaron) to speak out for blacks, but Mays felt that how he and other black stars played would invoke change. He knew the southern attitude toward blacks wouldn’t change quickly, but perhaps he wouldn’t have been as forgiving if he hadn’t been protected from some of the realities of black life in the South when he was a child.
The remarkable thing about Mays in his youth was that everybody who saw him play thought baseball was his third-best sport, behind basketball and football. Mays once told me that playing quarterback had given him the ability to see the whole field, which he used both in fielding his position and running the bases in baseball.
He had to play baseball, though, because that was the only sport in which he could make money. With the major leagues segregated until 1947, blacks played in the Negro League. Mays played for the Birmingham Black Barons when he was only a high school sophomore.
When Robinson broke the color line, major league teams started to look for other black players. Most teams, though, only wanted one black player.
The Boston Braves passed on Mays, partly because they’d already signed Sam Jethroe. The Braves later signed Aaron, so they could have had Mays and Aaron in the same outfield. The Pittsburgh Pirates could have had Mays and Roberto Clemente in the same outfield, but they passed, too. Giants scout Eddie Montague shouted at farm system director Jack Schwarz in a telephone conversation,
“You’ve got to get this boy. ... Don’t ask questions. Just get him.”
So, Mays became a Giant.
I seldom read sports books because there’s so little of substance, but this is much more — a complete biography of a man who is far more complex than the “Say Hey Kid” the New York writers portrayed. I recommend it highly.