Up close, not personal

Portrait captures the greatness of Willie Mays as a player, but offers little about him as a man

James Hirsch devotes a entire chapter to this famous catch by Willie Mays in the 1954 World Series. James Hirsch devotes a entire chapter to this famous catch by Willie Mays in the 1954 World Series. (File/ Associated Press)
By Floyd Skloot
February 14, 2010

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Willie Mays, the baseball hall-of-famer, is 78 now. Because he arrived in the major leagues at 19 and quickly became a blazing star for the New York Giants, because his style of play was so exuberant and charged with youthful energy, because his hitting and fielding and running gifts seemed superhuman, it is difficult to imagine Mays aging, slowed by an artificial hip and glaucoma: human after all.

His exploits on the field have now been reduced to statistics, decades of baseball mythology, a few hazy highlight moments on YouTube, and the memories of an aging and vanishing group of people who witnessed his performances. Those statistics, the primary way baseball achievement is evaluated, suggest that Mays was among the best offensive and defensive players in history. But they miss his particular genius and radiant flair, the unequaled qualities of play that made Mays more than the sum of his numbers. According to James S. Hirsch in “Willie Mays: The Life, the Legend,’’ the first authorized biography of the baseball great, Mays was the game’s “greatest master.’’

Hirsch faces a series of difficult tasks as a biographer. To give readers a sense of why Mays was “spellbinding’’ on the field, to evoke his unique impact on fans and the game, Hirsch must capture something like the essential mystery of expressive brilliance. He must find words to portray the ineffable. Hirsch quotes contemporaneous sportswriters, fellow players, and fans, as when teammate Monte Irvin says, “You always knew when he was around, because the love of life just flowed out of him.’’ Sportswriter Milton Gross called Mays ”an emotional experience,” adding that ”he is the tie that binds so many of us to our carefree days of the past and for the younger generation he is the legend that lives, the only authentic piece of active history which links baseball as it is to what it used to be.’’

Hirsch devotes an entire chapter to describing Mays’s famous catch of a long fly ball during the 1954 World Series, a play that “evokes the awe and wonder’’ of Mays’s skills. He moves season-by-season through a career of extended distinction. Such descriptions, along with statements of “the pure joy that he brought to fans and the loving memories that have been passed to future generations,’’ are at least convincing testimonials that Mays was a player “who electrified the major leagues.’’

An even greater challenge for Hirsch is letting readers know who this legendary figure was as an individual. Mays was always known for his personal reticence, despite the flamboyance of his play, and his off-field behavior lacked significant controversy. He was difficult to know, “physically expressive but not communicative,’’ a remote and determinedly private man who - when no longer in the public eye - grew even more distant. This in part explains why only 30 pages of Hirsch’s massive book are devoted to Mays’s four decades of post-baseball life. Having labeled him a legend in the subtitle and restated the point in the Prologue, adding terms like “icon’’ and “cultural touchstone,’’ Hirsch must find ways to render him real, a multidimensional mortal who is more than a ballplayer, in the same way that his achievement was more than his statistics.

The story Hirsch tells is essentially the on-field story, spiced with considerations of the times (1951-1972) in which Mays played. Much of that material will be familiar to readers: the glories of New York City baseball in the days when the Giants, Dodgers, and Yankees were all there; the hard process of integrating the sport and the end of Negro League play; the days before free agency and national television coverage; the Giants and Dodgers relocation to California. Hirsch gives context to these considerations by inserting chapters that read like separate essays on civil rights and social issues, on Mays as a new archetype among players because of his range of skills, on barnstorming. We see Mays’s devotion to visiting sick children, his repeated efforts to serve as a peacemaker in on-field brawls, his refusal to speak out on civil rights issues balanced against his quiet efforts to face the obstacles to finding housing in San Francisco.

But nothing off-the-field matches in energy or conviction Hirsch’s writing about Mays as a player: “what mesmerized his teammates, what captivated the crowds, was his incandescent personality, bringing, his manager said, ‘a contagious happiness that gets everybody on the club.’ ’’

If Hirsch cannot quite evoke that incandescent personality, cannot penetrate Mays’s deep reserve, his biography does convince us that this was a player who, as Mays himself says, “did things that no one else did.’’ According to Hirsch, Mays’s contributions were “intangible, almost mystical.’’ Few players - few people - earn such accolades, and by the end of this book, readers will tend to agree that Mays’s play earned them.

Floyd Skloot’s recent books include the memoir “The Wink of the Zenith: The Shaping of a Writer’s Life’’ and the poetry collection “The Snow’s Music.’’ His “Selected Poems: 1970-2005’’ won a Pacific NW Book Award earlier this year.

By James S. Hirsch
Scribner, 628 pages, illustrated, $30