Non-Fiction: Sports

Willie Mays: The Life, The Legend

Author:  James S. Hirsch

Published By: Scribner

Reviewed by Melissa Minners

                I always read a baseball book at the start of baseball season to get me in the mood, but when I started reading Willie Mays: The Life, The Legend by James S. Hirsch, I had no idea what I was getting into.  Sure, the book looked big, but this is a book about the life of a man who played baseball from the age of fourteen to the age of forty-two.  And, true, the very end of the book is mostly stats and acknowledgements, but 750-plus pages, not counting the photo insert pages, is a daunting prospect.  Still, I had never even seen a biography of Willie Mays in all the years I had been reading about baseball.  I couldnít resist reading it.

                My Willie Mays biography reading experience began with my search for a comprehensive book about the New York Giants, much like the books by Peter Golenbock about the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Mets.  Sadly, Golenbock never wrote a book about the New York Giants, but I did find Willie Mays: The Life, The Legend in the local bookstore and realized that I had never actually read a book about Mays.  As I briefly leafed through the pages, I realized that there was a lot I didnít know about the man.  I couldnít wait to read the book, but with it being such a large book and buying it at a time when baseball was done for the year, I put off reading it until now.

                I was not surprised to know that Willie Maysí father was a baseball player.  Though not a professional ballplayer, it is not surprising that Cat Mays would inspire Willie to play baseball.  What I never knew was how talented an athlete Willie Mays really was.  Had he been born in a different era, he could have become a star quarterback in the NFL.  He was also a terrific basketball player.  Willie chose baseball because it was more enjoyable to him than basketball and more accessible to him than football (there were no black quarterbacks in the NFL in those days). 

Of course, at the time Willie was beginning his baseball career, there were no blacks in the MLB.  Sure, in the distant past blacks had played baseball with whites, but were never recognized as everyday players.   Segregation and racism kept blacks from becoming members of MLB teams for years, but there were avenues for black men to play their favorite sport Ė the Negro Leagues.  Willie eventually played for the Black Barons.  I knew all of this, but what I didnít know was that Willie could have actually been the first black man to play in Major League Baseball.  Were it not for Jackie Robinsonís education and temperance, Mays just might have been the groundbreaker for things to come.

I also learned a great deal about Maysí career with the Giants.  Some stuff I knew, like the great clutch hits, his base running prowess or his feats in the outfield, but there were things that this book revealed that I never knew.  Like the fact that Willie Mays was often a peacemaker on the team, braking up arguments between teammates, stopping players from fighting on the field, keeping the peace by keeping a positive vibe in the clubhouse and more. 

Mays was incredibly generous with his time, his money and his wisdom, teaching younger players the game, giving his time to children, visiting children and adults in hospitals, speaking at prisons and more.  Mays gave back to the world, knowing just how lucky he had been in life to get where he had gotten.  He even tried to turn around the life of a young juvenile delinquent known as O.J. Simpson.  Who knew that it would work long enough to get O.J. to turn away from criminal activity in pursuit of a football career?  Too bad it didnít last later into O.J.ís life.

This book also took us into the world of Willie Maysí feelings.  I never knew that Willie Mays was such a sensitive man.  Criticism about his playing was downright painful for Willie in a way that discrimination against him for the color of his skin was not.  Sure, Willie Mays was affected by segregation, but he pretty much kept his anger over it to himself, but criticize how he was playing or forget how hard he actually pushed himself to help out the team and you would cut him like a knife.

Willie Mays: The Life, The Legend was an incredibly revealing, albeit long, read.  I knew a great deal about Willie Maysí career, but learned I didnít know half as much as I thought I did about the manís career or about the man himself.  My only problem with this book was the numerous typos and grammar errors I encountered.  I found it very annoying to see something belonging to Willie Mays as Maysís and not Maysí.  There are some sentences in which typographical errors make the sentences incomprehensible, causing me to read them over until I understood what the author truly meant by the sentence.

Typos aside, I still found that Willie Mays: The Life, The Legend was an incredibly comprehensive study of the ballplayer and the man.  One could tell that the author really did his homework when trying to give the reader the whole picture of who Willie Mays was and all of the people who had some sort of influence on him.  Willie Mays was an amazing player and is still an incredible man, something perfectly exhibited by the contents of this book.  Thank you, James S. Hirsch, for finally giving readers their first complete look at the man called Willie Mays.


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