Feature

Book of the week: Willie Mays: The Life, the Legend by James S. Hirsch

James Hirsch spent seven years working to persuade Mays to participate in this full-length biography. His hard work has paid off.

(Scribner, 628 pages, $30)

Willie Mays “defined—and continues to define—what baseball, in a perfect world, should look like,” said Dwight Garner in The New York Times. Supremely skilled in every facet of the game, he played with an exuberance and grace that no other star of his era could match. “Known for his reticence and distrust of writers,” though, he’s always been a tough man to get to know. Author James Hirsch spent seven years working to persuade Mays to participate in this full-length biography, and his hard work pays off in an “authoritative” chronicle that sheds at least some light on Mays’ personality. Hirsch’s writing too often lapses into the self-conscious sonorousness of a Ken Burns documentary, but—“like a long out to center field that scores a runner”—it gets results.

Hirsch made a breakthrough when Mays finally began talking about his mother, said Kevin Kernan in the New York Post. Just 16 when she gave birth to Willie, in 1931 in Alabama, she left him to be raised by two of her sisters. Meanwhile, she moved up the road to marry a man with whom she eventually had 10 other children. Mays speaks fondly of his childhood, but seems never to have shaken a sense of abandonment. As a star, he was quick with a smile or a joke, and seldom complained about racial slights he endured. Yet over the course of his 22-year big-league career, he came to be wary of the world outside the clubhouse. Even at the height of his fame, he struggled financially and felt taken advantage of. Asked by Hirsch why he was more generous with young fans than with adults, he replied, “Kids won’t betray you.”

Hirsch attempts to read Mays’ life through the prism of American race relations, but his arguments just don’t convince, said Gerald Eskenazi in The Wall Street Journal. Mays has never liked talking about racism. In the contentious era during which he played, he let his leadership and his dedication to his profession speak for him. Fortunately, Hirsch does excellently convey what made Mays so remarkable on the baseball field—the rocket arm, the galloping catches, the home runs knocked into the upper deck, the daringly brilliant base-running. “He could fly close to the sun and his wings wouldn’t melt.”

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